Log In / Join Now

There are Many Ways to Witness Wines

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 2, 2007 12:18pm ET

As I finish my Santa Barbara tasting of barrel samples, my thoughts are drifting from Grenache and Syrah to an entirely different subject. I’m thinking about the Zodiac. This is not a new wine or an inflatable boat or even an attempt to link wine to astrological forecasts or biodynamic farming.

This is the tale of the notorious serial killer (dubbed the Zodiac) who terrorized Bay Area residents and taunted police and newspapers with threatening cryptograms in the late 1960s. Though he claimed to have dozens of victims, including two Napa residents who were brutally stabbed, one to death, he was never caught. Tonight a movie about the Zodiac opens in theaters, and having followed the case intimately for decades, it’s something I’ve looked forward to for a long time.

Aside from being captivated by the chilling case, and its elusive intricacies in my youth, I crossed paths with the story ever so briefly in 1981 as a reporter for the Vallejo Times-Herald. I found and interviewed a man, Gareth Penn, who claimed he knew the Zodiac’s identity. It was an exciting lead—the case had gone cold by then and police believed the killer was still residing in the Bay Area.

Penn had studied the Zodiac's letters and cryptograms and thought he had cracked the code. At one point, police considered Penn a possible suspect because he knew so much about the killer's secret writing, and Penn became obsessed with the case. I hoped Penn had deciphered the Zodiac’s code and that the killer would be arrested. I wanted to cover the trial, which promised to be intriguing, with a tangled web of evidence leading to the conviction of a very clever and demented killer.

This blog’s link to wine is this: As a crime beat reporter who covered many homicides and courtroom trials, I was always amazed by how many people could witness the same event and come away with completely different perspectives and observations. Sometimes I get the same feeling about wine. Many of us can taste the same wine yet have amazingly different points of view, and all be right—from our own perspective.

Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  March 2, 2007 1:52pm ET
Fascinating. What ever happened to Penn?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 2, 2007 1:59pm ET
I think he's still around. Check out Google. It is pretty fascinating...It's impossible to let go of a story like this once it gets in your blood. Maybe that too is a link to wine. Once you've got it in your blood it's there to stay.
Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  March 2, 2007 4:20pm ET
Thanks James; wow this guy is out there. You certainly have it right that once you get wine in your blood the addiction (in the postive sense) is there to stay.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 2, 2007 4:27pm ET
Gareth was perhaps my most intriguing interview and there have many characters over the years. The best book is Greysmith's first Zodiac...it's now in paperback.
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 2, 2007 5:51pm ET
Jim,FWIW, zodiackiller.com mentions that the San Francisco Chronicle has discovered a newer Zodiac letter (dated 1990) and is going to be running a story on it soon. Should be interesting! -- Adam Lee,Siduri Wines
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  March 3, 2007 8:51pm ET
Your point James is so dead on. I am amazed how some will declare a wine taster/critic as worthless on certain areas, regions or country simply because they disagree with the opinion.

Ultimately the judgement about a wine is a "point of view" or "taste" shaped by whatever experience one has had. Thank goodness not all are identical, what a bore that would be.

Now, are you preparing us with some head shakers from your Santa Barbara barrel tastings? I'm anxious to find out.
Heather Shott
New York, NY —  March 3, 2007 9:42pm ET
James, you've got to get to the bottom of this case--and write a best-seller about it!
Delmonico Stkhse @ Venetian
Las Vegas, Nevada —  March 4, 2007 2:18am ET

What a brilliant way to put wine in perspective. I was wondering where your blog was going, but when I arrived at the final sentence, you got me... I couldn't agree more.

Killer story.

Kevin M. Vogt
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 4, 2007 11:39am ET
I agree with Kevin 100% - a great blog with a great message! Keep up the great work and enjoy those SB Cty wines this week!
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  March 5, 2007 1:54pm ET
I beleive Mr Laube's article on perception is very often correct. When I was making up my mind to purchase some 2003 Screaming Eagle the other day I noticed that Mr Laube's reveiw rated the wine at a disapointing 88 points while Mr R. Parker had decided to give it 95 points. No bottle variations, transportation and other factors set aside it seems a classic case of PERCEPTION. Of course my perception came down to don't buy any.
Heather Shott
New York, NY —  March 21, 2007 11:48pm ET
James, I just saw this movie tonight. Amazing! Thank you for bringing the Zodiac story to our attention--and for so creatively connecting it to wine.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.