(see Karl Orend’s Henry Miller’s Angelic Clown for an explanation of Miller’s interest in clowns, which were featured in his Smile At the Foot of the Ladder.)
Sometime after the Israeli award in 1978, and before February 1979, Miller received a letter from a vinyard owner named Marty Lee. Lee was co-founder of Kenwood winery in 1970, along with his brother Mike, college roomate John Sheela and winemaker Bob Kozlowski (a brief history). In 1978, to commemorate their first reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (from 1975), they used artwork by California-based artist John Goines. The image of a naked woman lounging on a hilltop was rejected by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for being “obscene and indecent.” But the “notoriety and rarity of the original design (which was released in a limit of 80 cases) launched the Artist Series in a big way,” states their current website.
I wonder if the issue of censorhsip is what brought Henry Miller to the minds of the Kenwood team. Miller, who was living in Pacific Palisades, was not doing much writing or painting in 1979. His eyesight was failing him in one eye, and had left him blind in another. For this reason, when Marty Lee’s letter arrived to his attention, he had to decline their request for a commission of original artwork for their new Artist Series of wine .
On February 9, 1979, Lee wrote Miller again, to suggest an alternative. He asked for permission to use a lithograph of Miller’s “Clown,” which already existed and would be easier on Miller. In exchange for a copy of the lithograph, Lee would offer several cases of wine, plus five cases of the “Clown”-labelled wine once it was bottled—probably not until 1981 or 1982.
In reply, on February 14th, Miller tells Lee that the “proposition sounds OK”---but “God knows if I’ll be alive in ’81 or ’82.” Miller died on June 7, 1980, but the Kenwood winery continued working with Miller’s estate towards the inclusion of his artwork as part of the Artist Series. But it would take another decade before the project was begun.
The 1992 Kenwood Artist Series batch received some high praise (Snooth). Although Miller did not live to sample this particular wine, his opinion of Californian wines in general was not one of high endorsement. In the documentary Dinner With Henry, Miller says “I really don’t care much about California wines, they don’t taste much different, one from another.”
The Kenwood Artist Series continues, with their last edition (bottled in 2006) featuring artist Shepard Fairey, newly famous for his Barack Obama "HOPE" poster.