Frank Herbert as Wine Connoisseur
By Dr. Willis E. McNelly
Frank Herbert's many years as a feature reporter for San Francisco newspapers enabled him to learn much about the topics assigned him. What's more, his methods of investigation - thorough research, in-depth interviews, and extensive study and reading - often led him to hands-on activities in some of the areas that interested him most. He kept a series of file folders on those topics, fleshing them out, until he was finally able to produce the finished product - a series of entertaining, down-to-earth Sunday feature stories in his paper.
Over a period of years his deep investigations into his topics led him to become a virtual poly-math. In fact , so deeply did he immerse himself into his subjects, that he turned himself into a deep-sea diver, a lay Jungian analyst, an ecologist, an authority on wind power and desertification, to name only a few. In addition-and it might have been his greatest love -- a wine lover.
Of course "Dune" fans will recognize his background in both ecology and the science of " desert making" or "desert unmaking," but few know of either his devotion to the precepts of the great Swiss psychologist C. J. Jung or the allure of wine. (To be sure, the question of his Jungian interests deserve much further attention that I can give here, but those precepts should be obvious to any serious reader of Herbert's work who has even a sketchy knowledge of Jung. His first novel, "Dragon in the Sea" aka "Under Pressure" reveals that homage.)
His devotion to wine really began when he was preparing a series of articles about California wines. At that time California wine was both unfairly ignored and often ridiculed by haughty, snobbish continental wine "experts". In the course of his research, he interviewed at length the then head of wine studies at the justly famed University of California, Dr. Maynard Amarine. Amarine had achieved world fame not only in promoting California wines, but also in the improvement of the science of viticulture itself. Herbert told me that Amarine not only educated him about what went into the making of wine, but how to appreciate it including the differences between grape varieties, aging, gathering grapes, the importance of soils, climate (a topic which stood him in good stead in the creation of "Dune")- and most importantly - how to make his own. Amerine even told Frank where to go to buy his own cabernet grapes, how to crush, age, and bottle them, and so on. As a result, when I first interviewed Frank in 1967, he had a few remaining bottles of Vintage Herbert which resulted from his training under Amerine. He honored me by opening a bottle, and even to my uneducated palate, it was one of the finest cabernets it has even been my privilege to taste.
I had not known of his wine interests when I first visited him and his wife, Beverly in their then home north of San Francisco. As a good guest, I brought a bottle of wine with me - a moderately priced cabernet. He took it warmly, and immediately began discoursing about the relative merits of burgundy and claret - as if I knew the difference. Thus began a friendship which continued until his untimely death, a friendship cemented by, among other things, a little game we played: each time I visited him I'd try to bring a wine he did not know. I finally succeeded with a German wine, a Piesporter Goldtropfken Michelserg Spatlese(sp.?) which he had to look up in his wine bible. He laughed, and after it was chilled properly, we of course enjoyed it. Later that visit, he showed me his wine cellar. I do not remember exactly how many bottles of wine he had stored there, but it was something over 5,000, as I recall. The earthen-based but carefully constructed cellar itself maintained the optimum temperature for wine storage without the necessity for artificial cooling.
His regaled me with his favorite story about wine after first making sure that I knew the names of the great French Grand Crus which included chambertin, among the others. Three Frenchmen were discussing the great moments of their lives. One told of his induction into the Academie Francais; another mentioned his evenings at a great five star Michelin restaurant. The final man said something like this: "I do not remember the movie star I was with; I do not remember the great five star restaurant. I do not even remember what I ate there- but mon dieu-the wine was a chambertin!"