Robert Young dies at 90; pioneering Sonoma County grape grower


Robert Young, a pioneering Sonoma County farmer who changed his crop from prunes to grapes and helped produce some of the first vineyard-designated wines in California, has died. He was 90.

Young died June 19 at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital from complications of old age, said his daughter, Susan Sheehy.

A third-generation farmer from Geyserville in the Alexander Valley, he realized in the mid-1960s that he could make more money from wine grapes than from prunes, so he uprooted the trees and planted a vineyard, putting him at the leading edge of California’s emerging wine industry. But it wasn’t all about the profit.


His focus on quality -- initially with red cabernet sauvignon grapes planted in 1963, the first in the Alexander Valley, and then a few years later with white chardonnay -- brought him to the attention of a young winemaker named Richard Arrowood.

When Arrowood became the wine master at Chateau St. Jean in the Sonoma Valley, he signed a contract with Young to buy his grapes and, using only that fruit, made a wine he labeled 1975 Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay. That became one of the first single-vineyard wines so designated in California, following a tradition of European vintners and establishing a practice now common in this state to call attention to a premium wine’s particular grape sources rather than a general geographic region.

“That put Chateau St. Jean on the map,” Arrowood said last week.

“Bob was one of those visionaries who really applied himself, so he researched things out. . . . He was way ahead of the curve.”

And by bonding with vintners, Young created lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

“He did it by one thing,” said Arrowood, who became internationally renowned for his work at Chateau St. Jean and later founded the Arrowood Winery and Amapola Creek Winery. “It was the handshake, look the man in the eye and give him your word. Bob’s word was good. If he said, ‘I’ll do it,’ he would. It’s old school.”

It was the way Young’s family had operated for more than 150 years.

Robert Ashley Young was born March 6, 1919, in Healdsburg, Calif., and grew up on 200 acres his grandfather Peter Young had farmed since coming west from New York state looking for gold in 1858.

In 1935, when Robert was 16, his father died and left his portion of the family farm to the teenager, but the bank that held the $70,000 mortgage came calling for the note. A great-uncle guaranteed the loan, and Young eventually paid it off and expanded the ranch to 500 acres.


After graduating from high school and marrying Gertrude Rotlisberger, Young focused on growing prunes. But he never looked back once he decided to plant grapes on the advice of a Sonoma County farm advisor and UC Davis researchers. The Robert Young Vineyard’s original 13 acres of cabernet sauvignon -- which became Sonoma County’s key varietal -- grew to include 317 acres planted with 12 varietals, mainly chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. In 2001, Young bought 100 acres of dairy farm land in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to convert to vineyards.

He became known for embracing progressive farming practices, including innovative trellising and pruning techniques, and a chardonnay clone for propagation is named for him.

He was also instrumental in organizing growers. He served on the board of the California Assn. of Winegrape Growers from 1979 to 1986.

Besides providing grapes to Chateau St. Jean, the vineyard supplies Simi, Geyser Peak, Clos du Bois, Blackstone, Coppola and other wineries. But since 1997 the Young family has kept the top 5% of their yield to make their own wine under the Robert Young Estate Winery label. The winery’s Chardonnay, Merlot and a red Bordeaux blend, Scion, have received favorable reviews from wine critics.

Young’s four children, who are co-owners of the winery, expanded the family enterprise hoping to provide opportunities for future generations of Youngs in the Alexander Valley.

In addition to his daughter Susan, Young is survived by his second wife, Donna; sons Jim and Fred; another daughter, JoAnn; a sister, Marion Penry; 12 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. His wife Gertrude died in 1988.


A celebration of Young’s life is set for Wednesday at the family’s ranch in Geyserville.