The Press Democrat — September 18th 2014
Dave Stare grinned broadly as he returned from a month’s vacation in Maine, touching back down in the Dry Creek Valley for a few weeks before heading east again. Since retiring from the family wine business in 2006, he has had more freedom to travel, play music and tend his pet charity. He also has the option of going back to the winery every so often to poke around and make sure everything looks alright.
His opus, Dry Creek Vineyard, was the first new Dry Creek Valley winery since Prohibition when he began building it in 1972. For his lifetime accomplishments, Stare will be recognized Sept. 28 by the Harvest Fair committee at an award ceremony and dinner at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.
Stare will be 75 when he accepts the award. He was 33 when he bought the land on which his winery still sits today, off Lambert Bridge Road.
“Dave has been a real pioneer,” said Nick Frey, former head of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, “and is certainly deserving of this recognition for his many contributions to the Sonoma County wine community.”
Wine was not his first passion or career. He was raised in suburban Boston, where his father did research on nutrition with the Harvard School of Public Health, and studied civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After earning a master’s in transportation and marketing from Northwestern University, he went to work as an industrial engineer for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
“My career ambition, for as long as I can remember, was to become president of a major railroad somewhere in the United States,” Stare said.
He was married with a young child when, in 1967, he moved the family to Neuwid, Germany, to take a job with a German steel firm. During his two years in the fertile Rhine River Valley region, Stare got his first real exposure to wine. “I spent a lot of weekends going around wine tasting,” he said. “My boss was a German chap, kind of a wine aficionado, and I learned a fair amount about German wines from him.”
When Stare moved back to Boston in 1969, he took a course in wine appreciation and “began to develop the harebrained idea that I wanted to somehow get into the wine business,” he said. A French wine country vacation further nourished the idea.
“Fortunately for me and for France, just after coming back from that trip there was an article in the Wall Street Journal which talked about what a great future California had for becoming a world-class grape-growing and winemaking area,” he said. “I forgot about France and turned my eyes towards California.”
Stare traveled to Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, visited banks and UC Davis, and made up his mind. “We moved out here in the summer of ’71, and I enrolled as a special graduate student at UC Davis, studying grape growing and winemaking,” he said. “I took all the courses you need for a master’s degree in enology, but I never wrote a thesis or got a degree. I was just doing coursework.”
After spending more time in Northern California, Stare decided that Sonoma County was the place to build a small winery.
“Napa had been discovered, and land prices were already double what they were in Sonoma County,” he said. “The Healdsburg area was kind of in transition. A lot of the old first- and second-generation Italian-American farmers wanted to retire. Their kids weren’t interested in going into the business, so there was a fair amount of property for sale at quite reasonable prices.”
In March 1972, after a few failed attempts to buy land, Stare was driving down Dry Creek Road and saw a farmer discing his field. He pulled over to talk with the man. “He stopped his tractor, he got off, and we started chatting,” Stare said. “I introduced myself and he said, ‘I think Mrs. Howe wants to sell her place. Let me take you down and introduce you to Elizabeth Howe.’ “We chatted and in about five minutes we agreed on a price and shook hands. It was a win-win situation.”
Stare now owned 50 acres of prune and pear orchards, but the soil beneath them was excellent for the vines he planned to plant. “Dry Creek Valley has good river valley soil, a sandy loam and gravel with a couple hundred feet of topsoil,” Stare said. “It’s not super fertile, but it drains well, and grapes like a well-drained soil.”
Sauvignon Blanc was one of Stare’s personal favorites, something that wasn’t planted in the area prior to his arrival.
After buying the property, he and vineyard manager Dale Goode, founder of Murphy-Goode, and Bob Sessions, the Sonoma County Farm adviser, dug a hole with a backhoe and jumped in to look at the soil.
They counseled Stare to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay or Gewurztraminer, but he had his heart set on Sauvignon Blanc.
“They said, ‘No, nobody buys Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a bad driver. It’s too cool for Sauvignon Blanc’,” Stare said. “I wanted to grow it so we put in 10 acres, and it’s been by far our most successful wine.”
That year Stare bought and crushed 30 tons of grapes, making 500 cases of Chenin Blanc, 500 cases of Sauvignon Blanc and 350 cases of Chardonnay. Although he was starting small, he planned to use his business background to grow the winery.
The day before Thanksgiving in 1973, Stare got a phone call from Professor Maynard Amerine of UC Davis. “I’d like to bring Julio Gallo to visit you Friday morning. Would that be possible?” Stare remembers hearing. “That got me out of doing the dishes after Thanksgiving dinner because I told my wife, “I’ve got to go down and clean up the winery because the Gallos are coming tomorrow morning.”
At 8:30 a.m., a long Cadillac limousine drove up with the Gallos. They tasted a few wines, Stare said, and “Mrs. Gallo remarked, ‘My, what a cute little winery this is.’ “Julio Gallo asked how big it was. Stare said 6,000 cases that year, with plans to eventually produce 20,000.
He said, “‘Let me give you advice. When you get to 20,000, you’re not going to want to stop. Believe me, I’ve been through it.”
In 1976, as the estate grapes came into production, Dry Creek Vineyard made the leap from 10,000 cases to 20,000 cases a year. Today, it produces between 120,000 and 130,000 cases a year. Part of this growth was driven by the extended sales and marketing trips Stare took between the ’70s and the ’90s, spending about half his time on the road.
“I used to go in and talk, obviously about Dry Creek, but I talked about Sonoma County,” Stare said. “If someone said, ‘What do you think about this wine?’ I’d say, ‘Oh, Pedroncelli makes great wines. You ought to carry him.’ I wanted them to carry mine, but I wanted them to carry Jim’s wines, too, and I was out beating the bushes for Sonoma County.”
Stare’s approach to winemaking has always been unpretentious, preferring to produce high-quality wines with good value rather than making the best wine, he said. “I’m not quite sure what the best wine is. It’s hard to quantify something so subjective as a taste. Can you say that Mozart is a better classical composer than Haydn or Handel or Bach? You can’t.”
After nearly 35 years in the driver’s seat, Stare retired and turned control of the family business over to his daughter, Kim Stare-Wallace, and her husband, Don Wallace.
Looking back at the growth of his business, Stare attributes little of it to his marketing and engineering background, and more to the willingness of upstart wineries to collaborate. “I wanted to work hard, I didn’t mind physical labor,” he said. “But I often went to friends, neighbors and considered their opinions. I could always call other wineries for advice, and they’d help out.”
Now that he’s not spending 50 hours a week at the winery, Stare has found time to pick up the trombone and banjo again, playing banjo with The Russian River Ramblers jazz band. “I played in high school, both trombone and banjo, and they sat unused for 55 years in my closet. Then I got them out about three years ago and started playing,” he said.
Stare also chairs the board of Global Partners for Development, a philanthropic organization that funds water projects in East Africa. A recent fundraising concert at the Raven Theater brought in some $35,000 for further projects, he said.
On a crackly phone line from Chicago, where he was embarking on a four-day train trip to the East Coast, Stare reflected on his mid-life career change.
“If I weren’t in the wine business, I might have become a high level executive in one of the national railroad companies,” he said. “But being a pioneer has been extremely gratifying. I have no regrets.”
By STUART TIFFEN / Special to Towns