This might be the most interesting back story of any wine ever made: An ex-CIA spy (excuse me... "Case Agent") with a Classics/Latin background becomes a winemaker. This should be the basis for Harrison Ford's next movie but it's actually the real-life story of Richard Hart, founder of Ricardus Corculum. We recently caught up with Richard to chat about his wine venture.
What inspired the name Ricardus Corculum?
The name is the Latin version of my name – Richard Paul Hart – the “Ricardus” is Richard – the “Corculum” means “small heart” in Latin; Paul – there is no literal translation, but generally “paul” or something with that root means “small” and the heart, is of course, a play on words with my last name Hart. Why Latin? I was a Classics/Latin major in college before I came to my senses; the cryptic translation of my name is because after I came to my senses, I lost them again and joined the CIA – the clandestine one, not the one in St. Helena. I was a Case Officer (what TV and movies call an “agent” and what the newscasters call a “spy”) for 20 years and thought it would be fun to combine my love of Latin, my career, and my love of wine into the name. Also thought if the wine I made was terribly bad, it would keep me from public humiliation! I carried the theme into my wine names with the “Four A’s Cabernet” referring to a Roman coin minted under the Emperor Augustus. The Roman name for the coin was an “As” and they were commonly called "A's" and if a Roman spent four on wine, it was supposed to be very nice wine. It is alleged that a menu on the wall of a pub in Pompeii (from 79AD when Vesuvius erupted and buried the city) reads, “get a drink here for an “As”, a better drink for two A’s', and Falernian for four A’s'.” Falernian is considered one of the best wines ever made and the Falernian from 121BC is alleged to be the best wine ever produced. Thus, the four coins on the front of the bottle represent “four A’s.”
The Ricardus Corculum Cabernet Sauvignon was recently reviewed on IntoWineTV, watch now
How did your foray into winemaking come about?
A mentor whom I was meeting in Paris about 25 years ago said "Would you like some wine?" and I said "No, I tried it once and didn't like it..." My family were mostly teetotalers. So, upon hearing this, my mentor couldn't even get a word in - the French guy we were dining with goes ballistic ""What is this! You don't like wine! This is because you have never tasted real French wine!” So, he proceeded to order a 1961 Chateau Margaux and a 1962 Lafitte Rothschild. And of course, I was hooked. We also had a bottle of Petrus (I think also the 1961) with the appetizers and a bottle of Dom Perignon 1948 with dessert! The lunch lasted six hours - we started at noon and the sun was going down when we left... So, this inspired a fire in me to make wine – I was very much a French wine snob – and when I moved to California in 1997, I was just horrible about Cali wines – but then I tasted my first Zinfandel and was hooked again. It wasn’t until 2004 that I had the opportunity to make wine, when I realized there was such a thing as a “Custom Crush.” So, I bought my grapes, bottles, and went to work!
Describe your winemaking philosophy:
I would like to say it’s a “hands off” philosophy but I really just want to do whatever I can to the grapes to bring out the flavor and attempt to make a better wine – whatever technique that may involve. I have tried to make a Napa style Cabernet with some Bordeaux overtones. I love the structure, balance, and finesse in many Bordeaux wines – like Chateau Palmer - mostly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and it has those characteristics (I think). Having said that, I really love Napa Cabernets, particularly Lamborn family, Kapcsandy, Frazier, Colgin, etc. So, I guess I’m saying I want a fruit forward Cabernet that has Napa characteristics with Bordeaux finesse, balance, and structure that you can drink now or age. My Zinfandels, I really like in your face fruit and oak that will just knock your block off – not with alcohol – as that is moderate (at least for a Zin). I get a lot of arguments on both sides – some winemakers argue that too much oak destroys the grape; others that not enough alcohol and it’s not a Zin; or the more oak the better as the Zin can take it. But I’ve ignored that and tried to make a wine I like.
What are your long-term goals for the brand?
Really, to follow-up what I said above, I want to make the best wine I can that I will like – perhaps a bit egocentric, but I figure if I have 500 cases of wine that only I like, then at least I will have a good supply. I went into wine with a 20 year plan – which may seem overboard – but I simply wanted to make wine because I thought it would be interesting; but also wanted to make wine I would like; that my circle of friends would like; and eventually get to a nice production level, so, when I hope I am sitting in my rocker near a vineyard somewhere in Napa or Sonoma, and I’ve retired, I will be drinking wine I like, that is selling enough to give me a bit of retirement income and give me something to do besides sitting in the rocker!
Why the focus on Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon?
As I allude to above, I had never tasted a Zinfandel until 1997 when I first came to California – a friend took me to dinner in San Francisco and suggested a Zin – I was dubious, but loved it – I still remember it was a Ravenswood – it just knocked my block off. Zin then became my favorite grape – think that it was the “American” grape and so representative of California. As a caveat, before people write emails correcting me, I realize that Carole Meredith has traced the Zin back to the Crljenak Kastelanski grape in Croatia and now refers to it as the "ZPC" - Zinfandel / Primitivo / Crljenak Kaštelanski grape - but I believe there is no other grape that is so American and so Californian – it is the little grape that could – it started from humble beginnings, came to California, was maligned for years and is now practically a cult grape and I use all U.S. oak barrels with my Zins. With the Cabernet, as I mention above, it was a given with my love of Bordeaux wines. Cabernet is just a great grape to work with – and experiment with as regards different yeasts, barrels, etc. If my wine making expands, I would like to make a Sauvignon Blanc – sort of the “Red wine lovers white wine” and a Syrah. I think Syrah is a great grape and I like the big and bold California Syrahs that are being made now from all over California, but especially Santa Barbara.
When it comes to winemaking, what's one thing you know now that you wish you had known before you started?
Great question! I wish I hadn’t been so naïve – so many people helped me out – various winemakers were very patient with me – despite some major eye rolling from them – but Michael Zitzlaf and Kian Tavakoli from Crushpad have both been sooooo very patient; and Tom Leaf who is now going into new ventures and just left Crushpad – I think I caused each major pain in being so naïve and stubborn. And then at least 20 other winemakers who gave me some very good advice. And, I knew a lot about wine as in “book learning,” just was not conversant with all the ins and outs – still am not but it has been a great learning process. One thing that has amazed me is the number of people who go into “wine” with the intent of becoming a “wine superstar.” And I was terribly naïve on this count as well – I just wanted to make wine because I really liked wine, the subject, the history – but I have met so many people who have become very disappointed because they weren’t an overnight success. So, wine is not something you want to do if you have a low threshold for pain!
A hot topic in wine circles is the "Parkerization" of wines. Some people claim his 100 point scoring system has been an enabling factor for consumers as they navigate the endless array of brands from which they can choose. Others claim his influence has negatively impacted wine quality as producers are increasingly crafting their wines to earn a high score from Parker at the expense of making the best wine they can with the fruit and resources they have available. Given this, what are your thoughts on Parker and the 100 point scoring system?
Parker is an icon, and while I do not know Parker personally, I think he has become a lightning rod for criticism that he likely doesn’t deserve. Certainly, he does like a certain type of wine, and there are many winemakers now, particularly in Bordeaux, who make their wines for him in order to get a high score from him, but I think it is simply a matter of his personal taste. He likes the fairly high alcohol, big, bold wines. And certainly there has been the so-called “Parkerization” of wines but I believe it’s because wine is not a known or easy topic – it’s not like Coca Cola and Pepsi, or which pizza you’re going to order. Wine is complex and has been made over complicated. Paker was just the guy who came up with a way to categorize wine and make it easier to understand. With the proliferation of wine blogs and guys like Gary Vaynerchuk, the “Hardy Wallace” phenomenon with Murphy Goode, and blogs like 1WineDude, Steve Heimoff, etc., I think eventually wine will come off the “pedestal” it has been on for years. After all, it shouldn’t be there. It just takes education – in the United States wine has always been something that was snobbish and I think that is going away now.
And the 100 point scale – well, I think our society is made up of the 100 point scale – in school, you get from 0-100 on your papers; in college, you get the same; in the workplace, many people are evaluated on a 100 scale; so, until someone comes up with something better, I think we’re sort of stuck with it for good or ill – but it is something people identify with – after all – people are always ranking things on a scale – movies, beer, food. Though wine writing is extremely subjective based on the writer’s personal tastes, and I believe this is where all the controversy comes in. I always recommend that people find a wine writer you agree with, taste the selections they recommend, develop and appreciation for wine, and then drink what you like.
Lastly, where can your wines be purchased?
Right now, because I’m such small production, I do mainly direct to consumer on my website www.ricarduscorculum.com – in fact, my first two vintages are sold out and I wish I had more as I get requests every week. Once my production increases, I hope to have more availability at the very least in the Bay Area.