With his gray beard and Birkenstocks, Lou Preston seems more like a thoughtful philosopher than a high-profile vintner and successful business owner.
These days, the 68-year-old scion of Preston Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley has found a personal balance point between the two.
While he doesn't talk about existentialism or feel compelled to quote Socrates, he does think big thoughts, and his musings have led him to conclude that the American dream that boasts bigger is better is out of touch with what's most authentic in Wine Country. To practice that philosophy, he changed his life.
"The pundits always ask what is the right size for a successful winery," Preston said. "Well, it depends. If you are all about marketing, the sky's the limit. If you are a farmer, it has to be scaled to protect your connection with the land..."
About a decade ago, the Dry Creek Valley winemaker was regularly flying the friendly skies to promote his Preston Vineyards wine — to great accolades and national recognition. But he grounded himself in 2001, downsizing his 30,000-case production to a mere 8,000. This shift has allowed him to stay put.
"Downsizing means you no longer have to sell nationally, so it freed me up to be a farmer again rather than a wine peddler," Preston said. "I found it more fulfilling, more creative and more of a challenge. I understood the marketing of wine, and to change the focus and to grow alternative crops and then market them was a challenge."
Today Preston's at home on his 125-acre spread outside Healdsburg, happy to forgo business travel altogether. And he stays under the radar of frenetic events like the Wine Road Barrel Tasting and Passport to Dry Creek Valley.
"Oh to be a recluse. Divine solitude," Preston joked. "In fact, I like people a lot — just not lots of people. One-on-one works for me and (wife) Susan. Life is a conversation, not a shout."
Preston graduated from Stanford in 1963 and then studied enology at U.C. Davis, and he continues to experiment with whites and reds, including zinfandel, syrah, sauvignon blanc and the Rhone varietals. But in addition to his wine exploits, Preston now bakes bread, makes olive oil from the trees he tends, tracks sheep in the vineyards and makes jug wine.
Is he a madcap inventor? Not exactly.
"I'm more of a dreamer and discoverer," Preston said. "We mostly do what has been done before. We just get an inconvenient notion and ferret out its precedent. My long-deceased Italian neighbor baked bread in an outside brick oven. Our Italian farming antecedents here grew olives. The family who sold us the core ranch ran sheep in the prune orchard."
An eclectic farmer? Absolutely, and it makes sense when you understand his roots: Preston grew up on a ranch and dairy at 10649 Eastside Road, about eight miles south of Healdsburg on the Russian River, in the '50s and '60s.
While typical vintners focus their full attention on the fall harvest, Preston these days is in a continual state of harvest.
"There isn't just one harvest," he said. "Grapes, olives, wheat, favas, cucumbers, apples... Actually, a more apt metaphor is an opera. We orchestrate growing things throughout the year with many acts and arias."
Preston fell in love with Dry Creek Valley in the early &‘70s; he and his wife, Susan, bought the first part of the winery property in 1973. There they raised grapes along with their three children – Maggie, 31; Francesca, 33; and Tim, 44.
When he's not immersed in the food-and-wine world, he spends time with his grown children, reads books that feed his "food activism," and travels, whether it be to the Gold Country, where he owns property, or to France.
Preston, who says he's a retired jogger, also likes to write content for his website or material for his Wine Club.
"Writing is like solving a puzzle and there are different ways to do it," he said. "I always look for the more intriguing way."
Wine Country has changed over the years and the unwieldy growth spurt is irksome to some. Preston's take?
"Irk is a peculiar word," he said. "It's like an irritation under the skin when all you can do is scratch. In fact I love our wine country; it is our land and our town and our neighbors. It's our traditions and our history and our commitment.
"What makes me itch is the notion that Wine Country — upper case — is some precious entity above the fray, entitled, inscrutable, mysterious. Wine events tend to play to this mystique."
Preston doesn't consider himself an anomaly, although there are those who might argue with him.
"No, there are plenty of iconoclasts like me. It's just that we don't have enough presence or influence," he said. "Which leads to my most annoying characteristic, which is being preachy without persuasion. Best quality? Knowing when to shut my mouth. Oh yeah, and I can make a pretty mean loaf of sourdough."
The sourdough genius has some good advice for those of us living in Wine Country.
"Wine Country can be your country, anywhere," Preston said. "Even in the city, get to know the spirit of your place, your foodshed, your peopleshed. Wine country is a state of mind."
Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.