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Hollywood and Vine

Author: Carleton Prince
May, 2009 Issue

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NorthBay biz tells the story of Charlie Meeker—a Hollywood studio head who traded it all for the tranquility of Sonoma County winemaking.

 

By the standards of most mortal daydreamers, Charles R. Meeker III had it made. He was president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a truly iconic movie studio in a town built on icons. Think “A Night at the Opera,” “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” in the 1930s. “The Philadelphia Story,” “National Velvet,” “Adam’s Rib” in the 1940s. “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Ben-Hur,” and “North by Northwest” in the ’50s. “Dr. Zhivago,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” “Network,” “Poltergeist,” “Thelma & Louise,”—when you arrived to run MGM, you had arrived.

So imagine the look on the face of a prominent international film financier when he casually said at a fancy premier dinner, “So, Charlie, you must be very happy, running a big movie studio like this, living the glamorous life,” and Charlie replied, “Actually, I’d rather be up in Sonoma County getting my hands dirty making wine.”

And that’s exactly what Charlie Meeker has been doing for the past 32 years. Starting small, but building on his passion for wine, Charlie has turned The Meeker Vineyard into a 20,000-case-a-year success story. He’s won international tasting competitions and has a string of medals to prove it. He’s won accolades—and high scores—from The Wine Spectator. His wine club now boasts more than 1,900 members all over the country. And wine lovers line up to become the first to receive his latest releases. He’s done it by creating a unique character both for his wines and his winery, through a combination of hard work, unwavering vision, hands-on marketing and a don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously attitude. It’s a true Hollywood story.

Fade in

It’s not clear whether Meeker chose winemaking or it chose him. Growing up in Texas in the 1950s, few people drank wine, and even fewer talked about it—unless they had a French accent. “Lone Star beer, bourbon and branch water, scotch and soda, that was about it,” says Meeker. “Except,” he adds, “for my father.” It seems wine was the only alcoholic beverage consumed in the Meeker household. And his dad didn’t just drink wine, he appreciated it. He had a passion for it; he understood it as an artist understands a painting. And it was this passion that Charlie learned at his father’s side.

Meeker learned something else from his father, too: A love of show business. His dad was managing director of the Dallas Summer Musicals, an annual program of Broadway-type musicals brought to town every summer. So not only did his dad share his appreciation of wine, refined on his numerous business trips to New York, but he also brought Charlie into contact with actors and actresses, directors and writers, producers and agents that later in his life would prove equally as valuable.

Making wine in L.A.

It all began with a can of Ruby Cabernet concentrate. If you were around in the 1970s in California, you remember home winemaking shops. Hand-crafted anything was all the rage, and winemaking was the ultimate personal art form. So Meeker’s first foray into the magic of the grape was one of those coincidences that movie audiences complain about: a plot point that spun his story off in a completely different direction.

Having graduated from Princeton, which put some Eastern polish on his West Texas spurs, and then having earned his juris doctorate from the University of Texas School of Law, Meeker had a clerkship with a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which happened to be in Los Angeles. Meeker was a good law clerk, and impressed the court, but he intended to serve out his year as clerk and return to practice in Dallas.

But one day—plot point—Meeker was walking back to his apartment when he passed a small home winemaking shop in a strip mall. “I don’t remember exactly what made me do it,” he says. “I saw the sign, walked inside, and the next thing you know, I’m walking out with a can of Ruby Cabernet concentrate, a couple of buckets, some plastic tubing and a whole lot of anticipation.”

Meeker’s first production was eight cases. “My only regret was I made so much,” he says. “I loved every step of the process—except having to serve it. It was less than drinkable. But the friends I served it to were either too polite to say anything or too cheap to turn down free wine!”

A woman enters

Like all good Hollywood stories in which the characters can’t escape their own personalities, Meeker’s second foray into winemaking began the same way as his first. Only by then he was a successful entertainment lawyer, and now he was walking down the street with the soon-to-be Mrs. Meeker, Molly De Hetre, whom he’d met when she was an assistant at one his client’s production offices. And this time, it was she who saw the sign: “Order your Napa wine grapes now.” Like the lifetime winemaking partner she was to become, Molly urged Charlie to buy some grapes. “You’ve made wine before. Let’s do it together! You have to buy some!”

Instead of a can of concentrate, Charlie and Molly signed up for 100 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Even though they fermented it in two plastic trash cans in the kitchen of their Beverly Hills condo, that initial run of 36 bottles assumed a special place in their hearts.

The grapes of wrath

Good stories take on a life of their own, as Charlie and Molly soon found out. No sooner had they finished bottling their first wine than a client of Meeker’s told him about an opportunity to acquire even more grapes, this time from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. Two days later, Charlie and his friend were headed back to Los Angeles in a rented truck, hauling a ton of grapes crushed into 17 plastic trash cans. And since these wouldn’t fit into the Meeker’s tiny condo kitchen, they set up their “winery” in their section of the garage. Charlie Meeker was hooked. No longer content to make wine to share with a few friends, he was now in the wine business. And it was in him.

This success also revealed another aspect of the Meeker winemaking character: the commitment to hand-made wine. “A lot of people who drink wine,” Meeker explains, “have a completely different perception of the process from the people who actually make wine. Unlike the refined, civilized product that comes out of the bottle, what goes into that bottle is a lot of hard work, dirty hands, salty sweat and even a few tears.”

Maybe it was his Texas upbringing, maybe it was the discipline he learned as a law clerk. But whatever it was, Meeker embraced the sheer physical process of winemaking. “Wine is the product of two powerful forces,” he says, “soil and toil. The wine is the result of chemistry; the grapes are the result of agriculture. And both take a lot of work.”

From our hands to your lips

This personal, hands-on approach to winemaking is evident in every bottle of Meeker Vineyard wine produced today, but none moreso than their Winemakers’ Handprint Merlot. To memorialize the fact that the winemakers are “hands on” in the winemaking process, Meeker and his winemaker, Matt Blankenheim, plunge their hands into artists’ acrylic paints and grip each bottle, leaving a one-of-a-kind, three-dimensional signature on the glass.

“Like a lot of creative endeavors, winemaking is a collaborative process,” Meeker explains. “One of my early associates in the business had the idea of putting the winemaker’s thumbprint on each bottle, and that evolved quickly into personalizing Merlot bottles with our handprints, using artists’ paint to make each bottle a piece of art, one bottle at a time.” Then he smiles, “Of course, at 200 cases, it was a great idea, but now at 5,000 cases, we’re beginning to wonder!”

Hand prints or not, The Meeker Vineyard currently boasts 27 different wines in its portfolio. But unlike a lot of wineries that maintain a certain serious bearing, perhaps in deference to their European founders or to maintain a prestige perception to justify a premium price, The Meeker Vineyard wines celebrate a free-spirited quirkiness. Meeker says it simply: “Wine is fun. When you share it with people, it’s fun. There’s no reason to be all stuffy and snobby. Wine makes life richer. Enjoy it!”

So in addition to the expected Winemakers’ Reserve Zinfandel with a suitably refined label, he also makes Longhorn Cabernet Sauvignon (“because all things are bigger in Texas”) with a Longhorn steer on the label. And he makes Kelly’s Cab named after his and Molly’s daughter. And there’s Blankenheim’s Frankenstein with an appropriately ghoulish label themed for its annual Halloween release. And to top it off, there’s FroZin, a 100 percent Zinfandel dessert wine made by a unique cryogenic process (hence the legitimacy of the otherwise pop-catchy name) that gives it an unexpected snap-fresh fruitiness.

The tipi and the tribe

The Meeker approach to winemaking and bottling applies to tasting as well. And if you go to its website, www.meekerwine.com, you can see the continuing theme. The tipi is the winery’s official logo because, well, it was just that only-in-Hollywood coincidence again.

“There’s a difference,” Meeker points out, “between your business growing and growing your business. The first one happens because you produce a good product that people want. They want more, so you produce more. This is what happens when you approach it with heart and passion. The second one happens when you plan your business and you try actively to manage it to grow. This is what happens when you approach it with your head and your business plan. The trick is, you really need both. We’ve never lost our vision, we’ve just been judicious and disciplined in how we’ve pursued it. We planned and prepared, so when the opportunities presented themselves, we were ready to jump.”

When word of The Meeker Vineyard wines began to spread, especially when Sonoma Valley became a wine-tour destination in the early 1990s, its 1,664-square-foot winery in Dry Creek Valley began to strain under the traffic. With no tasting room and just a small lab space, tasting tours spilled out of the walls. So the Meekers, ever innovators, erected a 40-foot-high tipi, authentic to Sioux style in every detail except for the size. Soon, wine tasting in the tipi solidified The Meeker Vineyard as a “must-visit” on every wine tour.

Consistent with the tipi tasting room, enjoyers of Meeker wines began to be known as “The Tribe,” and now the name is used to designate the members of the Meeker wine club. “The Tribe really just captures the spirit of who we are and how we approach our wine,” says Meeker. “Wine lovers in general, but ours in particular, are sort of like one big family, bound together by a common interest and a consuming passion, with no purpose other than to share experiences and enrich each other’s lives. That’s our tribe.”

New scene

“If you think wine tasting in a tipi is fun,” Molly Meeker says, ‘wait until you try it in a bank vault!’”

As winemaking success led to business success, The Meeker Vineyard soon outgrew its winery, its location, even its tipi tasting room. So, again never afraid to reinvent themselves, Charlie and Molly moved the winery to a new piece of property farther up Dry Creek Valley, and moved the tasting room into the 100-year-old Geyserville Bank Building in downtown Geyserville. Somehow, it all works. Walking inside, you can’t help but feel it was all meant to be. “I can’t think of a better use for a bank right now, can you?” asks Meeker with an unashamed smile. 

Would he have predicted this when he bought that first can of grape concentrate in the 1970s? Or when he and Molly bought their first vineyard in Dry Creek Valley in 1977? Or when they established their winery in 1984? Or when he finally stopped commuting between Hollywood and Sonoma County and moved up here permanently in 1999? “No,” says Meeker, shaking his head. “We didn’t know exactly where we were going, we just knew we were going. And we were willing to do whatever it took to get there.”

He adds, “I read a book once called Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. Well, I don’t know about the money part, but I do know one thing: I’m doing what I love.”

Carleton Prince is a writer and marketing consultant living in Novato. He has more than 30 years’ experience as a writer, creative director, and agency president as well as a senior marketing executive for several companies. You can reach him at carleton@carletonprince.com.



 

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