The Story of ‘Amy’s Vineyard’

Well, last Friday was another fantastic day for our tasting panel as we tasted the 2009 Russian River Valley ‘Old Vine’ Zinfandel ‘Amy’s Vineyard’. This is a very special wine, not just for my wife Amy and me, but for our entire staff and all of our long time club members! It is definitely one of our most sought after wines. Wow, what a beautiful intense ruby color.  Aromas of fresh squeezed blackberries lured us in and we sipped. As the wine settled across our palates, the blackberry became more pronounced, leading to overtones of black plums and juicy cherries, coupled with a slight toastiness and a bit of white pepper and clove, giving this wonderful Zin the right amount of spice that really makes a great Zinfandel.  It reminds me of every morning at 4:00 a.m. when I have my first meal – fresh blackberries and blueberries crushed over plain yogurt, topped with pieces of honey crisp apple and glazed pecans. Yum, I can’t go without it.

And every time I taste Amy’s Zin, I’m reminded of how that particular vineyard came to be ‘Amy’s Vineyard.’ It’s a story that I’ve wanted to share with all of you from a very important time in my life. 

Back in 2001, Amy was working for me, managing all of our commercial space in my development company.  One Friday I rode my Harley to drop off the payroll where Amy worked.  As I was walking away from her office, I heard her say in a soft “not sure if she if she really wanted to ask” voice, “That’s your Harley out there, right?”  I turned around and said, “Yep.”  She said, “I was wondering if you were ever going to take me for a ride.”  Somewhat shocked, I said, “Sure, when?’  She laughed, “Right now. But I have to work, so how about tomorrow? It’s Saturday.”  I said, “Great, I’ll meet you here at ten.” She smiled that contagious smile of hers.

All night I pondered whether or not this was a good idea. Dad always said, “Don’t date anyone who works for you.”  I said to myself, it’s not like this is a date, but I was wondering, does she think it is?

At 10am sharp I pulled into the parking lot and she was already waiting.  My heart started to beat faster, and I thought, what I am getting myself into?

She climbed on the back and off we went. We were not a block away and I felt she was hanging on pretty tight so I asked her if it was her first time on a bike and she said no.  I said, “Well you’re hanging on pretty tight there, girl.”  She said, “You’re not ok with it?”  I said, “Oh, I’m just fine.”

Amy had told me that her favorite wine was Zinfandel, so we headed out to the Russian River to taste at a few of my friends’ wineries where I knew we’d find some great Zins.  As we were leaving Martinelli’s Winery, Amy asked, “Don’t you have Zin vineyards around here somewhere?”  I told her I did, and asked if she wanted to go see one.  She said she’d love to, so I headed over to an old vineyard that used to belong to a dear friend of my fathers, Ernie Bacigalupi.  Ernie had planted this vineyard some sixty years ago and had sold it to Tom Fenney, and I’d been leasing it from him for some time.  I was always excited about this one block that sat on top of the knoll overlooking the beautiful Russian River Valley.

We rode the Harley through the ranch to the top of the knoll and parked; as we got off I started to point to different blocks and talked about how, when I was a kid, my Dad and I would stop by to see Ernie.  I realized I was talking a mile a minute, nerves I guess, but not quite sure why. Anyway, I just kept telling story after story. 

Amy said it was too bad I didn’t think to bring some wine. “I could really enjoy a nice glass of Zin right now to go with this beautiful sunset.”

 “You’re in luck,” I smiled. “I just happen to have one in the saddle bags.” I explained that while it wasn’t from this particular block, it was from this ranch.  As we sipped the wine and watched the sun slowly disappear into the night, I talked about how much I loved this vineyard and all the great times I had experienced here as a kid with my father. I could tell she was really listening, looking intently into my eyes.

I was thinking, ‘what a nice lady’ and figured she was thinking the same thing, ‘what a nice guy’.  Right then she said, “Steve, you know something?” I thought, here it comes, something really nice about me.

 “You know,” she smiled. “I really enjoy. . .” (my heart started to race) “. . . this wine.  It’s incredible! I just love the flavors, like a jammy blackberry pie.” 

“I get that, too,” I said, laughing. I realized maybe I’d had enough wine and we’d better get going.

As you can imagine, we hold a very special place in our hearts for this little vineyard on the top of the knoll, this little slice of God’s Country. I have extreme passion not only for my wife, but for the wine we’ve produced from Amy’s vineyard over the years.  Back in 2004, we started keeping this one block as a separate lot, and Amy and I have made some incredible Zins from it ever since.

I like to say that Zinfandel is not a sedan or a plow horse – it’s a sports car and a racehorse:  Flashy, exciting, fun. When it comes to this wine, however, Zinfandel is romance.

Success: The Win/Win Approach

I have been asked numerous times lately, “Is there anything you can put your finger on that has played an important part in your family’s success?” First of all, success is not just about financial gain. As you take your last breath and look back on your life, if you have been happy and feel good about the relationships you’ve developed with the people you touched, you would probably say that your life has been successful in most people’s eyes, right?

With that said, let me explain what I mean when I say success has come to our family by the “win/win” approach. I have learned that in order for success to really be success, it needs to involve more people than just you. Let me use our Redwood Valley ranch as an example.

One day a dear friend of mine asked me to take a look at a piece of property in Redwood Valley and give my opinion of its value, as he was trying to sell it. We drove up to the top of this ridge, which looks back over Redwood Valley to one side (and oh, what a beautiful valley) and in the other direction incredible views of Lake Mendocino. It just doesn’t get more picturesque than this! On the property, there was an old vineyard (sixty years plus), a run-down old house and a barn. What could possibly be done with this?  And where was the value?  The vineyard had not been maintained with longevity in mind and needed years of rejuvenating.

My friend proceeded to tell me a story about the old Italian man who had made this ridge top along a country road his family’s home some seventy years ago. As he explained the history of the property, I started visualizing the dreams this old man must have had. I could see him out there as a young man, daylight to dawn, planting his vineyards, cultivating the land, raising his family, and I could see how beautiful this land once was as a result of just one man’s dreams.

Like many Italian families, he had a lot of kids and they learned to farm from their father on the family ranch. I became very interested in this run-down old ranch and started to ask questions of a lot of neighbors. I learned that the ranch was at one time the premier ranch of Redwood Valley.  It was always impeccably kept, produced the finest grapes in the county, and people loved driving by this serene 60-acre ranch, watching the family working and manicuring their dream.

Well, as our lives unfold things change, and not always as we had planned. As his kids grew up they went off to school, started their own families and chased their own dreams, leaving the old man and his dreams behind. Things slowly started to unravel. Sixty acres is a lot of land to farm by yourself, and as he aged he had to hire more and more people and costs went up. Most importantly, the hired workers did not have the same dreams and passion for the land as his family once had, so the quality of the grapes declined and therefore so did the income.

Things were definitely changing, not only for the old man, but for the neighbors who loved to drive by and chat, admiring the beautiful ranch and all of the family’s hard work. And all the wineries that had been getting his impeccable quality fruit had to look elsewhere.

Now up in his seventies, the old man knew he could not hold on forever. His dreams and hard work were unraveling. As each month passed he grew sadder and sadder. He had no choice – he had to start selling off pieces of his land, one by one, just so he and his wife could survive. Over the next several years he sold it all, but was saddened every time he drove by what was at one time his pride and joy. As the years passed, he watched things on the old ranch deteriorate more and more. The vines looked sick, the buildings were patched together, new houses were built with no thought of the land or its historic character, and they, too, deteriorated fast. Time took its course. His dreams and years of hard work were gone, he only had memories. As time took its course with the land, so it did with the old man, and at ninety-eight-years old his time had come to move onto greener pastures.

While standing in the middle of the property one beautiful sunny morning I realized I was the one to save the dreams. I had to take the challenge. So in 2008 I purchased 14 acres of the old man’s dreams. After hearing more stories from his family about how hard they had worked, what great times they had growing up on the ranch pursuing their fathers dreams, and the drive and passion that came with his ever encouraging words, it almost brought tears to my eyes. Over the last couple of years I have purchased more of the dream, and now own the majority of the original ranch.

You’re probably saying “Where is the win/win?” Right? Well, as I walk the ranch watching our young workers cultivating the land, at times I feel like he is watching. I can envision him smiling as he sees his dreams coming back to life. The neighbors are stopping and visiting again, telling old stories, saying how happy it makes them when they drive by and see this beautiful ranch becoming what it once was. And they’re amazed as they see the old buildings take back their historic character.  

Charles, our vineyard manger, watches as the old home is put back together with his wife and little three-year-old boy at his side. The little boy says, “Daddy is that going to be our home, just our home Daddy?”  “Yes son, just our home.” As I explain to my vineyard guys how I want the vines pruned and why, I tell the story of the old man and you can see their eyes light up as they realize they play a big part in replenishing his dream.

Yes, the wine is getting better and better each year, or should I say, as we coddle each vine it becomes happier and happier. You should have seen the smiles on our faces as Brian, Jose and I blended the lots of our 2010 Redwood Valley Zinfandel this year. The whole winemaking team is excited over how amazing this wine is becoming as a direct result of our vineyard guys’ love, passion and cultivation of these old vines, now more than 60 years old.

I only wish the old man could taste the wine, too. But how do I know? Maybe he can, he could be right there tasting and blending with us (now isn’t that an exciting thought?).

And let’s not forget about the rest of our dedicated team, the ones you really count on, the ones with the most judgmental palates – the Friday Morning Tasting Panel that brings you those amazing wines you count on from month to month. 

Last Friday we tasted the blend of this Redwood Valley Zinfandel. Wow! Aromas of dark cherry, with hints of cocoa. As we sipped, blackberry and chocolate with a bit of spice lay nicely on our palates. The chocolate just lingered and lingered, teasing us to take another sip, and we sipped and sipped. What an incredible wine.

I know there is still a lot of hard work ahead for all of us. However, to see the passion and excitement in so many people from the re-creation of a man’s dreams seems to me a “win/win” for all and I am proud just to be a part of it.

Hope you enjoyed the story; I just had to share this one with all of my friends.

And remember, the more people you take along the journey with you, the happier we’ll all be at the end.

Howell Mountain Cab is Over the Top

I get extremely excited every Friday morning as I top the stairs to the third floor of the castle and watch to see the look on their faces, as if to say, “What are we tasting today?”. I just love that enthusiasm. There is nothing better than to be greeted with a big smile, especially from our most highly regarded palates (our 12 person tasting panel). Well, this Friday the smiles stayed on their faces throughout the tasting as the panel tasted our 2010 Howell Mountain Cabernet. 

Swirling and swirling as aromas of black cherry seemed to jump out of the glass. Rich in color, deep purple, almost black. With our first sip, flavors of rich chocolate that seem to stay long into the finish turning to a light cocoa with a hint of anise. Extremely well structured with a perfect balance of tannin to fruit, we were amazed at how the firm yet soft tannins turn to a nice silky long finish. This incredible Cabernet was already starting to develop that velvety finish that will come on more and more as this beauty ages in the bottle. Everyone was grinning from ear to ear, knowing well that we finally found our Howell Mountain Cabernet vineyard, and yes, it is a good one. Once bottled, I expect this one will get better and better as the years pass.