Serena Friedman and Robert Simpson have so much in common you would think they would be close friends.
Forty years ago they were medical school students – she at New Jersey Medical School in Newark and he at Rutgers Medical School in New Brunswick (today Robert Wood Johnson Medical School). They both became successful physicians in Los Angeles and later went on to operate thriving vineyards in Paso Robles.
Surprisingly, they still have never met.
“It probably has something to do with the fact that Paso Robles has nearly 300 vineyards,” says Simpson, who developed Whalebone Vineyard from a 128-acre cattle ranch he bought with his wife Janalyn in 1986.
Today neither practices medicine. Instead, in retirement they are putting the same passion they brought to their careers as doctors into harvesting grapes and manufacturing thousands of cases of wine annually.
Each came to their new calling by different routes.
Simpson developed the first private obstetrics-gynecology practice in nearby Templeton, focusing on high-risk pregnancies. As the practice grew, his interest in wine was piqued by the many roadside vineyards he noticed en route to deliveries.
Then suddenly he was forced from his solo practice in 1994 after he lost parts of three fingers in an Idaho duck hunting accident.
“It was a big blow, obviously,” said Simpson, who at his peak was delivering 35 babies per month. “It was rewarding to have helped so many families, but I had to leverage my training in another way.” He subsequently developed a bovine ultrasound business, consulting to pure-bred cattle producers.
They were intrigued and the couple purchased a 160-acre tract which would later become Four Sisters Ranch, so named for their four daughters.
“People who follow the industry were calling this ‘the next Napa,’” says Friedman, who graduated from Rutgers University-Newark before enrolling in New Jersey Medical School.
“Once we purchased the land,” she said, “we did everything to learn about wine and how it was made. We took classes, read books, attended lectures – and put our hearts and souls into it.”
The original investment expanded over time. Today Friedman and Drucker own Four Sisters Ranch Vineyards and Winery, as well as Serena’s Vineyard, a combined 700 acres.
For both Friedman and Simpson, grape-growing has become a sizable business. Friedman’s Four Sisters produces and sells a variety of wines. Wine merchants in California, New Jersey, Texas and Canada, as well as China and Taiwan are wholesale customers. Simpson added wine manufacturing to his grape-growing in 2001. Selling mostly to local customers, Whalebone Vineyard today produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, white and red Rhone blends and a Cab blend affectionately called BobWine.
Along with production and marketing, Friedman closely follows the emerging research about the health benefits of wine consumption.
“Many people have heard about how red wine can reduce cardiovascular disease and the incidence of stroke,” Friedman notes. “But the research points to other benefits that include the slowing of memory loss and helping to control diabetes.”
Friedman is finishing a book she’s calling Why Wine to share what she’s learned about wine’s benefits.
Both Friedman and Simpson believe their training in medicine and science has played a key role in the success of their ventures.
Now, if they ever get to meet, they will have plenty to talk about.