My Cousin Julia Bertetta: A Century Celebration of an Incredible Woman

I want to share a special story with you about my dear friend and cousin, Julia Bertetta. I have to say that she’s an amazing lady and someone I’ve admired all my life. I’m inspired not only by Julia, but also by the extreme fondness that my father Noble and uncles Winslow and Whitby had for her.

In fact, Winslow told me on numerous occasions that he had a crush on Julia. Winslow and I used to talk until the wee hours of the morning while we played liar’s dice, cards and talked about the good old times in Kenwood. Julia’s name came up often.

She’s always been the life of the party and has an amazing, charismatic way about her. Back in the day, when the “Ledson boys” were ready to head to town, the first person they asked to go with them was Julia.

And now, at age 100, everyone still takes notice when she walks into a room. There’s something extraordinary about the way she carries herself.

Julia’s family has been in Sonoma County since the turn of the century; they ran the quarry at Annadel State Park. Back then they used the stones from that quarry to build cobblestone streets in San Francisco.  Julia was born at the quarry in a small cabin!

JULIA-BABY-AND-STEVEwpWe were so honored to throw a birthday party for Julia, and I was more than excited that my one-month-old daughter, Taylor Lynn, was there. I’ll never forget the experience. Julia put her loving hand on Taylor’s chest and said to her, “You’re going to be a very wise young lady.” And later she shook her finger at her and added, “You better pay attention to your dad, young lady!”

Julia has been taking a bus up to Reno once a month to gamble and she plays bingo every Thursday night. She’s living life to its fullest, which is what I try to do every day. One thing I learned from Julia is to make the best out of every moment.

Throughout my life I’ve looked up to and admired a lot of people, but this woman has and continues to inspire me so much that I recently named a vineyard after her – one of my favorite spots to have lunch on our family ranch in Anderson Valley. This Pinot Noir ‘Julia’s Vineyard’ is just breathtaking. No doubt it will produce wines with the utmost character, hopefully as fabulous and lively as Julia herself!

Some people in life are just born with the kind of personality that can charm everyone from the President of the United States to some who are just down on their luck; Julia makes everyone smile.

And when it comes to telling a joke, there is no one better. I can’t count the times she has made me laugh.

I love this lady. She makes me smile every time I see her. Isn’t that the way we all want to live our lives? Always with a smile.

I just have a feeling Taylor Lynn will have that same positive, charismatic personality – living her live to the fullest.

Reflecting on Those Special Times: Some Things Never Change

When I was a kid, I loved hiking up Hood Mountain. I tried to make it at least once a week, weather permitting. It is just breathtaking when you’re on top of the mountain – you feel like you’re miles from everyone yet you can see the world, especially from my favorite place on the mountain.  For centuries it’s been know by locals as Gunsight, a big out cropping of rock sitting 2700 feet above the valley floor. It will literally take your breath away, just standing on the edge looking down.

On a clear day, you can see San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there just the other morning. I still love going up there every chance I get, which is probably about once a month. It’s best at daybreak, when no one else is ever around. It’s great thinking time.

It takes me about 50 minutes from the parking lot to the top, which I always thought was pretty fast, until my cousin Ken Lambert told me he makes it in 36 minutes!  Being twenty years younger to the day seems to help.

Gunsight-photoFBA while back, our Ledson team wanted to create a really special blend of wine. It was to be the employee wine, an everyday food-friendly wine. One day, sitting around sipping a glass after work, we were taking in the beautiful mountains around The Castle.  And there it was, right before our eyes, Gunsight Rock at the top of majestic Hood Mountain. It’s not only my favorite spot but a favorite spot for many of us at The Castle. The name of the wine came to us naturally – Gunsight.

If you get the chance to visit Gunsight yourself, make sure you stop by The Castle and pick up a bottle of the most recent vintage and a sandwich to take with you. Don’t worry about how long it takes to get up there, just enjoy the walk. (My cousin Ken runs 50-mile races through the mountains, so don’t use his time to judge how long it should take!).

I never reveal what’s in the blend; I like to say, “Everything but the kitchen sink.” I guess I got that phrase from Dad. He and I used to spend hours in the cellar when I was a kid. Dad loved to incorporate as many varieties as he could to make the perfect everyday “go to” blend. Boy, did we make some great wines. When I was growing up on the ranch, and anyone happened to stop by, we poured these blends and Mom would put out a bountiful spread of home-cooked food.

Gunsight wine reminds me of those days of sharing with friends and family. That’s just the kind of wine it is. Every time I enjoy a glass of Gunsight, it takes my mind back over years of my life. I cannot tell you how many times I have been up there or actually how many times I figured out an approach to something that seemed so hard when I was caught in the middle of the everyday hustle and bustle of life. It is nice just sitting there alone, dreaming of all the opportunities life can bring us. It seems like an opportunity can be staring you right in the face and because we are all so busy we may never see it; I guess that could be the difference between being successful and not.

We just released the 2009 vintage. It’s a seductive blend that deserves serious attention. Aromas of dark berry, violet, spice and gentle brown sugar are friendly and charming. A cavalcade of juicy black fruit gives this plush wine a resounding vitality. The finish has smoky blackberry with just the slightest hint of toasted nuts.

Just like there’s comfort food, this is a comfort wine. People seem to be drawn to it. Especially if you include the view.

The Loss of Another Great Man and Dear Friend

I have known Stanley Denner pretty much all my life. My father went to high school with Stanley and his brother Russ back in the 30s. They stayed close friends, and because of their relationship, I was around Stanley a lot. Especially in the summers – so I have a lot of great memories.

When I was a young boy, I used to run the hay baler on the Denner Ranch. I had a very strong work ethic instilled in me, to the point where it was hard for me to stop work at the end of the day or even take 30 minutes for lunch.

Over the years on the Denner Ranch, when my Dad and I stopped for lunch, we would sit under the big oak tree close to the creek. It had tremendous shade and a cool breeze came off the water. Dad and I used to swim in that creek almost every day to cool off during the summer. Dad knew how to make a day’s worth of work fun.

Those were some great times in my life, sitting under the oak tree with my father and looking back over a morning’s worth of hay baling. My dad was always so positive and inspiring around the work I did. I remember practically inhaling my lunch so I could get back to the baler. Dad always believed in taking at least a half hour nap after lunch; he did so every day of his life.

From early on, Stanley Denner had a great impact on my work ethic. Even before I started running the tractor, I was getting comfortable with it!

I had started running the baler when I was about five years old, moving it from one shock of hay to the next shock of hay, so Dad wouldn’t have to keep getting on and off the tractor. Once I got to be about 9 years old, I couldn’t wait for Dad to finish his post-lunch nap, so I’d jump back on the baler.

Because I was so young, Stanley Denner worried about me running the baler when my dad was asleep. He would drive by right after his own lunch and check to make sure I was ok. And that everything was going according to Hoyle.

(By the way, that phrase, “according to Hoyle,” is one that has fallen by the wayside, sadly. It basically means “playing by the rules” or “things are going as they should.”)

As much as I hated to stop work, I looked forward to Stanley’s daily visit. He was also a very inspiring man and always gave me great praise, not only for the amount of work I’d gotten done, but for the quality of it as well.

I was touched that he worried about me. And I think he may have appreciated my work ethic.

One time I was baling on Stanley’s ranch and the tractor broke down. Dad wasn’t around, and as it always seemed to happen, Stanley showed up at just the right time. We worked on the tractor for a while and we couldn’t get it up and running. Stanley told me to sit tight; he’d go get one of his tractors.

He came back with this big old green John Deere tractor, bigger than anything I’d ever operated. I remember it seemed so tall to me, as I was still a young boy at the time, and it sounded so different from my old familiar tractor. I was pretty nervous, but once I made a few passes around the field I was ok. Stanley stayed and watched until he saw I was going to be fine.

As the years went by and I got older, maybe 12, my father would leave me to run the hay baler all by myself, while he ran the mower or rake on another ranch. But I was never worried about it, because I knew I could always count on Stanley if I needed anything.

It was about that time that I started noticing the girls. I can still see Stanley’s daughter Kathy riding her horse across the beautiful fields all around my hay bales. I guess you could say I had a crush on Kathy. Every time Stanley came by I would ask him where Kathy was, and he’d get a big grin on his face. One time he said, “Do you want me to ask her to stop by?” I remember I was so embarrassed, my face must have turned the color of a tomato, and I said, “No, that’s ok.”

Over the years, Stanley and I remained close; that story would come up from time to time and we always had a good laugh. In fact, I stopped by to see him a week or so before he passed, and I asked him how Kathy was doing. That got a big smile out of him and we both chuckled.

Stanley was a tall, handsome and powerful man. Very firm, but kind. He had huge hands and a grip you couldn’t believe. Not too many men had the work ethic of Stanley Denner. To watch him load the truck of hay was pretty impressive.

When my wife Amy and I were married just three years ago, Stanley and Alma attended our wedding.  My wife and I commented on how young and healthy Stanley looked at that time.  My wife said, “He’s a very handsome man for his age; I hope you hold up that well.”  I said, “I hope so, too.”

When I saw Stanley a few weeks ago, he was sitting in his chair and looked like he would have a hard time even getting up, so I figured he would be very weak. But when he shook my hand with that familiar smile, I was quite surprised that he still had that powerful grip.

Stanley and his family worked hard for more than a hundred years farming their ranch through some very hard times, and because of Stanley and his brother Russ’ work ethic, they have been able to keep their ranch while so many families couldn’t. The Denners originally had a 100-head dairy cattle business, along with hay and vegetables. Today they also grow wine grapes and produce about 350 tons of Chardonnay!

It is men like Stanley Denner that made this country the great country it was. Losing Stanley Denner, a man as honest as the day is long, with an integrity no one would question, a man who stood tall and proud and respected his neighbors, who had the common sense to figure anything out, is a huge loss. And it’s a loss not only to his family, but to everyone he touched.

Over the last 10 years or more I have been honored to host the Santa Rosa High School class reunion at our winery for the classes 1930 thru 1938.

Stanley, I believe, attended them all except this last one. I always hate to look out over the crowd and see that one of my friends is not there, and that was the case this year when I looked for Stanley.  During those reunions I got to share a lot of great moments with Stanley and his classmates. I loved nothing more than sitting there chatting it up with Stanley, reminiscing back on all those great times growing up in Sonoma County and all the things I did as a kid on the Denner Ranch. I was able to relive a lot of great memories talking to Stanley over the years, and I wouldn’t trade those chats for all the tea in China.

I am honored to be able to say that Stanley Denner was a friend of mine and I feel very strongly that I will meet up with him again someday.

Lyle: A Good Chapter

Lyle has come a long way in the last eight months! For those of you who haven’t followed his story through my previous blogs, he was on a “not so great path” when we met.

Photo by Robbi Pengelly
Courtesy of Sonoma Index-Tribune

Today, he works at our winery five days a week, and my General Manager Cat Kaiser can’t say enough good things about him. “Lyle’s my ‘go to guy’,” Cat told me the other day. “He’s gone from part time to full time and he’s really showing a dedication to the business. When we’re short staffed, he’ll come in at the last minute.  He’s fast, he’s funny, and he always has a positive attitude. When he’s done with a project he immediately asks what he can do next. He’s happy!”

Lyle does multiple jobs. He keeps the Gourmet Marketplace stocked, the cellar stocked, sets up private tastings, greets guests at the front desk, and does pretty much anything else you ask him to do. And he’s learning the business from the ground up, which is the way to start building a foundation for success.

Cat’s comments made me feel incredible. When I come to The Castle and Lyle is there, he always greets me with a big smile, loads of personality and a big hug. There’s nothing better in life than the feeling you get when you witness another person’s life growing more and more fulfilling.

As the days come upon us, Lyle and I have a lot more things to work on. But right now, in this time and space, he’s on his way to becoming a productive and content human being.

Chapter Four: Lyle’s New Perspective

When I was in Colorado a couple of weeks ago enjoying club members and dear friends at our annual winemaker dinner at 240 Union Street, I couldn’t believe how many people were curious about Lyle. I’m really happy to give you an update; it was so nice to hear your concerns and it made me so happy to discover that you take the time to read my stories. And even enjoy them!

For those who haven’t read my previous blogs about Lyle, let me give you a brief history. About seven months ago I came across three kids vandalizing a construction site of mine. I jumped out of my truck and they took off running, so I yelled for them to stop. Two of the kids ran away. But one kid stopped, and to make a long story short, Lyle and I struck up a relationship.

We began having regular chats. I quickly learned that Lyle hadn’t seen his father in eight years, and he was having some problems at home – he and his mom live with his grandmother because they can’t afford to live on their own.

We don’t teach anything about how to live and how to think in school. We teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but no life skills. I told him that the first thing he had to do was change how he perceives what is happening around him, and what is important to him. We’ve been talking a lot about how you go about changing your perspective, because it’s the key to a happy and successful life. When you’re used to taking the negative approach or lashing out when something happens, it’s not easy to change your reaction. Especially if that’s all you know.

Photo by Robbi Pengelly. Courtesy of Sonoma Index-Tribune.

I’ve had numerous conversations with Lyle about how to train his mind to always find the positive in any situation, and I see it working. He’s getting along better with his mom now. Instead of perceiving that she’s being unreasonable when they have a disagreement, he now tries to look at things from her perspective – she works long hours and doesn’t have an easy life.

Lyle recently started working for me at the winery as a runner. When you finish a job, I told him, don’t wait for someone to come to you and ask you to do something. Never stand still.  I know you want to get a car and want to be in control of your own life. And if you want to be in control you have to take control. So the minute you finish one project, go ask someone what else you can do. Be a shining star.

The other day I was pulling into the winery, and there was Lyle, picking up trash on the side of the road, with a smile on his face. Who wants to walk on Sonoma Highway picking up trash? But he wasn’t kicking dirt clods or glaring – he was really smiling. And it made me feel great inside – because I realized that he’s taking in what I’m saying and it’s starting to work. Even his mom has noticed a difference.

She sent me a card the other day thanking me for the changes that she sees in Lyle.  It almost brought tears to my eyes.

When I walked into the winery a couple of days ago, Lyle turned around and his face was just beaming. He grabbed me in front of all the people in the kitchen and gave me a great big hug. He said, “Man, I’m so thankful for you. You’re the man. You’ve changed my whole life.”

Of course, he’s the one who had to work hard to view life’s challenges in a different way so he could change his life. I just gave him the road map.

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.