Mark’s winemaking career took a long and somewhat circuitous path. He began making beer at home with the help of his oldest brother and father at the age of twelve, and it became a hobby ever since. His mother was half Belgian, so the family always had beer or wine on the table, and his early affinity for the companionship of food and wine has significantly impacted his winemaking philosophy.
After studying chemistry and biology at UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz, Mark took some time out from his academic studies to work in construction. At the age of 25, he went back to school at UC Davis to study enology and viticulture, working seasonally during harvest for a number of years thereafter. In 1990, inspired by the “live off the land” suggestion of some Europeans he met while at Davis, he and his family moved to their present ranch in Carmel Valley to start an artisan goat and sheep cheese dairy. After discovering that running a dairy and cheesemaking operation was like having harvest all year, if not every day, he decided to return to winemaking.
Mark took a crush job at Bernardus Winery under Don Blackburn in the fall of 1994, and ended up staying until the spring of 2005. First working in the cellar, then as Enologist, he eventually became Winemaker in January of 1999. He basically held every production job available at this 50,000 case winery. Mark notes that this was truly his real winemaking education: it taught him not only about winemaking, but also about the extreme importance and impact of farming. He candidly observes that wine is very easy to botch up in the winery, but it can never be better than the raw materials. Respect for this concept became the guiding force in his approach to the production of fine wine.
Among the lessons Mark learned from his mentor, Don Blackburn, was that taking an intuitive approach, rather than a strictly by the numbers one, can be beneficial in winemaking. Mark admits that partly this was because numbers were not Don’s strong suit, but mostly, he realized that the experience of wine was by nature very hard to quantify. Don firmly believed in the French concept of balance being the most important quality of a wine. He was incredibly eccentric: he loved history and football and was always trying to create analogies between them and the winemaking situations that he was facing. Plus, he also loved describing wines by comparing them to classic Hollywood actors.
Mark also recalls Don’s deep interest in synesthesia, which is the perception of things through a different sense — such as hearing a color. This led to many tastings to investigate the influence of music on the perception of aromas and flavors in wine. Don believed that the music played in the winery had a direct and real effect on the wine itself. Mark admits music certainly has an effect, but he primarily believes it to be on the people working there, not directly on the wine.
Says Mark, “I have barely scratched the surface on this complex person who I consider both my mentor and my dear friend.”
To this day, Mark follows Don’s example in many ways, coaxing out the best he can from each lot of grapes and hoping he can meet some Hollywood actor – or actress – among them.