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Revered wine pioneer Davis Bynum now crafting his story at 90

Davis Bynum, who recently turned 90, sold his namesake winery in 2007, but continues to meet with the winemaker for lunch every month and talk about the brand.|

When Davis Bynum is at his Healdsburg Victorian home, he spends most of the time in a study lined with books, writing one.

The former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, who celebrated his 90th birthday this month, is now chronicling his story in an autobiography.

“I’ve written about 150 pages,” said Bynum, who earlier explained “I knew I was never going to be a (San Francisco Chronicle columnist) Herb Caen so I opted for what I truly wanted to do, which was to make wine.”

The genteel man with delicate hazel eyes and a shock of white hair, smiled. “I would say it was my true calling.”

Bynum, in the past, has joked: “Any idiot can make wine, but he has to be a tireless idiot. Winemaking takes enormous work and attention.”

As a reporter in his 20s, Bynum worked his first 48-hour day when Harry S. Truman was elected. He decided in his 40s he was tireless enough to become a winemaker.

Bynum, who had been a home winemaker for 14 years, decided to quit his day job in 1963 to venture into the wine industry. After producing wine in Albany, he founded his namesake winery on Sonoma County’s Westside Road outside of Healdsburg in 1973.

After four decades at the helm, Bynum retired in 2007 and sold the brand to the Klein family, owner of Healdsburg’s Rodney Strong Vineyards. Today he continues to weigh in on the bottlings regularly with winemaker Greg Morthole.

“I have the great pleasure of going through the wines with Greg and then I have the great pleasure of drinking them afterwards,” Bynum joked.

Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley was Bynum’s destiny, according to his daughter, Susie Bynum. She said her father was astonished by the quality of wine his friend, Howard Allen, made from vintner Joe Rochioli’s grapes.

“I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment when I tasted pinot noir in the area, because it was so different than anything I had encountered before,” Bynum said. “It had some of the same characters of French Burgundy.”

Bynum said he’s most proud of being the first to produce a vineyard-designated pinot noir. The Davis Bynum pinot, produced in 1973, credited Rochioli Vineyards on the label.

“We did this even before there was a Russian River Valley appellation,” he said.

Susie said her father was ahead of the times because of his natural gift as a viticulturist.

“He understood before a lot of people that your wine is only going to be as good as the fruit going into it,” she said.

An organic grape grower for decades, Bynum says he was deeply inspired by “Pleasant Valley,” a book he read in his 30s about a self-sustaining farm in Ohio with pristine farming practices.

“I think the book crystallized thoughts I might have had on that, and brought it all to a head,” Bynum says. “It made me stop and think about methods of farming. In the garden prior to that, I’d use sprays if there were bugs on the roses or mildew on the begonias. Now I just don’t do that. I just don’t think it’s necessary.”

Bynum was unique in treating his vines to the finer things in life, including classical music. He believes music has a positive impact on the vines. At one point he even considered purchasing a $5,000 sound system to pipe Bach concertos into his vineyards. While the pragmatic vintner ultimately used the money elsewhere, he still gave the vines a taste of classical music through his car stereo, parking it at a variety of sites.

“My father really cares about people and the environment before anything else,” Susie said.

Susie, 62, and her brother Hampton, 65, both live in Healdsburg near their father and his wife, Virginia, where they can keep tabs on the author.

Virginia spends a good part of her days keeping her husband company in the study, listening to him peck out his story that transcends generations.

Bynum’s love of wine comes from his lineage. The only child grew up in Pasadena with parents Lindley and Helen Bynum. His father was a California historian who was also a wine writer and wine judge. Bynum said his father planted the seed in him.

Susie said it was the passion in her father’s blood that ensured his success as a vintner.

“It never occurred to him that he would fail at this,” Susie said. “It just wasn’t in his makeup.”

Bynum said taking the plunge into the wine world was irresistible.

“I was totally turned on by the process of fermentation and the clarification and aging of wine,” Bynum said. “Being a winemaker is sort of like being a printer. The ink gets in your blood and you can’t ever shake that.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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