Charles Shaw Fishing
by Bob Dempel, November 2, 2016
My friend and client Ed Beard told me about a new couple in the Napa Valley. They had bought a small parcel and built a small winery and home. Ed suggested to me that they might be a future client of mine. At that time I was vineyard consulting for ten or so vineyard owners and winery/vineyard owners in the Napa Valley. Thinking I could take on an additional client. (50 years old or so at that time), I followed Ed’s direction and drove to the property just north of
St. Helena. I found a beautiful new home, single story with a southern style covered porch circling around the entire house. I trudged forward at around 5pm and gently knocked on what I thought was the back door. I soon introduced myself to a thirtyish looking, athletic man no bigger than myself. For those who know me, I am less than average size. He introduced himself as Chuck Shaw. He welcomed me in after my self-introduction and mentioning the name of Ed Beard. What I came into was a large family room well adorned with period style furniture. Chuck was having a martini and asked if I would care for one. I politely declined but could not refuse a glass of Charles F. Shaw Chardonnay. No sooner than I had taken a sip of a delightful wine, (I refuse to use all of the buzzwords that aficionados use) than the phone rang. Chuck answered with usual “hello.”
The conversation soon turned emphatic. The caller was one of the Shaw children. She was standing outside of the school in St. Helena waiting to be picked up by her mother. This was long before cell phones were even thought of. And would DAD please come and get her. It was getting dark and she was getting scared. Chuck turned to me and explained that the reason he was in the house so early was that they had a new 3 day old baby in the adjoining bedroom. Well, being an experienced father of three girls, I did what every other father would do. I volunteered to watch the 3 day old while Chuck raced into town to pick up his school aged daughter. I told Shaw not to worry, I had good credentials. He truly didn’t know who I was from a load of coal. He jumps into his BMW 530-I and drives away at full steam. No sooner than he is gone that the phone rings. “Hello, Shaw residence” I politely answer. “Who is this?’ came from the receiver. I tried to explain in vain who I was but the conversation quickly went south. There was nothing I could say to calm down the woman on the other end of the phone, who I suspected was Mrs. Shaw. I was now on the receiving end of a call from a completely hysterical person.
I continued to oversee the house and its precious occupant for what now seems like hours, but probably was for only fifteen minutes. Soon two sets of headlights were in the driveway. The back door opened and Chuck came in with two school aged children in tow. Mrs. Shaw then appeared in the doorway with a newspaper completely covering her face in embarrassment for the way she spoke to me. Chuck could not thank me enough for what I had done.
Evidently the Shaw son had a medical problem at school and called his mom. Chuck was summoned to come to the house to watch the new 3 day old. When Mrs. Shaw picked up the son mid-day she determined that a trip to the doctor was in order. Since it was mid-day she thought she could get to the doctor’s office in Napa and back to the school in time to pick up the daughter. Well, that did not happen. The doctor’s visit was longer, followed by a trip to the drug store, and now a daughter was standing in front of the school at 5 pm with darkness approaching. Thus the frantic call to dad, probably from a pay phone, which now are non-existent.
I told Chuck that we could continue the conversation about my services at a later date.
* * *
Three or four weeks passed before I stopped by again to see Charles Shaw. This time I met him in his winery office. The winery building is perpendicular to his home. A moderate sized building, two stories tall with some properly placed clear story windows. Shaw’s office was up the stairs on the south end of a rather large room. Several of the other winemaking staff used the open area as office space.
Charles did not say a word about the previous incident involving his new child that I took care of a few week previously. I explained to Shaw my services and costs. He seemed more interested in my ability to help him manage his vineyard. I was told that they had hired two people from England. I soon learned the term “au pair,” referring to the two full time people who lived in the apartment above the attached garage.
Weekly I would stop and inspect the vineyard and make contact with the Englishman au pair who mainly worked in the vineyard, while his wife helped in the house. Occasionally I would talk with Chuck, who I now had a closer relationship with and were on a first name basis.
Chuck and his wife Lucy had previously lived in Europe where he was involved in finances. Chuck evidently was mesmerized by winemaking. It was not just any winemaking. It is called in France as Beaujolais Noveau; the process of taking the current year’s grapes, making them into wine and releasing the wine on the third Thursday of November at 12:01 am. Shirley and I have been in France when this wine was released. You would think the second coming of someone had just appeared. This wine is not made from just any grapes. In France the wine is made from the variety Gamay Noir Jus Blanc. The leader of this spectacle is winemaker DuBoeuf. Chuck Shaw wanted to be the Napa Valley version of DuBoeuf.
I was just the right person for Shaw to have on his team. I had 20 years’ experience of consulting in the Napa Valley. My client list read like the Who’s Who of Napa; Mondavi, Cakebread, Fisher, Turnbull and on and on.
More Gamay was grown in Napa than anywhere else in California. USDA lists only 295 acres were grown prior to 2002 in the entire state. I estimate that most of that acreage was in the Napa Valley. It is not to be confused with a Pinot Noir, or a clone of Pinot Noir known as Gamay Beaujolais. Napa Gama is a late variety, produces large berries, large clusters, and large tons of fruit per acre. And it does not command a high price. Shaw was a savior for many Gamay growers.
So Charles Shaw went into the Noveau wine business. When I started working for Shaw the winery capacity was small. But that did not stop Chuck. Somewhere he heard about a sale of very large vertical wine tanks. The next thing I know these big helicopters are traveling up the
Napa Valley carrying the wine tanks attached by a cable and setting them down on a newly poured concrete slab on the east side of the winery. Watch out DuBoeuf, Charles Shaw is on the way to get you.
To fill these large tanks it was necessary for Shaw to purchase grapes from other Napa Valley grape growers. New winemakers were hired. Au Pairs came and went. And 2 more children appeared. Now you have Chuck and Lucy and two separate sets of children spanning almost 20 years. Chuck and Lucy became the Camelot’s of the Napa Valley. Chuck, a good looking man, and Lucy still a knockout, not one indication of birthing five children.
Then came true fame for the Shaw family. The Nouveau was selling well. Someone had an idea to put the wine in five gallon non-returnable barrels. Ship the wine out the same year as the grapes were harvested. Bring in the money. Life was good, WTF could be next.
The next was a movie advance crew. The Shaw advance crew was looking for a site to make a movie with Pavarotti, Luciano Pavarotti the singer. There was one small obstacle. The site had to have a tennis court. No problem, just take out a few vines and they could build a tennis court right in my ‘cared for’ vineyard. Also, could they house Pavarotti while the scenes were being shot? Yes, put all five children in one bedroom, to make room for Pavarotti. So an agreement was signed, and the movie was produced right there on the Shaw property.
I’ve had experience with movie advance crews. A vineyard I managed for the late architect, Bill Turnbull, was considered for two movies. Just so you know, I’m not BS’ing anyone. The vineyard did not get selected as a set for either. The movies were “Walk in The Clouds,” and the other was the remake of “Parent Trap”.
Chuck Shaw liked to fish. He would drop everything to go fishing. One day he convinced Lucy to bring all five children along in a row boat. Think, aluminum boat 12 feet long and all seven of them. And they would have a family day on the lake. They rowed out to the center of the lake where the fish were biting. Before long Lucy asked about drinks for the children, that could not be found, and one of them needed to PEE. Chuck was adamant the fish were biting, just PEE over the side of the boat. Mind you they now had a teenage daughter. And by the way, it was Lucy’s role to bring along the drinks. When the Shaw family got home late that night Lucy and the five children went into the house. No Chuck.
The winds were shifting for the Shaw’s. The five gallon barrels did not sell well and many of them came back leaking. I still have two of the empty barrels in my back yard. The au pairs were gone. And one day when I came to inspect the vineyard Chuck Shaw stuck his head out of the apartment window and asked me to wait. He was now living in the apartment over the garage. At some point Lucy developed a wonderful friend. Chuck became furious and some legal proceedings were started against him. He seemed to be gone forever.
The last winemaker I worked with was Scott McCloud who went on to work for Francis Ford Coppola. My consulting bill was way past due, so I stopped working for the business. Growers had not been paid. Bankruptcy was just around the corner. The sale of the property soon followed.
I saw Chuck just one time later. We had breakfast in St. Helena. He did not have very much money and what he did have he kept hidden under the floorboard of his car. He did have one piece of good news. His older son had contacted him and wanted to go fishing with him.
Fred Franzia bought the label out of bankruptcy and put it on some average wine for Trader Joe’s. It sold for $24.00 per case or two dollars a bottle. A bottle became referred to as TWO BUCK CHUCK, a name that today is still mentally connected to just average wine and Charles F. Shaw.
Over the next few years I stopped occasionally in St. Helena to visit with Lucy Shaw, where she was working as a salesperson in a bookstore. She stated,” Bob, it was all of my mother’s money and now that’s gone”.
One following Christmas I received a card from Chuck. He was somewhere in the mid-states. He had a sister there or some other relative. He was back working in finance. I never heard from him again. I didn’t look, but there has to be five young Shaw’s somewhere around the Napa Valley. Or at least some of them. That’s where their mother lives. I don’t know about the family money. I am told Mr. Wonderful is still around.