Sonoma County’s American Gothic
Jane Paulsen, once the wife of comedian-politician Pat Paulsen and the driving force behind Paulsen Vineyards, for more than a decade has lived quietly in Healdsburg. With the resurgence of the family winery brand, she again finds herself the focus of some attention.
While Paulsen suffers from “essential tremors,” a Parkinson-like disorder that affects her speech and causes her hands to tremble, she continues to be the family foundation for her three adult children.
Son Montgomery, known as Monty, has brought back Pat Paulsen Vineyards wines, including the famous American Gothic label that features his parents in a recreation of Grant Wood’s classic painting of an Iowa farm family.
While the winery’s tasting room is located in Livermore, the Paulsen roots are deeply planted in Sonoma County soil, and Monty is exploring a second tasting room in Healdsburg where his mother can pass the time.
Jane Paulsen turned 80 on Dec. 24, traveling far from her birthplace of Delaware, Ohio. While growing up in a family of five boys and four girls, she was the rebel. One day in 1953, she passed an Army recruiting office and enlisted, trading “a really boring job at an insurance office” for a tour in Japan as a licensed vocational nurse in military maternity wards. She found time to climb Mount Fuji and made some lifelong friends as the Korean War wound down.
Back in Ohio three years later and working for the same insurance company, she was urged by friends to come to San Francisco. She was 21 when she arrived, working hospitals that included the Shriners’ Hospital on 19th Avenue until she met Pat Paulsen at a club and “got busy being pregnant.”
They married in 1959 and that year had Terri, now 55. She was followed by Monty, now 52, and Justin, 50.
Pat Paulsen was just beginning to make a name for himself in San Francisco clubs such as the Purple Onion, Jack’s Waterfront and the Spaghetti Factory. After Terri’s birth, the couple moved to Rosemead, outside Pasadena, and toggled between San Francisco and Los Angeles until he got his break with the Smothers’ Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. Paulsen’s satirical, deadpan social and political commentary soon brought him fame.
The family, which had once been near eviction, suddenly had enough money for their own home, private schools and a decorator. Terri remembers being wildly excited when such a huge crowd gathered to see her father at Disneyland that they had to bring him in by helicopter.
The Smothers Brothers soon got crosswise with CBS and were fired in 1969, but Paulsen fielded a lucrative offer to stay. Instead, he signed with ABC to produce the Pat Paulsen Comedy Half Hour, which lasted only 13 weeks.
Still at his prime, Paulsen got regular work, touring with his comedy act and appearing on TV shows such as “The Wild Wild West,” “The Monkees,” “Sesame Street” and “Get Smart.” While Jane spent most of her time at home with the kids, she was able to travel with him to London, where he taped a segment for “The Tom Jones Show.”
His most enduring fame came about innocuously. While taping a segment with the Smothers Brothers, they suggested that he run for president.
Paulsen quipped, “Why not? I can’t dance. Besides, the job has a good pension plan and I’ll get a lot of money when I retire.”
He followed through, mounting satirical presidential campaigns in ‘68, ‘72, ‘80, ‘88, ‘92 and ‘96 and actually garnering some votes.
As a child living in Studio City, Monty remembers visiting his uncle Lorin Paulsen’s camp for boys on Westside Road in Healdsburg. Impressed by the animals and forts, he and his siblings urged their parents to move to Sonoma County. In 1971, the Paulsens bought a 350-acre ranch outside Cloverdale at the end of River Road and used it as a summer home. The following year, they moved full time to the riverfront parcel.
“We really made the move for the kids,” Jane Paulsen said, but the house was small and it rained constantly the first year, leaving her with three cranky kids while Pat was on the road with his act. Before long they bought the adjacent property and moved into the larger house on that parcel.
Grapes were gaining a foothold at the time, so the Paulsens planted vineyards and later bought the 3.25-acre “village” of Asti. Pat appointed himself the mayor of Asti, and built Pat Paulsen Vineyards winery and tasting room. The vineyards’ first bottling was overseen by vintner Dick Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood.
“Mom was the driving force behind the winery and our family,” Terri said. “She was also the stabilizing force behind my dad.” While Pat spent his time touring, she said, Jane stayed home to run the winery, the tasting room and raise the kids.