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By Allan Bree

Richard Sherwin

Richard SherwinLate last summer I drove north on Hwy 101 through Healdsburg, then Geyserville and Cloverdale to Hopland in Mendocino County. On as picturesque a hillside as you could imagine, I sat down with Richard Sherwin and talked about the Valley Vista Vineyard and Lytton Springs Winery.

I first asked him how he learned about the vineyard. It seems he was reading the want ads in the local newspaper...

Richard Sherwin - "60 acre vineyard, $125,000 - $130,000, something like that. I think it was Thanksgiving, and Walt Walters was in the kitchen cooking, and I yelled in to him: 'Hey, Walt! If I buy a vineyard would you consider taking care of it for me?'

His answer was: 'Hell, yes.' That came right back from the kitchen.

So, we called the real estate people, and went over to take a look at the vineyard. There again, the whole romance of the wine and the grapes and the Northern California beauty and everything else.

You know, of course, in those days, you didn't think so much: 'Is this a great real estate buy?' as much as: 'It's a piece of land, it's in the country - that's what I want.'

So we bought the place, and Walt wound up going to work full time for me, taking care of the vineyard. Neither one of us had any experience whatsoever in vineyard management or farming grapes or anything like that, but he was the kind of guy that was quick to learn, hard working - an absolutely fantastic guy. He just rolled up his sleeves and went around to other farmers and asked questions - so he wound up living up here.

At that time I was flying, so I had a single engine airplane, and I'd come up here as often as I could, which would be a couple of times a month, usually.

Walt lived in a mobile home right there on the Lytton ranch, and it had an extra room that I would use - I would swoop down over the vineyard, and he would know I was there, and I would go on up and do my pattern and land the airplane. By the time I got out of the airplane he was there waiting for me.

He was just a wonderful guy, and we became really good friends - all the way up until 1987 when he had a major heart attack. He was one of these unfortunate guys who genetically aged prematurely. He was in his early 50s - had this major heart attack, and at that point had to back off quite a bit from what he was doing. Six or eight months later he had another heart attack and died.

He was a very important part of my tie to Lytton Springs. I mean when I go by there, when I think of it, I always think of Walt. He was like a brother to me. He was just a fabulous guy. He worked really hard - he got a bunch of his buddies up there, they got a bunch of fork lifts, a steel building - the kind you can just assemble with bolts. They got their fork lifts, and they put this building up.

We were not making big bucks back in those days, so he found ways to make things work. We put up this metal building in 1975 and got bonded - we were making wine every year anyway - we made it in his backyard.

Early on is when I met Paul Draper - just after I bought that vineyard - maybe it was the same year that I bought it, probably 1970. I was up at the old Nervo winery and it was raining outside, and there was one guy in the tasting room and we got a glass of wine to taste, and it turned out to be Paul Draper.

We started chatting and I told him we had just bought this ranch down the street, and he started showing some interest. I guess we had already made our first vintage of wine, which was probably 1971 - the first vintage that Walt and I made was 71 - we didn't have a winery, we just had the trailer, the mobile home on the ranch. We found this guy down by Lytton Springs who had a barn - he let us use the barn and we had four barrels of Zinfandel that we made.

We drove over there from Nervo, and Paul and I took this wine thief - I didn't really know good wine from bad - I was doing it because I was having fun. Paul tasted the wine and rolled his eyes a little bit and said: 'We'd like to buy the fruit from you.' That's how our relationship with Paul and Ridge began.

I think the first year we sold to them was 72. Of course, from the get go, Lytton built a fabulous reputation through Ridge. I think in 1976 or 1977 Walt and I were really ready to come out with our own...

Well, there were a few things that helped convince us to do that. One of them was the fact that right about 74 or 75 the price of grapes fell completely out of whack. This old vineyard only produced a ton to a ton and a half an acre, and by this time Ridge had built up a pretty nice reputation with their Lytton Springs Zinfandel. Right at that time the price of grapes went down to $250 a ton - there just wasn't a market for the grapes. Gallo was setting the prices back in those days, anyway.

So, we called Paul - you know, we only had 30, 40, 50 tons that we would harvest off of that vineyard anyway - I called Paul, and I said: 'What's the scoop?' And Paul said: 'Well, the price of grapes this year went way down.' And I said: 'I know. What does that mean to us?' And Paul said: 'We're going to pay you the going Sonoma County rate.' Which was $275 a ton or so.

So, that didn't set too well with me, because I knew the wine was doing well - in those days, they were getting top dollar for the wine, which was $5.25 (laughter). It's really interesting - the way the values change.

I said: 'Paul, I don't think that's really fair - that's not enough to even pay the taxes on the place.' But he kind of stuck to his guns. That's what got me thinking about what it might take to become a winery.

So we had been making wine in Walt's backyard and it didn't seem too complicated. Neither of us had any 'Davis' experience, no winemaking experience at all - we would just read these books - very unsophisticated. Thank God the Lytton grapes were just really forgiving anyway, because we did a lot of stupid things, but we still wound up making some pretty good wine.

I sat there one day and I calculated - how many gallons do we get out of a ton? How many bottles out of a gallon, and so forth. I penciled it out - Paul was paying us $275 a ton, but at $5.25 a bottle, we figured we would make many times that - and that got us started thinking about starting our own winery.

I think our first commercial vintage was 76. We actually jumped in the car and drove up to Ridge to talk to Paul. We told him: 'We're starting our own winery and wondered if you would give us permission to call it Lytton Springs.'

This may have been a little presumptuous on our part, but Paul also could have said: 'No.' But he said: 'Yeah, I can see why you would want to do that.' So we named the winery Lytton Springs.

That may have rubbed Paul the wrong way. In fact, I'm pretty sure it did, but we made the trip down from Healdsburg to all the way up to the Ridge winery and we sat down with Paul and we asked him permission to use that name as our wine. At the same time Paul more or less decided that he didn't want to divide the grapes, or run competition, so it was about that time that we also quit selling grapes to Ridge."

califusa - "There was a period of several years when Ridge did not produce a Lytton Springs wine."

RS - "Right. We had this sort of friendly competition going on. One of the things I remember distinctly, and Walt and I would laugh a lot about this - when we came out with our first vintage - 75 - and we said: 'What should we charge for this?'

We looked at Paul's Ridge Lytton Springs, and he was charging $5.25, so I said: 'Let's do something crazy - let's charge $5.75.' Of course, we were an immediate hit; we just really came off, so immediately after we released our wines, Paul's went up to $6.25. (Much laughter)

We lost touch with Ridge for quite some time, except to say hello at a wine event.

Then Paul decided to approach us about purchasing Lytton - of course, he had always had his eye on Lytton, he knew the quality - I mean the property itself. Interestingly enough, during the negotiation he asked if we would be interested in just leasing the vineyard.

In retrospect, I'm sorry I didn't take him up on that, because we would have kept the winery part, and he would have had the vineyard - that's what he was interested in for the most part. He wasn't really interested in the winery part of it. And most of the vintages had come out under the Ridge label.

But that's water under the bridge. I've not had any regrets about selling it, other than the nostalgia of having a world class vineyard.

The timing was really good for me because at the time we didn't know anything about making wine, and we were making so many mistakes. We were going to compromise the label at some point - just because we didn't have the Davis-type training and Walt passed away, and this young kid came to work for us at that time and he became the winemaker by default.

All we did in those days was add yeast and let it ferment. We never sent out for lab reports. We had a serious VA problem and didn't realize it for four or five years. We kept sending wine over to Napa to get reverse osmosis - eventually I figured out that we were not taking good enough care of the wine. We were letting the barrels evaporate, we weren't keeping our SO² levels up."

C - "That was real 'seat of the pants' winemaking."

RS - "That was all 'seat of the pants' winemaking.

And by this time, I was kind of burnt out. And Paul comes along, and we're talking big bucks. It helps to have a guy like Otsuka behind you. (In 1986 Ridge Vineyards was sold to Akihito Otsuka, owner of Japan's Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company.)

Actually, before I sold Lytton, I bought this place. Actually, before Paul even approached me about buying Lytton, I had bought this place. I just knew it was really good real estate, and it was.

When Paul approached me, and we had already made one or two vintages from this vineyard (Mendocino Hill) - we had made some Cab - and the Cab was really showing well. So I thought: 'I can have my cake and eat it, too. I can sell this place (Lytton Springs), and I already own this place (Mendocino Hill) so I have a place to go. I can start a little winery up here and this time be well financed to do it.'

So - it was a pretty good offer, and we decided to sell and move up north (to Hopland). That turned out to be a pretty good decision on our part.

The bad decision was starting another winery. " (laughter)

C - "Could you tell us what you know about the history of the property?"

RS - "Well, not a lot. I know there was a sea captain with the name of Lytton - that popped up somewhere.

I tried to do a little research on the ranch. I bought it from a family with the name of Frost - it was called the Frost Estate. The owner had a number of kids, but none of them wanted to farm it. So when he died, it came up for sale - back in 69 or 70 when we bought it.

This fellow Frost had owned it, and the best we could tell, the ranch had been there since the 1870s - so it was easy for us to say that this was a hundred-year-old vineyard. It was one of the few head-pruned vineyards left in Sonoma County.

When a farmer starts seeing production drop like that, he's going to rip out those vines, and plant young vines to get the production up. But because of the quality, we knew we had a special vineyard all along. That was a nice thing, and it worked to our advantage.

I didn't really spend a lot of time trying to find out what was going (history) on with that vineyard way back - it was on my list of things to do. One of the things that we collected was about a half dozen of these little bottles - over next door - the Lytton...where the Salvation Army is right now - there was a spring fed water plant where they bottled mineral water.

I can't tell you much about the history, because I don't know. We didn't really have the time it takes to go through the archives and such. I'm hoping that between you and John (Olney), you'll come up with more information."

C - "How many acres were under cultivation?"

RS - "Sixty. We sold ten of them - we sold the little piece across the street from Lytton. We found that was a really difficult piece of property to farm and we were getting very few grapes off it. We weren't getting the fruit ripe so we sold that off."

C - "Who was the unlucky recipient of that fruit?"

RS - "Terry Sweet. He was a real estate broker - he eventually sold it. It's been through a number of hands. It's probably worth more than I got for the whole ranch by now." (laughter)

C - "Was the ranch predominantly Zinfandel?"

RS - "It was mixed. It was predominantly Zinfandel, but back in those days, those old farmers put whatever they could find in there. There was some Carignane and Petite Sirah - I think there were even a few Mission vines in there. Back in those days, the BATF didn't get on your case if you had a mixed bag, and we just threw it all in the crusher."

C - "How did you come to make a reserve wine with the Lytton Springs Winery label?"

RS - "It was a marketing strategy. I think we found that if you put the name 'Reserve' on it you could get more money for it. It was that simple. It was just as good a wine as our regular wine - maybe we left it in barrel longer, but it was just part of the mystique, and we took advantage of it. If you put 'Reserve' on the label, you could get five or ten bucks more for it."

C - "Did it always come from a specific block on the estate?"

RS - "No. It varied quite a bit. We didn't do anything very sophisticated at all. We would just make the wine and later on we would go back and taste it. We'd say: 'Okay, let's make this the reserve wine and this the regular.' Or: 'Let's do 500 cases of reserve and 4000 cases of the regular wine.'

It was all kind of tongue-in-cheek. There was nothing very scientific about it."

C - "It sounds almost comical in contrast to today's sophisticated laboratory analysis, multiple blind tastings - but you achieved some notoriety and success to some degree."

RS - "It all goes back to what Paul Draper was looking at. The fact is that this old vineyard was so special. The grapes - as you know - consistently produce such extremely high quality wine. It was just being in the right place at the right time.

It's just a great vineyard, and Paul recognized that. That's what he was looking at when he made us the offer to buy the place. He made a good decision because he lives to make great wine. I don't think my ego gets in the way when it comes to winemaking, because those years were wonderful years for us and we wound up making damned good money on the property. So I have such pleasant, pleasant memories about the whole thing.

The fact is that there is something about those old head-pruned vines. It was not irrigated. The fruit just got good and ripe and we never had any trouble getting good sugars and good healthy berries. No matter what we did wrong, it was very forgiving. It was just beginner's luck. I'm very unsophisticated when it comes to wine, and I have always been. I've never taken the time to learn the scientific part of it - I've just had too many other things in my life."

C - "Could you tell me a little about what it is like to work with Paul Draper?"

RS - "Paul is so dedicated and so intense. He was totally different from the way Walt and I worked. We didn't care - we liked to see the awards we were getting, we liked to see our name in print and if we didn't win something, it didn't bother us.

Paul takes the wine business very seriously, and in my opinion he takes it much too seriously. So, there's no room for errors with Paul, and I think that's where Paul and I ran into some problems after the sale of the winery.

We did hang out there for a while after the sale on a consulting level, but I eventually learned to back off a bit because Paul was calling the shots.

But I hand it to Paul - he's one of the most prestigious winemakers in California, he's a pioneer, he's absolutely intense on making the best wines in the world. But that is where our personalities differ a lot. I can't take things that seriously, because I need to have some fun in my life, and I can't take myself that seriously.

I have a lot of respect for him as a winemaker - he's an absolutely fabulous winemaker - his life is making wine. He's gotten into scientific methods of making wine, and you can't fault him. He's made a great name for himself."

C - "It seems that you look back at those days with no small amount of affection."

RS - "Those were good years, and Walt was a big part of that. We had a lot of fun and he had a great sense of humor. When we started making wine, we went down to Bellagio's cooperage in Windsor, and we bought - back in those days redwood was one of the choices for winemaking tanks. We had them make us a little five hundred-gallon fermenting tank, and I think a six or seven hundred gallon holding tank. But everything else was - go down to the hardware store and buy a little pump, and a strainer, and we had a basket press back then. We spent all day making wine, working hard, and we would make a barrel or two and it would wind up in Walt's garage, which was awfully warm so we wound up losing wine more often than not, but it was so much fun. And he was such a neat guy to have in my life because we just enjoyed the hell out of ourselves."

We sipped on a couple of Ridge offerings from the early 90s, and talked through a wide range of topics as the afternoon wore on.

I took an immediate liking to Richard Sherwin. He is both a gentleman and a gentle man.

I wanted to get to know him better, so I extended an invitation to him and his wife to join us for dinner in a couple of weeks.

Happily, he accepted.


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