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Journey to Harvest

Reflections as we head into our 36th harvest
Journey to Harvest
The Sunset Beach home.Source: Squire Fridell

By Squire Fridell

Why did you decide to plant grapes and make wine?

Thanks for asking and maybe it’s a good time to answer that question!

During the past 18 months, I’ve talked about harvest, winemaking, different varieties of grapes and history of wine and barrels, but I have not talked about the “why” for us.

The simple answer is that we really didn’t have a grand plan to move to Glen Ellen and grow grapevines, but a number of sequential things happened that led to those outcomes. The first (and biggest) factor was the choice to make “The Move.” In 1984, we were living happily on the beach in Sunset Beach, Calif., and proud parents of our only child, a 2-year-old baby girl.

I was making a good living as a pretty successful actor in TV, appearing in series work and doing a lot of TV commercials. Then, for a number of reasons, we started to think that raising our little girl on the beach might not be the best choice. At the same time, my dad was getting older and having a few medical issues, and he lived all the way up in Santa Rosa.

We thought about moving north, but how could I possibly move away from LA and still make my living as an actor, close to where I auditioned for my work? (Almost all acting gigs are piecemeal; one ends and hopefully another begins). I was spokesman for Toyota in those days, eventually spanning 1978 to 2007, but I had no idea how long that would continue.

And then, in 1984, as they sometimes do, a magical event happened: I auditioned for and landed the role of Ronald McDonald, and it was a seven-year contract. Why was that a magical moment? Even if I only did the Toyota and McDonald’s spots, I could make a living and support my family as long as I was close to an airport.

So, we got serious about making the move. During a visit to see my dad, we stayed at the recently restored Gaige House in Glen Ellen and met the proprietors, who talked lovingly about Glen Ellen. The next day, we stopped at the Jack London Bookstore in the village (now a tasting room) and met the owner, a very charismatic man named Russ Kingman. As he waxed poetic about Jack London and his attachment to Glen Ellen, we fell more and more in love with the area. We were even lucky enough to meet an elderly Becky London, Jack’s youngest daughter, who lived behind the bookstore.

In any event, we were smitten, bought a bunch of Jack London books, and began to look at land, somehow discovering 26 acres of raw land that was for sale. We bought it, hired the same man who had rebuilt the Gaige House, and started to build our cottage, so we’d have a place to stay. The beach house went on the market.

Just before Christmas in 1986, our home suddenly sold and our contractor, who was building our Cottage, proudly announced that the Cottage project was “99.9% finished.” We stashed most of our worldly possessions in storage, packed up what we needed, and followed a medium-sized moving van as we drove north.

Cut to: A muddy road, one day later. Heavy rain. (Remember when we used to have heavy rain?)

That very same moving van, filled with those few belongings we needed to survive in our Cottage, was stuck in the middle of the long, mud-laden “road” leading to our Cottage. Two very unhappy moving men were inside, staying dry. With both our cars idling on that same “road,” we discovered we had a small problem: The inspector who was on site announced that the “final could not be approved for occupancy.” Were it not for Suzy (and a now 4-year-old Lexy) standing outside the Cottage in the rain and mud, crying their collective eyes out, that “final” may not have ever happened. But, somehow, voila! An hour later, the Cottage was approved for occupancy!

Once AAA arrived and pulled all three stuck-inthe- mud vehicles to terra firma, the two very unhappy moving men began unloading furniture and boxes into the Cottage. (I think my promise of a “huge tip” helped.) At the end of a very long day, we had moved in. After Lexy was safely asleep in her new room, in a makeshift bed surrounded by boxes, Suzy and I settled down for an exhausted (but delightful) glass of local wine. We had moved!

Pre-dawn the following morning I somehow located a suitcase and some underwear (I couldn’t find my suit). I had a week’s worth of work shooting a series of Toyota spots in New York City. Trying not to awaken wife and daughter, I jumped in the shower, turned on the water, and soaped up.

Guess what? The shower stopped. Our new well had somehow collapsed.

So, I dried the soap off the best I could, got in my car, and raced to the airport. I got there early enough to go to the men’s room and do a quick paper-towel rinse-off. Let me tell you, I would not recommend flying east with soap residue all over your body.

After a week in NYC (and a number of comforting showers), I headed back to Glen Ellen and our new home. Suzy had somehow arranged to have a second well installed in my absence. I could shower!

Fast-forward six months: Between planning the construction of our main house at the top of the hill and Suzy trying to find “the right” preschool for Lexy, we also somehow found the time to enroll in a viticulture class at Santa Rosa Junior College. Since we had a two-acre piece of land growing scrub oak on our lower elevation, we began to think, “How hard could it be to plant a vineyard?” Early in 1986, the first GlenLyon Vineyard was planted, even before our big house was completed.

I cannot say enough about that first viticulture class at the junior college and Rich Thomas, the man who taught it. We met some wonderful, like-minded folks in that class and took many subsequent classes: canopy management, pruning techniques, and wine marketing. Rich even made a trip over to our property, took a look at our two acres, and helped us design and plant our lower vineyard. We were off and running!

Next issue: Growing and selling our first harvest, making our first wine, and getting more serious about grape-growing and winemaking.

Squire Fridell is the winemaker, vineyard manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, WINO, and janitor at Glen-Lyon Vineyards & Winery and Two Amigos Wines. To reach him, email [email protected]