: What were those first couple of years on the property like? Describe the people and work that went into getting the winery started.
: The first few years were challenging and demanding, but in retrospect not stressful. We had both left our jobs and were working for ourselves. Well, technically we were working for Sue's father Dr. Babbin, being 10% owners in the B&B ranch making $500/month farming pears and planting vineyards. But all the decisions were ours; Dr. Babbin gave us free rein to develop the business as we saw fit. It wasn't until 1981 that we became 50% owners and subsequently majority owners.
Initially we were essentially pear farmers but clearing and planting 10 acres of vacant land to vineyard. Part of the orchard was 3 acres of peaches that was more demanding than any other aspect of the operation. Elmo had a list of customers that would purchase the peaches but only on the same day they were picked. So up at 5:00am every day to pick and pack fresh peaches for eager, but discriminating customers. After one summer of this abuse, Sue decided that the peach orchard had to go and it became the site of our first vineyard, Merlot, planted in 1973. There was another 5 acres of Empress plums that were picked and sold to Blue Anchor packing in Loomis, but were quite profitable and easier to handle than the peaches, so we continued to farm them until 1990.
One unique experience of the plum operation was that Sue would sometimes drive to Loomis in our old '46 Dodge flatbed with 262 lug boxes of plums strapped on the bed. On her first trip she was pregnant with Justin at the time and took our cousin, Karen Boeger, along for company. The packing house was run by traditional Japanese men who were very deferential to her in her delicate situation, offering to unload and retie the boxes onto the flatbed. Noticing her extended condition the foreman asked Sue "What have you got there--a picker or a packer"? In packing house parlance women were "packers" and men were "pickers". To add to the drama, on the way home going up the steep grade called Buffalo Hill she thought the engine was overheating and saw what she thought was a red-hot burning hood on the truck, abruptly pulled off the side of the road and they both scrambled away some distance from the truck thinking it was going to explode. After a few minutes and passers-by looking wonderingly at them, they cautiously edged back to the truck to see what was happening and they embarrassingly noticed that in fact the hood was not in flame- that it only was the oxidized rusted paint on the hood shimmering in the sun that made it look like it was overheating. They sheepishly got back into the truck and made their way back to the ranch, not telling anyone about the experience until some weeks later.
One of the first responsibilities of planting a vineyard was to first establish a deer fence around the perimeter to protect the young vines from marauding bands off deer who love young tender grape shoots. To help achieve this my old friend, Bill Wagner, whom I've known since kindergarten offered to help. Coincidentally he was working in Sacramento as a planner for SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) and offered to assist in this project on the weekends. Every weekend he and his wife, Pam, would come up and stay at the ranch, work all day on the fence line and have a sumptuous repast in the evenings. To assist in this endeavor we had the assistance of a long-time employee of Elmo, Ed Fairover, who was a 5th generation Chilean whose forefathers came to Placerville in the Gold Rush. Ed was a big man and incredibly strong- he could drive stakes or dig post holes all day long without tiring. He was not very conversational, but congenial and never shied from a daunting job. My father, being an engineer and welder, had built a movable platform mounted on the back of our Caterpillar that could be raised or lowered for pounding in 10' T posts. From this platform Ed would pound in the posts as Bill held them in place and I moved the Cat forward for the next post. We did this all summer, ultimately encircling over fifty acres of potential vineyard. After installing the posts we then returned to attach the vineyard wire in 4' rolls to the T posts. For this my dad also had built a movable spool attachment to raise or lower the roll of wire to whatever level we needed. With the deer fence installed we now could proceed with planting the grapes.
Initially the planting crew was myself, Bill Wagner, John Babbin, Ed Fairover, and Joe Brubaker. Joe was an art student at the local college and rented the old family home above the tasting room. Never having enough money for rent, he worked it off doing labor on the ranch. And lacking that, he would give us his early paintings and wood sculptures to make up any deficiencies. Now that he is a nationally recognized artist his early works are valuable and make a prominent part of our winery art display.
The most onerous part of planting the vineyard, after clearing and laying out the design, was to dig the holes for each vine. To do this, our neighbor and Christmas tree grower, Mel Irving, loaned us his backpack augers which was essentially a 2-cycle engine strapped on your back with a flexible cable with handlebars and an auger on the end. After your partner starting the engine for you, one proceeds to the planting peg for each vine, revs the engine, and drives the auger beside the stake. Sounds simple, but it didn't account for the rocky ground that we encountered. Every time the auger hit a rock it would bind the cable and force the handle bars into your thigh. After a few hours your leg was a beaten, red pulp and to add insult to injury, your back was drenched and burning with gasoline leaking from the fuel tank. To accommodate this agony we would trade off the augers frequently, but after five acres we decided there must be an easier way.
The planting happened to coincide with pear harvest in 1973 for which was traditionally handled by the extended Garcia family: Humberto Garcia, foreman, brother Javier, and uncles, nephews, brothers and neighbors from their home ranch in Jalisco- about ten men in total. We noticed how well-managed they had the pear harvest. It was an enlightening work experience to head out to the orchards in a cool morning mist and hear Mexican folk songs being sung as the sun came up. This was a diligent and skilled crew, who were not only hard-working but happy and cohesive as a team- why not see if they might like to help plant the grapes? They gladly obliged, but after trying the backpack augers, they decided a hand auger and shovel was a better way to go. It was simply amazing to watch this crew, what had taken us three weeks to do, they did in a week and they seemed no worse the wear for it. They would wrap up each day with a barbecue, beer, music and singing! From then on we had a reliable planting crew and this is how it has continued to this day- with the same family.