Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Firestone wants to be wine name

Former 'Bachelor' promotes vineyard

By Johnathan L. Wright
Reno Gazette-Journal

Andrew Firestone isn't Paris Hilton.

Yes, they're both in their 20s. Yes, they share a similar pedigree - he's the great-grandson of tire baron Harvey Firestone; she's the great-granddaughter of hotel mogul Conrad Hilton.

And yes, they've both starred in reality television series - Firestone in the third season of The Bachelor and Hilton in The Simple Life, her Fendi-on-the-farm frolic with Nicole Richie, Lionel's kid.

But Firestone isn't, ahem, a fourth-generation wild child trading on a famous name. He might have the private phone number to Pastis, the celeb-garnished hot spot in Manhattan, but the Gotham restaurant he really likes is a neighborhood joint whose name he can't remember.

Firestone, in fact, is the down-to-earth-sort. Literally.

"We're farmers," he says of the operations at his family's Firestone Vineyard properties near Santa Barbara, Calif. "We drive trucks, we wear work boots. My mother was chasing cattle out of the vineyard hours before I was born. That was the year of the first harvest. The vineyard is everything I know."

In the early '70s, Firestone's father, Brooks, and his grandfather, Leonard, founded the winery, which was Santa Barbara County's first estate winery.

As a child, Firestone helped pick grapes, among other chores. When he got older, he cleaned barrels, racked wines, and drove tractors and forklifts. After college, the 28-year-old Firestone tried a few other things - backpacking, bond trading, The Bachelor - before returning, like his older brother Adam before him, to the family business.

Today, Adam Firestone manages Firestone Vineyard and Andrew Firestone sells its wines.

Firestone has a bright-eyed, infectious enthusiasm for wine, but his pitch, if you want to call it that, is free of wine geek speak.

"Our wines are indicative of the grapes we grow," he says. "Without question, it all starts in the vineyard."

Firestone Vineyard produces more than 100,000 cases a year, which is fairly substantial. Still, things are very much a family affair.

"One of the benefits of a family-owned vineyard is that decisions aren't made in the boardroom. They're made over breakfast, over brunch. We have higher-tier wines, but for the most part, we make the wines we drink on a daily basis. I like to say, 'Merlot is hamburger wine, sauvignon blanc is deck wine, cocktail wine.' "

Traditionally, Firestone has been known as a white wine house on the strength of bottles like its crisp, bright sauvignon blanc and a gewurztraminer that expertly moderates acidity, sweetness and spice. But these days, it seems red wine is the comer.

"It took us 25 years to make a great sauvignon blanc," Firestone says. "We had the connotation of having vegetative flavors in our reds, which interferes with the fruit. But now we've solved most of the problems. We have a growing reputation for Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots. Wine making doesn't have a recipe. It's about adjusting."

Firestone's fame, he says, creates interest when he campaigns for Firestone, but he keeps the relationship between fame and wine in perspective.

"I was so careful not to turn The Bachelor into an infomercial about Firestone. I said no to product placements. I had no ulterior motive. That was my own adventure."

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