Visionary Sonoma County viticulturalist Davis Bynum dies at 92

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Davis Bynum, a visionary vintner considered by many to be the father of Russian River Valley pinot noir, died Sunday morning at his home after battling cancer for several years. He was 92.

A former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who changed careers while in his 40s, Bynum once joked “any idiot can make wine, but he better be a tireless idiot.” Bynum subsequently spent more than 30 years making wine in Sonoma County, and according to his daughter Susie Bynum, had been writing an autobiography, which the family hopes to publish next year.

Bynum began as a home winemaker and in 1965 started producing his Davis Bynum brand at a warehouse in Albany. In 1973, he moved operations into a winery on an 82-acre property on Westside Road outside of Healdsburg.

Known as a pioneer in pinot noir, Bynum was one of the first to recognize Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley as prized pinot country. According to his daughter, the elder Bynum was impressed by the wine made by his friend Howard Allen from vintner Joe Rochioli’s grapes.

At the time, most of Rochioli’s pinot noir harvest was being sold for jug wine, and Bynum asked the vintner if he could purchase the grapes to showcase the varietal in bottlings. In the early 1970s, the vineyard acreage in the Russian River Valley was primarily planted with robust reds like cabernet sauvignon rather than pinot noir, considered a finicky grape by many.

A milestone for Bynum was producing Russian River Valley’s first vineyard-designated pinot noir in 1973, which credited Rochioli Vineyards on the label.

A gifted viticulturist, Bynum opted to grow organic grapes because he was deeply inspired by Louis Bromfield’s book “Pleasant Valley,” about a self-sustaining farm in Ohio with pristine farming practices, which he read as a young man, he told The Press Democrat in a 2015 interview.

Bynum also was impressed by family friend Ansel Adams, spending time with Adams and wife, Virginia, in Yosemite.

“Dad really gleaned a lot from Ansel’s art, the sense that it was important in life, the way Ansel was able to speak through his art,” his daughter said. “It influenced him in winemaking because, of course, winemaking is art.”

Bynum, a genteel man with hazel eyes, was fascinated by growing things. He once experimented by treating his vines to classical music, claiming it had a positive effect on them.

The vintner even toyed with the idea of purchasing a $5,000 sound system to pipe Bach concertos into his vineyards. The pragmatic vintner ultimately opted to forgo the purchase, but he still gave the vines a concert of sorts by playing classical music through his car stereo.

Bynum retired in 2007 after four decades at the helm, and sold the brand to the Klein family, owner of Healdsburg’s Rodney Strong Vineyards. Up until he was in his nineties, Bynum weighed in on the bottlings regularly with winemaker Greg Morthole.

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

Born Jan. 2, 1925, Bynum grew up in Pasadena, the only child of Lindley and Helen Bynum. He credited his love of wine to his father, who was a California historian, wine writer and wine judge. While Bynum graduated from UC Berkeley in 1945 with a degree in history, he ultimately gravitated to grapes. His first wife, Dorothy Munson Bynum, who died in 2001, had been an enthusiastic partner in his wine ventures.

“The quality of some of Davis’ early efforts were literally breathtaking,” said winemaker Gary Farrell. “Looking back, I owe him much for allowing me to simultaneously launch my namesake brand while continuing as his winemaker.”

Morthole, the current Davis Bynum winemaker, said, “for Davis, quality and craftsmanship mattered most. He was inventive and explored what his vineyard could do. He wasn’t afraid of pushing the boundaries.”

Bynum said the world of wine was irresistible to him because he was fascinated by the process of fermentation and aging wine.

The vintner once summed it up: “Being a winemaker is sort of like being a printer. The ink gets in your blood, and you can’t ever shake that.”

In addition to his daughter, Bynum is survived by his wife, Virginia Bynum, of Healdsburg; his son, Hampton Bynum, also of Healdsburg; and four grandchildren.

The family plans to have a celebration of life memorial at Rodney Strong Winery but a date has not been set.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310.

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