Farewell to a Mentor, a Friend

By Eric Weisinger, The Traveling Winemaker

Marlborough, New Zealand—There are few truths in winemaking, but one of them is that winemaking is a practice that requires time to learn. Another is that the willingness of others to share and teach what they know can be the deciding factor in whether that learning takes years, decades or a generation.

I have had many teachers over the years and have been fortunate to have some very good ones. Some shared with me their knowledge of wine, while others introduced me to wine through their passion for it. I recently lost one of those teachers, an important mentor who helped shape the way I view vineyards and the connection that can exist between someone and the land he works with. The loss is also that of a friend, one whose infectious passion for wine and growing grapes left me happily afflicted. In many ways, I do not think I would be sitting here in New Zealand had our paths not crossed.

Arnold Kohnert was 88 when he passed away. He had just come in from working in the vineyard he so loved. He was the owner of Pompadour Vineyard, a small seven-acre farm nestled among the hills east of Ashland.

There, with the priceless help and unwavering support of his wife, Mary, Arnold began planting a small vineyard of Bordeaux varieties in 1983. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Semillon were the varieties that made up Pompadour, and it was from these grapes that I made my first wines in the 1997.

I don’t know exactly when or where I first met Arnold, but I suppose it was sometime in either 1989 or 1990, just a couple of years after my father started his small winery south of Ashland. I do remember, however, the first time he tasted a particular wine that I had made from his vineyard.

It was a Bordeaux-style blend. I have forgotten the exact percentages but it was mostly Cabernet Franc, with plenty of Merlot, a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and a splash of Malbec. The blend was named “Petite Pompadour” for the little vineyard from where the grapes had come. I remember tasting the new blend with Arnold before its release. I remember the way he put the glass to his long nose and held it there, breathing in a year’s worth of work. But most of all, I remember the smile that came to his richly lined faced after he tasted it and how proud he said he was that the fruits of his and Mary’s labor had become what was now in his glass. “Not a bad drop, Eric,” he would often say to me.

As it still is with most vineyards in Oregon, all the picking during harvest is done by hand. At Pompadour Vineyard, those hands always belonged to friends and family. During harvest I would make a point to find where Arnold was picking and pick for a while beside him. It was a pleasure to harvest with Arnold. I loved listening to his stories about the war and D-Day and his adventures across Europe, building airstrips for the Army.

I remember the time he told me about how he and some buddies found a cache of Calvados, a French brandy made from apples, that had been left behind by retreating Germans.

Always a man who appreciated a fine drop, Arnold, a lieutenant at the time, had the cases loaded onto one his unit’s trucks. During the rest of the war, at every location they built an airstrip, and before the heavy equipment went to work, Arnold had a backhoe dig a shallow hole. The treasured Calvados—fewer bottles with each dig—would then be unloaded from the truck, placed in the hole and safely buried until it was time to move out again. Arnold said they buried and dug up that brandy all the way across Europe.

Since my first taste of the French brandy over a decade ago, I never drink Calvados without thinking of Arnold or that story. I shall always raise my glass and thank him for the introduction.

With every harvest, I experienced the friendship between us grow. Together, we worked to do a little better than the vintage before and would often get together for lunch to discuss the upcoming season. It was also our time to catch up with each other and just enjoy each other’s company. Our lunches were never without wine, a little philosophy, humor and, from Arnold, sage advice. No matter how many times I tried, not once in all those years did he ever let me pay.

Every one of us, during our lives, meet people who leave us a little better than we were before we met them. Arnold was that for me. He was my teacher, a mentor, at times my critic and always my council. He was also part of my extended family and my friend. He inspired me through example to continually strive to become better at what I did; and with every vintage—following his lead—I did just that.

I always knew that there would come a time when Arnold and I would have our last vintage together. The more harvests we had behind us, the fewer I knew were ahead.

Our final vintage was 2006. I left Oregon to travel and work abroad soon after that harvest was over. When I decided that I was going to leave Oregon and the family winery where I had made wine from Arnold’s grapes, I went to his house to tell him. I was nervous, but I felt it was time for me to take a journey, and if Arnold had taught me anything, it was to never stop learning, never stop the search. He listened that day with Mary by his side and when I was finished, he simply agreed. He thought it was a good idea, too.

I heard once that the greatest of teachers don’t hesitate to leave their students by themselves. Arnold was always one to let me have a go at something for the first time sans him.

I will be back in Ashland in a few weeks, and this fall, for the first time since 2006, I will be making wine from the fruit of Pompadour Vineyard without him.

I will miss him, but the memories of Arnold and the stories that accompany them, as well as the wealth of stories he told me, are treasures I will have forever. For that, I have a rich sense of gratitude and eternal respect.

Salute, my friend. Safe travels. 

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