What does it take to be great? Not a whole lot, it seems like sometimes. Greatness appears to be all around us these days, as athletes, actors, even boxes of Frosted Flakes cereal are regularly accorded this approbation. And it's not much different in the world of wine. There are winemakers who have practiced their profession for only a vintage or two whom the critics have already proclaimed great. Maybe I'm churlish or less easily charmed, but to me greatness takes time to acquire, and it takes sacrifice--of a personal life, of financial stability and, in a couple of notable cases, perhaps even of one's sanity.
All four of the producers profiled below were, by anyone's measure, great. All of them possessed an abundance of talent, but what really distinguished them was their single-minded vision, their way of seeing things that others could not. If such single-mindedness made them a little eccentric, it also made them incomparably innovative, and their influence continues to be felt by winemakers today.
Like many California winemakers, Martin Ray started life as something else. As a stockbroker in San Francisco, he fell in love with wine and was lucky enough to meet up with the legendary Paul Masson. In 1936 he persuaded Masson to sell him his sparkling-wine business. But it didn't last long. The winery burned down five years later.