“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”
Leonardo da Vinci

Is That All There Is

At the same age as my sons, Paul and David, I’d taken a gap year to work and then attended university studying electronics and graduated listening to that great singer of the time, Peggy Lee, but I’d never seen her live. I discovered she had an engagement at the Fairmont hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, so in February 1976, I took a small party to the cabaret in the famous Venetian Room for a dinner that was going to change my life forever and for the better.

The four of us, having chosen our meal, decided on a Burgundian Chardonnay from the comprehensive list of French wines. When it arrived, it was clearly off, as was the second bottle. On that occasion the sommelier agreed with me—they don’t always—so I asked for his advice (what do you locals drink?), and he produced a young Chateau Montelena that absolutely knocked our socks off. Later on, Peggy Lee appeared on the stage, and looking somewhat older than the record-cover sleeves portrayed her, I realised that the one-sided love affair was definitely off, but she could certainly sing, including her favourite…“Is That All There Is?”

Well, no, that certainly wasn’t the case; there was a lot more yet to come. After my first encounter at the San Francisco airport, which resulted in a floral garland being placed over my head (mentioned earlier), I’d steadily fallen for the Golden State and thought about purchasing a piece of it for my family. I’d also divined that the people who lived here simply didn’t appreciate just what they had under their feet and broadcasted this observation to all my friends, encouraging them to buy more if they could. My father was an oenophile, and I had always had wine on the table, so combining the Judgment of Paris that same year in May, the aspiration, and the sommelier’s choice of the winning Chardonnay (1973 Chateau Montelena) against the best that Burgundy could produce, made the decision easy. When I could, I was going to find land for a California vineyard.

“It was no good looking at established vineyards; even then, they were too expensive to contemplate…I had always enjoyed building rather than buying.”

The Best Is Yet To Come

I wasn’t in the US full-time, so it took a while. Each time I visited, I took time to explore, and with the help of family friend Angela Rubin, a real estate broker, we identified some forty possible sites in the wine region over the next six years. It was no good looking at established vineyards; even then, they were too expensive to contemplate, and, in any case, I had always enjoyed building rather than buying. So, following the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, who, in 1886, travelled these parts and wrote The Silverado Squatters, eventually something turned up. A call from my British-born friend and Bay Area real estate sleuth, Angela, said, “You must come and see this”; it was all set up, and she had decided that this would be the place. I’m not sure that I had much part in this decision, other than to write the cheque for $1 million. But she was right, of course.

As well as purchasing this wonderful piece of land, I had, in the process, become friendly with the broker who had placed an advert in the Wall Street Journal, eventually leading to me. Scott Rodde had worked on the sale, knew a lot about the property, and shared an ambition to create a vineyard. In addition, he was based in Napa and a resident in the US, whilst I wasn’t. We struck an arrangement that has worked brilliantly for forty years: He agreed to be president and I would finance and build a winery.

Work commences on the main house and pool in the early ’80s.

At home in England, I had mentioned this project in passing to Maggie without any reaction—just another mad idea from Pete—but in 1982, I decided the time had come and drove up US Route 101 over Golden Gate Bridge, through Marin, and on into Sonoma. The ranch road was rough, and, certainly, the Chevrolet would never be the same again. We looked at the 1894 house that hadn’t been occupied for forty or fifty years and then drove up to the creek. Maggie, predictably, said, “Whatever for; why do you want to have this property six thousand miles from home?”

Well, she knows now and loves everything about this special place, as does everyone who sets eyes upon it. To me, it was a substrate, one that I could embed my ideas onto. Although I didn’t have a total plan and had no idea what it would become forty years hence, I knew it would be something quite extraordinary. I only had to look up at the five peaks of Mount Saint Helena as they turned purple at sunset, walk the tracks to feel the breeze from the Pacific 30 miles (48 km) away, and watch the fish rising in the lake.

Pete and Maggie survey the beauty surrounding the lake in spring, 1983.

I had very specific ideas about the ranch: It had to be within reach of San Francisco, it had to be big, it had to be set in great natural beauty, and above all, it had to have water. And we had found it, a square mile on the western side of Mount Saint Helena (4,300 feet/1,311 meters) in Knights Valley, the same mountain that sits at the top of the Napa Valley, dominating all. The scenery is stunning and always astonishes me with its ever-changing beauty, and so is the creek, which has never been known to dry up other than when there is an earthquake somewhere on the San Andreas Fault.

As the vision for the property developed, Paul and David spent many an hour on the lake.

The idea of a vineyard was supported by the soil analysis that UC Davis undertook, confirming grapes would grow on the amazingly well-drained land. Asked whether they could predict the fruit quality, their faces said it all, so we would just have to try it to find out. I’d bought a cattle ranch with two hundred head of cattle roaming over it and had to set about all the preparation needed to plant grapes. My neighbour was the vineyard manager for Beringer, another well-known winery, and was willing to be my initial manager to organise this part of the project. The steep slopes called for terracing and thus expense, as did all the mountainside development, and plenty of people were happy to opine that whatever we did would end in financial disaster, with low yields and high costs. But as a European, I knew that generally, we put cows on the valley floor and grapes on the slopes, so carried on regardless.

But how were we to pay for all this development, staffing, and infrastructure? After clearing and preparation, we planted a few acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the location most likely to prove successful. After just a few years, we discovered that yes, grapes happily grew here and yes, they were good quality, selling into the market at premium prices. Whilst farming grapes was an interesting business, it was my ambition to make wine, so that was when Helen Turley joined us as winemaker. Helen was talented, had strong ideas and discipline, and, as our first winemaker, was responsible for setting the style of the wines. That initial 15 acres (6 hectares) or so is still part of the Les Pavots vineyards that now stretch to 70 acres (28 hectares) whilst the total vineyards have recently crossed 200 acres (81 hectares) planted across three hillside locations, each with its own microclimate.

Today, all Chardonnay vineyards are situated on the high, elevated slopes of Mount Saint Helena at the Knights Valley Ranch.

All went well for some years, clearing and planting, and then we noticed that the yield was falling off and soon realised we had the California disease of phylloxera, which eventually infected all vines planted on AXR1 rootstock and resulted in a state-wide replanting. After the global disaster of the mid-1800s caused by this same bug (nematode) that eventually destroyed virtually 100 per cent of vines in the world, a wild US vine was discovered that appeared to be immune to this invader. By hybridising it with other roots, UC Davis created what was thought to be a vigorous, immune rootstock. The trouble was that after ten years, it proved to be as vulnerable as all the others. Fortunately, there had been some suspicion that this would become an issue, and apart from the original small experimental vineyard, we had moved to another rootstock that is truly immune.

Winemaker Helen Turley with George and Marge Grasso and Pete at the winery in the late ’80s.

I knew quite a lot about wine from the glass onward but little to nothing about the way it got into the bottle, all of which I had to learn and am still learning. My aspiration was to create a California wine that could be put on my dinner table in England alongside the classic great wines from my cellar and not get laughed at. When I put that to Helen, she was far from shocked and wanted to come and show me what she, my vineyard, and California could do…but it would take some time. To be precise, it took fifteen years with investments of about $1 million a year, and it all started with Helen. But I needed some income to tide me over until revenue from the red wine arrived far into the future. Chardonnay was the obvious choice for, together with Cabernet Sauvignon, it is the foundation of any cellar, and conveniently, it only needs two years between crush and sales.

Mon Plaisir vineyard was planted in 1999.

Later on, we built the winery, but at that moment our only way to make wine was to use a custom crush facility, so the first of the white wines from the 1987 vintage was ready for my fiftieth birthday in 1988…a trifle young, perhaps, but certainly great fundamental quality. We called it ‘Mon Plaisir’ (“My Pleasure”), and all the wines were named with easily recognisable French descriptions underlining our family roots back in Europe. From the beginning, we chose the three phrases that would best describe our enterprise: “Mountain vineyards, classical winemaking, and limited production,” and every bottle has had that on the label. We wanted to be associated with a French Grand Cru vineyard with classical winemaking and age-old craftsmanship.

“We wanted to be associated with a French Grand Cru vineyard with classical winemaking and age-old craftsmanship.”

Getting a permit to build a winery in the valley was a daunting job involving multiple hearings, inspections, and arguments in effectively a planning court. Many local objections were raised and had to be countered, but eventually, permission was granted. In one of these memorable hearings, the proceedings were interrupted when one of the ancient witnesses keeled over with a heart attack, and everyone involved had to do it all over again another time. He survived.

Up to the mid- to late 1800s, this part of California was rich in the giant sequoia redwoods that stretched to the sky until the logging firms came through and harvested a million board feet from the site. When we arrived, there were still some five hundred redwoods in fine health, having survived for a few hundred years through storms, fire, and lightning. These wonderful giants needed a few more friends, and one of the early projects was to bring in Circuit Riders, who took cuttings and cloned them into some twenty thousand saplings planted on the ranch a few years later. They mostly didn’t survive, as they needed huge quantities of water to withstand the heat, and so only particular sites would allow them to flourish. Those that did are now, some thirty-five years later, over 50 feet (15 meters) tall and growing mostly beside the creek and the cabin. Unbelievable!

This label was from the first wine ever made, signed by winemaker Helen Turley and label designer Chuck House.

The old decrepit cabin had been there for goodness knows how long, a rickety building on the bank that flooded when the winter snowmelt arrived. We badly needed guest accommodation, as all our English friends were keen to come and see just what an idiot I was. Bill Jeffries, who had designed the ranch house, was pressed into service, and what stands there now is a redwood cabin raised on legs to keep it dry. It has housed hundreds of visitors and friends of Paul and his brood. When we arrived in the summer of 1984, the roof was yet to be tiled. Fortunately, the builder had a supportive wife who had become our housekeeper. As we went for our first inspection, there she was, Lil, on the roof with hammer and nails, banging the shingles into place. She finished as the first guests drove in through the gates.

Pete, David, and Maggie visiting Yosemite National Park, after having stayed at the winery for the first time in April 1983.

That original rickety cabin on the bank of Redwood Creek has grown into a small hamlet and accommodates friends, families, offspring, and even occasionally Maggie and me when we can find a gap in its ever-busy schedule. The fall of the water over the dam and its roar in spring as it rises to full spate is the signature note of life on the ranch. It’s a space that is filled with the laughter of children in the summer and where peace encourages writing and reading late into the evening.

The cabin that came with the ranch, before renovation.

Maggie and Pete on holiday in Muir Woods in the 1970s, as they begin to consider buying property in California.

Maggie on holiday in Muir Woods in the 1970s.

The winery team and the “opening” of the barrel chai, with Tucker the Lab front and centre.