Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Willis ‘Tex’ Sawyer
by Steve Sparks, July 7, 2010
I met with Tex at the Scharffenberger Winery where he has been the winemaker for the past 21 years. We sat down in the conference room overlooking the vines with some delicious cheeses, prosciutto, and crackers, and began our talk.
Tex was born Willis Frank Sawyer V in San Antonio, Texas in 1950, the eldest of five children born to Willis ‘Bill’ Bruner Sawyer and Virginia Helene Yardley. His grandmother called him ‘Tony Tex’ (‘San Antonio Texas’) and the Tex part stuck, so about twenty years ago he legally changed his name to Willis Tex Sawyer. The Sawyers are of English/Scottish/French descent. “I suspect my grandparents had sex once and the result was my father, born in 1917, who was often dumped off at neighbors’ houses as a child. They separated and my grandmother moved to California and my Dad followed her. He was often fostered out before she arranged for him to be raised by a family in Glendale. My grandmother was a 7th Day Adventist and lived in poverty by choice, giving her money to the Church and the P.T.L. Club (Praise The Lord) of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Because my father was left-handed, his mother and grandmother were concerned that he was influenced by the Devil, tying it behind his back so he had to use his right. He had a tough, strange upbringing.”
After the separation, Tex’s grandfather moved to Kansas, remarried, and had two more children, Charlotte and Tom, but Tex’s father kept in touch, often visiting his father and half-sister in Kansas. Tex’s father attended Pacific Union College in Angwin, California and then went to West Point. Following his graduation with a BS in Military Engineering, and a college career featuring lots of fencing, boxing, and developing expertise with small arms, he joined the Army Air Corps where he hoped to be a fighter pilot but ended up flying B-24 bombers in World War II.
The Yardleys, meanwhile, were of English/Native American and German heritage and Tex’s mother was born in 1928 in Topeka, Kansas. Her father was a bus driver and then later was employed at the sporting goods store on a local military base. “My mother liked men in uniforms and dated military men. She attended Washburn University in Kansas and was introduced to my father, visiting from California, by his half-sister, Charlotte, who was my mother’s best friend. They had only dated for a week when my Dad went on assignment to China and asked her to join him. My grandparents said no at first but after a proxy wedding using a stand-in they relented and my mother moved to China in 1948.”
Tex’s father, posing as a Chinese Language Student, was working under cover establishing the USAF intelligence network there because of the perceived Communist threat. In 1949 the Communists began their takeover and he was responsible for getting many State department and Military families on a ‘requisitioned’ C-47 plane, being captured twice by the Communists. He was released once but then held for five months on espionage charges during which time he was interrogated every day in Chinese but never cracked. Tex’s pregnant mother was evacuated and lost the baby following a stressful voyage back to Kansas.
“My father was by all accounts an excellent soldier, however, he had a hard time relating to his family and communicating with us. He wanted to do the family thing right but couldn’t. On reflection, knowing what he went through, this is perhaps not surprising. He had a very odd upbringing and this meant that he was not good at some of the family and interpersonal stuff. He was trained to get information and if necessary torture and kill for it. With the family he was a very stern disciplinarian and basically talked to us like we were his soldiers, asking for reports and giving directives. He returned to the States in 1950 to a base in San Antonio, Texas and I was born there. We were there for six months, and then Dad was assigned to Japan where we lived for three years while he worked under cover behind enemy lines during the Korean War. We lived on base and my mother had to know all the rules contained in the Air Force Officer’s Wives’ Manual and how to ‘behave’ at tea parties and bridge nights. She pursued her hobbies of the arts and crafts and had assistance from servants and a nanny in raising my sister Cassandra and me. We returned to the States in 1954 and my other three sisters were born in the next few years — Aenor, Claryce, and Virginia Marie.”
For a time Tex’s father taught counter-insurgency and guerilla warfare while attached to the Pentagon in Washington DC where Tex attended a Catholic Elementary School but the family were always moving and lived the military life. “People in that world are always learning to adapt to new surroundings. That’s what military brats do, frequently ending up as outsiders. My siblings and I were close but I was unable to develop any long-term relationships with friends as you have no shared histories except with your family and, although you become very resilient, it is difficult to maintain any attachments.”
For three years, from 1958-60, the family lived in Florida where Tex’s father was in charge of the US’s guided missile project. “I had lots of fun there. I’d enjoyed the woods and playing in the snow in Maryland but this was very different and I got into sailing and playing on the beach right next to our house. I was not a good student and didn’t like school but I did a lot of reading on my own and learned that way. I had more freedom and as long as we were there for dinner at precisely 6pm all was fine. My Dad was a Colonel by this time and I was ‘in-training’ to be a military officer myself. If I misbehaved in any way I would get a belt on the ass. We all had to be very correct in everything we did, including my mother. My father’s ‘Efficiency Report’ could contain no negatives.”
In the winter of 1960/61 the family moved once again — this time to Thailand where Tex’s father was one of the US ‘advisors’ in Vietnam and Tex attended the International School in Bangkok. “That was really cool for a couple of years and we lived off-base in a compound. The country was not ‘Americanized’ at that time and Bangkok, ‘The Venice of the East’, was a great city to explore — as long as I was home for dinner at 6pm! However, my mother was not happy as an officer’s wife and had slipped into depression and began to take sedatives. She left one day and I though she would not come back but she did later that night. She continued to love the arts and drama, becoming involved in community theatre, as she had been in Florida, and enjoying her horses. I loved Thailand and was able to make the first real friends of my life there. I loved swimming and was trained in all aspects of horsemanship at the Bangkok Riding and Polo Club. I was very sad when we were transferred back to the States in 1963.”
Following a wonderful six-week family trip through Asia and Europe when he was about thirteen years old, they settled near Dayton, Ohio at the Wright-Patterson AFB. “My father was by now very high up in military intelligence in what was a very volatile period, and he made sure that we as his family knew we were vulnerable. I started to carry and sleep with a knife at all times. My mother was now an alcoholic and addicted to sedatives, bordering on the suicidal. At some point in my mid-teens she went cold turkey on the drugs but kept drinking, although she still functioned as our mother very well and kept the family together. My father away so often and not really there for us even when he was around. She still was into theatre and her horses and much later she succeeded at AA and was sober the last 15 years of her life. Meanwhile my Dad did what he thought was right and was certainly a good provider.”
Tex progressed through Junior and High School in Fairborn, Ohio, where he played a little soccer, enjoyed the drama class, and lettered in Band where he played trombone, although he had been playing the piano since he was six. “To my father’s chagrin I did not play sports to any significant degree and was a ‘C’ student. However I was a Boy Scout, progressing to the Eagle Scout rank and so my father’s ‘plan’ to see me continue the Sawyer military tradition was moving along nicely, I guess. He was always telling me little rules of life such as ‘2nd place is the 1st loser’ and ‘Don’t get close to your men as you might have to send them to their death the next day’.”
As a senior in high school, Tex took and passed the West Point entrance exam. Despite poor grades at school his father had arranged an appointment for him but the day before the entry physical he told his mother he did not want to go. His father was in hospital for high blood pressure and she said he would have to tell him personally. “I told my father and left the hospital immediately. We had a very estranged relationship after that; lots of long silences existed between us.”
Tex graduated in 1968 and attended Wright State University in Ohio. His father retired as a full Colonel and moved the rest of the family to California’s central coast where he had bought property many years before. “I wanted to be a veterinarian and went to study at Kansas State University. My father said if I also took the ROTC (reserve officer training corps) course at college he would ‘loan’ me money for school. It was legal to drink at eighteen and I really partied and did terribly on my pre-vet’s course, failing chemistry and biology. However, I ace’d the ROTC courses because of what I’d learned in my years in the scouts. I was also becoming politically aware and into the new music of the time — The Doors, Santana, the whole Woodstock thing, and had worn a badge of the peace symbol after High School — ‘the footprint of the American chicken’ my Dad called it.”
In May 1970 the Kent State Massacre took place in Ohio and Tex began demonstrating against the war, being on the periphery of the protests at the ROTC building. “I protested with an American flag that had peace symbols instead of stars on it and one night in a bar with friends I burned my draft card. I was prepared to go to Canada if I’d been drafted. I told my father I was applying for conscientious objector status, telling him I did not want to kill people. He told me the family would not support a CO and hung up the phone. Our relationship remained very strained for a long time. I credit my mother with keeping my humanistic side to the fore during that time although she was very worried about me — I had become sort of numb with all that was going on in Vietnam and the protests around the country. After my sophomore year at college she drove out to ‘rescue me from the Communists’ and took me back to the California coast where I found a job at the W.T. Grant’s sporting goods store in San Luis Obispo.”
At the age of 21, following an unrewarding year in retail, Tex was laid off and began to pick up small carpentry jobs, using some of the basic skills his father had passed on to him. He returned to college at Cuesta College and continued to live at home. “I finally focused on school and supported myself through the carpentry and some work at a pizzeria. I signed up for pre-med at Cal Poly with a Biochemistry major and did very well. My father mellowed somewhat and co-signed my student loan, slowly accepting my not going into the military. In my senior year I took some extra electives including meat processing, archeology, and most significantly, making beer — with plans to make my own and save a lot of money!”
Tex graduated college in 1974 and was still planning on going to medical school. He had been working at high end restaurants and working in carpentry to pay off loans. At one point he thought his grades might not be quite good enough to get into medical school, a point also made to him by a med school interviewer. “I appreciated his honesty but was not sure what to do. Winemaking seemed to fit somewhere between my interest in beer making and my science degree but getting my contractors license was another option. I was very unsure. I applied to U.C. Davis, and it could have gone either way, but they accepted me to their Food Sciences program and that’s where I went.”
He married Diane Weaver, whom he’d met at college, and he worked at their rocky relationship for several years. “My father had always said that ‘if you make a promise you die before you break it’, so I stuck it out. After graduating from Davis, I got a job in the cellar at the Hoffman Mountain Ranch Winery in Paso Robles and learned a lot in a nine-month spell there before being laid off. The money was very poor ($3.50/hr) when I could have been earning $10 as a carpenter but I needed a job in the wine industry if I was to progress.”
Tex returned to carpentry as a cabinet-maker and homebuilder, living in San Luis Obispo, before hearing about and applying for a job at Navarro Vineyards in Anderson Valley. “I had never heard about the Valley but came up for an interview and immediately thought I could live here. Owner Ted Bennett checked my references, a very bad one from the people at Hoffman who I had not got along with, but a classmate from Davis, Don Baron, who was vineyard consulting for Navarro, put in a good word for me and I was hired as consulting wine maker in February 1979. Diane’s parents had bought a cabin on Holmes Ranch Road and offered it to us to live in. However, we split up and Diane moved out, but her parents kindly let me stay on there. That was a tough winter and I learned a lot about myself, but I did think, even then, that I’d never leave this place.”
“I was an emotional basket case and Ted and his wife Deborah were very good to me. I soon made friends with Rainbow Hill and her husband Henry, with whom I would go to black powder shoots. They had formed ‘The Clowns’ a forerunner to ‘The Magic Company’ who performed at The Philo Café (now Libby’s Restaurant) and over time I expanded my social scene to include the crowd whom regularly played ‘Jungle Ball’ (a version of Volleyball) at the Cheesecake complex on the Philo/Greenwood Road, which included people such as Doug Read, Don and Judy Smith, Buckhorn Bob, Captain Rainbow, and Steve Tylicki. Around this time my divorce from Diane was finalized.”
Tex had seen Lynne around the Valley with her friends at Jungle Ball and particularly at the Cafe with her husband. They had split up in 1980 and Tex’s friend Dan Baron told Tex about this — “Ted Bennett, Deborah Cahn, and Dan are responsible for the happiness in my life. I thought it was too soon but then I heard a David Bromberg song with the words, ‘If you don’t do it somebody else will’ and I called Lynne and asked her to a concert in Ukiah. She said ‘I can’t talk now but can you call me back tomorrow?’ A little later I asked her to brunch at The Boonville Hotel when it was owned by Verne and Charlene Rollins and we had our first date on September 7th 1980. A few weeks later I moved into her mobile home on Whipple Ridge Road in Philo and thirty years later we’re still here. I have always thought that if you get it correct in terms of whom you live with, where you live, and what you do for a living, then you will be fine — it’s the secret of happiness in a simple way.”
Tex was offered a substantial pay increase to go and work for the Cloverdale Wine Company and with Ted’s blessing made the move. He and Lynne moved there for a year during which time, as they washed dishes one evening, he proposed. “She was shocked that I asked because I had said I wasn’t go to do that again. She said ‘Yes’ and we were married on July 31st, 1982 in a Native American-style ceremony with Henry Hill as the officiant. I was in the Cloverdale job for two years but it didn’t really work out so when the winemakers position opened up at Edmeades Winery I jumped at the chance to return to the Valley, becoming their winemaker a few months later. However, by 1986, the winery had gone out of business here and I was unemployed.”
During that time Tex and Lynne’s two sons arrived — Justin in September 1983 (“the middle of harvest!”) and Aaron in February 1985, both born in the same midwife’s house in Caspar, while Tex’s parents continued to visit them in the Valley over these years. Lynne was the bookkeeper at Handley Cellars and as a result Milla Handley graciously offered Tex a job driving a tractor and installing pipes, later helping in the winery construction with local contractors Dennis Toohey and Kurt Morse. A few months later Tex started a new job as the winemaker at a winery in Los Gatos with another healthy increase in pay, although it meant him living in a hotel for a time. Eventually the family joined him in Blossom Hill and stayed for three years before, with sales dropping, he was once again laid off.
In April 1989 Tex heard that John Scharffenberger was looking for a production manager in Ukiah where he was making sparkling wine. Tex got the job and a few weeks later he became the winemaker too when the person in that position quit. The family now moved back to the mobile home in the Valley and the boys attended the A.V. Elementary School. In 1990 the winery bought 640 acres in Anderson Valley, right next door to where the Sawyers lived, and the first harvest there was in 1991, a few months after Tex and Lynne completed their new house. Ted could walk to work!
John Scharffenberger left the winery in 1994 to make chocolate and in 1998 the new ownership decided to change the name to Pacific Echo. Following a significant drop in sales, in 2003 Roederer bought them out and reinstated the Scharffenberger name and things began to turn around. “That was a wise move. The Scharffenberger name had come to mean quality in both chocolate and wine, and sales increased. I have been the winemaker since 1989 and this will be my 22nd harvest. I think it is the perfect job for me.”
“I was involved with school activities for many years as the boys went through the school system and have been active with the Education Foundation too. We socialize and have traveled with the Mike and Susan Addison and Lanny and Sandy Parker, visiting Kauai all together on a few occasions. We also like to go to various Valley events such as the Crab Feed and Lions Club bbq’s, and for about six years I was an E.M.T. volunteer and I’m now the Ambulance Board. I also play poker monthly with a great bunch of guys. I love the natural beauty of the Valley and the wonderful sense of community. It is so diverse, yet tightly knit and very supportive.”
I asked Tex for his responses to some of the Valley’s issues.
The Wineries and their impact? “I believe the wineries have been responsible for the economic renaissance of the Valley, The logging and apple industries were in decline and now everybody’s ‘boat’ has risen with the success of the wineries. I will say, however, that at this point we may have set aside enough land for vines, particularly with regards to water usage, and the addition of any more is not the way to go.”
The AVA? “I have always enjoyed it. The writing is good and perhaps one day I will actually subscribe. Bruce used to push buttons for the sake of it but it has changed in recent times and it’s a good thing to have a community paper without a doubt.”
The School System? “It is great. It’s amazing what is accomplished here and we have an extraordinary group of teachers. I think it is misguided of parents to pull their kids out of our school and send them elsewhere.”
KZYX radio? “I like some programs such as ‘Humble Pie’, ‘Lunch on the Back Porch’, and Fred Wooley’s show. Mostly I listen to KOZT — The Coast.”
Changes in the Valley? “It hasn’t reached a point that concerns me. I can’t see Napafication happening here, thanks primarily to the natural ‘defense’ we have in the bends and curves of Highway 128.”
I posed a few obvious, and some less obvious, questions to my guest.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When my wife says, ‘I love you’, and the same from my kids.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “The constant news that we humans are still fighting all of these ridiculous wars.”
Sound or noise you love? “The sounds of the ocean — large and small waves.”
Sound or noise you hate? “The screech of metal rubbing metal; dripping water from a faucet.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “My wife’s mother’s ravioli with her Grandmother Nonnie’s sauce; rare beef, warm in the middle; roast potatoes with sour cream and butter; hearth-baked bread and sweet corn-on-the-cob; chocolate decadence cake or strawberry shortcake. Or the carnitas plate from Libby’s Restaurant in Philo would be a very good option.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “President Jimmy Carter. I always liked the guy.”
If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “A sailing boat, a knife, and a musical instrument that I could learn to play, such as a ukulele or a harmonica.”
Favorite film that has influenced you? “That would be ‘The Great Santini’ — it provided me with a view of what I’d experienced growing up in a military family. It spoke a lot of truth to me and helped me start to review what my life had been like... A poem that has had a great effect on my life is ‘Look To This Day’ by Kalidasa. He was an Indian poet and playwright from 370-450 AD.”
A smell you really like? “Plumeria blossoms; roasting meat; rosemary; and wine of course!”
Favorite hobby? “Surfing and working on the house.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A marine biologist”
Profession you’d not like to do? “A sewer worker in Mumbai, India... Or an executioner anywhere.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “When I married Lynne and when our sons were born.”
Saddest day or period of your life? “I was lost for a time after my first wife and I split up. I had no idea what to do. And I was pretty down after I left Kansas State and moved in with my parents, working in retail.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “I like to think that I have a positive effect on people’s lives. That I enjoy my friends. My dedication to my family, which is the primary thing in my life.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I am an atheist but if he is was there and said, ‘You’re not done yet; I’m sending you back’ that would be fine with me.” ¥¥
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Efren Mendoza.)