'This sounds very dramatic," begins Dave Batt, vice president for marketing and communications at Banfi Vintners (an import company). "Dramatic," in this case, seems an appropriate tone to strike, since what he's doing is describing the germination of Vineland, perhaps the world's first musical about wine.
"About a year ago, I was walking in the vineyards of Concha y Toro, in the shadow of the Andes," with Concha y Toro executive Giancarlo Bianchetti. "We were walking up a dusty road to get a better vantage point for looking at the vineyard, and I said, 'What kind of interesting things have you been doing around the world?' He said, 'We're looking for unique ways to build a relationship with our consumers and with the trade. We want to create excitement, so that we become the excitement, so we can come into town and people will want to come and learn.'"
"There, under the Andes, Bianchetti paused. It was one of those wistful moments at the end of a long day," recalls Batt. "He said, 'Before I retire, I would really like to see, somehow, a play or something that would tell the story of the Casillero del Diablo. We've got this "Cellar of the Devil," with this legend attached to it, and it'd be really cool to do a play. Something where we're supporting the arts, but supporting them in a different way than having an art-gallery wine tasting. Bringing our wine into the realm of the arts. But I don't even know how you would go about that. Would you hire a playwright...'"
Batt smiled. "He didn't know my background. I grew up as a writer and producer in the commercial world -- did a lot of stuff like that." (The Vineland program notes that Batt used to work "only offices apart" from fellow ad man David Mamet and that Mamet told Batt, "Someday, the stage will come alive with your words.") "I said, 'Let me look into this Don Melchor character.'" Don Melchor de Concha y Toro is the man credited with creating the legend about a devil in his cellar. He wanted "to save the wine from being ferreted away by folks who might want to taste it," explains Batt.
Melchor turned out to be more than a clever storyteller. He was a senator and entrepreneur who had witnessed Chile's emergence onto the global economic stage through the mining of the Andes. "With that mindset, he said, 'What else can we do?' They were looking at the wine industry in Europe and saying, 'France is known for great wine, but that will never happen down here, because we're just South America.' And Melchor said, 'Let's see if we can change that.' He brought vines in from France -- including Carmenere, which was wiped out in France by phylloxera but survives quite nicely here."
He also brought in a French viticulturist, even as his wife Emiliana imported a French landscape designer -- a sweet setup for playwright Batt. "I imagined what it would be like to have these two French guys in the middle of South America." The two became the play's comic relief, and their rapid-fire game of charades as they seek to distract Don Melchor garnered what was easily the show's biggest laugh. Batt piled on political intrigue, a fledgling love affair, and the strain created by Melchor's devotion to his work and to his wife. He called up his friend John Mills -- "he heads up the jazz department at the University of Texas at Austin" -- ordered up a score, and voila. "He took the Broadway style for the American ear, and he brought the South American idiom into it. It's entertainment. Wine is entertainment. A way to bring wine and entertainment together is clearly what the debut of Vineland the musical is all about."
Directing duties went to Chicago theater mainstay Marc Robin, who pulled together a cast, built a show around a set consisting of eight chairs and a backdrop, and took Vineland on the road. "It's a really entertaining evening of theater that's also incredibly educational about the wine for the people who drink it and sell it. I tried to explain it to my mom, and I said, 'It would be the equivalent of McDonald's putting on a show for anybody that's ever had a McDonald's product or worked in a McDonald's, so that they would understand where it came from.' How many people in industries just don't have a clue where the industry came from?"
The territory was not altogether unfamiliar but offered considerably more than what Robin was used to in the theater-as-marketing department. "I've done a lot of corporate things for pharmaceuticals, where you're basically putting on a show to launch a product. This was different. This was really a play: you meet people, you care about them, you get invested in them. There are social issues. It's more than 'I want ten dancers to dance around this Chrysler Sebring, and we're going to make it so the girls are all wearing very little, and the boys all show their chests, and we'll sell the car.' There are people who are going to go just because they want to taste the wine. But we wanted to tell the story in an entertaining way, so that if your mother or brother or sister just happened to come upon it, they would want to sit and watch it, without even tasting the wine. I always try to get reactions from the people who were brought by somebody who wanted to be there, who were dragged along, and they've been really positive. They've been surprised by how funny it is and by how much they didn't know."
The show opened in Tampa, then made its way through Miami, Houston, and Dallas before coming to California. On March 26, Vineland made its San Diego debut in Horton Plaza's Lyceum Theatre. After sampling an array of appetizers in the lobby, the crowd took their seats to witness Giancarlo Bianchetti's dream come true:
Where the mountains meet the ocean
How bright the sunlight shines
There's a rhythm to the seasons
There's music on the vines...
In vineland, you can hear the voices sing
In vineland, rejoice in all the harvest brings
In vineland, we dance to the drums and play the strings
In vineland, nature lives in everything...