Kurt Russell stands in the narrow space between rows of stacked oak barrels, holding a wine glass to the light, sniffing and then sipping.
“Pencil shavings and cherry notes — light but there,” he assesses. He’s tasting pinot noir from his favorite clone (115) at Ampelos Cellars in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County. The Dijon clone served as the base for Russell’s first pinot noir blend (2008 vintage), which he made with the assistance of Ampelos owners Peter and Rebecca Work and their son, Don Schroeder, head winemaker at nearby Sea Smoke Cellars.
Today he’s evaluating 2009 vintage pinot noir: another Dijon clone; the spicier and intensely colored 667; and the softer, elegant Pommard. After working on the clanking bottling line, he’s enjoying the quiet confines of Ampelos’ barrel room.
Sampling the floral 828 La Tâche clone reminds him of bike-riding trips he’s made through France with Goldie Hawn and their kids — experiences that piqued his curiosity as he rode by vineyards and saw someone in the back yard.
“You go in back and say, ‘What’s going on here?’” he recounts. Then he thinks about the connection between wine and life’s great experiences and how that connection plays into his personal winemaking goal.
“When anybody six months after they’ve had a great time says, ‘What was that pinot we were drinking?’ — that’s what wine is about. If you can remember the wine you were drinking, you know it was good. … I just hear the conversation and then clinking glasses. It’s the movie you want to live in.”
It is, of course, movies — from Disney to Tarantino — that have brought Russell fame. “The motion picture business has been good to me, because it staked me,” he says. Indeed, he enjoys a good life that includes skiing (which he considers his greatest recreational skill); golfing (a few days before this, he played in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, finishing in a three-way tie for fifth place); piloting; and owning multiple residences.
But when celebrity photographer Greg Gorman (who makes his own wine) introduced Russell to the Works, the couple was unfamiliar with his acting career (they subsequently rented the films 3000 Miles to Graceland and Overboard). In retrospect, Russell characterizes the initial meeting this way: “They were interviewing me.”
“I didn’t know who he was, but he really wanted to learn about winemaking,” Peter says. As Rebecca puts it, they needed to make sure Russell had “the heart and the vision and the soul to do it.”
Satisfied that he did, they told him to bring them five pinot noirs he likes and five he doesn’t. “It was hard to find five I don’t like,” Russell says.
“Pinots he doesn’t like are trying to be too much — too fruit forward, too cherry, too much like a cabernet,” Rebecca notes, which inspires Russell to a metaphor.
“It’s like watching a light heavyweight boxer becoming a heavyweight,” he says. “Why don’t you just become the best light heavyweight?”
Russell credits his son Boston with getting him interested in pinot noir, which he now calls his “reference for wine drinking.” And the Works — whose winery was one of the first in the country to be officially certified for USDA organic, Demeter biodynamic, and Sustainability in Practice — became his reference for winemaking.
“I have learned to appreciate the integrity with which Peter and Rebecca make their wines,” he says. “After talking about it, I realized this style of making wine — this kind of attention that you pay to the vines, the grapes — is extracting as much from the terroir as you can without manipulating it.”
Although “clones” and “terroir” have entered Russell’s vocabulary, he still defers to the Works on technical points. When they talk about pruning each clone differently or even pruning differently within a clone, co-pigmentation experiments of interplanting pinot gris with pinot noir, and consulting with a microbiologist, Russell absorbs their words. “I’m very interested in the thought process,” he says.
Evaluating pinot noirs made by other wineries and comparing the same wine in different barrels to determine which barrel he liked best (an untoasted French Boutes, which was the most expensive one), he learned perhaps his most important lesson: “As I go through this process with Rebecca and Peter, I learn more what it is I like,” he says.
Russell shows a photo on his smart phone of Wolfgang Puck holding the bottle of his pinot noir that he took to Gorman at a Los Angeles exhibition of his friend’s photographs. He recalls feeling a bit of anxiety when the famous chef immediately opened the bottle. When Puck returned later, he asked, “Are you serious about making wine?” Russell replied affirmatively. “Your wine is not good,” Puck then said. “It’s spectacular.”
Russell intended the limited release (he only made 24 cases) to be an introduction of his winemaking style. He took his wine to restaurants he likes (including the Canyons restaurant at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, where he and Hawn have a residence). In addition to being on wine lists at restaurants, his 2009 outing (100 cases of pinot noir and 25 cases each of chardonnay and viognier) will be sold at Ampelos Cellars’ wine-tasting room in Lompoc and online.
Russell’s name does not appear on his 2008 pinot noir, bottled under the label Gogi (a nickname he earned when he was a child and could not pronounce his middle name, Vogel). The designation reads “Forbaz,” a tribute to his sister Jody, who was struck with a brain tumor about the time the grapes were being picked (“She’s doing incredibly well,” he reports).
The new chardonnay will be named Goldie and the viognier LuLu for his mother, Lou (who especially loves viognier). The pinot noir will be named Bosty Boy for Boston. And this year, Russell will put his name on the back of the label (he signed the 2008 labels “Gogi”).
Although he plans to increase production again next year (250 cases of pinot noir and 50 each of chardonnay and viognier), his ultimate goal falls far short of the Kendall Jacksons of the wine world. The Works and he consider 1,000 to 2,000 cases a comfortable production limit “where I can stay right on top of it and be involved as much as I can be and want to be and make the quality of pinot noir have all the attention it needs,” Russell says.
Looking forward, he summons up another sports metaphor, this one appropriate to his minor league baseball career (from which he was forced to retire after tearing his rotator cuff). Being a winemaker, he says, is like being an athlete: “You will play to who you are. I am going to make wine to whom I am.”
Stories to Tell
Piloting his own Socata TBM-700 single-engine turboprop plane allows Kurt Russell to make quick trips between homes in Los Angeles, Aspen, and Palm Desert. “More and more, I’m using it to haul wine and get to the vineyards [in Lompoc],” he says. He’s sitting on the back patio of his Bighorn Golf Club residence, but his mind is still in the vineyards he visited the day before.
Although he says he doesn’t know how to turn on a computer (he does easily navigate his smart phone), he’s been discussing setting up a website to promote his wine, as well as a Facebook page (he was surprised to learn someone else created a Kurt Russell page that has more than 17,000 fans).
The Gogi 2009 vintage will be released in November after aging 20 months in barrels. Russell believes the new pinot noir will surpass his lauded premiere wine.
“At 15 months, [the clones] are better in the barrel than 2008 was at 15 months. It’s a little rounder,” he says. “One of the things I like about my wine is that it pops in your mouth, but it doesn’t bite.”
Two weeks before his 60th birthday in March, Russell has plans to celebrate with a few of his favorite pinot noirs. “I will drink one of my own bottles just for the fun of it and because I like it,” he says, “but also [Romanée Conti] La Tâche and 2006 Kistler.” The La Tâche vintage, he says, will depend on whether he decides to spend some $2,000 to give himself “a nice present.” Such premium wines may warrant a fancy meal at some tables, but Russell wants to drink them “with a really great hamburger,” probably made with his own beef. He raises Angus cattle on his ranch just outside of Aspen, Colo., and is seriously thinking of getting into Wagyu (Kobe) cattle.
In addition to their houses in Los Angeles, Palm Desert, and Colorado, Russell and Hawn maintain residences just north of Zuma Beach and on Lake Muskoka in Ontario, Canada (“I went there because of Martin Short,” he says, noting that Short is a close friend).
But it’s the new house he and Hawn are building in Pacific Palisades that has him excited now.
“For the first time, I will have a [500- to 700-bottle] wine cellar,” Russell says. “Goldie has been great about that. She really wants me to have what I want there.” Calling himself “a bad wine collector,” he notes that he’ll keep 30 to 40 bottles of “great wine” and the rest will be “wines I drink on a somewhat daily basis.”
The couple don’t visit the desert in July, August, and September. But in October and November, they spend weekends at Bighorn and sometimes celebrate Thanksgiving there. After a month in Aspen, Russell returns for the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament, in which he has played the past four years.
“I like golf as a pastime. I’m not driven. I don’t play a lot,” he says. “I have a realistic understanding of myself as a 12 handicap golfer.
“I generally come out three or four days before [the Hope tournament] to start hitting the ball,” he says. “Then we’ll spend 10 days to two weeks, then one long weekend or five to six days a month until June.” While here, they ride bikes to breakfast, hit balls on the golf course, hike, and enjoy local restaurants.
“I really love this place,” Russell says. “Bighorn is really fun, and we’ve made friends here.” The club also will forever hold a place in his heart for another reason: “It was my first [wine] sale,” he says, noting the club’s Canyons restaurant bought four cases after a private tasting. That night, at Sense restaurant in Palm Desert, the chef told Russell his pinot noir could complement each dish in a four-course dinner. “It was a red-letter day for us — for Gogi,” Russell says.
Though he’s been reading screenplays, he has no film projects in the works. “I am at a point that there’s got to be a reason it’s going to take me out of the vineyard, off the ski slopes, away from my grandkids, a reason I can’t fly. For me, reasons are different things: I love the script, the part, the director, the story — or guess what? You are building a new house. Sometimes when you need to pay for something that’s a large item, you need to get serious. I am kind of in that mode right now. … I still love playing people.”
Russell has been an actor most of his life (beginning as a child kicking Elvis Presley in It Happened at the World’s Fair; he later played Elvis in 3000 Miles to Graceland). Some of his films have become cult classics (The Thing, Escape from New York, Captain Ron, Grindhouse), and he acknowledges his wine could generate insider-style conversations since his name will only appear on the back of the label. That’s one of the things his earliest and latest professions have in common: There’s always a story to be told.
“Wine,” he concludes, “is a story in a bottle.”
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