While big wineries such as Kendall-Jackson and E&J Gallo have made Sonoma known around the world, independent growers like Richard Mounts farm two-thirds of the vineyards in Sonoma County.

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With his son David, Mounts opened a small winery in 2005. He sets aside 10 tons of grapes from the 120 tons he picks every year and produces about 500 cases of wine under the family's name. There's a satisfaction to tasting the wine made from your own grapes after decades of selling them off to giant companies, Mounts said.

"We get to really see what the grapes that we grow turn into, when you make it into wine," Mounts said. "It's more fulfilling than just hauling the grapes away and never knowing what your product makes."

Mounts has lived on the farm most of his life, except for a detour when he went to college at California Polytechnic State University and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in soil science, which was followed by a road trip around South America with a college friend.

"That was a wild time," Mounts said. "Hippies were in full bloom."

During his college years, when prunes from Sonoma County were losing value, Mounts sensed that grapes would yield a more profitable enterprise, so he gradually replaced his father's orchards with vineyards.

After concluding that a desk job would never feel right, Mounts returned to the family farm in 1969 and began working full time, eventually taking over the business.

"It's a huge change from when I started, because this valley, it was all small farmers," Mounts said. "Now, so much of it is owned by people with money who have it as a lifestyle."

More residents have been drawn to the scenic Dry Creek Valley, and along with new neighbors came new rules and regulations.

"They don't understand the tractors running at 4 in the morning, the smells," Mounts said.

Vineyard management companies proliferated, helping everyone from hobby farmers to major wineries with their work.

But Mounts maintained his do-it-yourself lifestyle, rising at 5 a.m. during harvest to pick grapes with a small crew and driving trucks loaded with grapes to the winery himself.

"We do everything ourselves," Mounts said. "There is no typical day."

Even the tricky business of installing irrigation systems is a chore Mounts tackles with his crew, one of the many projects that keep him busy in the off-season. The vineyard owner is continually replanting less-productive vines and takes about 10 acres out of production at a time. He does hire help for pruning, though.

"Pruning is a tough business," Mounts said. "You get carpal tunnel after a few years."

As a second-generation farmer in Dry Creek Valley, Mounts has seen a lot of change. Early on, the Mounts family primarily sold grapes to the Frei Brothers, who crushed grapes into wine for the Gallo family.

"We sold to Gallo over 50 years," Mounts said.

Gallo had been the dominant grape buyer in the region, but the company was known for paying low prices for grapes, according to many wine industry veterans. Often, farmers would cultivate their crop and sell the grapes to Gallo without having agreed to a price beforehand.

"We delivered grapes that we didn't know what we were getting paid," Mounts said. "We didn't have any choice. That was the reality."

Even with the uncertainty, there was still a farmer's comfort in knowing that Gallo would buy everything they grew, including any unexpected surplus, he said.

"You didn't have a contract, you had a handshake," Mounts said. "Virtually everything went to Gallo, and it was comforting. You didn't worry about overages, they took everything you had."

But as the Gallo family bought more vineyards, their need for outside fruit appeared to wane.

"It was pretty obvious they weren't going to have to buy as much fruit," Mounts said.

Around 2000, when a long-term contract between Mounts and Gallo for zinfandel and petite sirah was coming up for review, Mounts noticed that those grapes were selling elsewhere for $2,000 a ton, compared with the $1,200 he was getting from Gallo. So he asked for more money.

"I said 'I've been with you guys a long time, but the prices are going up,'" Mounts recalled.

The answer was no, so Mounts found another buyer. Eventually, he ended all the contracts with the company in favor of buyers who were willing to pay more.

"When I left Gallo, I said, 'The first thing I'm gonna do is not put it all in one place,'" Mounts said. "It was a big change for us to leave them."

So he began selling grapes to Simi Winery, Clos du Bois and Ravenswood Winery. Eventually, those wineries all were bought by beverage giant Constellation, so his grape contracts were once again all held by one large company. Constellation gradually ended those contracts one by one, Mounts said.

Now, Mounts has achieved the variety he was looking for. He has contracts with 10 different wineries, including St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, Benziger Family Winery, Kokomo Winery, Optima Wine Cellars and, this year, Seghesio Family Vineyards in Sonoma County. He also sells to V. Sattui Winery, Sutter Home Winery and Michael Mondavi Family Estate in Napa.

Many of his clients have come through connections that his son made in winemaking circles.

As he watches individual winemakers and growers sell out to corporations and investors, David Mounts laments that there are fewer family-owned wine businesses in Sonoma County.

"I think the days of the family generational farms, especially in this area, are going to become less and less as the years go on," he said. "I think it's important to keep as many of the family farms going as long as possible."

His father feels lucky that his son has taken an interest in carrying on the family tradition.

"No regrets," Mounts said. "It's been a wonderful life."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.