You think you know things about people, but of course you can only know so much.
I knew the severity of Tom Shelton’s health in the past week, since so many of his friends kept me in the loop out of their love and concern for him and his family. But I didn’t know much about his passion for golf (and working as a caddy to earn spending cash in college) or his love of biking. Those tidbits only came out while preparing his obituary, which is always an awkward assignment, no matter who you’re writing about.
When Tom died this past weekend it hit many people pretty hard. In my case, we were close in age and had both worked in wine for many years. Tom and I were on the opposite sides of the business. He ran a major winery and I wrote about its wines and in this role the writer usually gets the final word. I came to know him as part of a one-two punch for Joseph Phelps Vineyards. He was the president and CEO and Craig Williams was the winemaker.
As part of Tom’s duties he became a spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners and whatever issues it faced. One challenge he helped spearhead was the NVV's efforts to protect the Napa Valley appellation and strengthen labeling laws so that when you bought a bottle of Napa wine it came from Napa.
He also worked on committees aimed at making it easier for consumers to buy wine direct from wineries. Both of those assignments were perhaps less compelling for Tom. I’m sure he would have rather focused more exclusively on Phelps’ winemaking and to be sure he did, both in building the winery’s quality and reputation and starting the Freestone project. But he took on the other more bureaucratic assignments like a true soldier and commander because they went with the territory. I often marveled at how well, and how patient he was in explaining to writers the intricacies of laws pertaining to both.
When it came to wine matters I didn’t have much direct interaction with Tom. Most of the time I talked with Craig. Still I remember one morning a few years ago when I had two calls on my answering machine—both Tom and Craig wanted me to call them.
I wasn’t entirely sure what they wanted, but it was unusual to hear from both of them at about the same hour. Winemakers seldom call except to question a review, and of course, that was the case.
I first spoke with Tom, who said some customers had called seeking to return their 2001 Backus Cabernet, having read my review. He hadn’t seen the note, but it was in print and he asked what it said. I told him, half expecting him to raise his voice about my calling it “mulchy” and object to the 79-point rating. But he didn’t. He calmly said words to the effect of, "Well, I was afraid that wine wouldn’t go over very well with you." And that was it. Thanks for returning his call.
Next came Craig’s call and he had the same reaction. The wine had been bottled unfiltered and developed a green olive earthiness that was quite different from a typical Backus and much less compelling than the 2001 Insignia, which gushed with fruit purity.
I asked Craig if I had missed something, or if the bottles we’d received had been off, and he, like Tom, didn’t dodge the matter. No, the wine had its issues and both he and Tom thought the review was fair even if they didn’t like it and might have rated the wine slightly higher, as in 82 points.
The next vintage, both Tom and Craig were happier campers. The 2002 Insignia was chosen as Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year, a big feather in both their hats.
When I ran into Tom shortly after that announcement he was the same Tom, cool, calm and collected. But I remember the happy grin and his comment about how he and Craig had "gotten it right this time" and by the way, so had I.
I'll remember him as a classy guy.
Laurie Schram — St. Helena, CA — July 29, 2008 4:06pm ET
John Jorgenson — Seattle, — July 29, 2008 6:29pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — July 29, 2008 6:56pm ET
Tim Mc Donald — Napa,CA — July 29, 2008 7:32pm ET
James Novack — Agoura Hills. CA — July 29, 2008 9:40pm ET
J Kraus — Los Angeles, CA — July 30, 2008 5:34pm ET
Celia Welch Masyczek — St. Helena, CA — July 30, 2008 9:26pm ET
Jimmy Bookout — Charlotte, NC — July 31, 2008 3:50pm ET
Erle Martin — St. Helena, CA — August 6, 2008 12:20pm ET
Mark Newman — Studio City, California — August 27, 2008 8:34pm ET
Ian Blackburn — LA — August 30, 2008 3:02pm ET
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