Chaim Gur-Arieh, blending science and beauty

Chaim Gur-Arieh is the proprietor and owner of CG Di Arie , A Sierra Foothills winery in the Shenandoah Valley in Northern California ( I can say without reservation that his elegant, complex, utterly robust wines are my favorite. To my Palette, Chaim has succeeded in combining very intense and “dense” flavor profiles in wines that are consistently punctuated by the stimulation of an immediate, hedonistic, and emotional experience for the drinker. Sublime. I wanted to talk with him as his history is decidedly unusual from that of the “typical” Sierra Foothills Winemaker. A food Scientist by training and history, he has emerged as a truly artistic Vintner.

PH Chaim, I’m very interested to know a bit about your roots. Where are you from, and how did your culture, family experiences and life choices shape your path to becoming a food scientist and then winemaker?

 CG-A I was born in Turkey to a Jewish family.  I grew up during WWII in a Muslim country that was sympathetic to Germany while it stayed neutral during the war.  I saw my dad taken to a labor camp and I felt strong anti-Semitic sentiments in school.  After the State of Israel was established in 1948, as a young boy I left my family in Turkey and immigrated to Israel to live with my uncle. When I face difficult situations in my life I always think about my dad who inspired me with his optimism and positive attitude that helped him overcome many adversities in his life.  My dad was a great example to me.  He was always very supportive and tolerant of me even when I did some crazy things in my life.

 I come from a culture that encourages learning and achievements.  As a young boy and later as a young man I was very rebellious.  At the age of 14 while I lived in Turkey I was cutting school and then in Israel I dropped out of high school in the 12th grade and joined the Israeli Army.  It was there that I learned discipline, commitment, responsibility and perseverance.  While I was in the army only for a relatively short time, I would say that it was an important milestone in my life that shaped my character.

 After I was discharged from the Israeli army I went back and took my high school diploma and was admitted to the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology where I graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering.  Like many other things in my life that happened by serendipity I met a young professor at the Technion who had received a Ph.D. in Food Science at the University of Illinois and he got me interested in this subject.  I applied to the University of Illinois, was accepted to their Ph.D. program and received an assistantship in the Food Science Department.  Coming to the United States and going to the University was one of the greatest experiences in my life.  I was able to get a Master’s and a Ph.D. in three years.  From there I started a career in Food Science that lasted for 38 years.  First I worked for large corporations in food product development and then in my own consulting company and finally in a flavor company that I founded named California Brands Flavors.  While working for large food companies I was involved in the development of Cap’n Crunch, Pudding Cups, Fruit Cups, etc.  In my consulting company I created the Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressing and Power Bars.

 I sold my flavor company in 1998 to pursue my lifelong passion for wines.  The transition from Food Scientist to Winemaker was very natural.  Especially since I was I involved in the development of so many food products that wine to me was another new product.  Since I viewed it in this manner I was able to think outside the box and come up with some innovations.  Becoming a farmer was a lot more challenging.  As a farmer I’ve had to accept the fact that I don’t have total control.  I do my best but have to accept Mother Nature’s final verdict.  This brings me to where I am at now.

 PH The path from food scientist to wine-maker seems to make perfect sense to me, and I think that there is artistry in both. How do you, as a scientist see this?

 CG-A Maybe what you call artistry, I call creativity.  Obviously there is room to be creative and think outside the box in every field.  Wine is not an exception.  While science enables you to make a wine that technically has no flaws that doesn’t guarantee that it will be a great wine.   I think that to make a great wine you need a creative touch or passion or artistry, as you say, and in some cases the end result may reflect the personality of the winemaker.      

  PH What is the genesis of your love for wine?

 CG-A   I acquired my love and passion for wine after I met my wife.  Until then I drank only beer and Scotch and Martinis on occasion.  When I met my wife she was dancing ballet and I was introduced to wine by her groups of friends who were wine drinkers.  At first it was Cabernet and Merlot, the early Napa wines that were made with an abundance of oak.  I thought then that this was how good wine should be.  Then we started travelling in Europe and my palate became more refined.  It was then, in the early 80’s that I started having the fantasy of owning a winery and making wine.  What really attracted me to making wine is that I perceived wine to be an elusive entity that would be a tremendous challenge to conquer.   In this I was not wrong.  

 PH The fact that the physical structure, the art, every detail of your winery’s environment seems to bend towards beauty. Do you and your wife work hand in hand to create this aesthetic environment?

 CG-A The credit for the beauty and the aesthetics of the environment should go to my wife Elisheva.  She had the vision for the architecture of the winery and the surrounding areas.  She is very detail oriented, has a strong mind and an enormous amount of energy.  My contribution to this part of the project was to act as an expeditor. 

 PH What is your favorite wine?

 CG-A This is a tough question to answer.  If you ask me who is my favorite child this is easy.  I will tell you right away that it’s my daughter.  I only have one daughter but I make at least 15 different wines every year. What makes it even more difficult is that I have seasonal favorites.   I can tell you that among the wines that I make Syrah is my favorite variety and one of my favorite wines is my 2005 Southern Exposure Syrah.  Having said that, I also love to drink my 2007 Petite Sirah, my 2007 Sierra Legend, my 2005 Cabernet Franc and my 2008 American Legend Zinfandel.  Next month I will be releasing a blend that I call Amalur which translates as “Mother Earth” from the Basque language.   This is a blend of Syrah, Tempranillo and Grenache.  It’s an understatement if I said that I am very fond of this wine.

 PH Much has been written about the dulling of the American palette due to Robert Parker’s influence on taste. Your wines, to me, are outrageous with flavor, passionate, excessive in the most respectful, best use of the word. Do you feel that your wines are resonant of the Parker aesthetic?

 CG-A Not at all!  I don’t like to send my wines to Robert Parker because he gravitates to a different style of wine than mine.  But at times I wonder whether he is consistent in the way he rates wines.  I have tasted wines that he rated in the 90’s that were robust with excessive amounts of oak alcohol and residual sugar.  But I have also seen that he shows appreciation for elegance.  In general I am not in favor of allowing anyone to have so much power to prevent people from uncovering their own taste.  I heard a quote attributed to Socrates that I would like to repeat: “The expression of taste is an expression of freedom; the moment you abdicate responsibility for your own taste, you voluntarily abdicate your freedom”. 

 PH From where do you receive joy in your life?

 CG-A What gives me joy is having a sense of purpose in life.  People ask me if I will ever retire.  Not if I can help it.  There is no question that being passionate about something will cause pain, but how can we appreciate joy without feeling the pain?

PH I love the artwork and design of the bottles and the labels. Who is responsible for this, and what was the inspiration?

 CG-A The artwork was created by Elisheva.  The 2 lions or sphinxes with their tails entwined symbolize the two of us.  The part of my name “Arie” translates from Hebrew as lion.

 PH How has the business of making and selling wine fared throughout the economic crisis?

 CG-A We have not escaped the economic crisis.  While the overall consumption of wine in the US has increased slightly since the beginning of the recession, the price point which people are willing to pay has decreased.  Wines priced under $10 per bottle are doing better in this economy than two years ago.  Wines priced over $20 are difficult to sell.  We are doing everything to adjust to the present situation and hoping that we will see this through.

 PH What is the most interesting story you might be able to relate from your years as a food scientist?

 CG-A I left Quaker Oats in the late 60’s and moved to California to take a job with United Technology Center in Sunnyvale.  This company was in the aerospace business dealing mainly with government contracts.  I joined the Life Sciences Department as a Food Scientist and I was assigned the project to develop foods for the astronauts that would go into space for short durations.  These foods were going to be synthetic in nature providing the essential nutrients without any fiber and creating no waste.  The goal was to get the astronauts not to have bowel movements while travelling in space.

 I formulated a diet that consisted of the 8 essential amino acids, a carbohydrate source for calories, an essential fatty acid like linoleic acid and all the minerals and vitamins required to sustain life.  Since this diet contained no fiber at all, the idea was that all of the nutrients would be absorbed into the body before they reached the gastro-intestinal (GI) tracts and this way the astronauts after going on this diet for a few days before their flight would cease having any bowel movements.  In working on this project I faced numerous challenges.  First the food had to be palatable to get people to want to eat it.  After months of experimentation I finally made it in the form of a gelatin dessert. 

 The second challenge was to test the diet with people to determine its efficacy and intermediate term effects of taking it.  We were 5 people in the Life Sciences group and we all volunteered to go on this diet exclusively for periods of a week or two at a time.  The results were fascinating.   After two or three days of going on this diet we all stopped having bowel movements.  While on the diet we were taking stool samples for analysis and discovered that each one of us had different strains of E. Coli micro-organisms in our stools.  My strain was exceptionally unusual.  We were also testing our blood chemistry and my level of cholesterol was extremely low.  The department chief, Milton Winitz, thought that there was a correlation between the low cholesterol and the strain of E. Coli.   Since his cholesterol was unusually high he decided to try to implant my strain of E. Coli into his GI tract.  We grew my E- Coli strain on Petri dishes and several times he tried to get this strain implanted in his GI tracts without having any success and always going back to the E. Coli strain that he had originally. 

 While this was an interesting period in my life where I learned about nutrition and physiology, after a couple of years I decided to move on.  I left Dr. Winitz cultures of my E-Coli strain and who knows maybe by now he was able to make an exchange with his culture and thus control his cholesterol.  As for me I moved to San Francisco to take a job with Del Monte, I met Elisheva and my life changed.

 PH Now for the inevitable: Cap’N Crunch is an iconic cereal, and you created the flavor profile? What is it like to know that billions of mouthfuls of this cereal have been consumed? Also, I think the flavor has changed over the years, as I was a huge consumer of CC when I was at University!

 CG-A I worked on this project in the early 60’s never thinking that it was going any place.  Actually I did not create the flavor profile of Cap’n Crunch.  I worked on the development of the technology for manufacturing of this breakfast cereal.  At the time the project had a number and the Cap’n Crunch name came much later in the development process.  While recognizing that a lot people have very fond memories of this product that they grew up with, personally I can identify myself more with the wines that I make rather than Cap’n Crunch.  The reason?   Cap’n Crunch was the creation of many people from different disciplines, from the technology to the manufacturing, marketing, advertizing, etc. while the wines that I make are all my creation.  Am I egocentric?  I hope not.