We’re standing in Cameron and Marlen’s cellar and it looks like a crime scene. The Carignan they picked just over a month ago went crazy during fermentation, exploding over each tank. One after another.
Boom boom boom.
We’d traipsed through the Carignan vineyard just before lunch. It’s a striking property owned by the Chumash tribe, dotted with oak trees and owl houses (much to the dismay of the local gopher population). Throughout the soil are chunks of serpentine that have washed down from the mountains: black rock that’s hostile to most any plant but grapevines. Camp 4, the site’s called. Cameron’s been working with it the longest out of any vineyard he’s dealt with in the four years since he and Mar started Amplify. It has a wild magic to it.
It’s a magic that can be lost on some. In Cameron’s experience, young winemakers tend to show up and say, let’s change this or that, when all they’re really showing is their arrogance. The Chumash oversee the land, and the Mexicans they’ve hired to farm it have been working the same land for 30-40 years. They’ve risen through the ranks by getting to know the vineyards intimately. It would take at least that amount of time to best their knowledge.
The organic farming is one aspect which Cameron and Mar leave to the pros. The winemaking is another. This year, they’ve gotten healthy fruit with so much ambient yeast on the skins that the grapes threw a rager during fermentation, like so many rebellious teenagers spilling themselves down the barrels. Now, a month later, the Carignan is still rarin’ to go. We taste two lots: the first oozes pheromones (“any wine that smells like sex, you really can’t go wrong,” Cameron notes) and the second is hyper-masculine. We swear we can hear the locker room talk. (“Except this one grabs you by the heart,” Cameron jokes.)
Cameron and Mar are hands-off parents. They’ll combine the two lots when they bottle and let them do their thing. Because diverse grapes, with their little flaws and imperfections, produce complex wine. They hate the idea of sorting berries for uniform ripeness. Where’s the romance in that?
Their Carignan would learn how to talk to a lady. Unlike the man who wasn’t, at that point, our president.
But I digress…
Cameron : I was thinking the other day about the idea of great genre filmmakers. I’m a huge horror fan. Old westerns. Where these guys were auteurs within these underappreciated genres. So to me that’s the really interesting thing with working with a lot of the fruit we do.
We’re not necessarily working with expensive fruit or ultra noble high-end varieties. We’re working with Carginan and Counoise. To me they’re almost like the grape equivalent of a horror movie. Not that they’re a horror to work with but —
Glou Glou : You wouldn’t see a horror film at the Oscars.
Cameron : Yeah exactly. I mean the guys I loved growing up were like John Carpenter. People like that who’ve got this very distinctive style and have been able to find a way to make what they’re doing work on the cheap.
Glou Glou : But they also have a certain appreciation that’s tied to it. Their fame might not be about prestige but they do have a following. John Carpenter’s made a bunch of films. They’re just satisfying.
Cameron : And there’s a joy, a visceral joy, to those movies. There’s that intellectual element being slipped in. They Live, for example. That’s a total genre movie. It stars Rowdy Rowdy Piper. But he’s slipping in all this commentary on Reagan-era America.
Glou Glou : They’re like a vessel.
Cameron : Yeah. So you’re creating this fun experience for someone but if they choose to, they can get intellectual about the wines. And they can think about them. There’s hopefully some commentary, something new being said about where they’re grown, who’s making them. But on the surface they’re fun. They’re enjoyable. There’s an immediacy to them. A sense of pleasure.
Glou Glou : They kind of grab you. What are your favorite Westerns?
Cameron : The Searchers would be a definite classic. Modern…I mean Unforgiven is an incredible movie. Shane was always a good classic Western. Sergio Leone, all the Spaghetti Westerns. Those were just—the music. Ennio Morricone’s stuff is just amazing.
Glou Glou : The Searchers is fascinating in that it’s a take on the genre but also a nod to the way that genre dismissed a certain race of people. John Ford’s last film is all about following the Native American perspective in a cowboy movie. Like he felt that he had to pay them back in some way because of what the genre is inherently. But yeah, The Searchers is the first in that it’s so twisted.
Cameron : It’s such an amazing movie. Just visually, too, the way that it was shot was just amazing. I think people who were watching it at the time didn’t even realize the subtext. They just think, John Wayne. But it influenced Taxi Driver and so many films.
Glou Glou : Yeah, that shot when he goes in and sees the silhouettes of the family. That’s been ripped a bunch of times. I think that’s what’s cool about the genre film and about the wine you’re talking about. You don’t have to realize the subtext to appreciate it. There are different levels of reading into it.
Cameron : Yeah, you don’t have to have that experience, but if you want to go deeper, you can.
Glou Glou : What do you think about wines where you have be able to read the subtext? Where you have to be fluent to enjoy them?
Cameron : Well I think there are wines that in some way are purely intellectual. To me, that means there’s some fundamental flaw in them. You’re almost appreciating the risk that was taken more than the result. Which is to say, like an unsulfured wine where the volatile acidity is just so unbearably high you don’t even want to drink it. Or a wine that’s got an absurd level of reduction. Something like that. Where you go, wow, this person really took a risk, and they failed miserably but it’s fascinating intellectually to try this.
Glou Glou : Right, it will never be a classic.
Cameron : I think with wine there has to be some element of joy in wanting to drink it. It’s like a piece of music. There has to be some element that makes you want to listen to it. Or a film you’re watching, even if it’s a difficult experience—there has to be something in there to latch on to. It can’t be just totally cerebral. There has to be some element of joy somewhere in there, you know.
Glou Glou : John Cage wines?
Cameron : Yeah exactly, like "Silence" by John Cage. It’s very cool intellectually... or the most out-there elements of free jazz, where there’s no melody, no rhythm. It’s just totally atonal. To me you can get dissonant but there still has to be a backbeat there.
Glou Glou : What do you think the backbeat is in wine?
Cameron : The backbeat in wine can be different things. Sugar can be a backbeat. You can do some weird shit but if there’s a little residual sugar, people can come back to it and there’s an element of joy. I think acid also again keeps it refreshing and succulent. You want to take another sip.
Glou Glou : So both of those things, when they’re in moderation.
Cameron : Right. German Riesling I think is a perfect example of that. You’ve got this wine that’s sweet but it’s got a ton of acid, and it’s really mineral & geeky at the same time. A person who’s very novice, new to wine, can definitely enjoy that but the nerdiest sommelier on the planet is obsessed with Riesling too.
In any wine, I think acid is kind of like the soul.”
—Santa Maria, California. November 7, 2016