Famed grape grower Robert Young dies

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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.

?Bob was a guy who was always on the front edge of what was going on,? Arrowood said. ?I don?t know where his muse came from. I have no idea, but he had it.?

Ironically, the news of Young?s death reached Arrowood in Colorado, where he is attending the 27th Aspen Food & Wine Classic with the three other people who have served as winemaker at Chateau St. Jean: Steve Reeder, Don Van Staaveren and the winery?s current winemaker, Margo Van Staaveren.

Today, the four of them will speak on a panel and will focus on the chardonnays and other renowned wines made from Young?s grapes.

?I admired Robert Young, and I respected him and I really enjoyed him,? Margot Van Staaveren said. She said the chardonnay made from his grapes certainly ?helped define Chateau St. Jean.?

The grapegrower lived all his life on the ranch bought in 1858 by his paternal grandfather, Peter Young. Peter Young had come from upstate New York as a Gold Rush miner, then settled in Alexander Valley and switched to farming.

When he died, a third of his property passed to his son, Silas, Robert?s father. As the Depression hit and deepened, Silas Young worked so hard to save his ranch that the stress put him in an early grave.

When he died in 1935, his son, Robert, inherited the ranch. He saved it through hard work and some help from a wealthy uncle who guaranteed the $70,000 note Bank of America held on the property.

Robert Young made good on the debt. In 1940, he married his sweetheart from Healdsburg High, Gertrude Rotlisberger. They had four children.

Young expanded the ranch and he grew prunes exclusively until 1963, when he took the advice of a farm adviser and became the first farmer in Alexander Valley to plant cabernet sauvignon grapes ? he put in about 13 acres on the pasture behind the house. He saw pretty quickly that wine grapes made him more money than prunes.

?So he started pulling out the prune orchards,? his daughter Sheehy said. ?In about 10 years time, we were no longer prune growers, we were grapegrowers.?

Young had been a local and statewide leader among prune growers, and he became a force in winegrowers? associations. Over the decades he evolved also into one of the most respected elders of Alexander Valley, a community leader who played key roles in the protection of agriculture, the renovation of the valley?s community hall and in myriad other local issues and efforts.

The Youngs had been married for 48 years when Gertrude died in 1988. Young married Donna Anne Watts in 1992.

In addition to his wife, son Jim Young and daughter Susan Sheehy, he is survived by his son Fred Young and daughter JoAnn Young, both of Healdsburg; his sister, Marion Penry of Healdsburg; 12 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Young?s family is preparing plans for a memorial service in early July.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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