This all-female band doesn’t make music, but a beverage that’s as intoxicating as a great rock song.
By Jonah Raskin
Cyndi Lauper expressed the idea loudly and clearly in the dour days of the Reagan presidency when girls were supposed to say “No” to everything that First Lady Nancy disdained as unladylike. “Girls just want to have fun,” Lauper sang in her 1983 hit single, a hymn to American girlhood. Fast forward to 2018. Some of the Lauper girls, who are now women, still want to have fun, which, in Sonoma Valley, means drinking wine and making it, too.
Four Sonoma women, who are the best of friends and who double as business partners, make a Rosé and a Pinot Noir under the Fillmore West Vineyards label. The wines are sold at Broadway Market in Sonoma, and elsewhere in the Valley and online at websiteshop.fillmorewestvineyards.com.
Think of them as an all-female band that doesn’t make music but rather makes a beverage that’s as intoxicating as rock ‘n’ roll.
Sometimes the four women, all of them boomers, call themselves “the Flatlanders” since they live on the Valley floor and not in the hills. Julie Cavallero, Monica Kortz, Susan McKenzie and Debbie Weeks have known one another ever since they attended Capuchino High School in San Bruno, and, after all these years, they boast deep connections to one another. Now, as women in an industry dominated by men they’re making viticultural history in the Valley.
For all of them, fun is akin to play and an antidote to what the Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga and others, have decried as the regimentation of modern society. Contemporary therapists suggest that fun makes for healthy, happy human beings. The Flatlanders agree.
Julie Cavallero is the primary winemaker in the group. Susan McKenzie is her able assistant. McKenzie also has the most highly developed palette. Sometimes she’s called “The Mouth.” Debbie Weeks designs the labels for Fillmore West Vineyards, which are in the style of 1960s psychedelic posters; she also does the marketing, the branding and the sales for the company, which has linked itself to the counterculture of San Francisco, once the world capital of fun.
Monica Kortz provided much of the initial inspiration for Fillmore West Vineyards. She might be the most fun loving person in the group, and while she’s not eager to hog that designation she told me “We’re a bunch of girls who want to have fun.” That was on an autumn day when it was too hot to work, though not too hot for the Flatlanders to enjoy wine, cheese and crackers at Kortz’s sprawling suburban home.
When a male visitor asked, “Are you party animals?” one of the women replied, “Yes, but not like Brett Kavanaugh.” The four friends usually allow one another to speak without interruption, but occasionally they talk at the same time, which adds to the merriment.
After music impresario Bill Graham retired from his perch atop the Fillmore West—he launched hundreds of concerts before thousands of rock fans—Kortz’s father, Bert, and his wife, Regina, bought the run down theater, renovated it and made it a success. Her father died in 2008. As a fun loving girl, Kortz heard rock ‘n’ roll giant Jerry Lee Lewis and other legends in the music industry. These days, headliners at the Fillmore, which is still owned by the Kortz family, include the B-52s, Ani DiFranco and the Goo Goo Dolls. There’s a bar and a restaurant where wines from Fillmore West Vineyards are popular. The Kortz family has a box that’s often packed.
In September, the “Flatlanders”—with lots of help from Nunez Vineyard Management—harvested 4.3 tons of grapes on a densely planted acre off Napa Road, less than a 10-minute car ride from the Plaza. It was their third harvest. The first two years the four partners sold their grapes. This year they kept it.
Winemaker Julie Cavallero grew up in an Italian family. Her father made his own wine in the basement of their house; early on, she developed an appreciation for good reds. For 30 years, Cavallero worked in health care. Part of that time was marked by the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, stress built up. To decompress, she took wine making classes at UC Davis, earned a degree in viticulture, met winemakers and worked as an intern at Stag’s Leap and at Etude, both of them in Napa.
“At Fillmore West Vineyards, our philosophy, if you can call it that, is not to intervene a lot, but rather to let the wines evolve on their own,” Cavallero said. “Our goal is to have fun. Maybe we’ll break even one day.” On the subject of wine tasting she said, “Sadly, people are often intimidated. The thing to remember is that it’s a beverage to enjoy.“
Susan McKenzie added, “We have a very expensive hobby.”
As the saying goes, “The way to make a small fortune in the wine industry is to start with a big one.” The Flatlanders only grow Pinot Noir grapes, from clone number 828, which gives their wines a distinct aroma and flavor.
“When we started growing grapes and making wine, pinot was already big,” McKenzie explained. “It has now maxed out; people are looking for alternatives.” She added that temperatures in the Valley are rising and that she and her partners are concerned that with climate change it might become too hot for pinot. They’ll deal with that issue if and when it arrives for real.
Meanwhile they’re having fun raising chickens, growing tomatoes and pumpkins, attending wine tasting events across northern California and playing mean pinball. The garage workshop houses eleven arcade pinball machines. Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon of The Who and “Tommy,” the rock opera, would be awed.
“I came to Sonoma as a kid and have happy memories from the 1960s,” Kortz said. “Now, as an adult, I love the outdoors more than ever before.” McKenzie said, “I’m in heaven here in Sonoma.” Cavallero added, “The neighbors are neighborly, but I’m a city girl and I’m adjusting to the change.” The Flatlanders prefer unpretentious Sonoma to snooty Napa.
On the wall of her living room, Kortz has some of the original posters for the Fillmore that take her back to the heyday of Bay Area rock ‘n’ roll when Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane made music that helped to liberate a generation and that still evokes a decade of protest, rebirth, fun and, alas, some sorrow, too.
Jonah Raskin is the author of “Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.”