Famed grape grower Robert Young dies
Renowned lifelong Alexander Valley farmer Robert Young, who paid no heed to the snickering when he began yanking up perfectly good prune trees in the 1960s and planting what would become some of Sonoma County?s most prized varietal wine grapes, died Friday morning. He was 90.
Young was born March 6, 1919, on farmland that already had sustained his family for two generations. A chunk of the ranch on Red Winery Road became his property, and his obligation, when he was just 16 and his father died.
He saved the ranch from the Great Depression, and now he?s left it to four sons and daughters who continue to farm premium grapes on 317 acres. They sell most of them to Chateau St. Jean, Blackstone, Clos du Bois, Simi and other wineries.
The family?s oldest and most mutually beneficial relationship is with Chateau St. Jean, which in 1975 used Robert Young Vineyards grapes for a chardonnay and then credited that fact on the label. With that labeling, Chateau St. Jean became the first U.S. winery to concentrate on vineyard-designated wines.
The chardonnay became a benchmark for the wine industry and brought fame to Chateau St. Jean and Young. Nearly 35 years later, the Young Vineyards chardonnay remains one of Chateau St. Jean?s signature wines.
Although Young?s children sell most of their grapes, they keep some of the best for their 12-year-old Robert Young Estate Winery. They call their signature wine Scion in tribute to the clan?s patriarch, a prune farmer who took a chance on the grape.
?He wasn?t afraid to do anything,? said son Jim Young, who now heads up the Young family enterprises. He said his father kept on, determined to press each drop of joy from life, after a stroke in 1994 blurred his speech and partially paralyzed his right arm.
?He was at church just two Sundays ago,? said daughter Susan Sheehy of Cloverdale. ?He was at Kiwanis two Tuesdays ago.?
Young was having some trouble breathing and seemed to be blacking out last week when family members took him to Healdsburg Hospital. Because the North County community titan was 90, staffers there asked him if he wanted to be resuscitated in the event of a life-threatening incident.
?He said, ?Oh, yeah, definitely!?<TH>? his daughter said.
She remembered him saying something like, ?The Lord will take me when he?s ready.?
Doctors in Healdsburg suspected heart trouble, so they told Young they wanted him to be seen at Santa Rosa?s Memorial Hospital. He had been there two days when he died Friday.
Word of his death was not entirely surprising to friends, neighbors and Wine Country colleagues, but it was a painful blow even so. They praised him as a man who was bold, innovative, hardworking, generous, community minded and a lot of fun to be around.
?The man was an icon in every sense of the word,? said Richard Arrowood, one of Sonoma County?s premier winemakers and someone with a unique kinship with Young.
Arrowood?s mother and grandmother grew up in the Alexander Valley, and as a kid he was babysat by Young?s first wife, the late Gertrude Young. So he?d known Robert Young most of his life when he made the first Chateau St. Jean chardonnay from Young?s grapes.
And more recently, it was Arrowood whom the Youngs came to when they decided in the late 1990s that they?d like to make some wine themselves. Arrowood guided the making of the first Robert Young Estate wines.