Robert Young Estate Vineyard and Winery: 159 Years

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Robert Young Estate Vineyard and Winery: 159 Years

By Rachel LaFranchi

Published June 1, 2017

Kim Vail
The Young Family today. Top row: Paul Kelley, Susan Sheehy, JoAnn Young, J.R. Young; second row from top: Becky Kelley, Tammi Young, Kathleen Young, Jim Young, Kim Young, Fred Young; second row from bottom: Rachel Kelley, Nicole Young, Robert Young, Nikki Young, Todd Sheehy, Ruth Kelley, Arlo Wallace (baby), Stuart Wallace; bottom row: Dave Keller, Kelly Keller, Lily Keller, Sidney Sheehy, Sarah Sheehy, Abby Sheehy (baby), Katie Young, Powell (winery dog).
Kim Vail
The Robert Young Estate today. The house on the right has been maintained and the barn has been converted to the family's winery.
Kim Vail
Historical photos of the family's house and barn.
Photos courtesy of the Young Family.

Peter Young immigrated to New York in the early 1800’s and came to California in the 1850’s for the Gold Rush. He settled on 120 acres in Alexander Valley, where he raised cattle for leather and sheep.

At their peak, the Young family had more than 700 head of sheep, raised grain and herds of cattle. Peter cleared the land in the 1870’s and prepared it for the first prune orchard. Peter’s son, Silas, followed in his father’s footsteps. The tradition of growing prunes was carried on by Silas’s son Robert, who was born in 1919.

In 1935, Robert was only 16 years old when his father passed away. He inherited the ranch with a $70,000 mortgage in the middle of the Great Depression.

When asked by his great uncle Tom Meek what he wanted to do, Robert said he wanted to stay on the ranch and continue farming instead of selling the property. Meek, a farmer in Alexander Valley and the founder of Soda Rock Winery, went to the bank to guarantee the mortgage, ensuring the future of the Young’s ranch.

Robert graduated from Healdsburg High School and married his high school sweetheart, Gertrude. The couple had four children: JoAnn, Jim, Susan and Fred, the fourth generation of Youngs to farm in Sonoma County. As children, they remember growing up on a prune ranch, although the property was still maintaining sheep and cattle herds.

In 1962, a farm advisor suggested that the Young family plant winegrapes, and in 1963 Robert planted the family’s first grapes: 14 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. After a few years, he realized there was more money in grapes than prunes. In 1965, the Young family planted their second set of grapes, and in 1967 they pulled out their first prunes and replaced them with Chardonnay. In 1978, Jim and Fred worked alongside their father Robert to pull out the last 65 acres of prunes.

Jim graduated from UC Davis in 1974 and began working on the ranch the following year.

Over time, Robert and his wife worked to expand their land, through inheritance and purchasing additional acreage.

Jim and Susan said their dad was determined to set up the company for his four children to ensure its continuity. He was knowledgeable, but also sought advice from attorney’s to figure out how to transfer the property to the next generation.

The Young family now farms 317 acres of winegrapes, owning 287 and leasing 30. They also have additional land that’s not planted in grapes and continue to run approximately 20 head of cattle.

The family primarily grows Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but grow 12 varieties in total. They sell to 14 wineries, keeping 5-7% for their own winery.

The Youngs began talking about a starting a family winery in 1995 to create more opportunities for the family as their kids were getting older. They produced their first vintage at Arrowood in 1997 and have proceeded to make wine at their winery on Red Winery Road in Alexander Valley.

The grapes grown for the estate winery are more hands-on while other parts are more mechanized. Jim said that labor is the largest challenge of farming in 2017, and he sees the industry moving towards more mechanization as labor becomes more challenging to find.

Many of the laborers working for the Young family became legalized citizens in the 80’s and have worked for the family for decades. As these farmworkers reach retirement age, the Young family isn’t seeing the next generation replacing the labor force; instead the children are taking jobs in finance or other fields.

With the family winery in existence for more than 20 years, the Young family is constantly thinking about transitioning the business to the next generation and building opportunities for their children and grandchildren. With four in the fourth generation and 25 in the fifth and sixth generations, the family has 29 potential partners.

Jim currently serves as the CEO, but the vineyards and winery are governed by a board that includes family members and two industry professionals who can offer an outside view. The winery currently employees multiple family members, while others are working outside the winery gaining experience which might prepare them for a future career at the winery.

The family isn’t sure who will take over in the next generation, but said the board is their driving force and they are willing to hire experts until the right family member is groomed into an executive position. They have been working on their succession plan for more than 30 years consulting with numerous experts and advisors to get to where they are now. “We realize how fortunate we are to be on this land,” said Susan. “We’re blessed to be here and have had the opportunity that this affords us.”

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