Articles: Real Stories About Living the Dream
Following passions from the Dead to big redsSan Francisco Chronicle
By W. Blake Gray
Thursday, November 10, 2005
"I don't regret failing out of USC," says Jelly Roll Wines owner Jim Knight. "I learned on the road with the Grateful Dead. It made me who I am today."
Knight, 32, says he caught about 60 Dead shows a year once he entered University of Southern California and began paying tuition for classes he rarely attended.
"I spent a lot of time in San Francisco when (Grateful Dead guitarist) Jerry (Garcia) was alive," Knight says.
When Garcia died in 1995, Knight needed a job. He already knew he loved wine because his family owns the Wine House, a retail store in Los Angeles. So he worked for three years at Lafond Winery & Vineyards, between Lompoc and Buellton, before joining the family business as a wine buyer.
"I taste 25 to 50 wines a day from all over the world," Knight says. "You make wine by taste. To develop your palate, you need to taste a boatload of wine. That's what separates great winemakers from good winemakers -- their palates."
In 2001, he decided to make 35 cases of Syrah at Tensley winery.
"Syrah is the greatest grape in the world," he says.
He chose the name Jelly Roll Wines as a tribute to jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton.
Since he joined the Holus Bolus cooperative, he's ramped annual production all the way up to 125 cases -- less than what E. & J. Gallo Winery produces per minute. (At 75 million cases per year, Modesto-based Gallo averages 143 cases per minute.)
All Jelly Roll Syrah is sold in California, mostly to well-regarded restaurants including the French Laundry, Michael Mina, A16 and Piperade.
"This is it, this is my year's wine," he says, leaning on one of two 5-by-5-foot vats of fermenting grapes. "I'm not the most experienced winemaker, so I need to get the best fruit possible and let it speak for itself. I'm paying top dollar for fruit."
Knight is proud of his lack of formal winemaking education.
"I don't have a UC Davis degree," he says. "I don't have a science background. I learned how to make wine from my friends."
He does, however, have a degree now, having earned a bachelor's degree in business from Loyola Marymount University two years ago. That helps make him the most eligible bachelor in the Holus Bolus collective. (Peter Hunken is also single but, unlike Knight, has a girlfriend.)
"I've had a couple girlfriends, and they lasted through one harvest and then said, 'OK, I'm not getting the attention I need,' " he says. "They thought three days of harvest was very romantic, and then when they saw the amount of work, that was about it. Right after the harvest season, I get slammed with two months of Christmas retail season. No girlfriend lasts through that."
At least he has his friends, and his wine, but is that enough?
"Make sure you tell everyone that I'm available," he says.
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