Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date October 31, 2021
(Turn on your sound and press the play button to the right for the full experience!)
Hello gentle readers. If today’s work was a musical composition, then this would be my overture, or intro.
Let me ask you a question. Did you ever want to tell a story, but you knew you must proceed with caution? Before I get back to my August 31, 2021 interview with Lucian Dressel, let me tell you about my first one-on-one encounter with Lucian.
As I told you, I went to work for Clayton Byers in 1976, but financial resources were so stretched so thinly at the budding Montelle Winery, that I essentially went without pay other than room and board and the intellectual stimulation of living with Clayton and Nissel. And I am not making jest about the Byers. Their home was like a magnet for interesting and creative people from around the world. But like everybody, I needed cash in the bank, and I knew I had to look for different employment. Hence, I put out feelers for construction work. And yet… I loved the winery atmosphere. I loved the smell of crushed fruit and fermentation. I loved tending the vines and driving a tractor. I even enjoyed schmoozing with customers.
So, I girded my loins, gathered my courage, and made a call on the already semi-famous Lucian Dressel to ask for a job. I found him outdoors on a hot humid day. I don’t recall exactly what he was doing, but it was a highly physical task, and he was sweating profusely. I stated the purpose of my visit, probably too bluntly, and in an equally blunt manner, he said no, but more memorably he said, “I don’t know why everybody wants to work at a winery. It’s nothing but ball bustin’ work!” End of unscheduled job interview.
His abruptness stunned me, but as the weeks rolled by, I grew to appreciate the humor and humanity of the situation. Clearly, Lucian wasn’t one to waste his or my time. But just a few years later he instead hired me to give guitar lessons to his son, Fred. End of story. There is no moral here, nor an axe to grind. It’s just what bubbled up as I started this final episode.
As I recall, gentle readers, we left off with Lucian describing his grape cultivation business in Illinois. But as in all conversations, Lucian and I traveled back and forth, chronologically speaking. So, as we enter the main body of this composition, I pick up with Lucian talking again about the 1970s and 80s.
Lucian: The people who later on got into the business…you got Clayton Byers…again genuinely interested and a nice person…after that you had people, not so much interested in wine but…in fact, most of the people just honestly admitted they wanted to put up a business and put it in right before you got to Mt. Pleasant to cut off Mt. Pleasant’s business. Buzz Peak and those people who put Montelle up on the hill there…that was actually written into their business plan…to drain off MP’s business. So, that was the kind of thing we had to put up with. Tony Kooyumjian…he actually put a winery on the corner down there. The only reason that winery is there is to take business away from MP. Well, now that it’s all owned by one person, it doesn’t matter.
Did anyone just catch the scent of an elephant in the room? I even wondered what Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones would say now, but it can wait.
A conversation about Augusta winemaking since 1966 would have to include the designation of Augusta as the first official wine region (appellation) in the United States. On June 20, 1980, it was here, not in Sonoma or Napa Valley, that the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established. And why here? Well, besides the fact that we already had a lengthy history of German winemaking, there’s another good reason. Lucian Dressel and Clayton Byers had the foresight and determination to be the first to ask for it. No doubt there were people in Napa wondering, “why didn’t we think of that?” As always, I’m sure I’m oversimplifying the topic, but if you don’t already understand viticultural regions, you don’t drink much wine. But let’s see what Lucian had to say about it.
L: It’s not enough just to have an appellation; that doesn’t mean anything. That just means I was the first person to stand in line. I said we need to have an Augusta Wine Board. We’d be the first wine board in the US. We’ll have five people, and we will not put our official seal on a bottle of wine unless that wine is tasted by these people, and they say this is really good wine. That’s how people will have a guarantee of quality. I guess our board operated for 5 or 6 years, or as long as I was there.
We needed a symbol, like what you see on a Chianti bottle. You know, like the rooster on Chianti Classico.
And I thought the best symbol would be the owl. When Augusta had a high school, they were the Owls. It’s the old symbol of Athens, Greece; it’s wise and smart. So, there was an artist in STL named Bonnie Rassmussen, and I asked her to create a design of an owl. She did, and Tony has it on his Augusta Winery wine. She actually did a carving out of wood. It was about three feet in diameter. It was supposed to be shared by Montelle and Mt. Pleasant but we never got it.
The Augusta Wine Board functioned well, and we had those seals made to go on bottles of wine. And I guess after I left, they may have met one more time, and I guess that was their last meeting and it dissolved. Like a lot of stuff…you have to have somebody…that’s the sparkplug, the ramrod. Somebody has got to do the work, and if nobody wants to do the work, these things dissolve. Which is a shame because Augusta did have America’s first wine board.
P: Can we back up? Was that Bonnie with a y or ie?
L: Ie, and the last name was R-a-s-s-m-u-s-s-e-n. Clayton found her, and as soon as I heard out about her, I had her design labels for us. Then when I found Dee Dann, we got our poster and the color scheme on the buildings. And apparently, they (Hoffman) have gone back to our color scheme. Thank goodness…rather than go with that yellow and purple. Anyway, I wanted to have a label that looked like Grandma Moses. It was reeeeally hard to find anyone who did primitive art, but I found Dee. She was from New Haven. And she did a beautiful job on our poster and our labels.
P: I believe everybody really appreciated that era…the art that you used.
L: Yes, our labels looked like the currency from a third world country…you know how some third world countries just have beautiful currency? Yeah, they were really pretty. They were actually printed with 24 carat gold borders on them. I think they had to go through the press about 6 times to get all those colors on there. I just didn’t want people to look at this wine and say ewww! I mean you can tell a bottle of wine from the eastern US from 50 feet away in the store, and you say OMG, because all their labels have a certain commonality to them. I wanted it to look like it wasn’t from quote-unquote Missouri or what you might expect locally. We’re better than that.
Curious, gentle readers, we now enter the bridge section of this composition, which will deliver some interludes from former Augustans who worked for Lucian. Luckily, Ruth Flynn was willing to share some memories via telephone.
Ruth: I enjoyed working for Lucian. I felt he was always a step ahead with progress. And he had foresight.
Paul: You also worked with Jan Leavitt in the office. Was that from the beginning?
R: No, I actually started picking grapes, and then I worked in the sales room selling on weekends. My kids were little then, but when they got into school…everything just fell into place for me…I started working in the office, which was more with the marketing part of it.
P: What year did you begin with MP?
R: Probably 1975 or 76, picking grapes. In the sales room, I’m guessing 78.
I also spoke with Paula Klaas who worked several years for Lucian during the time before the divorce of Eva and Lucian. She also worked during and after the transitional period when Chuck Dressel took over the reins.
Paula: In your last story, that’s exactly how I remember Lucian. He wanted to stay quaint…he didn’t want the winery to get…what he called crazy. He was sometimes quiet and subdued, and other times he could have a temper, but he took great pride in his wine and his vineyards…and I think he genuinely cared about his employees. He did like the notoriety of the winery…if someone wanted a story, he wanted to be the one to tell it…which I can understand that.
Paula: When I started it was a good place to work…it didn’t take long to feel like part of the working family there. After that it got a little more complicated once the divorce was getting kind of heavy, and…the winery changed hands. But I learned a lot, and Lucian was always willing to give you information and teach you. I think he also taught all of us to take pride in what we did. He would gather all the employees about once a month and we’d have a blind tasting, which was always fun.
Paul to Lucian again: When I first asked for an interview, we had to delay a month while you rescored a musical composition for an orchestra. I don’t think anyone has offered me that delaying tactic before. I mean I was impressed. Then when we reconnected, you advised me to check out this link first: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucian_W._Dressel
Hence, on YouTube I found your cantata, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which uses the text from the 1923 poem by the same name. Which recording do you prefer?
L: The last one from Alton is my favorite, because I think they got more of the idea, which is to get the soloists out separated from the chorus. You look at the Alton performance, the soloists aren’t holding scores in front of themselves, and they are relating to one another, and more importantly, they’re relating to the audience. You’ve got to talk to the audience…and tell the story. I mean everybody knows the plot to an opera, just like everyone knows the plot to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. But you’ve got to present something they’ve never heard before.
L: We’ve got a performance coming up in Knoxville, December 11 and 12th this year, and this is the first time it’s going to be done by a professional conductor. I think he’s going to do a really good job on it.
P: And that’s why you were revising the score.
L: Yeah, he’s got a wind symphony without any strings. He needed it rescored for winds, which was a lot of fun. It came out sounding almost better than the one with strings. With strings you tend to get almost too reliant, a composer does…oh, the strings will take care of everything. With the winds, however…you don’t want it to sound like a military band. It has to be symphonic. And with voices…that’s always a problem…you don’t want to put a lot of brass in there, because the brass will drown out all the voices. You’ve got to leave a lot of woodwinds in there, with judicious use of…certainly the heavy brass…except for the really BIG parts. Especially the ending: bang, crash, boom.
P: You also wrote music for Dr. Diane Sol’s new translation of the Greek play, Antigone. Does she speak…?
L: Yes, she speaks a number of languages, but ancient Greek is something she handles too. She wanted me to write the music for it, but when we started in on it, she really told me what she wanted. I collaborated, but she thought up, let’s say…eighty percent of the music; I did maybe twenty. I wrote and scored it for her. That was my contribution there.
P: Changing topic, is there anything you want to say about the coming of Hoffmann?
L: I don’t know anything about him. It’s an interesting project that he has, but it’s really beyond my paygrade…when you start talking that kind of money…buying stuff…the Dutzow nursery…Emmaus Home. I always wished, when I first moved out to Augusta that I had had some money. The first vineyard I had was 17 acres. When the fellow said I’m gonna sell the ground, and he wanted $200 an acre. I said I didn’t have the money, so I couldn’t buy that. I didn’t have $3400.
L: Yeah, when you’re talking that kind of money…a golf course and a hotel…a huge project…way beyond my abilities or anything I would do. I’m just strictly a winery kind…I just wanted to put in one of the best wineries in the country and make some of the best wine. And that’s still possible if people buy the grapes that we’ve got. In California I bred grapes that can make that kind of wine. In Augusta we never had grapes that were comparable like the Cabernet or Pinot or Chardonnay. We did the best we could with the varieties we had.
Okay, friends, here’s my finale, or outro.
P: I’m not going to get all gushy on you, Lucian, but I must admit you’ve had quite an interesting life thus far…and you’re certainly not afraid of anything.
L: I’m the luckiest man that ever lived, I really am. I’m crippled and I’m blind in one eye. I can hardly get around, my hands are a mess, but really there’s nobody luckier than I am. I honestly feel that way. I’m still able to do stuff and get around. And thank you. I enjoyed talking with you.
My digital readers, I’m about finished. But please check out a few attachments. I have included my own arrangement of the theme from Game of Thrones. (This is one take, one electric guitar and a whole bunch of pedals.) Since I first came to Augusta I’ve witnessed some power struggles, and now we have a new era with the coming of David Hoffmann. The song just seems appropriate, and I think Cersei Lannister would chime in: “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die.”
Please use your earphones, gentle listeners, and turn it up loud! [This audio is at the top of this post]
Julie Krakowski at Augusta Winery sent me the photo of the wood carving which depicts the Augusta Owl Seal. Vic Brown sent me a photo of a Dee Dann painting that he commissioned years ago. And finally, there’s a photo of the old tasting room at MPW. If you enlarge it, you might just recognize the artwork of Dee Dann on a wall.
Recently, a gentle reader sent me a pdf of Augusta’s petition to be the first federally approved American Viticultural Area. I found it totally interesting, but it didn’t occur to me to share it with you, until a day later when I came across it on Wikipedia. The pdf also contains photos of Dressel/Byers labels from the 1970s and newspaper clippings concerning Montelle and Mt. Pleasant.
And one more thing: I am including a photo of an article in the Augusta Neighborhood News, Volume1. Issue 1. It was dated July 1992 - back when my neighbor, Kaye Coates, was the editor. The photo, taken by Glen Frank, was part of a remembrance of Clayton, written by Glen. The Gibson guitar in the photo belongs to Pat Frank. Clayton died July 6, 1986 at the age of 61.
Stay healthy, happy and curious, and remember these words from 1 Timothy 5:23- King James Bible - Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.
Works for me,
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