Ξ March 16th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |
Santa Cruz Mountains wine pioneer, Bob Mullen of Woodside Vineyards has one of the quickest minds in the wine business. His rapid-fire responses to remote historical references was quite impressive. He easily revisits discrete details from 50 years in the wine business here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had enjoyed an informative but brief email interview with Mr. Mullen a few months ago. Not satisfied I had learned enough from the gentleman, neither had my readers, that I contacted him recently for a longer telephone exchange. I was not disappointed. Below is part one of two.
Admin Thank you, Mr. Mullen, for agreeing to a more comprehensive interview. Of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, begin wherever you like!
Bob Mullen Of course. There were about 120 wineries in California when we started. Most of them, like Beringer, Gallo, Mirassou, Wente, people like that, had been around for 50 to 100 years or longer. We were one of the first, I didn’t keep any good records, but going through the files as I have been lately in anticipation of our move, I have not found anything that lists the wineries at that time. I’ll look to the Wine Institute. In any case, most of those were 50,000 to 250,000 case wineries then in existence. For some reason no one particularly thought of starting small wineries back in those days!
We started strictly as a hobby in 1960. We got our bond in 1963 and sold our first wine in 1966 for a tremendous $2.00 a bottle for Cabernet Sauvignon!
Though you were one of the first, do you have any idea where the term ’boutique’ came from to describe a small winery?
BM I don’t have any idea. But we were one of the early ones. There might have been others that started up about that time. But once we went commercial we discovered that you got to get alot larger than 2000 cases a year to have any chance of making any money in the business. Your expenses are so high in relation to the volume that it just doesn’t work. We’ve determined, after we move, that we’re going to set a goal of about 5000 cases over the next 4 to 6 years. Hopefully that will put us in a little more solid profit picture than we have been for the last 40 years.
“More solid than in the last 40 years”, I like that!
BM (laughs) That’s how long it’s been. There were a lot more years when I had to feed $10,000 to $40,000 into the business than when… well, I never took any out! That just didn’t happen. But there were years when we broke even, when we didn’t have to put any money in.
You say you began making wine as a hobby in 1960. What kind of success did you meet that made you feel you could make a commercial go of wine making?
BM It really had very little to do with the success of the early effort than with the fact I had a partner who owned one of the small La Questa vineyards, and I had property on Kings Mountain Road. After about three years we discovered that between those two properties we were making more wine than we could possibly drink or give away to friends. Your limit was to make 200 cases a year without a bond, I believe. Since we we’re making right at that or just a little more, and at about that time one or two of our neighbors with small vineyards said why don’t you guys pick our grapes and make wine for us as well, we realized we were going to go beyond the 200 case legal limit. So we got a bond in 1963.
Back then getting a bond was very easy because it didn’t happen very often. The attorney in this city, Bob Beffor, who specialized in that sort of thing was most anxious to do the job and put us through the whole process for about a $1000. Back then that was quite a bit of money, I guess. But it was a fairly simple procedure to get a winery license back then. He wrote a couple letters for us to the right people in Washington D.C. and Sacramento and all of a sudden we became a bonded winery.
We weren’t paying any attention, we weren’t thinking even then of any commercial involvement. We were just thinking of being legal to make more, to then be able to sell some to our friends, and maybe to a local restaurant or two, to stores, Roberts of Woodside, for example. I don’t really know where we fit into the boutique movement but I would suspect we were one of the first five, or ten anyway.
Now, with respect to wine pioneer E.H. Rixford and his vineyard lands in Woodside, how did you stumble upon this particular property?
BM Well, that was the property my friend owned. It was actually 37 acres at one time. Rixford had died during Prohibition. And after Prohibition, when his sons tried to start up again, they just weren’t very successful. I think it was about 1942 that they sold the whole property to a subdivider who divided it into one acre lots. A few houses were built on those lots. My friend bought on of those houses.
Most of the people completely tore out the vineyards above their house but three different families kept their vineyards. Two of them were Italian families that made their own wine, the third one was owned by my friend, Bob Groetzinger, my original partner.
Were Rixford’s La Questa vineyards a field blend?
BM Everything that I’ve read says he tried to imitate a Chateau Margaux blend. That would mean most of the same things grown throughout Bordeaux. He tried to emulate the percentages used at Margaux, 75% cab sauvignon, 20% cab franc, 2% each of merlot and petit verdot. Each winery in Bordeaux had their own formula, different percentages. That was the main variation you got in the wines because the soil was fairly uniform and the climate was uniform.
Do you know whether any bottles still exist of La Questa?
BM I have a few bottles with ‘37 and ‘38 labels. Those are the only ones I’ve found. It is very possible that way back when we stared there might have been some others around. But perhaps we did not fully appreciate the historical value and tossed them out with the other bottles. But the ones that I have are tenths [roughly half-bottles, 375ml]. Those from ‘37 and ‘38 are probably the last years they made wine. I may have seen a ‘39.
You may know Martin Ray made wine from that vineyard for a few years before he moved to his own property out on Mt. Eden.
Speaking of Martin Ray, did you know the gentleman?
BM Yes I did, quite early. In fact that was one of the reasons I decided to get into the wine business. I cannot tell you what it was that prompted us to drive up the first time. Martin and Eleanor greeted us very graciously. We had a glass of wine on their deck. I remember I bought a couple of bottles. I was shocked they were $8 a piece! (laughs) Four times what anybody else was charging back in those days. But it was excellent. We bought some.
Then they invited us back for harvest, which was quite an honor back in those days. He had a lot of his wealthy friends, doctors and lawyers, professors, invited to help. So we were flattered to be included in that group. We actually helped pick two different years. And the relationship went far enough that he actually proposed that maybe I would come down and understudy him. We were living in Woodside at that time, it was a pretty good drive down the Skyline to get there. But as I dug a little deeper I determined that it really wasn’t the way I wanted to get involved in the business so I declined the offer.
Were there discussions during this friendship of winemaking styles and techniques?
BM That was the thing that bothered me. There wasn’t enough of the actual winemaking for me to do. I asked a few questions but he was firm in what were his responsibilities and what he wanted me to do. I wasn’t enough for me.
What year was this?
BM Oh boy, it would probably be ‘56 to ‘58.
BM Oh yes, because from ‘58 to ‘60 we were actively looking at vineyard property all over Northern California, my friend Bob Groetzinger and a third Bob, Bob Ivy. We’d decided not to get involved with Martin and we went off on our own looking for property. We found lots of property in retrospect we wished we’d bought. We’d be very wealthy today! There was property Davis had identified as having potential, like the Anderson Valley. There was one small vineyard in the Anderson Valley when we visited there. Then we went down around Chular and Gonzales. There were just one or two medium-sized wineries down there. You know how that place has boomed with grapes and wineries.
So we looked extensively in those areas, a little bit up in the Mayacamas Mountains. We had lots of opportunities to buy property but we never put together the program to do it. Essentially what happened was that all three of us were otherwise employed, and all three of us lived in Woodside, we enjoyed living in Woodside. We realized that if we bought 50 or a 100 acres someplace and planted grapes and eventually built a winery that at least one of us would have to quit his job and move to that property to assume full time operation. We looked at each other and each said I don’t want to move! (laughs) Well, we had alot of fun looking at property, we thoroughly enjoyed it, learned a great deal of Northern California and its potential but that was all that came of it.
Were you self-taught, did you take enology courses? How did you come about your expertise?
BM That’s funny. I just ran across a picture the other day. Yes, self-taught. There was a book written by a gentleman named Wagner, I think he was an Easterner. [Mr. Mullen may be referring to Philip Wagner's classic American Wines and Wine-Making first published in 1933.] It outlined the steps for making wine and it gave a few basic formulas. We strictly worked from that. Bob Groetzinger actually had made wine on his property a year or two before we started out together. He made wine is ‘58 and ‘59 and we teamed up in 1960. That was the sum total of experience.
Then I had the opportunity to about the time we decided we were going to get our license, get commercial in the sixties, to go to a summer week or ten-day enology course at UC Davis. The neat thing about was that the students were out for the summer. Back in those days they had more people on the staff than they had students; I think they had 12 to 14 on the staff and typically had 10 to 12 students in the whole enology class. There was nobody out there to hire them [the students]. Gallo would hire two or three people out of every class, and then every now and then Beringer would hire one or Trinchero, somebody like that. It was tough to find half a dozen jobs for each graduating class.
I was pleased that some of my classmates were people like Michael Mondavi who was still in college, Justin Meyer who founded Silver Oak, he was with Christian Brothers at that time, he was in the class just checking out to see if he really wanted to be in the business. The class also included Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap, there were a couple of people from Inglenook, their vineyard manager, a lab chemist… so I made some wonderful connections through that. I was able to trade on those connections to send samples up to have Justin Meyer and others look at them for me, analyze them and tell me what they found and what it needed. That was the most formal training I had. In fact, one of my associates went with me, a young college kid that was working with us. That was basically the whole formal training of the Woodside Vineyards winemaking staff! (laughs)
About early tasting competitions. Were there organized tastings back when you began? Do you remember your first submission?
BM Do you mean competitions? The only one that I can recall we participated in for many years was the California State Fair in Sacramento. There may have been others, for example, there was one in Orange County, but they were so remote to us. We were making 400-600 cases a year. We had no thought of selling outside of Northern California, which we still do not, so it would not have occurred to us to enter a competition any place else than the State Fair. It was the big event. Everybody participated, Gallo, Beringer, and Mondavi, of course.
Could you discuss early friendships with other winery owners in the Santa Cruz Mountains?
BM When we started there were five wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Bargetto, I think, was the oldest, there was Dan Wheeler, Ridge had just started the year before we did, David Bruce started the year after us, I’m forgetting the last one but that was the group. Oh, and there was George Burtness making wine in Woodside and then later in Portola Valley.
The formation of the Santa Cruz Mountains Vintners was a begun at a party we had on our patio with the Bennions from Ridge, David Bruce and his first wife, my wife and I…. The Burnaps would not have been at the first meeting because they hadn’t started up yet. George Burtness may have been one other. Then we sort of branched out. Roudon-Smith started up. Ken Burnap, a couple others. Mount Eden was fairly early in there.
Mount Eden went through a whole series of different winemakers. That is a whole story in itself. After Martin Ray dropped out the people who he had recruited essentially knew nothing about the wine business and so they hired people to come in and run the business for them. I don’t know what the problem was, maybe there was no problem at all, just a natural attrition, but nobody seemed to last there for more than three or four years. There was a series of pretty good people who wound up in the wine industry in other locations. It was not until Jeffery Patterson came many years later that they had some real stability personnel-wise. They would have been one of the early members.
End of pt. 1