The Vintners: Napa Valley

“How long did it take you to finish that painting,” is a question people often ask. They are usually surprised that the time to complete a work is much longer than they had imagined. Perhaps it’s because they think that making art is simply a matter of talent and inspiration, rather than hard work and sweat as well. For example, The Vintners took more than 900 hours to paint, that is, roughly six months. (Nine-hundred hours, by the way, only refers to the days and weeks of actual painting and doesn’t account for several trips driving from Grass Valley to the Napa Valley and back in my beat-up old Datsun pickup– 2 1/2 hours each way– to draw, photograph and interview the 39 principals in the painting. They included growers and vintners, a journalist, two restaurateurs, a professor of viticulture at the University of California and a banker without whose loans, one vintner told me, “all of us would still be unknown here in an obscure valley in California, stomping grapes with our feet.”)

Napa Valley Vintners – Oil/canvas – 7 x 10 feet

The idea for a group portrait of pioneer vintners of the Napa Valley was not mine. The commission was arranged by Patty Thiebaud, my agent, with Newton Cope, who owned the St. George Restaurant in St. Helena. Newton had been interested in commissioning a group portrait of the vintners, many of whom were his friends and displaying it in the restaurant. Patty did all of the research as to who would be included in the painting. The obvious choices were Robert and Peter Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Brother Timothy, Louis Martini, Warren Winiarski, Mike Grgich and many others, but the list kept growing. Unlike most commissions, there were only two strings attached: the first was, Newton wanted to be painted front and center with Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit Biever and with Herb Caen, author and columnist  for the San Francisco Chronicle. The second was, I had to paint Robert’s brother Peter anywhere but near Robert.

The scene of the gathering is the courtyard of the St. George. Although it might appear that all of the participants showed up at the same time, took their places and smiled for the camera, the reality was that I had to invent the composition and construct it one or two figures at a time. (I even had to drive to San Francisco to photograph Herb Caen in his office at the Chronicle building.) The biggest difficulty with the composition was that the courtyard was really spacious, so in order to avoid a lot of empty spaces, I added more figures– the hostess, guests arriving, waitstaff, the guy in the bottom right corner reaching for his wallet, etc. The result is a busy composition, but Newton and Patty loved it, and so did the vintners.

Because of some mix-up, I was not invited to the official unveiling of the painting at the St. George. Newton, ever  gracious, phoned the next day to personally apologize for the ovesight. He needn’t have; I knew it wasn’t his fault, but he called anyway, because he was a gentleman.

After the  St. George was sold, and Newton’s death, and then Patty’s, the painting became a fixture of  Merryvale Vineyard’s tasting room. Then I lost track of it until one day a couple of years ago when I got an unexpected phone call from the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville. Was I the artist who had painted The Vintners?  a woman wanted to know. The museum had obtained the painting on loan from Warren Winiarski, owner of Stag Leaps’s Cellars and would soon celebrate the opening of a new wing in which the painting would be prominently exhibited. Would I be kind enough to attend the ceremonies and give a short talk about the work?

I was grateful for the invitation to finally see The Vintners again, to talk about the adventure of creating it, and to meet Warren Winiarski once again. (In the photograph at the top of the page, he’s the tall man in short sleeves standing at the base of the painting.) Speaking with him after so many years reminded me of how much I had enjoyed painting him and his colleagues– they were the friendliest group of people I have ever painted. But my fondest memory of the commission was the single phone call I got from one of the most gracious men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

2 thoughts to “The Vintners: Napa Valley”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, my friend. What a marvelous painting bi will visit itvwhen I’m in Yountvilke next. Thank you for sharing your art with us through this wonderful blog. Hope you are well, John-Michael. 🙂

  2. Absolutely stunning! Michael, I knew you were an amazing artist I just did not know how amazing. I think “The Vintners” is a terrific piece. Maureen and I must go see it in person. Wow, just wow!

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