Tell It Like It Was - A Man In Full (Lucian Dressel Part Three)
Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date October 13, 2021
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You know that author who always wore white suits…no, not Mark Twain, that other guy…Tom Wolfe. In 1998, his novel, A Man in Full, hit the bookshelves. When it arrived at the library, I read it. In the end I wasn’t sure which character was the Man in Full, but the title itself somehow seemed familiar and self-explanatory, and it continued to slosh around in my head. After interviewing Lucian on August 31, 2021, Wolfe’s title floated to the top of my thoughts like cream rising to the surface of raw milk. And if you think this cheesy metaphor is coming out of the bleu, you haven’t read my last installment, Wheylaid.
Now I know it might be a little pompous of me to bestow a title on anyone, but when it comes to writing, I often let my subconscious take over. After I see the inevitability of my course, I turn to internet dictionaries and other reference sources. Here’s what I found in Urban Dictionary: a man in full is “A dude at his best, a step above a renaissance man.” Okay. I think the renaissance thing works. Lucian is versed in business, accounting, dairy, agriculture, the chemistry of winemaking, computer programming, piano playing, music composition, and probably other things I don’t know about.
A site called Definitions offered this meaning for “full man” from its Dictionary of Nautical Terms: a rating in coasters for one receiving whole pay, as being competent to all his duties, an able seaman. And from Oxford’s Lexico we have: A man whose mind is richly stored with knowledge; origin: late 16th century. When I flipped back to the site, Definitions, I found a genuine renaissance man, Francis Bacon, who said, “Reading maketh a full man.”
Alright then, getting back to the interview, Lucian is describing what Augusta was like when he moved here in the 60s.
Lucian: It was a totally different town in those days. It was an actual town. You had farm families. Everybody around us had a tractor and was farming. They had two garages, and the Kemners…they became real close friends. Carolyn took me under her wing more than anybody else, probably. There was another garage in town too. There were two grocery stores…two taverns…and a blacksmith shop…probably the only small town in the country where you could get your car fixed and get a new pair of shoes for your mule on the same day, in the same town. That blacksmith shop was neat…the old guys in town would gather around there at 4 o’clock…they had a bucket…and they’d go down to the tavern and get a bucket of beer…and they’d all sit around drinking out of that bucket. It was like being in the 19th century…it was like Brigadoon…suddenly you find this little village with these people…they were great…they really helped me. I couldn’t have made it without the help of those people. I didn’t know anything about tractors and farming…I got a lot of help from everybody there.
P: How about town politics? Did you consequently have to get involved in some of that?
L: Yeah…I did do that…I made a mistake early on when I got there. There was some stuff going on in town that was kinda weird, so I thought if the town had planning and zoning, they would be much better off. I arranged to have a meeting at the Legion Hall, and I had a guy come in and talk about P&Z. Well, I think everybody in town came, but most of the people were not happy with the whole thing. They felt like if you own it, you zone it. I was on the town board at the time, but after I had that meeting, in the next election, I got tossed off. We had an election every year in those days, and I lost. It was about 5 years before I could get back on. In fact, the year I crept back on, I tied with a lady…a shop owner in town. So, there was a run-off election. I told the woman we should just flip a coin and save the town the extra expense, but she said no. So, I won and got back on the town board.
L: But I also got on the St. Charles County Library Board, and I liked that. St. Charles County had a lot of money, but at the time we had just a bookmobile in Augusta. So, I suggested we get rid of the bookmobile and get a library. And so, we did a little log rolling…and another guy there worked a deal out where hey, we’ll put a little library in West Alton, on one end of the county, and we’ll put the other one in Augusta. All the town has to do is come up with a building, then the county library will put a library in it.
P: How about other vintners? What was your relationship with…I guess the next vintner to come along was Clayton Byers?
L: Clayton was an idealist, and he came out there because he just wanted to make wine…I guess I was an idealist too. My philosophy when I came out there…we wanted to…I thought Augusta could be, and it should be one of the best places in the country to make quality wine…and could be equally famous as Napa Valley. I honestly believed that when I bought it. And so, the whole time I owned it…this I think is worth noting, we never once charged anybody for a sample of wine. And we gave free tours. We never had a single wedding. No one ever got married on the property when I was there. We didn’t have bands. We didn’t do dinners. We didn’t do all this stuff that is almost cookie cutter stuff now when you go to a winery. We didn’t stay open past 5:30. Everybody got to go home and be with their families. So, you might ask how did we make money? We made money selling wine! That was my whole philosophy. If we don’t do any of this other crap…and I consider most of that stuff to be crap, we are forced to make money selling wine…we had to make really good wine or people won’t buy it to take home.
Half the wine we sold…people would buy it by the case…because they liked the wine. That was our business plan and it worked very well. I was able to buy a house in Ladue which wasn’t cheap…send my kids to private school…we could take vacations down in Florida every year…we lived a good life and made good money just selling wine. We weren’t a wedding center or a roadhouse.
L: We did not sell to anybody on the terrace, more than one bottle of wine per couple. That was our rule, and the other wineries hated that. They said if people want two bottles of wine, that’s their freedom. But I said I don’t want to be responsible for people walking out of here drunk. I said when I look out at that lawn, I want it to look like a church picnic. I want to see kids out there with families. I want to see nice looking people with nice looking clothes. I don’t want to see a bunch of bums out there getting drunk. And we did keep that atmosphere.
The whole time I had the winery we never had anybody get killed on Highway 94. Not a single soul. I guess it was five years ago I was talking to Tony Kooyumjian, and he said for a while wineries were having one death a month.
P: Describe more of your interaction with other wineries.
L: We had a group of wineries that were like minded, and then we had another group who were very upset with the way we saw things. They wanted to bring in…well, the way wineries out here became. A lot of them were glad when I left.
P: You and Eva were divorced in 1993 and you sold the winery.
L: Yes, in order to get divorced we had to sell the winery. Eva and I could not agree on how to divide…it’s like Solomon and the baby. We had to default on our loans so the bank could take it and auction it off on the courthouse steps. It was the only fair way to do it.
P: It was an auction, but was it preordained that your brother Phil would buy it? How did that work?
L: Oh, no. It was open bidding. They auctioned off all the equipment, and then the winery. It was strictly open bidding; Phil just happened to have paid the most money for it.
P: And then he agreed to keep you on as the vintner, or manager?
L: Yeah, I stayed on for a year. But like I said, I had very definite ideas on how we could make money…without weddings and all that other crap. And it wasn’t my winery anymore, and if I didn’t like the new business plan…I should get my butt out of there, which I did. I left and went to California.
P: Did you know anyone in Davis, California when you moved there?
L: I knew Dr. Diane Sol, the marketing manager for Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley. And actually, when I left Missouri, I was pretty much broke. I just had a car and no way to make a living. I had a pair of shoes, an 8yo dog, a new suit and some underwear. Diane had been my friend in St. Louis, and she was out there before I was. She let me move in with her until I could start doing something out there. It wasn’t too long after I arrived, I had problems with my eyes starting to go blind. That really put a damper on my ability to make a living for a while. I had an operation and I got that cured, but I’m totally blind in one eye. Once I knew I wasn’t going totally blind, I could go look for work.
Some gentle readers might wonder why a winery man would want to make a pilgrimage to the University of California, Davis. I think this brief paragraph from Wikipedia might explain it better than anything I might write:
The Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, located in Davis, California, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in the areas of grape growing and wine making. Located just 45 minutes from Napa Wine Country the department has strong connections with wine producers in California and elsewhere. The department has produced many of the notable winemakers of the California wine industry.
In association with Dr Harold Olmo, a grape wiz at UC Davis, and with the National Germ Plasm Repository, Lucian bred and developed new grape vines by crossing Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel with the American red wine grape, Norton.
Now, I’m no expert on winemaking, but I’ll take a stab at explaining why a viticulturist would want to cross those grapes. You can assume that I will probably oversimplify the explanation, but in a nutshell, Europe, California, Chile, etc. make most of their wine from the vinifera species. For example, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel (Primitivo) are viniferas. But they don’t grow so easily in our climate. So, suppose you combine some of vinifera’s fine traits with the native Norton (Cynthiana) which has some fine traits of its own. Now you have an excellent grape that can thrive throughout the United States. This, I think, is what Lucian was up to in California.
As I read on in another Wiki story - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucian_W._Dressel I learned that in 2002, in California, Lucian was approached by investors who wanted him to start a winery in Illinois. I asked Lucian about this.
L: There was a guy who was from Carrollton, and he made a lot of money in California, and he wanted to come back to Illinois and put a winery in Carrollton, which is not an ideal place for a winery, but he needed somebody to do it. Somebody recommended Fred to him, and Fred recommended me to him. So, I came back here, and Joe and I worked for him 8 or 9 years. But again, it’s one of those things where my idea of how a business should be run was different from his. So, if I don’t like it, I should get out, which I did.
P: Was that the Mary Michelle Winery?
L: Yes. It was the second largest winery in Illinois when Joe and I left. We started it from scratch. We built the building and put in all the equipment, did all the marketing, came up with the names, came up with the labels… I think now it’s probably only the 20th largest in Illinois.
P: Are you connected to Illinois Cellars Winery?
L: That was the same thing. It’s a name I came up with. I hated the name Mary Michelle. It’s a weak name. Wineries need to have strong names. This was a delicate matter with the owner because Mary was his mother and Michelle was his wife. But we did talk him into going with Illinois Cellars. The winery is still called Mary Michelle, but we had two brands, MM and Illinois Cellars. We bottled under two labels.
P: You still live in Illinois, right?
L: Yes, in Carrollton. We sell grapes. We have a patent on our grapes so nobody else can sell them. We’ve got a commercial nursery that grows them for us. We do the sales work. We also do the delivery on it. We have growers (customers) in 32 states. We don’t sell less than 600 vines to anybody. These are all serious growers. The name of our company is Davis Viticultural Research or DVR.
Gentle readers, I’ve brought you up to date with Lucian’s wine and grape endeavors. In the final installment, I’ll tell you about Lucian’s other passion: music. We’ll also cover the Augusta appellation, the art of bottle labels, and whatever else remains in my one hour, twenty-minute conversation with him. It’s been about 6 weeks since we talked so I’ll be covering things I’ve already forgotten. But I also hope to converse with some of our neighbors who worked at Mt. Pleasant in the 60s through the early 90s…if they will talk to me. Oddly enough, some people would rather have a root canal procedure or a colonoscopy than submit to an interview. How curious.
P. S. All photos came to me through the generosity of Marla Kemner Lamping. Two photos are of a 1975 Post-Dispatch feature story. We also have a 1983 photo of Carolyn posing with Washingtonian, Mike Stahl and French citizen, Bertrand Ch-----, whose parents owned a winery in France. (Marla told me the young Frenchman was here to learn from Mt. Pleasant methods.) An additional 1983 photo depicts a farewell party for Bertrand. In this pic you can see Lucian and Eva sitting on the left. In another photo some of you will recognize Bob and Carolyn Kemner picking grapes in 1984.
P.P.S. Last week a friendly teller at First State Community Bank in Dutzow told me that one of my past interviewees had died. Edith Knoernschild Morgan passed away September 12, 2021. When I wrote the story about Matson and the MKT railroad, I borrowed from her 1941 history of Matson. I soon learned she was related to Glenda Drier, Leroy Nadler and Dave Nadler. Thus, I asked Glenda to arrange a phone interview and a very pleasant conversation came to pass. Thank you, Edith, for allowing me the honor of recording a sliver of your history.
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