Vintner Brothers Sam and Dave: Saving a Bond Gone Sideways
We were sitting at an outdoor wooden table, along a rural road called Limerick Lane, sampling various vintages deep inside the bountiful heart of California wine country.
The Sonoma County afternoon was warm and we had planted ourselves in the shade of a towering olive tree as the proprietor hovered like an attentive waiter, pouring tastes of his favorite varietals amid a sweeping backdrop of orderly vineyards.
These weren’t just the splashes of purple and gold you get at most public tastings, but healthy pours, the kind you dispense to yourself at home. The winery owner was uncomplicated, a former general contractor unadorned in his descriptions of his Zinfandels and Primitivos.
His style set me at ease, someone who knew so little about wine.
“Here’s a red one,” he said. “Just opened.”
But my hosts knew so much more, and they were the reason we were here, why this gruff, ruddy-faced owner was so attentive.
They were brothers, Sam and Dave, two years apart, and they managed their own vineyard just a few miles away. At their Porte Cochere operation, named for a covered porch where carriages deposit their riders, they sell most of their yield to a Russian River Valley winery while producing a private line of Chardonnays that have won regional awards.
And as fellow growers, they rated the courtesy of an intimate private pouring.
Me, I was just along for the boozy ride.
One 73, the other 71, Sam and Dave are both gentleman grape growers and grown-up siblings who haven’t always seem eye-to-eye: Sam is older and more practical, Dave an emotional free-spirit whose wild youthful seed landed wide of his socially conservative family, where it flourished like the broccoli and cauliflower he grows in his greenhouse and garden.
“We spatted as boys; we didn’t do much together,” Sam says. “We were just different.”
They eventually went their separate ways, arguing at family reunions. “We’d blow up,” Sam recalls, “scream at each other.”
The brothers became coolly estranged. If one ever thought of the other at all, they were silent cheerleaders — as long it was at a safe distance.
Sam married and raised two sons. Dave never settled for such tradition. As a tech consultant in Silicon Valley, Sam oozes a watchful boardroom demeanor, while Dave revels in the role of defiant free spirit and health food advocate who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.
Detente came in 2015, when Sam bought a house and several acres of land just outside Windsor, California, and prepared to learn a new craft, and train himself a legitimate winemaker.
He needed help, he knew, and who better to ask than his brother Dave?
Sam wanted to create a family refuge and perhaps bury the hatchet with his brother. Maybe they could do it in these fields.
Bearded and ponytailed, Dave’s background is macrobiotics. He champions a diet of foods based on the principals of yin and yang, and pursues a more holistic yield from the land.
He’s been a beekeeper and construction worker, and has served as director of events for the KUSHI Institute, an advocacy for natural foods.
For years, this self-described old hippie and a girlfriend lived off the land, herding goats and sheep, growing their own food. When Sam called, Dave had just left a job in San Diego and agreed to cut his roots and come north.
It was an opportunity to learn something about coaxing grapes into good wine.
So Sam moved into the main house and his brother took up quarters above the garage. Together, they nurtured their fragile new relationship as grown men whose personalities had aged like the fine wine they produced.
At the table under the trees, the varietals began to blend together on that long afternoon, as we tipped back our heads with gentle laughter.
I thought of my younger brother, Frank, how years ago we had fallen apart but reunited by sharing a home in the San Fernando Valley, drinking not wine but beer, as we repaired our own relationship, morphing from being merely brothers to true friends.
One exchange between Sam and Dave hit home.
The pair gently argued which one was more like their father, a smart but sometimes difficult man cock-sure of his opinions. As Sam tells it, the family — both Sam and Dave and brother Lou — was liberal yet argumentative.
“Dad was hard to beat in any debate,” he says. “I tried to do it though nuanced arguments. Dave was more passionate.”
Years later, the question of which apple fell closer to the tree remains unresolved.
“He is,” Sam said. “He’s the spitting image of my father.”
Dave leveled him in a gaze fuzzed by Zinfandel.
“No, Sam,” he said. “It’s you.”
And in that moment, I felt at home here with these two brothers, mellowing in the glow of their friendship, watching what they’d planted together take seed.
At the suggestion of our host, we took a stroll around the winery grounds, on which a self-built Italianate mansion looked out over trellises of grapevines that resembled armies in formation.
We passed pieces of heavy machinery critical to the trade and the brothers cooed like two suburban kids in a Tonka truck toy store.
“That’s what we want, one of those,” Sam said pointing to a small-sized earth mover with its protruding yellow bucket suspended in the air. He is a tall, erect man with swept-back gray hair.
Dave was already climbing atop a tractor, examining the weights up front that counter-balanced any heavy load being hauled in the back.
Sam pointed out that the machinery had roll bars both in front and behind the operator to guard against getting crushed in the all-too-frequent rollovers.
It was their job to know this stuff.
Unlike other gentlemen growers who leave behind successful careers, they don’t hire out all the work to contractors. “We do quite a bit ourselves,” Sam says. “We dig in.”
Initially, when Dave arrived, Sam considered charging him rent, but softened. “That was silly, so I said ‘Just stay as long as you want. We have plenty of projects to do.”
Three days a week, he works remotely for a Japanese food company and the other four — weekends included — learns the wine industry one step at a time.
Each brother knows what he brings to the table.
Both are getting older. Sam suffered polio as a boy and the weakness in his legs has re-emerged. “I can’t do as much work,” he says.
Dave himself has bad knees and battles skin cancer but he’s still able to get down on all fours to get the job done. His construction background helped him do critical vineyard repairs, build a greenhouse and launch a successful garden.
Sam has financed the projects, along with refurbishing the house, installing a lap pool and deck with high-end speakers that pump soft jazz into the fields as the men go about their work.
At home, they give one another space, And while they don’t aways agree, they hear each other out. Tiffs aren’t allowed to fester into problems. Slowly, they’re re-learning each other’s ways. Without all the shouting.
“We’re much better at detecting friction than we were when we were young,” Sam says. “We’re older now. We both recognize that we have a dependency on the other.”
They lean on one another, these two brothers.
After an afternoon of drinking other people’s wine, Sam and Dave take me back to their place. Dave shows off some of his woodworking projects, that include refurbishing a rotting old bench he’d found in the yard.
Then we do a barrel tasting. Sam patiently uncaps a large wooden cask where this year’s Chardonnay is aging. Using a plastic siphon, he draws a half glass, and then adds contents from a smaller adjoining barrel.
He passes the glass to Dave, who swirls and tastes.
Sam watches. He cares what his brother thinks.
Then Sam shows me the label printing machine, handing me a freshly-minted bottle of 2019 Porte Cochere “Chardonnay Extraordinaire” as a gift.
Dave has learned something about Sam: he’s a natural teacher.
“He has this curiosity,” he says. “When he becomes interested in something, he learns all there is about it. And he has a patient way of relaying what he knows. Even now, Sam has taught me things.”
And so life goes on for these brothers, these two gentleman growers.
Earlier, Dave walked into the kitchen with several organic tomatoes and basil leaves from his garden. He chopped them up and proudly served them as a snack plate, complaining about the gophers that had begun to ravage his vegetables.
Later, for desert, he served a plate of fresh blackberries and shortcake covered with cream, cognac, vanilla extract and organic maple syrup.
“From the farm to the table,” he announced.
Sam smiled. The brothers ate well that night.
At night, when the jazz is playing and he sits out by the pool watching the sunset, Sam admits that jumping cold into grape-growing could well have been a fool’s errand.
Still, he’s survived setbacks with the barn, heater and septic disasters, not to mention the broken well pump — all that heartbreak, he knows, with more to come.
The financial and emotional investment was far more than he ever dreamed.
“In many ways, this was an impulse purchase,” he says. “I went in naive.”
But the experiment between brothers has been an unrivaled success.
The vintage tastes sweet.
But there is one thing, both agree, that remains a daily irritant.
Those goddamned gophers.
John M. Glionna is a writer and freelance journalist based in Sin City.