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Robert Young, 84, energized to better wine grape growing

His gait has slowed a bit and his speech is labored as a result of a stroke almost a decade ago. However, like those tender young buds in his family’s 317 acres of premium varietal vineyards, Bob Young is energy-filled and ready for the next challenges.

His disarming, warm smile and expressive eyes belie his ever present impatience for standing still. What else could explain his most recent project, developing 100 acres of wines grapes with long time friend and New York grape grower and vintner John Martini. Young’s father Peter came from upstate New York to California in 1858 and settled in Alexander Valley to farm grain and prunes.

He remains eager to advance his knowledge of wine grape growing through research; frustrated still that not more people enjoy California wine and adamant to advance research on the health advantages of wine.

"Dad cannot sit still. He always has something going. We never know what the next project will be," laughed oldest son Jim, who has worked alongside his dad for a lifetime and now manages the Young family vineyards in Sonoma County, Calif.

Robert Young planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon in Alexander Valley four decades ago because he thought wine grapes would make more money. Soon to follow were Chardonnay vines, the varietal that immortalized the Young name.

"I sold wine grapes for $800 per ton when prunes were bringing $300 per ton dried," recalled Young. It was a farming decision that led him to a place of prominence even the eternal optimist he is could not have imagined. Young’s Chardonnay grapes became one of first vineyard-designated premium wines from California. Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Chardonnay remains one of the most respected wines in America.

Young has achieved personal success and financial security through his hard work and tenacity. Many would be content to be in his boots, quietly producing high demand, premium wine grapes in one of California’s most famous growing regions.

Association trips

However, Young has never been content just to stay on the farm. He has traveled far from idyllic Alexander Valley over the past 25 years on behalf of all California wine grape growers, gaining respect from his grower peers like few others for his efforts to improve life for all wine grape growers.

He is just as concerned about grape growers in Kern County where grapes may bring $100 per ton as he for his North Coast grape-growing neighbors who will get $2,000 per ton or more.

"Bob Young is one of the most respected gentlemen in the wine grape growing business," said long time friend and former president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers Bob Hartzell, now a Lodi, Calif., grape grower.

"He is truly a statesman and sees the big picture when looking at issues concerning the California wine industry," said Hartzell. "He is a total team player who has long considered what is good for the whole industry regardless of how it may affect him personally.

"And, all grape growers respect that. Bob Young can come to Lodi or go to Bakersfield and everyone knows who he is and respects him," said Hartzell.

Jim and his brother Fred and sisters JoAnn and Susan have watched their father evolve into one of the industry’s leading statesmen. Jim said the family is obviously proud to hear that it is their father’s "integrity" as the cornerstone of the leadership role he has earned.

Robert Young has served his industry in many ways, including chairman of the California Association of Winegrape Growers early on and a CAWG director for eight years; chairman of the Winegrowers of California; delegate from California to the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) and was the second recipient of the Wine Industry Integrity Award.

‘Fair, but firm’

"Dad did not seek the limelight…none of us do, but he gained the title of leader because of who he is and what he stands for," said Jim Young. "People always say dad is fair, but firm. We’ve known that all along."

Robert is steadfast that the industry continues to fall short of what it could achieve in the marketplace. Unquestionably, California’s wine industry has made great strides since Young planted those first 14-acres of Cabernet vines on a hillside behind his family’s home. Some of it was orchestrated; other serendipitous like the famous French paradox study that detailed the positive effects of red wine. California wine sales increased dramatically after that.

California wine quality overall has arguably improved, and Golden State wines have been recognized in major wine tastings worldwide.

Nevertheless, Robert Young believes the industry continues to fall short of where it could be.

Robert and son Jim bemoan current wine and grape oversupplies and basically flat California wine sales. "We were told at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium that 75,000 acres of grapes came out of the San Joaquin Valley last year." Sixty percent of the state’s wine grapes are produced from Modesto to Bakersfield.

That is partly because of a weak economy, but it also is because Chilean, Australian and imports from other countries are taking domestic sales away from California, especially in the lower priced wines. Wine sales in America increased 4 percent last year, but it was only 1 percent for California wines.

What is happening in California’s Central Valley is not having a major impact on the Youngs and their neighbors in the premium North Coast wine grape growing regions.

Lower-priced wines

However, Jim Young points out that consumers begin enjoying wine by drinking lower-priced wines, and the industry needs an economically healthy central valley wine segment to provide those wines.

"New wine drinkers are not going to pay the high prices for Alexander Valley or North Coast wines to begin with, but the more they learn to appreciate wine then they’ll become customers of our wines," said Jim.

It is frustrating to Robert Young that wine continues to baffle most Americans. "We almost shoot ourselves in the foot by making wine too sophisticated," added Jim.

"People do no know wine is good for them. That is why research on the positive health aspects of wine is so important," said Bob, who continues to help personally fund research on wine

"The wine you like to drink is good wine," said Jim.

There needs to be a more generic or unified approach to marketing California, according to the Youngs. That was the mantra of the ill-fated Winegrowers of America marketing commission that died before it could ever get going in the 1980s because of acrimony between vintners and growers.

Young was its first grower chairman, and he still considers its demise one of the low points of his years as an industry leader.

‘Hip and cool’

Australia is doing what California did not do 20 years ago. "The one reason Australians are doing so well in the U.S. is that they are marketing Australian wine — not any specific wine brand. They are making wine fun with names like Yellow Tail. Australian wine is hip and cool,"

Robert Young said California needs to take a page from the Australians, whose government announced a decade ago that it was going to storm the world marketing Australian wine to benefit its agriculture. "They are doing exactly what they said they were going to do," said Jim Young.

"Wine is still small potatoes compared to beer and other beverages. If we could increase per capita consumption of California wines by just a small percentage, we could not plant enough grapes to meet demand for California wine," said Jim.

Bob Young remains optimistic that growers and vintners will come together again for a unified or generic approach to promoting California wine.

"We must make wine more friendly to consumer…categorize wine by flavor types…get rid of corks, especially in lower priced wines…a lot of restaurants don’t even know how to get corks out of bottles of wine," said Jim.

While they are frustrated about marketing California wine, they pleased with the changes that are taking place in the vineyards.

The Youngs have also been leaders in vineyard management.

It began, Jim said, when his dad realized he was not just growing wine grapes, but was growing wine. "Wines are not made in the winery, they are made in the vineyards," said Richard Arrowood, who was the winemaker at Chateau St. Jean when Robert Young Vineyard-designated Chardonnay was introduced. "I am merely a custodian of the grapes. Our many years together allow me to fully recognize that the Robert Young family grows wine."

Arrowood has his own winery now and began crushing a limited tonnage of Young grapes for the new Robert Young Estate Winery label in 1997. The Young winery crushed its grapes for the first time last year in a new winery built next to the Young home. An old barn was torn down to make way for the winery that was built in the same style as the old barn.

Crush small percent

"We crushed only about 75 tons for our estate winery out of 2,000 tons we produce each year," said Young. These grapes are the highest quality produced. They are from vines thinned to one bunch per shoot, producing only 7.5 to 10 pounds per vine.

Young was one of the first California wine grape growers to introduce canopy management with the old bilateral 12 by 8 California sprawl trellising system.

However, trellising changed dramatically when phylloxera was discovered on the North Coast, and growers were forced to replant all their vineyards with new rootstock. It took Jim 13 years to replant all the vineyards, but in the process he completely changed how wine grapes are grown.

He abandoned the 12 by 8 and went with six-foot rows on a vertical trellis.

"We are six feet by six feet or six feet by five feet on the flat and 1,210 to 1,452 vines per acre. That compares to only 454 vines per acre on the old system, so you can see that replanting was expensive," he said. Hillside vineyards were replanted on 6 by 8 for 907 vines per acre.

These new plantings were trellised with the vertical trellising system using moveable wires to hold the vines upright.

In 1993 Jim started experimenting with a new trellising system called Scott Henry which opens the canopy and increases the number of canes per vine by dividing the canopy vertically. A spur pruned version of this is known as Smart Dyson.

Scott Henry produces more leaf surface area and produces leaves all the way to the ground.

System advantages

The system significantly increased yields while producing more flavorful fruit and lowering vine vigor. "We also see a lot less powdery mildew and bunch rot," said Jim Young.

Probably the biggest plus to the plantings is uniform fruit ripening because the new vines are virus free. "In the old days it would take us a month or more to pick Chardonnay. Last year we picked all the Chardonnay in 10 days and the whole ranch in three weeks. Before, that would take eight to 10 weeks," said Jim.

While the replanting was caused by phylloxera, Jim believes the new systems are far superior to the old.

"Phylloxera caused a major transformation in the way grapes are grown in the Alexander Valley. There may not be many six-foot rows, but eight foot rows are common, probably more common than 10 foot rows today," said Young.

While the viticultural practices have changed significantly, the character of the wine, especially Chardonnay, can be traced back to those first vines Young planted more than 35 years ago.

"We knew we were going to have to take out the oldest block of Chardonnay, but we wanted the same character from that original planting from Wente selections," Jim said.

Two vines were selected for budwood that appeared to be virus-free and sent to University of California, Davis for heat treatment to kill any undetected virus. One cutting survived the process and became known as the Robert Young Chardonnay clone.

"It is officially known as Clone 17, but most people know it as the Robert Young Clone. Certified budwood is available from nurseries, but we have people coming by all time to the ranch to get wood for budding from us as well. It’s obviously not certified, but the demand is so high they want it anyway," said Jim.

That clone is a tribute to Young just like the one his four children are paying to their father by producing a red Bordeaux-style wine called Scion through the new family winery.

Fourth generation

Young’s children represent the fourth generation of Alexander Valley Young Family farmers. They say the estate winery represents their legacy to future generations.

"As a family, we’re in the process of finding a new fulfillment in the property so that our children and grandchildren can be product of their heritage, said JoAnn Young.

"We are the offshoots. Dad is the vine — the stock responsible for the scions," said Susan Young Sheehy.

Youngest son Fred is the driving force behind the winery and its winery president. "The new winery will enable the family to continue to have a sense of place while allowing more of the family to be involved," he said.

While the family honors their father, he is a long way from the rocking chair. As Western Farm Press finished its interview of Jim and Bob, Jim turned to his dad and said, "I have an appointment this afternoon with a winery to talk about this year’s contract. You want to go, dad?" said Jim.

The elder Young surmised his oldest son might be asking just out of courtesy and respect when he responded, "No, you go ahead. You don’t need me."

"I want you to come. Pick you up at three," said Jim.

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