Friday, April 10, 2009

Vintage Miller

In 1996, the Kenwood winery of Kenwood, California, released a Cabernet Sauvignon with a watercolour painting by Henry Miller on the bottle’s label. The painting, “Clown” was part of the vineyards’ Artist Series that began in 1978. Miller had approved the use of his artwork shortly before he died in 1980.
In 1973, Miller painted two pictures of clowns, apparently referred to as “Clown A” and “Clown B” [1]. One clown is described by Miller as having the “head up and turned backward.” The other is described as the “most famous one,” which he had in his personal possession in 1979 [2]. In a letter dated 2/14/79, Miller is not sure which is A or B—neither am I. But the “famous” clown—now seemingly referred to as “Le Clown”(1, 2)—seems most certainly the one featured on the bottle of Kenwood wine. This image is widely available today as a lithographic print. In 1978, Miller had won first prize for this painting at the Tel Aviv International Art Fair [3].

(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 [4].

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.

In October 1992, after a long, cool growing season, Kenwood gathered grapes from the Lindholm and Montecillo vineyards on the hills of Sonoma Valley (details). “It was aged in small French Oak barrels and bottled in March 1995," after being blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Unlike previous Artist Series wines, this one was held off market a year longer than usual, until Autumn 1996. The recommended drinking time was 2000-2005. According to the wine review website, Snooth, this Miller-labelled batch of wine should be good to drink until 2018.

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.
[1] Facsimilies of some of the correspondance between Lee and Miller was made available on a Kenwood promo flyer in 1996. Lee is the one to refer to a "Clown A" and "Clown B." Miller does not remember which was which; [2] Miller's letter to Lee, dated 2/14/79; [3] This is claimed by Miller in his letter to Lee--I haven't been able to substantiate it otherwise, although his artwork was on exhibition at this Art Fair in Israel; [4] Lee's letter, dated February 7, 1979, in which he is commenting upon a letter I have not seen.