Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Tom Rodrigues

by Steve Sparks, February 5, 2011

I drove out to the Yorkville Highlands and up to a beautiful home with spectacular views behind the Maple Creek Winery to meet owner Tom Rodrigues. For my brief tour of the property, I was given a Bloody Mary and, when we had sat down on the deck to do the interview, a delicious bowl of soup made with chanterelle mushrooms, leeks, and potatoes was served, followed by a little wine. All very nice indeed...

Tom was born in San Jose, California in 1953 to parents Anthony Rodrigues and Gay Leal — both of Portuguese descent. “My name sounds Mexican and I was given abuse and called a wetback as a kid. However, it is spelled the Portuguese way, with an ‘s’ not a ‘z.’ Both of my parent’s families were from the Azores, islands off the Portuguese coast, and came across to this country in the late 1800’s. On my father’s side they were fruit farmers in the Santa Clara Valley until my father broke the mold and became a mechanical engineer, with many patents to his name, including the handy-angle saw, work on the X15 missile, and a machine that removed the pits out of peaches without squashing the peach itself! He later went on to design equipment that made surgical gloves and catheters. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was also Portuguese but my grandmother was Irish/English — the O’Leary’s, and they had all settled in the south Bay where my grandfather was a conductor on the train between San Jose and San Francisco in the 30s, 40s and 50s.”

Tom’s parents met at Sunday school, both being raised strict Catholics, his father going to Bellarmine All-boys Catholic School and his mother to Notre Dame High School. They each went on to college, his father eventually going on to Southern Methodist University to get his masters. They were married and in the next five years had four kids — Patrick, Tom, Susan, and John, in that order. Tragically, both Patrick, in a car crash and Susan, of alcoholism, died at 26 and 37 respectively. Tom’s Dad retired at 55 and his parents moved to Paradise, California. They were married for 61 years until his mother passed at the age of 78 in 2007. His father, after spending some time in Anderson Valley with Tom to avoid the ‘casserole brigade’ of people offering to help and feed him, remarried at 82, a year or so later.

Tom and his siblings were raised in Los Gatos, at the south end of the SF Bay, “a small town on the way to Santa Clara. I went to St. Mary’s Grade School and then R.J. Fisher Junior High where I played on the baseball, basketball, and football teams, lettering in each. It was a wonderful time and place to grow up, a time when we were outside until it got dark, the neighbors’ houses were open to us, the air was clean, and there were orchards in every direction, just beyond our neighborhood. The Santa Clara Valley has fifteen feet of top soil that is the best in the country but now it’s become Silicon Valley and they grow computer chips there!”

Tom was not a good student, other than at Art and PE, in which he got As all through school. “I won an art competition in kindergarten with my drawing of a chicken and my teacher still has that on her wall in her home to this day. She told me I was going to be famous with my art and I never forgot her saying that. I was basically self-trained and have done art in one-way or another ever since. When I wasn’t playing sports for the school or in Little League, that’s what I liked to do.”

Every summer, Tom’s parents would take the family on road trips in a trailer and they would camp out every night. Most years this saw them in Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, or northern California but in the summer of 1963, Tom’s father dissolved his business partnership and took the family on a three-month tour of the country. “We went all over and I was exposed to the racism of the times in the South with its black or white drinking fountains etc. We ended up passing through twenty-three States and I remember being very impressed with Niagara Falls, Mt Rushmore, Yellowstone Park, and the Grand Canyon. From that time on I loved the outdoors and developed an interest in the environment.”

Back in Los Gatos, Tom’s upbringing was greatly influenced by the Catholic Church. “It was mass every Sunday and confession every week; I was an altar boy, my uncle was a Priest, my aunt a Nun. I was exposed to wine at church, but it was not for the first time. Our extended family got together every weekend and there was always wine on the table, we grew to respect it as a food product. It’s in my blood!.”.. When Tom was fourteen, he was at a neighborhood friend’s home, the Hogan family, who were in the stained glass window business. In those days it was primarily a business that made windows for churches. His friend’s father, John Hogan, showed Tom a glasscutter and he started to mess around with it. John asked him if he wanted to learn how to use it correctly. “The stained glass windows at church had caught my eye and I’d wondered how they were made. John Hogan offered me an apprenticeship and I accepted. At first I was doing the lead work but gradually progressed to the painting and after a year I had become pretty good and passed my apprenticeship — good enough to open a business with my friend, John’s son Roger, and another guy, Tom Stanton. I was fifteen, they were a year older, and we opened Sunrise Studios, producing lampshades for restaurants. It was the early days of the stained glass trend that was no longer just for churches, and which would be a big part of my life for the next 30 years or more.”

All 3 of the young entrepreneurs were still at school but Tom began to teach his craft at adult education center in the evenings. “I had some very interesting students, one women, who was thirty-four, was particularly interesting, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, I was still playing baseball and being a terrible student, being a dyslexic didn’t help but it was not the only reason. I just got passing grades in most subjects but I was President of the Art Club and some teachers let me go to our studio to work rather than classes. In my senior year, I moved out of home. My schedule was disrupting my parent’s quite strict house rules and there were no exceptions made. It didn’t help that I told my mother I didn’t like her cooking, although initially that had meant I had to learn to cook for myself, and iron too — two things I am very good at to this day. Anyway, my business was doing well, earning about $10K a year, and I had money, so for most of my senior year I lived in a hotel across the street from the school until my graduation in 1972.”

Perhaps his parents felt bad, but Tom feels that may be the reason that they bought two trailer parks and offered Tom and his brother jobs as managers, one at each — Patrick in Truckee and Tom in Sierra City. He moved there, north of Grass Valley on Hwy 49. “I took my part of the glass business with me and set up there. I taught a stained glass class at Sierra College but it soon became apparent that I was not trailer park management material. Then, having met a girl from Marin at Geology Camp, another hobby of mine, she came up and stayed with me in a trailer. My parents came up and caught us. They were mad and packed my bags for me. I was ‘immoral’, having sex before marriage was not acceptable to them. They ‘fired’ me and I moved to Marin where this girl introduced me to an interesting scene. I found some temporary work at a stained glass studio called Nervo Studio in Berkeley but the commute was too much so I quit and at the end of 1973 opened my own studio in San Rafael in Marin — Rodrigues Studio. It began to do very well and I there for most of the next twenty seven years.”

Tom began collecting wine around this time, mostly French, buying futures based on the French weather pat-terns that he studied. “That was better than playing the stock market for me and taught me what I wanted in the finished product. I could buy a bottle for a couple of hundred and then sell it for thousands a few years later.”

From 1976-79, Tom moved his studio to Mill Valley and then in 1980 he got a job working for George Lucas, the filmmaker. “From 1973 to 1980, I had been in quite a scene in Marin with various people in the modern music business who wanted to buy my glass — people such as the promoter Bill Graham, the Doobie Brothers, and a lawyer who represented many of the bands of the day. I had some great jobs and clients, business had been good, but by 1980 I had taken a job as designer and production manager, along with a friend Eric Christianson, at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin. That pretty much took all of my time, running a staff of six to eight people every day there. I occasionally still took glass projects but the business was falling off by that time.”

In the late-70s, Tom met Gil Nickel who had founded Far Niente Winery. “I had done some glasswork in his home, one spectacular piece, 8” x 12’ with 15,000 pieces of glass. I was doing large architectural glass mosaics by this time and after I had done his piece he asked me to design a wine label for him. That was the beginning of a whole other career, combining my love for art and wine, that has been very profitable over the years.”

In 1982 he bought a place in Hawaii and that became a big part of his life over the next decade, living there for three months a year at first, which later became six. “I left the Lucas operation in 1983 and re-opened my studio in San Rafael. I had met and married Marcia and we had a daughter, Amy in 1985 — I taught Amy to ski at two and surf at five. I also dabbled in real estate in Marin and would buy buildings and re-sell them at profit after doing some renovation... And while all this was going on, for my recreation I always turned to playing a little softball throughout the summer. I have been so fortunate — being able to pursue my dreams in art, wine, and sports.”

By the mid-80s, Tom was doing less glass and far more fine art painting. In 1986 he went to New York City and had a show of his art at the Hameda Bailey Gallery in SoHo. “It was an exhibit that was on for just one day — Good Friday actually, and the concept was all about trout — the fish — paintings, illustrations, and glass work. Everything sold out on that day and that launched my career as a painter. I was soon selling my work in galleries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sante Fe, Hawaii. I still have shows today, one at Lauren’s in Boonville a couple of years ago, but I have far less time to paint these days. Later on I had a one-day exhibit at Candlestick Park, the baseball stadium in San Francisco, in 1993 called ‘Legends of the Stick’ that featured my life-size paintings of some of baseball‘s greats, out on the actual field where they would have been fielding had they been real. We had music from the forties by a Dixieland band, advertising billboards were ones from the old days that I had painted and which covered over the modern signs, and many big baseball names were there. It took two years to plan but was worth it. Many players and baseball people became my customers, even ESPN and Sports Illustrated covered the event, and it led to one painting being ‘enshrined’ in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was planning to do similar events at other famous stadiums but then the baseball strike happened and the idea passed.”

After 10 years together, Tom and Marcia split up in 1993. It had been a wild and exciting time. “We had many friends in the movie business, including Robin Williams and Harrison Ford; The partying had been quite excessive. At one point I was given a small part in a TV pilot that eventually became a made-for-television movie called ‘Mothers, Daughters, and Lovers’ on N.B.C. A friend of ours gave me a script and told me to be on the set at Robert Redford’s Sundance Studios in four days time for a thirteen-day shoot. I had lots of fun, became the set photographer, and made some good friends — it’s one of the most fun experiences of my life and I got residuals for quite a few years afterwards. However, I didn’t really see a future in acting for myself.”

Tom and Marcia shared custody of Amy so from 1993 he became a part-time Dad. More art commissions came in, as did the wine label work, and he continued to hang out with various people in the music world, including Steve Perry, lead singer with the band Journey — “a really close friend who I’d see often for nearly ten years; we had a great time together.” However, over time, Tom gradually became tired of the Marin scene and sought to move away.

Tom had often rode his motor bike up the coast on Hwy 1 from Marin and then across through Anderson Valley on Hwy 128 to Cloverdale and back down along Hwy 101 to Marin. On Christmas Day 2000 he came through the Valley and saw the Martz Winery was for sale in Yorkville. Then the very next day he opened a real estate magazine and there it was again. He decided to make a move and a few months later he had sold his house in Marin and bought the 181 acres in Yorkville, moving in on May 14th 2001. “I knew hardly anyone here — actually just one person, Alan Green of Greenwood Ridge Winery whom I had met at a baseball fantasy camp a year earlier and we had hit it off because of our mutual love of baseball and wine. I knew the potential of this winery in terms of the soils and exposure and it came along at the right time — I was done with all that self-absorption in Marin...”

There was lots of work to do among the vines and on some of the buildings and Tom started by converting the open sided pole barn into his new 1200 square feet studio. He felt that he knew quite a lot about both the farming side of wine making and also most aspects of what the finished product should be like, from his years as a collector, consumer and designer of labels, but he knew virtually nothing of the middle step — converting the grapes to wine. He spent lots of time among the vines in the first few years but also learning the chemistry of wine making. He hired a consultant, Kerry Damsky, and they became almost like “twin brothers” as Tom took to this aspect “like a duck to water.”

“I loved it and soon became very passionate about the whole process, from start to finish. I did some paintings of the vineyards and came up with the Artevino labels — art/wine — to separate what I was doing from the Martz inventory I inherited. I was intending to use ‘Maple Creek’ for our logo but I won some awards with the Artevino labels and so we kept it and now use it for the wines that I blend or make with purchased grapes. The Maple Creek label is for our wines made from grapes here, in limited production. It’s been ten years now and we’ve done well, winning many awards with the wines. However, it’s not as glamorous as some may think. I came here at the age of 47 to semi-retire and I’ve worked harder in the last ten years than the previous thirty put together. It is not a ‘romantic’ pastime. The most romantic part is opening and sharing a bottle at the end of the day.”

Tom’s baseball passion has also continued to ‘bare fruit’ as a result of his participation with Alan Green’s Greenwood Ridge Dragons team. Tom went to baseball fantasy camps ten times from 1987 to 2000 and, as mentioned above, met Alan at that final one in 2000. “I joined Alan’s Over-45 team and we have won the ‘World Series’ for our age bracket in six of the nine seasons I’ve played — twice in that bracket and recently in the Over-55’s. I am the designated hitter or play 2nd base and this past season won the league’s batting title. We play most of our games in Sonoma County, with one game a year at AT&T Park in San Francisco, playing most Sundays from April to October. I love it. It’s like a men’s group for me and in March I am having a team party here when we’ll roast a pig and drink some wine.”

Tom has been self-employed for 42 years now and wants to keep going, although he readily admits one of his goals is to work in some more free time somehow. “I love what I do, and the winery and the art pay the bills, but a little more time off would be nice. Meanwhile, I anticipate continuing what I do and I have great help from my ranch/cellar guy, Houston Johnson, and Cyndee Hollinger and Saffron Fraser in the tasting room.”

“Anderson Valley is paradise/ I particularly like Yorkville. I see the changes in the Valley of course but the regulars all seem to stick around. It’s a great place to come in later life but a bit isolated for youngsters. They should get away and come back later. It is a very interesting area: a lot of creativity and some brilliant people, although many are not motivated to push themselves, which is fine. I cannot see it changing that much; it’s never going to become like Napa, not with the curves and bends of Hwy 128 to deal with.”

Tom attends many of the community events and looks forward to doing more sushi nights like those he did at The Boonville Lodge when he prepared his favorite food for customers. “I love to cook and that gave me a chance to do that and have a good time in a bar too. I also enjoy the Trivia nights at Lauren’s and before that at The Lodge. I would be at more events connected to wine but we are not in the Anderson Valley wine appellation, we are in Yorkville, and so we are excluded — it’s just some political bulls***. Anyway, we’re just a few miles from Boonville so come and see us.”

I asked Tom for his thoughts on the wineries and their impact on the Valley. “I would guess that the industry is the biggest legal employer in the Valley and I think they have been a positive influence on the community. People talk of the water issues. Well most of the wineries are self-sustaining and we here have seven natural springs on the property. The pot growers are probably the main cause of any water shortages these days and I am not aware of any wineries taking water from the river.”

I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Tom.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Living here — the sun rising over the oak trees on that distant hill and then the sunset every day — two spectacular views. Harvest time excites me — all the hard work hopefully paying off; the rains falling. I think of the upcoming mushroom hunting and I’m a mushroom freak; the Giants winning the World Series got my juices flowing!”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Political short-sightedness. And I’m amazed at the continuing hatred and prejudice in this day and age.”

Sound or noise you love? “The wind in the trees, flocks of birds taking off, frogs mating at the pond — the sounds of nature.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Traffic.”

Favorite food or meal? “Sushi — I love it and could eat it every day.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Jesus Christ — I’d say ‘let’s talk about your Dad — and I don’t mean Joseph!’”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “That’s tough — I have so much stuff. Well, Buster my dog, some photos of Amy, and as much of my art that I could carry. Oh, and a baseball signed by the 1934 Yankees.”

Favorite film/song or one that has influenced you? “The film would have to be the baseball movie, ‘Field of Dreams’ and almost any song by Pink Floyd.”

What is your favorite word or phrase? “Liquid panty remover — some might call it wine. That’s terrible, I’m sorry.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “When people tell me ‘no problem’ I know it usually is a problem, or will be.”

Favorite hobby? “Cooking and mushroom-hunting.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “Professional baseball player.”

Profession you’d not like? “Dealing w/ septic tanks.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was not allowed to date until I was 16. Then I went on a date to a drive-in movie. I first had sex at 17, with a 34 year old woman.”

Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “Some of my relationships.”

What do you find yourself doing that you said you'd “never” do? “Well I never thought I’d be making wine.”

Something that you are really proud of? “Having a painting in the Baseball Hall of Fame.”

Your strongest image of your father? “A man of integrity.”

What is your favorite memory of your mother? “A party girl. She was very social. They were both excellent dancers and I can remember being at parties and everyone stopping to watch them dance to big band music.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of my daughter on February 15th, 1985 — a joy that cannot be beaten.”

The saddest? Losing my brother and sister. And quite a few close friends.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “That I have an ability to make people feel comfortable. I was a shy kid so I learned to deflect attention on to others and that has meant I have been able to get along with most people.

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I think, ‘Well done!’ would be good. Is that it? The interview is over? I didn’t even get to talk about all the drugs and wild sex parties.”
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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 eminent actor of stage, film, and television — and Anderson Valley resident — Rene Auberjonois — appearing in the Valley at The Grange this Saturday.

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