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Screwing Up, Growing Up

A vagabond cellarhand shares adventures and lessons learned from hard work at wineries
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 24, 2016 10:30am ET

At the turn of the millennium, "Last Call"—brief, personal essays about wine submitted by our readers—closed every issue of Wine Spectator. The May 31, 2000, issue featured "Wine to the Rescue," by Darren Delmore.

Then a surfing-magazine editor living in Southern California, Delmore recounted the contentious process of planning his wedding, which took place at Laetitia Vineyard & Winery in California's Central Coast. "Wine saved my wedding day from becoming World War III," he wrote.

A charming story, it had faded from my memory by the time I received an e-mail this year from Delmore announcing he was publishing a book, called Slave to the Vine: Confessions of a Vagabond Cellarhand ($16, Amazon.com). I was curious to catch up with his life.

The book begins as his marriage ends, after just a few years: "We had clearly married too young, and the naive enterprise was unraveling at a dangerous, infidelity-driven pace." But if wine couldn't save his marriage, perhaps it could save his life. The book recounts Delmore's adventures as a "vagabond cellerhand," principally at Hirsch Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.

In Delmore's telling, it was a wild ride, fueled by fancy coffee, plenty of marijuana and countless bottles of wine. He was woefully unprepared for the physical rigors and psychological stress of harvesttime at Hirsch; injuries and insults pile up. Surfing and music are his escapes, and it's hard to tell whether his work or his lifestyle presents the biggest risks to his health.

But he hangs in there—largely, it seems, thanks to his relationship with David Hirsch, who comes across as a deeply committed, highly talented winemaker who is also generous, considerate and cultured. I wish the book contained more about Hirsch, more about his winemaking and philosophy, and less about Delmore's gonzo lifestyle.

After Hirsch, Delmore went on to work at a winery in Oregon, and then, with a harvest apprenticeship in Australia in the offing, the book closes on an optimistic note. The winemaker at Hirsch—once a nemesis, now nearly a friend, and referred to here only as "Mick"—invites him to his house for dinner with him and his wife and to stay the night before his departure. "I drank a strong, grainy cup of coffee on the morning of Christmas Eve and hugged Mick goodbye … I put my sunglasses on, turned on The Band's Music from Big Pink, and drove toward the next adventure."

It's a familiar tale: the young dreamer, the school of hard knocks, the lessons learned and, finally, the goals achieved. Delmore's version is sharply observed and self-aware, with enough humor to leaven the self-indulgence. Hard work and good mentors helped Delmore build a life in the business; an Internet search reveals he is now working as national sales manager for Tablas Creek Vineyard. I wouldn't advise Delmore's path as a model for young people aspiring to careers in the wine business, but it proves that many roads can lead to happy endings.

Michael Twelftree
Malvern, South Australia —  March 24, 2016 5:18pm ET
Nice job Tom,

I am half way through the book and am enjoying the ride

That vintage is Australia was for me, Darren was great to work with, a ripping fella.


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