Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A conversation with Davis Bynum

Davis Bynum on a visit to his former winery, now Thomas George Estates
At age 86, Davis Bynum the man has become an eponymous wine brand that will most likely outlive him. Not only that, the nation's biggest wine brand in retail sales was named after his feet.

He lives in Healdsburg, but still visits his old winery, once named for him, now called Thomas George Estates. (Read my column about that new winery at Wine Review Online; sorry, the reviews are behind their pay wall.)

I met him on a warm summer day for sandwiches, a bottle of Thomas George Sauvignon Blanc, and some stories about what it was like to sell California Pinot Noir in the 1970s.

Jeremy Baker, who owns and manages Thomas George, warned me that Bynum is slowing down and that our conversation might be short. But once Bynum got to telling stories, he didn't stop for two hours. Here are a few.

"I was in the infantry in World War II. I went in in 1943. They sent me to UCLA for nine months to study engineering. I think when they found out how stupid most of us were they realized it was a bad idea to convert an English major into engineering. They folded the outfit and I went into the mortar outfit."

"I went to Stanford pre-war. During the war I met my wife-to-be and she was from Berkeley. I got to really liking Berkeley. Berkeley was not radical in the late '40s and '50s. At least half the students were returning GIs. I graduated from UC Berkeley. I majored in history. I'll root for Stanford against anybody else, but I root for Cal in the big game."

"I was a reporter at the (San Francisco) Chronicle for 15 years. I did features and reviews for the Sunday section. I did special assignments. I was also a home winemaker for 14 years. When I quit The Chronicle, I went south to edit some weekly newspapers. I didn't like it. I decided I wanted to be in the wine business. I was almost 40. People ask me the best way to get into the wine business. I tell them to keep their day jobs."

"When I first came up here in 1973 Healdsburg was a lot wilder place than it is now. There used to be a fight outside one of the bars every night."

"I got my first Pinot Noir grapes from Joe Rochioli in 1973. He was selling for $150 a ton to (Louis) Martini. They were paying him for 'mixed black' grapes. We told him we'd pay $300 a ton. We didn't have a clue how good the Pinot Noir from this area would be."

"I had always loved Pinot Noir. People were growing the grape in all the wrong places. Most Pinot Noirs produced in the '50s and '60s were planted in places that should never have been planted. I felt that Pinot Noir from this area (Russian River Valley) was more akin to what I liked."

"We had that Barefoot wine label for jug wines. It was Barefoot Bynum. My name was right on there. I sold it to a guy named Michael Houlihan in the mid-'80s. He built it up to a half million cases and sold it to Gallo for a lot of money. (Note: Barefoot Cellars is now the nation's top-selling retail brand, according to Wines and Vines.) It took me forever to live that down. I sat next to Leon Adams at dinner one night and he said, 'Do you still make that godawful label'?"

"Barefoot Bynum was my home winemaking label. I labeled some wine jugs and half gallons and I put them out in the tasting room. I looked at them and said, 'I can't do this.' I took them all out of the tasting room. But somebody who had been in asked for it, so I brought them all back. It became a tail wagging the dog situation. Our distributor in Vermont gave me an order for 800 cases. I had to scramble to bottle it. I made this for about six months until my accountant said, 'The whole purpose of doing this was to make money. You're not making money'."

"We had a tasting room in Albany, right next to the Berkeley line. We got a fair amount of hippies. Three guys came in once with a jug and asked if I would fill it. I said no. He asked, 'What's your cheapest gallon?' I said, "$3.69." He said, 'That's too much.' He had been buying cheaper wine than that and putting it in a punch bowl with three quarts of beer."

"We were doing wine for a few other wineries. One time we bottled the exact same wine for us and two other wineries, and we all entered them in the California State Fair competition. They both got gold medals and we got bronze. The exact same wine."

"One time we bottled the exact same wine as Sauvignon Blanc and Fume Blanc. We put them in the tasting room and asked people which they liked better. About 80% said they liked the Fume Blanc. We were trying to decide what to call it. After a couple weeks it became apparent."

"I sold the brand in 2007 to (Rodney Strong Vineyards owner) Tom Klein. They're still making Davis Bynum. The only thing I have to do with that is to go over once in a while and talk to their sales people. They trot me out as a living relic."

"In early March 2008, we sold the winery to the Bakers. I'm just appalled that some people come to Napa and Sonoma and they pay a price that means they'll never be able to make money."

Me: They plan to charge $150 a bottle.

Bynum: "That always bothered me. We were selling our wine very reasonably priced. But costs were going up so we'd take a small lot, set it aside and charge $60. I remember the first time I did that. I was in the tasting room. I poured some for a guy and he said, 'I'll have some of that.' I said, 'OK, how much?' He said, 'Two cases.' I couldn't believe it. The $30 wines were just as good."


Anonymous said...

Interesting read, Blake. In light of the last paragraph, the Thomas George Estates wines range from $25 to $65, in case anyone is curious.

Robert C said...

I love to talk with the old veterans of the wine business. Stories from them are so rich in history (obviously) and make you laugh at some of the things they got away with. I also like how when they made wine, way back when, they were doing some of the same techniques that are so cutting edge today. It is remarkable how the old adage is correct: The more things change the more they stay the same. Great article

ericlee said...

Now there are only fights at the bars in Healdsburg once a week.