Our thirty year journey

Our story starts in 1989, the first post "Meeting Jim" lays out the framework for the events that follow. The subsequent posts will build on that narrative.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Burnt Vines

During the summer of 1991,  David Garcia our live-in vineyard worker sulfur dusted the grape vines in 100 degree weather. When I heard, I went out to see the damage and it looked like a war zone in the vineyard. I began to cry. I thought it was the end of my ranch experiment. I would not be able to continue to operate the ranch, the crop was gone, my family was right.

Over the next days, the  grapes that were burnt shriveled up and underneath there were many more bunches of grapes that hadn’t been affected.  This disastrous act turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Zinfandel and Chardonnay vines had been overcropped and the sulfur only burned the exterior grapes; once they shriveled up and died and the rest of the grapes underneath were exposed, they flourished and we had a good harvest. In fact, we had a bumper crop of Chardonnay and we weren't able to sell it all. 

Although we were still under drought conditions in 1991, we had some rain and the vines were able to benefit from that rain and produce a good crop.

Jim and Susan get Married

In early 1991 my family had lost their patience with Jim’s and my ranch experiment.  They began looking for ways to remove us from the ranch.  It started with a March meeting with my Dad, Stewart and Anita at the ranch. They wanted to know what our plans were for the ranch.  It was at this meeting that I announced that Jim and I planned to marry sometime in the fall. No one said a thing.  Graham later heard about our plans to get married and was the only family member who wished us well.  


In mid June my mother came up to the ranch unannounced with potential purchasers who ran a vineyard acquisition group, and Graham joined them for a tour of the winery and property.  It was an extremely uncomfortable situation, especially since my mother made it clear to them that Jim and I were interlopers and told the group in our presence that Graham was the real winemaker. So Jim and I retreated to a hill nearby and waited for my mother and her entourage to leave.  I was worried that the family would try to find a way to move Jim off the ranch, so we decided that we should get married right away.  


The very next Monday, Jim and I went to the Napa County Courthouse and got our Marriage License.  The court gave us a list of people who could marry us, so I got in a phone booth and started calling people on the list. The attorney who married us was the first to answer his phone. His office was right across from the courthouse. He ushered us in and showed us a binder of marriage vows.  We read through them and picked a simple but well written ceremony; according to the lawyer who appeared amused, it was the shortest of his marriage ceremonies. He married us and his legal secretary was the witness.  I cried because it was beautiful and meaningful and I was in love. That evening we celebrated at Piatti in Yountville. Then we came home, folded laundry, made love and went to sleep.  The next day Jim took off for L.A. to sell wine.  About two weeks later I had cards made announcing our marriage.  I called my dad before I sent the announcements, so he would not be surprised. (He and my mother were divorced and he had remarried.)   I didn’t inform my mother and I heard later that when she received the announcement in the mail, she was so upset that she stayed in bed all day.


Tuesday, June 2, 2020


It was his very first race, he was six years old and he was the first horse that Jim and I raced together with our own stable. Jim went to the Vallejo Fairgrounds racetrack early the morning of the race to be with Jasonic. I arrived in the early afternoon with our new friend named Bob, who lived in Calistoga and liked to bet on the races.  Jim’s brother Bob and Bob’s girlfriend Darlene arrived at the track a bit later in the day in their motor home. Bob had lung cancer and had lost all of his hair from chemotherapy, but he and Darlene were there to support us. 

Jasonic was a big strapping horse, about 17.1 hands. Jim’s friends Carl and Mickie Pitti from Hemet had given him to us a couple of years before, after my mother had taken all of her horses off the ranch and we were left without any other horses than my riding horse, Zacker.  Jasonic was in the last race of the day. The second to the last race is generally the biggest race of the day. After that one, most people start packing up and going home. The stands were emptying out as Jasonic was brought to the paddock.  

When Jasonic was already in the paddock  preparing to be saddled, Jim’s appointed jockey informed him  that he had a stomach ache and wouldn’t ride the horse. In desperation Jim ran into the Jock’s room (The Jockeys dressing room) and looked for another rider. The other jockeys who were not riding in that race were changing and getting ready to leave the track. But one rider, J.C. Martinez jumped at the opportunity to ride any horse he could and took the mount. Jim told the jockey to break him very alert and do what ever he could, “see what he’s got.” When the gate opened up, Jasonic roared to the front; another horse challenged him on the outside for the lead halfway down the back stretch. J.C. slapped him on the shoulder and he kept the lead and opened up by a length and a half in the stretch. 

As we were all standing near the finish line and screaming “go Jasonic go” he maintained the lead and finished first. The five of us were jumping up and down and screaming so loud we must have been a sight to behold. He paid $20 on a two dollar ticket and we were all winners that day. After we posed for the win picture, cashed in our tickets, and waited for Jasonic to be drug tested and cooled down, we drove back to Napa Valley and went to the Rutherford Grill to celebrate. 

The staff put us at the large table near the window where you can see their famous roasted chicken cooking on a spit. We were all giddy from our exciting win and ordered the most extravagant dishes on the menu. 

The general manager of the restaurant apparently liked our high energy and when the time came for the bill, he told us it was on the house. 

Darlene and Bob second and third from the left, Susan, other Bob, Jim
Someone else who got lucky at the track that day

The racehorses are taken off the ranch

In the early months of 1991, my mother took all the horses off the ranch except Zacker, my older Arabian riding horse. Because there were so many young thoroughbreds that were leaving the ranch, it was quite an ordeal to get them loaded up on a stock trailer. Some of these horses had never been in a horse trailer before; so, they were very confused and scared. During the chaos, horses got loose and the ranch looked like it was in a dust storm. When the dust settled, the ranch was a very lonely place. Zacker was now the sole resident and the ranch seemed like a ghost town.The biggest blow was to lose our stallion, named Napa Valley, who was the cornerstone of our advertising.  As the new season began, visitors started arriving to see the race horses and we had nothing to show them. So, Jim got on the phone to his horse friends in LA and within two weeks, we had three new horses: Miss Stacy Lee, a broodmare, her son Stacy’s Knight a beautiful Black stallion and Jasonic, a gelding and potential racehorse. Jim also received a couple of additional racehorses that needed to be trained; so Jim was able to make some money and we were up and running again as the thoroughbred winery in Chiles Valley.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Poppy a most extraordinary cat

In the spring of 1991, Jim and I picked up an orange tabby kitten from a lady who had a Bed and Breakfast reservation service in Napa. She made many bookings for us and we had a rapport. When she told me about her kittens, I couldn’t wait to see them and bring one home. When we arrived at her home in Napa, she didn’t let us choose.  She selected the orange tabby and said that he would be perfect for us because he needed a lot of space. His fur stood straight up and he seemed docile enough when he was put in his cat carrier. Little did we know what we were up for. We named him Poppy, because he was the same color as the poppies in bloom. 

Because Poppy was only about five weeks old and so tiny, he needed to be in a safe place till he grew bigger; so, we moved him into our bedroom. This decision cost us three nights sleep and lots of cat scratches from Poppy’s nightly forays. He must have slept all day in anticipation of the evening attacks. When I spoke to the lady who gave Poppy to us several weeks later, she admitted that she was concerned that we might return Poppy. It seems he terrorized his litter mates and had to be removed quickly, so that's why we got him. 

Within a short time, we found a way to have restful sleep again. We got a second kitten, Jake, named after the man who gave him to Jim. This cream colored tabby kitten was feral, he had not had human handling. When Jim brought him home, Jake was paralyzed with fear and catatonic. We immediately brought him to our bedroom to meet Poppy. For the next three days, Poppy terrorized him and he took to hiding behind a dresser. This situation was a bit disconcerting except that we were no longer Poppy’s target and we could get a good night’s sleep. By the third or fourth day of this, I happened to go into my bedroom in the afternoon and found Poppy and Jake sleeping together so I knew that everything would be okay.  

Poppy grew up with the dogs and was the most unusual cat I have ever come across. He liked to ride on the truck around the ranch. He would jump on the back of Jim’s truck and then make his way to the hood by gingerly working his way across the side window and through the arm of the rear view window, or he would just jump on to the roof of the cab. It seemed that he enjoyed the wind in his face and knew how to brace himself for the turns. We tried to be very careful when he decided to act like a hood ornament. However, there were times when he jumped on the roof and rode around without us knowing it. When the truck stopped he would hop down to the hood to let us know he had been on the ride.

Besides riding on the truck, he liked to get into parked cars when their windows were open. In one instance he ate a half pound of pate some guests left in their car. On another occasion he must have fallen asleep in a guest car because after leaving the ranch, they returned several minutes later and dropped Poppy back at the ranch. 

Poppy didn’t have a lot of patience. He needed to patrol the ranch in the middle of the night so he figured out how to get out of our house on his own.  He would lay on his side by the sliding glass door and pry it open by wedging his front feet against the door and bracing his back feet against the door frame to slide the door wide enough to escape. We finally saw him perform this amazing stunt to solve the mystery of why the sliding door was always open in the morning.  Although he would leave quietly in the middle of the night, he would arrive home in the middle of the night with lots of fanfare. 

Poppy would disappear for several days, then would announce his return in the middle of the night by clawing his way up the screen door, and suspending himself on it to get our attention.  We’d let him in and he would curl up and sleep on our bed for two days; he wouldn’t even lift his head when we would come in and out of the room. Then he would stick around for a few days before leaving in the night. On one occasion he disappeared for 10 days and as we were sadly coming to terms with his demise, he reappeared.

Poppy was plagued with urinary tract infections and kidney stones which resulted in several emergency trips to the Pope Valley Vet. We finally determined that it was the spring water with its high mineral content that caused his problem so, along with his urinary tract special diet kibble, we made sure he only drank well water.

He frequently returned home at night with injuries from fights and needed first aid. He once fell into a bucket of oil and we had to rub all the oil out of his fur. The lady who gave him to us was right, he needed a lot of space and the whole ranch was his territory.

Poppy liked to go on hikes with Jim and me and the dogs. He explored every corner of the ranch and would show up just about anywhere on the ranch, even in a remote area where Jim might be working. Jim would hear him meow from a distance as he seemingly appeared out of nowhere. 

Poppy was a very social cat as well. He liked to attend parties at the winery. He attended  picnics, lunches and weddings as though he was an invited guest. He always showed up when there were big gatherings of people. He liked to sashay through the crowd and then sit at the table (on his own chair or on a picnic bench) and participate in the festivities. For the most part he behaved himself.

Sadly, the day we knew he wasn’t coming home again was when we had a big party at the winery. He didn’t show up that day so we knew something was amiss.

Poppy on the hood, Bo and Buster in the bed the truck
Buster, Poppy and Bo at the winery

He brought us joy 
and we loved him well
He was not ours
He was not mine
-from Out of Africa

Monday, April 27, 2020

Jim's Knee

In the Summer of 1990, Jim tackled a young stallion in an attempt to give him a shot. He and the horse tripped and ended up on the ground, Jim lay motionless  and appeared to be dead. But he was not unconscious and we were able to get him in a car and I drove him to the emergency room at Queen of the Valley Hospital. (This was my second trip to the emergency room with Jim. The first time was when some horses got loose in the night and he had to chase them. In the process of running up and down hills he got a rusty nail in his foot.)

On our arrival to the emergency room at Queen of the Valley, the hospital staff ushered him in for treatment immediately.  Hours later he came out with a mechanical leg brace and was able to resume his horse training activities but from the ground only. At that time he was training two young people, Aaron and Melinda, to be exercise riders and ultimately jockeys.

Jim was not healing the way he expected to and didn’t find his Napa Valley Doctor’s advise, to wait and see, sufficient. So Georgie our winemaker, decided to step in and recommend the top orthopedic surgeon in sports medicine, Dr. Dillingham.  Jim went to his sport’s clinic and was seen by Dr. Warren King, who had trained under Dr. Kerlan, an esteemed orthopedic surgeon from Centinella Hospital in Los Angeles. Dr. King recommended arthroscopic surgery. Jim signed on and had the surgery at Sequoia Hospital in early November, just after harvest. 

He stayed in the hospital for three days and I stayed nearby with my best friend Jenny and her husband Mark, in San Francisco. 

Dr. King had great bedside manner and checked on Jim everyday. Jim’s roommate a professional soccer player who had Dillingham as his surgeon, never saw him while in the hospital and was visited by another doctor in his practice. Needless to say, Jim’s roommate was very envious of Jim’s care. 

The HBPA (Horseman's Benevolent Protective Association) paid for almost 80% of Jim’s first knee surgery; however, we were unable to pay the other 20% around $20,000. My mother refused to help Jim with these payments even though he had been injured taking care of her horses. As a last resort, we filed a worker’s compensation claim. As it turned out, the liability for the injury ended up residing with the ranch's workers compensation policy so we dropped the claim.  In the end, no one came after Jim for payment, but it was a very desperate time for us. We were so grateful for the care he received that we considered naming a  racehorse after Dr. Warren King.

Jim was immobile when he was released from the hospital. It was very difficult to take care of him and run the ranch during that time. He had a therapeutic device that kept his knee in motion all night and allowed him to heal quickly. With Jim in traction, we celebrated Thanksgiving with Jenny and Mark at the ranch. 

Over the years, Jim would have six more surgeries performed by Dr. King: two hand surgeries for his trigger fingers,  three additional knee surgeries and a rotator cuff surgery. One trigger finger operation was performed by Dr. King in his office with the janitor holding the light. The other was performed in the hospital. Dr. King didn’t charge Jim for the office operation and wrote off what ever the HBPA didn’t pay. 

Saturday, March 28, 2020

1990 Grape Contracts

      When we took over the ranch June 30, 1990, we had no contracts in place for the grapes.  Stewart had previously begun negotiations for a 10 ton sale of Zinfandel to Conn Creek Winery and he had me follow up with it, but for the rest we were on our own. We subsequently  sold additional Zinfandel to Heitz. The rest of our Zinfandel was sold to Beringer as white zinfandel, but we did this through Dave Rose, who took a big cut.

Through the assistance of a wine broker we were connected with Fetzer Vineyards.  I  arranged to pick up Robert Fetzer, who flew his own plane,  at the Angwin airport and drive him to the ranch to look at our grapes.  He described our vineyard as a “hippy” vineyard because of its very minimal farming and trellising. It was not a negative in his mind since his family’s vineyards in Mendocino were organic and our unpretentious vineyard appealed to him. Fetzer ended up buying most of our Cabernet crop. 
We retained much of our Riesling and all of our Sauvignon Blanc. We sold our Chardonnay to Buena Vista, Mary Hall was the grower relations person, one of the few women who held this role in any company in 1990, and it was a pleasure doing business with her.  
We made a late harvest Riesling with all of our Riesling grapes without having any idea of the market for this wine and we ended up with a lot of wine that took years to sell out. Luckily it was a wine that kept well and got better in the bottle.

When we went north to visit Fetzer winery and taste our wine the following February 1991, Robert Fetzer told us our Cabernet was as good as it gets and he signed us on for another year. Unfortunately, he was not as happy with the grapes in 1991 year and likened the fruit to watermelon. We brought a sample of our own wine made from that harvest to our annual meeting at the Fetzer estate in winter of 1992 and he had to admit it was better than what they had. I had my suspicions about the wine he claimed to be ours, I felt it had to be mismarked. How could it be so different from ours. Unfortunately, he did not seem to be that interested in renewing our contract and after that meeting, I had a difficult time reaching him on the phone. Finally, his younger brother Joe returned my numerous calls and informed me they would buy my Cabernet for $1000/ton.

I rejected the offer, they had paid me $1500 in 1991 and I  felt it was an insult. Two things were going on that year that I was unaware of, Fetzer was in the middle of  negotiating with Brown Forman to be bought out; and the wine world along with the economy had weakened and Cabernet prices had softened.  I ended up selling most of my Cabernet to Beringer for $700/ ton. We felt fortunate that they took it.