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The Early ‘Modern’ Era Grapegrowers

From the day I began laying out my vineyard on paper back in 1971 I wondered whether what I was doing was in the best long term interests of The Valley community.  Back in those days’ climatic conditions, I also wondered whether my ridgetop on the old Ingram place three miles west of Husch was too close to the ocean and thus too cool for ripening wine grapes.  There was not one vineyard to compare ripening patterns with between me and Tony Husch, and the old ranches, sheep and apples appeared to still be sustainable.  From my neighbor Roux Ranch across the highway all the way to Mill Creek, it was all sheep on both sides of 128 and still a few functioning orchards at Ray Pinoli’s and at Clark’s Philo Foothills Ranch.

What I ruminated on was what would the Valley community look like if vineyards like mine were commercially successful, if wineries and tasting rooms flourished like Napa Valley, if the industry attracted manifold more customers streaming down Highway 128 in pursuit of “the romance  of the grape.”  Would I enjoy living in a rural community like that?  Or would I have to head for Oregon and start again?  Half a century later I am still parsing the question.

Right after the end of World War II the wine industry began to grow and play a larger role in the social and culinary customs of Americans. In that era, Italian Swiss Colony Wines, then located solely in Asti south of Cloverdale, began looking for additional vineyard land to supplement their hundreds of acres of vines along Highway 101.  They bought land in Boonville, over a hundred acres south of Mountainview Road where the Anderson Valley High School and athletic fields now stand.  Thelma Pinoli’s brother, Roy Salatena, was the local vineyard manager, and I believe the plantings were all white grapes, French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, maybe Chasselas, I wish I remembered better.  These were typically the varietals that went into Italian Swiss’s principle product, a two dollar gallon jug wine labelled “White Burgundy,” which I have heard included pear juice grown in Clarksburg. 

The unirrigated Boonville vineyards did produce a harvest for a number of years, but after a decade or so Italian Swiss abandoned the vines.  When I first lived here in The Valley, I did talk with Roy about what went wrong.  He said he didn’t rightly know, but that in the 1950s, there were a number of frosty Aprils that dramatically reduced the annual crop size, and Italian Swiss winemakers weren’t impressed by the tonnage per acre the Boonville vineyards produced anyway.  And later its Anderson Valley viticultural experiment became the ball fields for the High School sports program.  When I played “adult” softball there in the 1970s and before I knew Roy Salatena, I often wondered why shoots of grape rootstock would annually sprout against the backstop behind home plate on the baseball diamond.  I understand that Italian Swiss sold the vineyard property to the Anderson Valley School system for $1.00.

Meanwhile, in the 1950s, Dr. Donald Edmeades, Deron’s father and Pasadena pediatrician, began bringing his family on summer vacations to Archie McDougall’s Tumbling Mc D guest ranch along Rancheria Creek where Jim Boudoures now lives.  Part of the Mc D itinerary was horseback rides along Rancheria and the Navarro River.  Those rides followed a trail on a riverside bluff part of Dick Winkler’s ranch, now Corby.  Looking from the trail east through the scattered redwoods and oaks, Dr. Edmeades saw open pastureland between the river and the highway, an old haybarn, an apple dryer in fair repair, and an acre of apples and almonds (yes!) by the barn.  Around 1962, Dr. Edmeades bought this Hamar Olssen property and in 1964 began planting grapes.

Dr. Edmeades was in effect the pioneer gentry following “the romance” of  rural vineyard ownership, a significant proportion of the grape growing community all over the world.  We must remember that he was also committing himself to a high risk large investment endeavor about which there was little formal knowledge or previous experience in our cool climate.  The UC Davis textbook I grew up on, A.J. Winkler’s GENERAL VITICULTURE, 1962, in a  list of California grape growing regions organized by climate mentions the “Philo region” as a possiblegrowing area for coolest climate fine wine fruit, no varieties discussed.

And as is the case with all agricultural pioneers, Dr. Edmeades first plantings in 1964 got some varieties right, some not.  The four acres of Colombard were a bad mistake.  Philo north was too cool a region to ripen this high production, simple  grassy pear-tasting fruit successfully, no market for bottles of the boring wine it produced.  The Gewuerztraminer was the right variety, making a fragrant, delicate white wine that later Navarro Vineyards across the highway made its reputation with.  The two acres or so of Cabernet, an interesting challenge.  

Back then the Edmeades area of The Valley was too cool for Cabernet, no matter how small a crop was carried, to ripen every year.  In fact, there were only three years during my time as a friend and partner in the vineyard, where Jed Steele was able to make a quality wine from the fruit.  The 1974 Cab fruit had a perfect summer, with many warm days in September and none of the early October rains typical of the era, and was a killer, arguably the best one Edmeades ever made.  Darrel Corti, famous Sacramento gourmet food store owner, thought so to the extent he bought half the cuvee to sell under his Corti Bros. label.  Too bad for Edmeades, but the business needed the upfront cash to pay the winemaker and vineyard crew.  1978 and 1980 were also growing seasons warm enough to make an estate bottled wine.  I have a few bottles of the 1978, and opened one a few weeks ago.  I was pleased to observe and taste a clean aroma and well-balanced, not over-the-hill, in fact a complex, youthfully mature wine.  In other years, Edmeades blended the home vineyard fruit with the warmer climate B.J. Carney vineyard  Cab in Boonville, planted in 1972 and now Roederer, to create a marketable wine.  Edmeades Cab sold in the tasting room for $9.00/bottle, by the way.

Edmeades in those days suffered from significant underinvestment, particularly after the death of Dr. Edmeades in the mid-seventies.  And the quality of the wine-making equipment, storage tanks and buildings showed it.  Most of the fermentation, crush, storage and bottling was done in the Olsen apple dryer, a 25 X 40 foot building under oak tree shade to the left of the ranch road coming up from the  highway.  The crushing and pressing equipment were favored with electric power; fermentation and storage tanks were not, so no temperature control of vinification and aging.  The bottling line was mechanical but slow filling about 50 cases an hour, perhaps 400 cases a day.  Corking was done by hand one bottle at a time.  With six people on the line you can imagine the labor costs for this 7,000 case process, not good.

The haybarn on the west side of the half acre apple/almond orchard, on the other hand, was a beautiful structure in excellent repair, not a leak in the roof, if I remember right.  And it was an historic building, I claim, because once long ago, the old wagon road from Cloverdale, now Highway 128, went from Greenwood Road junction across the property and right through the middle of the building before heading on ridges west of the current highway all the way to Mill Creek.  In winter Day Flat was so wet and swampy a horse-drawn wagon couldn’t drive through it without getting stuck.  The orchard the Edmeades marketing department, Earlene Merriman, used for a couple of summer concerts each year featuring bands, snacks, wine and dancing.

The tasting room in those days was more Edmeades-like.  You found the door to the right as you entered the two car garage and entered this charmless space with a twenty foot long bar, some bottle were racked in wood on the back bar, open ones and glasses at its right, and three bar stools.  The tasting room host also worked in the adjacent office part of Deron’s home, doing the complex, tedious bookwork supporting labor, materials, wholesale and retail activities.  Some rainy days in February the tasting room revenue was maybe $125.00; but then on Memorial Day it might approach $1,000.00.  Tasting room margins accounted for most of Edmeades’ annual profit when there was one.  But don’t forget, as unromantic as the tasting room décor was, there were in 1980 only three other such outlets in the whole Valley, Navarro across the highway, Husch, a mile north, and Lazy Creek, invisible except for a small metal sign The Kobler’s Highway 128 mailbox, as it was half a mile up the ranch road through creekbottom woods half a mile .  Edmeades financial condition forced its sale to Kendall-Jackson in 1985.

Tony Husch’s vineyards were a far better capitalized and managed affair.  Tony was of the St. Louis gentry, Ivy League educated, with a wife and two children when he planted his first vines, about fifteen acres, in 1968.  Husch vineyard included both Gewuerztraminer and Chardonnay, and a first in Anderson Valley, about two acres of Pinot Noir on a bench looking down on The Navarro at Lazy Creek.  I think these old vines are still there.  And in the retail marketing spirit of the times the Husch tasting room, if I remember right, was simply a two door closet-like bar built into the wall of an elegant, vine enclosed outdoor deck just outside the family kitchen.  I am not sure what tasting accommodations were made on a rainy or windy day.

Tony was more than a little anxiety-driven about his vineyard and winery work agenda, back at a time when there was little in the way of vineyard experienced ag labor in The Valley.  In fact, all of us, Kobler, Wiley, Husch, other pioneers of those days did an awful lot of the field work themselves.  I know I was barely able, at the age of 35 years to make it through the spring pruning and weed removal season.  Before commercial herbicide, I and others wielded the classic Italian hoe to chop all the grasses and broadleaf around the plants one vine at a time.  The springtime daily agenda featured work, dining and sleep.  And Tony was the most fanatic of us all.  He told me once he often spent nights out there with a miner’s light pruning away until dawn, when he would then head for the winery to care for the wine.  His wife Gretchen once admitted she often didn’t see him for days on end, that she was worried about his lack of fatherly attention to the two boys.

Tony was also a perfectionist with great anxiety about failure,  particularly in the eyes of others.  Once upon a time there was a wandering County-wide wine tasting club, mostly Ukiah citizens like John Parducci, Harley Hayes, owner a retail record (sic) store, a local attorney, Charlie Barra, Redwood Valley grape grower, etc., the agenda a random assortment of Mendocino County products.  The club met monthly at a local restaurant, first came the tasting of Mendocino County wines, followed by more wine and elegant dining.  One time Jed Steele and I, along with Tony, participated in the tasting event at Ledford House near Little River, then the only prestige restaurant on the coast.  I don’t recollect the array of wines, possibly six different varieties, some red, some white.  In Mendocino County there weren’t enough of any variety to do comparative tastings, so the commentary was polite but absolute.  The whites that evening at Ledford included a Sauvignon Blanc, Edmeades famous $5.00 blend called “Rainwine,” and Tony’s first vintage Chardonnay, all disguised in paper bags.  As I remember, the commentary around the tasting table were all kinds of desultory and unprovocative like “I think this is from Redwood Valley,” etc.  Tony’s estate Chardonnay, I recognized it despite the bagging, was the least impressive, underripe, acid and kind of grassy, and the comments around the room were accordingly pretty negative.  When we unbagged the bottles to reveal the wines, Tony’s comment  about his Chard was, “well, it was my first attempt using Fetzer’s Green Hungarian grapes.”  The source of the fruit patently untrue.

Tony a few years later sold the winery to Hugo Oswald and heirs, who still own the vineyard and winery, and moved to Berkeley.  His perfectionism and relentless work ethic had worn him out, for he didn’t have a clue about what I learned  later.  It takes years, half a generation at least, to learn how to design and manage a vineyard and to ferment and age the wines you grow to their best character.  And the fun part is you never, ever stop learning how to make them even better.

Last week’s story about the Pinolis and early grape growing on the Valley floor introduced you to Hans and Theresia Kobler, personal friends and founders of Lazy Creek winery and vineyards.  Their story is a lot different from those of the wine “gentry.”  Born in eastern Switzerland, Hans in St Gallen, Theresia in Luzerne canton, they met in Basel, where Hans was enrolled in the famous hospitality school, and migrated to Canada, married and began their professional careers as  interning “busboys” at the Banff Springs Hotel on the Rockies east slope.  Salary was free meals.  Next they moved to San Francisco around 1955 where Hans worked as maître d and wine steward in several prestige restaurants, including the famous Jack’s and Blue Fox, no longer in business.

Of Swiss disposition, Hans and Theresia worked hard their whole lives, saved a  lot of their restaurant wages, and in 1970 bought the Claudina Pinoli property, once a vineyard and winery, and began building their own winery business.  Neither of them had had any personal experience in or family connections with grape growing or winemaking.  Hans as a teenager worked seasonally for a dairy farmer shepherding his herd up  on the Alps  and weekly bringing cheese and butter to town to sell to retailers.  Theresia grew up in Lucerne Canton on Ermensee, lost her railroad engineer father young and lived with her widowed grandmother til she went to Canada.

Their Lazy Creek project included both vineyard and winery, all of which Hans and Teresa established from scratch with great thoughtfulness and care.  The vineyard included Chardonnay, Gewuerztraminer, Pinot Noir, the aromatic Swiss Waedensville clone of course (Hans personally “suitcase” pirated the Pinot cuttings from the Old Country), and half an acre of Cabernet on a steep sidehill across the creek from the house. This tiny plot was out of the wind and facing the afternoon sun; head-pruned, romantically scenic, but a bad idea, climate too cool.  The other vineyard plots were south across from their home on a flat bordering Philo Foothills ranch, a couple of acres of Chardonnay, and up on gentle ridgeback above the house where the Pinoli vineyard once was, there was a plot of Gewuerztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The winemaking operation began in a small wooden building along Lazy Creek, the rebuilt redwood and shake-roofed Pinoli winery I described in last week’s story.  The building I remember as looking a lot like the first Frati winery building up on Vinegar Hill.  This structure served the crush, fermentation and storage of the red wines.  Next to it the Koblers built another wooden building of similar size to house the white winemaking operation.  And as their production grew they added a larger third structure further up the creek.  

Naturally the Kobler work ethic motivated Hans to pursue in his spare time other jobs around The Valley, even as husband and wife each worked a full day much of the year, building the Lazy Creek business.  At 42 or so Hans found himself working next to me, Sam Prather and Kenny Hurst pulling greenchain at Philo Mill; at 46 he approached me one day at Jack’s Valley Store to inquire how to get winter work planting redwood seedlings  with Red Dog’s crew on Masonite forest land.

Lazy Creek’s wines reflected the care the Koblers put into the vineyard, correct vine spacing, precise pruning to the right crop size, and with daily supervision of fermentation and storage of the wines.  Each of the wines from the moment of their first release in 1979, a Pinot Noir, were full of aroma and varietal character in a elegant non over-alcoholed mouth feel, the European way.  In 1992 an Italian industry guide, “Guida a Vini del Mondo” (Guide to the Wines of the World) named Lazy Creek’s 1990 Gewuerztraminer as one of the top 150 wines in the world.

And as the 1980 began the Koblers only charged around $12.00 for the more in demand Chardonnay, less for the Gewuerz and Pinot.  I remember once proposing to Hans that he was “leaving money on the table” with these low prices.  Theresia agreed with me.  His reply reminded me that over two thirds of his revenue came from “tasting room” appointment only visitors, to a large extent old restaurant client contacts from San Francisco days, loyal repeat customers who came all the way from the city to purchase not a bottle or two, but a case or more.  In fact these customers were such a large part of the Kobler’s business, the only evidence of the winery’s existence was a small metal sign reading Lazy Creek Vineyard’s on top of their mailbox on 128.  

An important part of the city people connection was the charm of Lazy Creek’s tasting room, in summer on the home back deck or adjacent graveled yard above the creek.  The Koblers were the tasting staff, and their old country charm and technical knowledge of the wines were sometimes accompanied by an appetizer left  over from last night’s dinner, or maybe simply a piece of home-baked bread. Norman tells me sometimes the business had twenty case weekends.  A hard argument to refute.  In sum the pioneering Kobler family, including teenage son Norman, was the whole vineyard and winery business from planting, cultivation, pruning, harvest, crush, fermentation, storage and bottling, all executed with skill and grace.

In 1998  Hans and Teresa, aged 72, migrated again, this time to retirement, sold the winery to the Josh Chandlers, a wealthy Napa Valley family unendowed with the Kobler’s commitment to and stamina for the industry’s science and mystery.  The next owner, Don Ferrari-Carano, Dry Creek winery owner, managed Lazy Creek for another 10 years or so and recently sold again to a Napa Valley conglomerate who having not bought the Lazy Creek name with the property, put its oversized basaltic tombstone, TWOMEY, along Highway 128 to guide tourists to the winery and tasting room.  Lazy Creek and the Koblers is just a memory admired and cherished by their friends and neighbors.

Footnote:  Morgan Baynham, retired trucker and local raconteur told me the other day when I was interviewing Norman and Colleen Kobler for this article at Mosswood that when he began summertime employment at Clearwater Ranch child custodial school, there was still evidence of the Leo Sanders vineyard planted on a bench between the Clearwater Road and Indian Creek.  Morgan remembers the neat plow rows parallel with the ranch road, rootstock popping up every eight feet or so and a rotting wire deer fence along the creek.  Sanders was running horses, cows and sheep then, and the grapes must have been another pioneering experiment not successful. 

(Next:  The Anderson Valley Health Center, origins and evolution, 1976-2022.)

One Comment

  1. Jeff McMullin March 5, 2022

    Brad,
    This is so fascinating—plz PM me to discuss when you have time, without boring the readership.
    Jeff McMullin,
    Crescent City
    sawemup@charter.net

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