Pinot noir pioneer

We have 1970s-era anti-growth activists of St. Helena to thank for Davis Bynum's move to the Russian River Valley. The Bay Area newspaperman-turned-winemaker had been tending a Napa Valley vineyard and wanted to build a winery there. The locals did not want another one.

The son of a well-known California wine writer, Lindley Bynum, Davis, now 88, happened to taste the homemade wine of a friend who had sourced pinot noir from a barely known vineyard on Westside Road outside of Healdsburg called Rochioli.

Only recently planted, Joe Rochioli had been selling the pinot to Martini & Prati Winery (whose facility is today owned by Martin Ray) as what they called "mixed black" grapes. At the time, Rochioli was charging about $150 a ton.

"We said we can do better than that and we paid $350 a ton and got all Rochioli's pinot that year," Bynum recalled. "We were paying that much for cabernet, paying $300 (a ton) for zinfandel, and pinot was one of the great grapes of the world, but there wasn't a market."

The year was 1973 and Bynum decided he would become the market for pinot noir, leaving the Napa Valley for the coolness of Sonoma County. He bought 82 unplanted acres with an old hop kiln that became the Davis Bynum winery, the first on Westside Road. Helping to make the wine that first year was Bynum's son, Hampton, and local winemaking consultant Robert Stemmler.

"We didn't really know how good it was going to be until we tasted it," Bynum said. "The fruit was beautiful for one, but as soon as we finished the raw wine, we knew we had something special."

Bynum's 1973 pinot noir was among the earliest from the area and the first to reflect recognition on the Rochioli vineyard, as well as the first to be labeled Russian River Valley, a full 10 years before the appellation had official status.

Bynum credits Rochioli's meticulous farming and willingness to drop fruit if damaged for the good quality of the pinot he got every year from 1973 through 2007. That year, Bynum sold his property and vineyard to Thomas George Estates and his brand to Rodney Strong Wine Estates.

"I've tasted Oregon pinot noir, Santa Barbara pinot noir. I don't think any of them have the depth of character Russian River pinot has," Bynum said. "We were just lucky. We were in the right place at the right time."

The winery's heyday was largely presided over by winemaker Gary Farrell, who came on as a harvest intern in 1974 and was named winemaker in 1978. At Davis Bynum, he also made the wines for Rochioli for several years, exchanging winemaking for grapes.

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