Native American vintner honors heritage with his wines

“I’m using Coast Miwok names for my wines so that people will actually be forced to speak a language that was considered extinct,” Rob Campbell said. “This is my tiny way of making sure the language lives on anytime I talk about my wine.”|

For Rob Campbell, when the sun sets and a streak of orange fills the sky, it is the fire his ancestors are sitting around.

The descendant of both Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians is a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria tribe based in Rohnert Park. As the vintner of Meyye (“may-yay”) Wines, he’s honoring his heritage by launching four new wines, each named after a bird in the Coast Miwok language.

“I’m using Coast Miwok names so that people will actually be forced to speak a language that was considered extinct,” he said. “This is my tiny way of making sure the language lives on anytime I talk about my wine.”

They are:

‘Omay (“oh-my”) (brown pelican) — Pinot Noir, Petaluma Gap, Sangiacomo Vineyards, Roberts Road Vineyard

Kuluppis (“koo-loo-pee”) (Anna’s hummingbird) — Chardonnay, Los Carneros, Sangiacomo Vineyards, Kiser Ranch Vineyard

’Sokootok (“shoh-koh-tohk”) (California quail) — Red Blend (grenache, syrah, petite sirah, counoise, zinfandel or mouvedre), Sierra Foothills

Palachchak (“pah-laht-chahk”) (redheaded acorn woodpecker) — Zinfandel, California Shenandoah Valley, Story Vineyards, Picnic Hill Vineyard

“We descend from a people who survived against all odds,” Campbell said. “Now we’re educated business owners, politicians, artists, winemakers, contributors to society. We’re doing what we can to bring back our culture, relearn our languages and educate our youth so that we stand united.”

Campbell, now 56, never formally studied the craft. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music performance from San Jose State University, then spent 20 years in the high-tech audio industry working for Hewlett-Packard, Apple and AVID Technologies before switching to winemaking full-time.

Meyye Wines was founded after Campbell’s family sold Amador County’s Story Winery in 2019. The winery produces roughly 400 to 800 cases annually.

The vintner talked about his upbringing, what piqued his interest in wine and why he’s determined to use his winery to honor his heritage.

Question: What was your childhood like? How immersed in your Native American heritage were you?

Answer: I was born in San Francisco, and I’m proud to say I’m a fourth-generation San Franciscan on my father’s side and on my mother’s side. We’re descendants from Indians who were at Mission Dolores.

Like my mother before me, we were not raised in traditional ways or taught the language (Coast Miwok or Pomo). Her father, who was fluent in both Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, did not teach his children the language because it was important to fit in and not invite racism. He wanted his children to rise above. My mom not only went on to college at UCSF, but became a nurse and a public health nurse. ... But we have always had a strong bond with Sonoma County, especially Jenner, where my grandmother was born and my great-aunt Josephine lived to be 102. With plenty of aunts and uncles, along with hundreds of cousins in Sonoma and Lake County gatherings, you grow up with a strong sense of where you come from and that your family has always been here.

Q: When did you first find yourself attracted to winemaking?

A: I spent a lot of time driving though Napa Valley on my way from San Francisco to my grandmother’s house in Lake County in the 1970s. There were more orchards than vineyards back then. But I always thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice house up on a little hill in the middle of Napa Valley? If I lived in Napa, I probably should be involved with wine.’ I was probably 9 years old at the time and (it was) the summer after the Judgment of Paris. Fast forward 20 years, and I found myself learning how to make wine. It was a blast. It wasn’t long before I was thinking, could I do this as a career? In 2012, I came back to help run Story Winery in Amador County and take over winemaking duties.

Q: What do people who aren’t Native American fail to understand about your heritage?

A: People tend to group all Native Americans into a single pan-American identity. We don’t all use teepees. We didn’t all hunt buffalo. War bonnets are from the Plains Indians and have nothing to do with California Indians. We all don’t play the Navajo flute.

Consider that there are 109 federally recognized tribes in California. In addition, there are thousands of Californians of Indian descent who do not belong to a federally recognized tribe. Native Americans have been in California for upward of 17,000 to 20,000 years. We have been here for a very long time, and there is a huge diversity when you say Native American. Our languages are as varied as anywhere else on the planet. Even the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo languages are vastly different and do not have a common language group.

Q: What’s in store for the future?

A: I’m still the main winemaker at Story Winery for the next few years, so I live in El Dorado County. We’re waiting for my youngest son to graduate high school before moving to Sonoma County permanently. I hope to custom crush or purchase a property where I can produce my wines there.

Q: What was the inspiration for the bird used on each wine?

A: Each of the birds is native to the area where the vineyard is located. Three of the labels pay homage to three important people in my life — Kuluppis — Anna’s hummingbird — is dedicated to my grandmother whose name was Anna and who always had hummingbird feeders on her porch. Sokootok is an homage to my mother — the California quail was her favorite bird. ‘Omay is dedicated to my wife as that is her favorite bird. The woodpecker was the original design and the inspiration for Meyye (Wines) and the rest of the birds. Redheaded acorn woodpeckers live around the tasting room at Story Winery and are often spotted drilling holes (and putting acorns in those holes) in the old bunkhouse that serves as our tasting room.

You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or On Twitter @pegmelnik.

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