A Winemaker Reflects
Laura Ness reviews:
Lineage: Life and Love and Six Generations in California Wine
by Steven Kent Mirassou
Val de Grâce, release date September 7, 2021, Buy Local Link
As a young man, Steven Kent Mirassou fancied himself a writer of novels. Despite his extensive family history of winemaking in California, Mirassou left his home in San Jose to study at George Washington University and NYU, intent on developing a career in teaching and writing. Back East, he met June Fremer, with whom he would have four children.
After their second child was born, the couple returned to San Jose, where Steven briefly worked—unglamorously—in municipal landscape management and street cleaning. In 1994, a Christmas gift from his father (Steve Mirassou) awakened the young man to the allure of wine. It was a well-aged triple cream sherry made of Mission grapes from Rancho de Philo in Cucamonga Valley, pulled from the stash of Steven’s grandfather, Norbert Charles Mirassou.As a young man, Steven Kent Mirassou fancied himself a writer of novels. Despite his extensive family history of winemaking in California, Mirassou left his home in San Jose to study at George Washington University and NYU, intent on developing a career in teaching and writing. Back East, he met June Fremer, with whom he would have four children.
Father and son became partners in Livermore-based Iván Tamás, a brand subsequently sold to Wente Vineyards. In 1996, they founded the Steven Kent Winery with a singular focus on cabernet sauvignon grown in the Livermore Valley. The successful venture was followed by Lineage, Steven’s throw-down-the-gauntlet effort to make a world-class Bordeaux blend from Livermore grapes.
Now proprietor of Steven Kent Winery and Lineage Wine Company, and with many more harvests behind him than ahead of him, the sixth-generation winemaker has become that dreamed-of writer in the release of a book that chronicles the annual ritual of grape to glass. Lineage: Life and Love and Six Generations in California Wine fittingly begins in the vineyard with the author overcome by the sensation of ripeness and possibility. In each chapter of his journey, Mirassou comes to understand the importance of hallowed dirt, of sweat, of the labor of many hands, of the struggle to meet the challenge of each winemaking season and render it into something worthy—perhaps memorable.
Part historical narrative, the book pays homage to the Pellier brothers, Pierre and Louis, who emigrated from La Rochelle, France, establishing a winery in the Santa Clara Valley in 1854 with vine cuttings sourced from their homeland. The brothers are believed to be the first to bring pinot noir and Mourvèdre to the United States. In 1881, French émigré Pierre Mirassou, well versed in viticulture and winemaking, married Pierre Pellier’s daughter, Henriette, producing five heirs, whose progeny today include Steven and his cousins.
Steven Kent Mirassou describes Thanksgiving dinner prep in his chapter called “Like Birds Surprised in Flight”:
I’ve got a couple of red peppers charring on one of the burners and the innards of the turkey—neck, heart and liver—boiling in a saucepan on another. I’m going to use the roasted peppers and tomato sauce, toasted almonds, day-old bread, olive oil, sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, and salt to make a dip—Romesco—for quarter inch-thick slices of boiled red potato. I’m going to make an aioli too (egg yolks, lots of fresh garlic, olive oil, a touch of salt, pepper, drop of white wine vinegar). I’ll chop up the heart and liver and use them for the gravy. There’s music playing, Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, one of the top five albums of all-time, I’ve got my mis-en-place set up the way I like it, and I have a few more minutes before the house is filled with my family.
Pride is woven through the prose, as Mirassou threads present and past, like darning a well-loved sock. He marvels at the innate talent and work ethic displayed by his own son, Aidan, who as the seventh-generation winemaker continues his family’s distinction as the oldest winemaking family in the U.S
In one chapter, Mirassou reminisces about the fourth generation, contemporaries of Robert Mondavi, who chose Soledad over Napa to establish vines. As Napa bakes in the face of climate change, Monterey’s prodigious ocean influence might prove them prescient. In that same vein, he makes a case for cab Franc to be the official grape of Livermore, not only for its energetic, sexy charms, but because it ripens earlier than cabernet sauvignon. Ironically, as the interior heats up, the coast remains chilly, and Livermore’s climate, influenced by the dramatic west-to-east rush of air from the Bay, is actually getting cooler. In another chapter, the author recalls punching a time clock at age 13 before adding dosage to hundreds of bottles of Mirassou Champagne on the bottling line at the family winery. He rues the day his cousins sold the family homestead in San Jose, but celebrates the renaissance of La Rochelle and its eventual move to Livermore. Since Thanksgiving and harvest always go hand in hand, he shares personal holiday menus and recipes accompanied by chronicles of the harvest just ended. All throughout, he heaps reverent praise upon the many faithful hands that have guided and assisted him in his quest for the perfect vintage, year upon year, and although he can never thank them properly, he can open a bottle in their honor and simultaneously hope the next vintage will be his best yet.
Learn more at stevenkentmirassou.com.
Laura Ness writes about the essentials in life: wine. Reach her at highperf(at)got.net.