The big ideas man
- Thursday 1 May 2003
A respected composer and pioneering champion of the screwcap, Gordon Getty is rich in spirit, not just in dollars. JANICE FUHRMANN meets the owner of PlumpJack winery
When you first meet Gordon Getty, the billionaire oil heir, he seems a low-key, slightly absent-minded professor. But there is a twinkle in his eye and merriment in his voice when talking about the things he really loves – wine, music, finance, and evolutionary biology.
I had glimpsed Getty, 68, in a few wine settings over the past several years: as the only person not wearing black tie at his own black-tie, charity wine auction in San Francisco, sipping Diet Coke from a logo wine glass of his own Napa Valley winery.
Modest about his involvement in his winery, PlumpJack, Getty reduces his role to 'screwy ideas' such as the metal screwcap closure that PlumpJack has been using on its most expensive wine since 1999, and to 'showing up when they tell me to show up', he says with an impish smile.
But John Conover, the winery's general manager, says: 'If not for Gordon's passion for wine, none of us would be here. It's really his spirit, his curiosity that is the foundation of the culture within our company, questioning why people do what they do – for instance, why people use corks when there are problems.'
Getty's lifelong friend, Bill Newsom, a retired California judge, says: 'Gordon's not a religious man, but he believes there was a reason our Lord changed water into wine and not Pepsi Cola. He believes it's the greatest of beverages and one that improves mankind and lifts spirits.'
Getty, ranked 192nd on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in 2003, worth $2.1 billion, entered the wine business as a vintner in 1995 when he, one of his four sons, Billy, and family friend Gavin Newsom (Bill Newsom's son) leased 20 hectares and winery buildings in the Oakville appellation of Napa Valley – prime Cabernet Sauvignon country.
They called the new winery PlumpJack, after the opera by the same name which Getty composed in the 1980s. 'Plump Jack' is a nickname for Sir John Falstaff, a bloated rogue in Shakespeare's Henry IV who lived a life of hard drinking and petty crimes.
Getty one day came up with what he is fond of calling a 'typical Gordon screwy idea'. He and his two partners were talking about the damage caused by natural corks and the fact that metal screwcaps were being looked at as alternatives, but everyone was afraid to be the first to use it.
'I said instantly, “I'm not!” And the plan was hatched in about a minute,' says Getty. 'I said we were only going to put the metal screwcap on half our wine and only on our most expensive wine, the Reserve Cabernet. This was to say to the world that this is the better way to go. We've recently been talking about expanding the test to some of our other wines, too.'
Since 1999, PlumpJack has been putting screwcaps on its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. For the 1999 vintage, the winery bottled 700 cases with screwcap and sold them in a two-pack, with the corked version priced at $145 and the screwcapped version at $155. Getty says this is 'a gesture that emphasises the screwcap is about quality, and not cost-cutting. It cost us more to do the screwcap bottle.' It took 18 months to design the bottle and its closure.
To further bolster Getty's experiment, the screwcapped bottles have been offered only in two-bottle packs, one with the cap and the other with a cork so consumers could join in on the experiment to compare the two closures.
Getty says the 50–50 bottling is a long-term experiment to see what advantages screwcap has over the cork and whether the wine will fully mature under screwcap. Even restaurants are required to purchase the wine in a half-case, three bottles with screwcaps and three with corks.
All this has caused much talk in the American wine world about closures. Randall Grahm, one of California's maverick winemakers, bottled 80,000 cases of his Bonny Doon wine with a Stelvin closure last summer. It was the single biggest screwcap bottling from California. And Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards released its first screwcapped bottling of a 1999 Founders Reserve Chardonnay at $65 a bottle.
Even supporters within the wine industry wonder if American consumers will be able to overcome the stigma of the screwcap, but Getty is sanguine about the prospects. 'To conduct a bold experiment on Wall Street, for instance, would be routine,' he says. 'But the wine industry is all about tradition. Still, we have heard no other reaction from people other than that this is an experiment that should be tried. The industry thinks it's high time to try it and we'll get credit for that.'
In the days when Getty first awakened to wine in his late 20s under the tutelage of his brain surgeon stepfather, he thought the best wines in the world were French. 'We Californians made some perfectly decent wines, but not in the league of the French. Now the shoe is on the other foot. We give France all the competition it can handle.'
Getty is honest enough to admit that his favourite wine is not his own. He is interested in expanding his wine holdings to produce a luxury négociant wine blended from others' grapes. 'The idea is a deluxe négociant wine, nothing el cheapo you understand. I gather that Leonetti [from Walla Walla in Washington] – which I consider the best wine in the world – is a négociant wine.'
One of five children of J Paul Getty, once listed in Forbes as the richest man in America, Gordon engineered the sale of Getty Oil to Texaco in the 1980s, when oil prices were at their peak, for $10.1 billion. 'When he gets into something, he's pretty tough. People have taken him too lightly, but he has made a tremendous amount of money for the Getty family,' says his friend Newsom.
The checked sports coat, open-collared shirt and shiny black shoes Getty wears are the casual dress of a businessman. But the soft grey curls are more befitting of someone in the arts. He attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and has been honoured as an 'Outstanding American Composer' at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. Getty recorded his PlumpJack opera last year at London's Abbey Road Studios with the London Philharmonia after a concert performance at St John's Smith Square and is working on its commercial release.
Many of Getty's musical compositions are based on classic literature, such as his Emily Dickinson song cycle, 'The White Election', and 'Victorian Scenes', choral settings of poems by Lord Alfred Tennyson and Alfred Housman.
His passion and spirit are embedded in what the winery and its related businesses, including a fine wine shop in San Francisco, are all about. 'What we all ought to do is have fun with what we're doing,' says Getty. 'If you don't give a darn about what you do you can't do it right. This isn't fun unless we're trying to make the best wine in the world. I'm not saying we make wine better than our famous competition out here. But we're trying.' Getty is a major investor in the winery. 'I never viewed the winery as a profit centre, but I always wanted it to run in the black as a morale booster. When you're in the red, you lose morale and when you lose morale, the product suffers.'
Janice Fuhrmann is a US freelance wine writer.