Butow Vineyards: Passing it on
Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson
Don and Judye Butow are in the twilight years of managing the vineyard which has been in the Butow family since 1946. Located on East Road in Redwood Valley, the vineyard is in the process of changing hands from one family’s legacy of hard work, community involvement and farming to another’s. Jose Castanon, who lives with his wife and children in the Butow property’s “big house”, has an option to purchase the vineyard he currently leases.
“We moved to this property when I was 10 years old,” says Don Butow as he and Judye sit at their dining table in a modular house they always knew would be temporary. A big window looks out at the oldest certified organic vineyards in Mendocino County.
“When we came here it was a mule operation,” reminisces Don. Don still remembers arriving after the long journey from Evanston, Illinois, via San Diego. The family lived in San Diego waiting for Don’s dad, who was in the Navy, to return from the Pacific during World War II.
Don’s parents Ernie and Clara took on the challenges of their new place with gusto. Ernie adapted the mule-drawn equipment to fit the ball hitch of their ’42 Dodge. Clara drove while the Ernie operated the equipment and the boys helped cut and rake the hay. “We got a tractor in 1947,” he smiles. When there wasn’t enough income to support the farm “mom and dad decided to raise pigs,” says Don. They had 150 pigs at one time. They also had a cow and Don was assigned the milking job.
“In spite of the work, it was a blast growing up here,” he says. There was a monstrous colony of squirrels and 100 walnut trees on the 40 acres. Don fished in the river from the old railroad trestle over the train tracks that bisects the Butow property. “We saw trains go by that were powered first from steam and then by diesel,” he recounts.
When the Butows purchased the property there were six acres of Grey Riesling and four acres of Zinfandel grapes on the property. Three years after moving in Ernie got called back up to the Navy for the Korean War. When he got out in 1954, he got to talking with another legendary Redwood Valley grapegrower Charlie Barra. He soon took out the old vines and the walnut trees and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah.
Ernie is known around the area for the time, energy and ingenuity he contributed to the then budding grape industry as well as to water resources management. In the 1960s Ernie and Barra co-founded the North Coast Grapegrowers Association and the Redwood Valley Water District. Don’s mom Clara designed the logo for the Grapegrowers, was active in 4H and president of the school board when the new Ukiah High campus was built.
When it was discovered that water could be used to protect vineyards from frost, Ernie and Barra led the way to remove the old smudge pots. Ernie was also on the forefront of organic certification. He replanted a two acre plot in 1979 and in 1983 it became the first California Certified Organic Farm (CCOF vineyard) in Mendocino County. Since then the rest of the vineyard has been certified. “Syrah was the first to be certified and became our signature grape, which is sold exclusively to Frey Vineyards,” says Don.
One thing about small farms Don’s dad learned early on is that you don’t quit your day job. In addition to farming Ernie worked as a bookkeeper for a local lumber mill.
Don didn’t share his parents’ passion for growing things. “I didn’t like dirt farming,” he says, “my 4-H projects were always with animals.” When he graduated from Ukiah High in 1953 he joined the Marines until 1961. He attended Oakland City College and UC Berkeley. Then Don went into banking, first in the Bay Area, but he didn’t like city life so he moved back to Mendocino County.
For the next 30 years Don was in the insurance business specializing in services to agricultural enterprises and fish processors. From 1986 until 1992 he worked in Gualala and on the Mendocino Coast. Don and Judye met in Fort Bragg in 1975. Judye grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and moved to the Mendocino Coast in the 1970s from Lake Tahoe to live where “there wasn’t any snow.”
Don proposed to Judye at the Mendocino Hotel in 1976 and they toasted with a split of 1974 Dry Creek Vineyards Gamay Beaujolais. She worked as a receptionist and billing specialist in medical offices on the coast and in Ukiah until she retired a few years ago. Between them they have three children and seven grandchildren. Son Dan is a machinist in Cloverdale and lives in Calpella. Daughter Ginger lives with her family in Yreka. Son Matthew has a career in the Navy. Their grandson, Dan’s oldest, is also in the Navy. “He’s the fourth generation of Naval service in the family,” says Don with pride.
Although Don wasn’t born with an inherent interest in growing grapes, his life changed when his dad died in 1990. He and Judye started coming back to Redwood Valley a couple of times a month to be with his mom Clara. Two years later they brought in the modular and moved back. Don dug in and with the help of the Frey family planted more grapes and managed the 28-acre vineyard.
“Basically I was farming by myself and taking a lot of extension classes,” says Don. Syrah has become Butow Vineyard’s most renowned grape. The budwood comes from the Hermitage clone, which makes the famed wines from the French Rhone region. Don has budded over the old Petite Sirah vines to Syrah. Frey continues to make a Butow Vineyard designate Syrah. Other wineries that have purchased Butow grapes include Fetzer, Ridge and Parducci.
Don and Judye, along with winemaker Paul Frey, make a barrel of wine a year for themselves. It’s all organic and made completely without sulfites. “We just put it in the barrel and babysit it,” laughs Don. A nephew designed a label for them with an anchor symbolizing the Butow’s service in the Navy. It also includes a vine wrapped “B” and the first year Butow Vineyards began--1946.
Don, who sports suspenders and jeans, became immersed in running the vineyard. And he ran for the Redwood Valley Water District Board, which he’s been on for 12 years and was just reelected for another four years. He was working hard growing grapes and following in his dad’s footsteps when the frost of 2008 hit. “On April 16 I started out at 10 pm alternating water on my vineyard blocks and finally quit at 9:30 the next morning. I couldn’t get enough water to help and had a pump failure at the same time,” says Don. That same day he had a heart attack. It was a life changing event.
He knew Jose Castanon, who was a neighbor and also one of his insurance customers. “One day Jose told me that he would like to buy this place,” says Don. “He’s an amazing guy,” says Don. He leases one other vineyard and he and his brother own a chile farm in Mexico. Castanon came from Mexico when he was 16 and now he’s 49. He started in the vineyard business working at H & W Vineyards, owned by Weibel. “He has a deep vineyard background,” says Don. Castanon is also good at construction and his skills are being put to use in the old house built in 1906 that Don’s mother lived in for 60 years.
“I live here with my beautiful wife Josie, who is also the boss,” says Jose. Their daughter Victoria is married. Son Deven is about to graduate from Mendocino College and daughter Bria is at Eagle Peak Middle School.
Butow Vineyards is segueing into its next phase. The original forty-acre parcel was owned by a German immigrant who sold the railroad right-of-way in 1900. The German-American sold the property to the Cowan Brothers who sold it to the Butows in 1946. Four years from now Castanon has the right to change the destiny of the land once again. And Don and Judye Butow look forward to their next chapter and whatever it may bring.
For more information on Butow Vineyards contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.TrueMendocinoWine.com.
Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission
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