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.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Taking over the reins

January 1990- getting the stable together

In the early months of 1990 my mother's stable of horses was growing, Jim needed help first at the ranch as he was getting the horses ready to go the race track then at the race track when the serious training began. Jim requested and was permitted by my mother to place an ad in the paper to get stable help by offering room and board and the opportunity to learn how to ride race horses. In a short time, he got three takers for the job: Aaron, Melinda and another gal who didn’t last long. Aaron was the first to respond and when  he came up to the ranch with his mother, Jim saw a fabulous prospect. He weighed about 100 pounds was about 5 feet tall and had never been on a horse before. When Jim went to pick him up in Hayward, Aaron couldn’t get out of town fast enough. He was leaving a janitor’s job to become a jockey. Aaron suffered from low self esteem because of his size and a difficult family situation. He was eighteen years old but acted like an adolescent, eating his cereal and watching cartoons almost any time of day. Aaron was eager to learn so  Jim was able to get the barn organized and teach Aaron as they went along. 

Then Melinda arrived. She came from a Mormon family and lived in a small town near Yosemite. She was a cute blond, eighteen years old, weighed about 114 pounds, and had experience with horses. She took to the fine points of race horse riding more quickly than Aaron which helped speed the process of getting the ranch horses ready to take to the track. Melinda and Aaron received their training on Zacher, our Arabian riding horse, who was also 18 years old. Jim had taught my wonderful western riding horse to be a race horse and when I got on him I was amazed at how his disposition had changed, he wanted to race! 

They trained the horses my mother had bred on the ranch: Napa Ruler, Napa Chardonnay, Misty Angie Kfar, Lu’s First release, Kool and Lovly, Napa Cabernet, Napa Native, among others. As Melinda’s and Aaron’s skills developed they began to ride the young race horses. Previously, Jim had done all of the riding, until he got tripped by a young horse he was trying to control.  He dislocated his knee which sidelined him from riding for a year. 

After a couple of months of training at the ranch, Jim's stable moved to the track at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds. There they began the rigorous training of both the horses and the riders.  At Santa Rosa, Jim interviewed a groom named Duane. I had my reservations about his work ethic but he was hired and he and his dog, a blue healer, eventually moved to the ranch too. He and Aaron shared the one bedroom house but they didn’t get along very well and created physical barriers between their living spaces.  Duane was in his early twenties, he was from Sacramento where his father was a veterinarian and so we thought he would work out okay. But I started to feel sorry for him because he was a young man marooned at the ranch without a car.  So, I paid for a car he selected, an old Ford Mustang and he was expected to make payments to me from each paycheck. He was also required to give me the pink slip but every time I asked for it, there was some reason why I couldn’t have it. One morning it was very cold and Duane was barefoot as he went down the steps to his car to get the pink slip for me but then I relented and said give it to me later. Soon after, he started driving off and staying away for a few days at a time. When he came back he was a wreck. He looked like he had been on a bender, although he didn't drink. 

While Jim was in LA and I was leaving the ranch to visit a friend for the night, Duane disappeared on the ranch. I felt that he was hiding on the hill waiting for me to leave. We asked Bob to disable his car so he couldn’t leave the ranch. Bob did pull some plug from the car but unbeknown to us, Duane took our blue Chevy truck and drove to Sacramento to get the three dollar plug that Bob had pulled out of his car. We figured it out later when we found his discarded receipt on the floor board of the truck. Duane then left for good without paying me back for his car. We called his mother to tell her what happened and she said, “you should never have bought him the car. He is a compulsive gambler. We sent him to gamblers anonymous in Hawaii and he conned someone into buying him a ticket to return home.” I guess she hoped her son would be safe from his addiction in our environment. Unfortunately, had she provided us with that little bit of information it would have helped us handle him better. 

Starting up the Bed and Breakfast in Spring 1990

By March of 1990, I decided that I should get the Bed and Breakfast up and running, how else could I hang out at the ranch with Jim without raising any suspicions? Although my brothers had started operating the Bed and Breakfast the prior year, there were no plans to continue with it. So, I notified our chamber of commerce and started advertising it and guests began to trickle in.  As I spent more time at the ranch, I became worried about the future of the property. Although he had said it for the two previous years, it became clear that Stewart was tying up loose ends to leave the ranch for good. He even advertised the property for sale in the Wall Street Journal and the San Francisco Chronicle. During the final period of time that Stewart was shutting down operations and I was revving up to take over the ranch, we were not able to go over all the things I needed to know to run the ranch. As Stewart was frantically finishing up, I was completely immersed in operating the Bed and Breakfast and we were both exhausted by the end of each day. 

Stewart’s final departure in June 1990

Stewart left for the last time on June 30, 1990 and handed me power of attorney to run the vineyard and winery. He told us he planned to drive up the road out of the ranch heading east to Highway 5 on his final trip from the ranch. He said that if he happened to look in his rear view window and see the ranch in flames he would not turn around, he would just keep going. Frankly, it was a relief see him go because he was very negative about the future of the ranch and saw it as a hopeless endeavor. He left me with a negative balance in the bank account, no contracts for grapes and so many case goods from all his prior vintages that they were stacked all the way to the front doors of the winery. 

Before he left I asked Stewart to ask his close friend Dave Rose, who lived on a ranch nearby to manage the vineyard.  Dave agreed. Then Stewart wrote out on two sheets of paper a list of all the government forms I needed to fill out for the winery and ranch operations and a few important items to be aware of on the ranch. This information wasn’t sufficient to solve the numerous issues that came up so I had to call  him periodically to ask for his help.  He was so unpleasant each time I called him at his home in Washington to get help with ranch questions, that I got Jim and Bob to call him instead. 

Tackling the Winery
A day or so after Stewart left, I walked into the winery and climbed on top of the pallets of wine and surveyed the inventory and said to myself, what am I going to do now?
When the shock of what I had undertaken had worn off, I got to the business of figuring how to move mountains of wine which were cascading to the front door. I met George Kolarovich, a wine broker, early on and we had an immediate bond. He was from Yugoslavia and was Serbian as was my maternal grandfather. He was quite impressed that I was related to Vladimir Dedijer, a war hero and confident of Tito. Like a grandfather, he helped me step by step to organize then sell the various lots of wine. He even brought in workers to help label certain wines so that we could start selling them.
Koerner Rombauer purchased a pallet of an unlabelled pink wine to sell under a private label and picked it up himself in his vintage truck.

Getting Ready for Harvest

When Stewart exited the ranch and left me in charge, he thought I would act as a caretaker until the ranch sold; so imagine his upset when he found out I would be making wine at harvest time. Georgie Hesse was our first winemaker. We hadn’t even contemplated  making wine that summer until Bed and Breakfast guests Barbara and Keith, the sister and brother-in-law of  Elaine a  good friend of mine from law school, came up with the plan. During the course of their weekend bed and breakfast stay Keith, a heart doctor at UCSF,  told me about a nurse he worked with in the cardiac catheter unit who had a degree from Davis in enology.  He thought she might want to make wine for us; so, he introduced us. When  I spoke to her on the phone, I pictured her to be a very natural looking athletic type person. Isn’t that what a woman winemaker would be like? When we met she blew my image with her blond coif, red lipstick, perfume, plump figure and her three dachshunds. (My second winemaker personified the image I had formulated in my mind).  What ever Georgie lacked in her first impression, she made up for in her ability to take charge and pull the winery together for our first harvest. She and I cleaned the lab from top to bottom and Bob painted all the surfaces white. She wanted an immaculate environment before she took over. When she took over, she ran the winery like a drill sergeant.  She enlisted her neighbors from her American Canyon cul de sac to perform all the necessary operations, from crush to barrel. The most amazing thing she did however, was to connect Jim with Dr. Warren King, who performed arthroscopic surgery on his knee at the end of harvest.

July 1990
That Summer, Kool and Lovely won at the Solano County Fair. This was Kool’s first start and my Mother’s first win with her racehorses. Kool was a big mare, burly and difficult to gallop because she was so strong. She had a bowed tendon from prior training so Jim was extremely careful with her training. He didn’t risk working her long distances and ran her on class alone. Jim, Melinda, Duane, my mother, Virgil, Jim's best friend and Aaron were elated. Unfortunately, Aaron was so anxious to pick up his winnings that he didn’t make it to the winner’s circle in time for the photo. I missed the race because I had to make breakfast for the guests at the ranch.

Standing from left: Jim with leg brace, Melinda,unknown,Virgil, friend of my mother, my mother, another friend of my mother and Duane.

August 1990
One day, late in the summer, Jim and I decided to get away for the night to Bodega Bay. My mother had become increasingly suspicious of Jim and me yet couldn’t get anyone to confirm whether or not we were an item. We only told people we could trust and they kept our secret. When my mother couldn’t contact Jim or me that day, the light finally went on and she was furious. So, just when Jim had the stable up and running with 10 promising prospects, my mother fired Jim, moved the horses to another trainer and left Aaron and Melinda to fend for themselves. The new trainer said he would take Aaron and Melinda on but he had no use for them and they were not experienced enough to go on their own as exercise riders.  In the meantime, Melinda had met a cowboy on the track and her parents decided it was time to pick her up and bring her back home. Aaron also had to go back home and find a job. Jim stayed on the ranch with me and began learning about the vineyard and winery. 

No comments:

Post a Comment