Interview Date: 12/9/2004
Interviewer: Patricia Alexander
Begin recording of tape number one. This is Patricia Alexander and I’m very pleased to welcome Mike Robbins, who I’m interviewing on behalf of the St. Helena Historical Society’s oral history program, Voices of St. Helena. We are conducting this interview at 2:30 on Thursday December the 9th at the home of Mr. Robbins. Welcome, Mike. Can you please tell us how you first came to St. Helena?
A: Well, after a couple of wars I moved to San Francisco in 54 and started to work. And it was — within a year I was told I had to see the Napa Valley. So, I came up here and drove around. And I was, at that time, quite enamored with the Christian Brothers’ mountain property. And it was just very heavenly up there and very quaint. And so, I — later on, it was with a date, and she later married Hern Caen (laughter) but I said gee, I think maybe I’ll become a Christian Brother and she said why. And I said oh, I just went up and saw their property and it’s incredible. She said you obviously don’t know about Myacamas Vineyards and I said you’re absolutely right. So she took me up and introduced me to Jack and Mary Taylor. Jack Taylor was an Englishman who ‘at 35 was the head of Shell Development Corporation. Very brilliant chemist. And Mary· was a very brilliant lady. They had founded Spring Mountain Winery, but things weren’t going well economically, because they didn’t really have a sales program. They had founded Myacamas.
A: That’s what I said. No, you said Spring Mountain.
A: Oh, I’m sorry. Myacamas. So anyway, I bought into it and became a vice president — it was a corporation of all things, and I bought into and became a director and all that sort of thing. And I traveled around the state for a lot of reasons. While I was doing it, I was marketing their wine. And after three years of this, I decided that wine was much too personal to put up with a majority of shareholders’ opinion. For instance, they were taking the greatest cabernet grapes in the planet and making Rose out of it! (laughter) I said why are you doing that? And they said we don’t like red wine. And I said what difference does that make, because you’re selling it, dummy! They want red wine! So anyway, I finally resigned and sold most of my stock and came down and bought what’s now St. Clement Vineyards. And it was falling down. Nobody in the world would touch it. They’d had it up for sale forever. But I had restored a Victorian for myself in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, so I was not particularly overwhelmed. And I bought it and spent a yang of money and a lot of time — a couple, three years — getting it turned around and sculpting the property, everything. And then by this time I had shifted jobs and I was working and so forth. So, we moved the family up in 64.
A: Yeah, and in the first year — what was the guy’s name, that first built it? Jewish guy from Germany. Yeah, Johannesburg Vineyards.
A: Well, that’s his mother — named after his mother. Johannesburg. That property was Johannesburg Vineyards, named after his mother. He was German and he had fled the army duty in the Franco-Prussian War and came here and was a very fine glass-maker and merchant in San Francisco. And his first year here they had a great fire in the valley. And my first year in 64 — I’m sorry, they had a flood. I’m sorry, flood. In 64 when I came here, we had fires that went on — started in mid-valley on both sides, went all the way up to Calistoga, all the way over the mountain in Sonoma. We lost 250,000 acres to fire. And it got so dense, the smoke, and I had two small sons, we had to get up in the middle of the night and move to Vallejo to a hotel motel. So that was my welcoming into the Napa Valley! (laughter) But then we — I was buying other properties, where Mum’s is, just the northern piece of that – property, 25 acres. I bought that in 67 or 8. And then the 80 acres next door that was owned by Catherine Cebrian (sp?).
A: Catherine Cebrian who also owned Schramsberg. She’d been a young girl in a school in San Francisco Catholic school, and she was 17 and this Spanish nobleman — what was he? He wasn’t a count, but something like that, in Spain. And he took her away and married her and they fled to Spain. And during the Civil War, it got so bad that they picked up all their furniture and all their money and moved & the valley, here. And they bought Shramsberg and bought that 100 and — or, rather, 80 — well, it was 100 acres on both sides of the creek. And the one is that great big stone house down there, that’s on the side — right across from – Michael’s down on — you’re down on Rutherford Crossroads, you know how it comes out on —
A: You know where Jose Cebrian’s house is?
A: It’s just as you turn left to go up to the trail, there’s that stone house, they had that and then across the river they 80 acres. The vineyards. Well, it wasn’t vineyards, it was just land.
A: It was just land. It wwas full of walnut trees and prune trees. See, when I got here, I think we were the 16th winery in the valley, post-prohibition. Before prohibition there’d been a ton of them. And so I had my choice in land and I put thousands of miles on my car driving around everywhere, including Carneras. And I know what is good and bad land in this valley and most people are on bad land and doing the dumbest things you can imagine. But we won’t go into that. But I’ve got great properties and that’s why we never had any problems with our wines. We were always at the top because of the properties. Anyway, she wouldn’t sell it to anybody, but she knew the house I had done in San Francisco, because she had been in my home and she had been in my home up here. And she said you’re the only one that really knows how to deal with properties and do the right thing. So, she sold me that 80 acres. And I had 105 acres all in that block now.
Q: I’m sorry to interrupt, what was her name?
A: Catherine Cebrian.
Q: And do you know the spelling of that? C-E-B —
A: C-E-B-R-I-A-N, wasn’t it? Yeah. Jose Cebrian, her son, just died. She has another son that was still in medical school in Spain when he was 35. (laughter) Catherine was such a character. She married the —
A: Well, after he died, she married her chauffeur. Pringle. It was Joe Pringle. No, his name wasn’t Joe — her son became Jose Cebrian-Pringle. And he was a very artistic guy and so was she. And they did all kinds of wonderful things for gardens and homes, very beautifully designed and antiqued and everything. That was her — but I knew her first, also, in San Francisco because when I came to work for Coldwell Banker, you have to go through the Property Management Department. And I had 50 office buildings and big apartment complexes — high-rises. And she was one of my tenants. So, I had known her for a long time.
Q: Now when you purchased this property was it planted?
A: Negative. No, it was planted there was one small patch of very old vines that I hung on to and transferred the [bud] wood over to — it was Sauvignon Blanc. And I think, probably, the [bud] wood came from — come on, the one way down there on the way to Wente.
A: Wente. Carl Wente. And I used to spend a day a year with Carl and Jean Wente and they gave me a lot of [bud] wood. And I’m dead sure the bud wood came from the great sauternes Come on — Charlemagne? I don’t know.
A: No, no, no. Well, anyway it came from sauternes and they’d had it forever. And I’m sure it’s the same bud wood because my God, it made the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world. And I used it later. Where were we? Michael cleared those vineyards.
A: I cleared the whole thing. And I had to — because it was swells and up and down, we had to reconstitute a lot of it so it would drain. But we spent a lot of time on that property. And it was apples and plums first.
A: No, it was walnuts and prunes. Walnuts and prunes, OK.
Q: Well, I would absolutely love to return to that Mike and that’s absolutely why we’re doing this. What I was hoping to do is establish a little bit of your early years. I was hoping for you to tell me a little bit about your family background and who your parents were, and maybe a little bit about your children. And then we’ll move on to another phase of your life.
A: OK, well, born in Bloomington, Indiana, where the university is. My mother said right across the street from the Sigma Ki house. (laughter) And I lived there until I was three. My father was with the newspaper there. And his family, for generations, were all prominent ministers. His father started in St. Louis and erected the cathedrals in every city in St. Louis, all the way to Kansas City. He built all the cathedrals and everything, because he was good at raising money, as well as being a minister.
Q: What was his name, sir?
A: Grant Robbins. I have a son, Grant Robbins. And my dad had a brother, Grant Robbins. So mine would — Grant Robbins Junior was his brother, who was my uncle. And Grant Robbins, mine, is Grant the second, you see. We skipped a generation or two.
Q: I see. And what was your mother’s maiden name?
A: Scanlon. County Mayo in Ireland. But she was part German. This is a remarkable story. My great-aunt destroyed all the records, she said what use is this, this is a democratic country. (laughter) But my great-great-great- grandfather on my mother’s side, the German part, was the king of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which is a huge chunk of modern Germany. You see, it was city-states until 1870. And both Germany and Italy became countries for the first time, both of them, in 1870. Garibaldi and what’s that crazy guy that was …
A: No, he came much later. Garibaldi in Italy and the German was Otto von Bismarck. Yeah, Bismarck. And the first year – that Germany was a country (laughter) they just beat the crap out of France (laughter) and took over a part of France that they kept until after World War II.
Q: And how was it that you came — oh, sorry for interrupting. How is it that you came out to California?
A: Oh, that’s a long, long story. I went — Michael wait, Michael needs to say about his family though, because his mother raised him.
A: I lost my father when I was three. Among other things, he r had been badly gassed in World War I, he Had pneumonia and didn’t survive. He eventually died of pneumonia. But anyway, Mother became a single mom. And this was 1926 and everything was fine until 1929 when the bottom fell out of the world, economically. And so she was still a single mom and she — we went, first, to Kansas City, because before my father died he was in the Veterans’ hospital there. And I went through two years of musical kindergarten and living in, what’s now, the best part of Kansas City. (laughter) And I didn’t know anything about Kansas City. And then she took a job at General Motors in Detroit because my uncle was there and he got her a job there. And I was sent to a Catholic boarding school, the Hall of the Divine Child (laughter) and I was not a divine child and they were very glad to get rid of me. (laughter) But anyway, then we went back to Des Moines, which is her hometown. And I was raised in Des Moines and I loved Des Moines. Before the war, it was the classiest city in America. I was stunned to see how low-class New York and San Francisco were compared to Des Moines, just incredible. It was a publishing center and insurance center. They had no industry except that. there to screw it up. And they wouldn’t allow ind stry in That’s why we weren’t as impacted, because insurance and publishing really don’t die during a depression. So we were in trouble back there, but fi t wasn’t like the rest of the country. Michael started working at seven.
A: Yeah, I started working to help out. She had grandmother’s support, and myself. And she was working for the county. So she wasn’t making a gang of money at all. And, in fact, right up until the war she was making $65 a month. $780 a year! And that ain’t much. But it was prices were low.
Q: Was it just you — your grandmother and yourself or do you have any brothers or sisters?
A: No, I have no brothers or sisters. I have lots of cousins, with the Irish family.
Q: OK, you sound like your mother was really very dedicated to you.
A: Well, she was. She was a very bright lady, very lovely looking working I’ll get pictures of her. And anyway, I started I wasn’t making much — at seven. I’d go down – – I have a little linen type bag, whatever it is, and you put magazines in and the shoulder strap. And I’d go down and pick up my magazines and I’d go up and down all the high-rise buildings and all the ladies who felt sorry for me, (laughter) they bought my magazines. Later, when I was f — and I worked, as I got around 12 or 13, I was working 12 hours a day lugging stuff in a meat into those big frozen rooms where you keep the meat and all this stuff. And in high school I had three jobs. I started at 4:30 in the morning, I got up and fixed the neighbor’s furnace, so shoveled coal. Then I walked a mile to pick up my newspapers, the morning papers, and I walked a mile before I got to my route. And then I walked the route and delivered the papers. Then I came home, had breakfast, went to school all day, a Catholic high school, which is very strict. And I did go out for football in the fall, I gave up some things. But I wasn’t any good as a basketball player. I could shoot the eye out of the basket, but I couldn’t play the game, it was too confusing. And I played some baseball. That’s all they had, in the Depression, were those three sports. Michael would go home after school …
A: Then I would come home after school and shovel the coal again, then do the evening newspaper the whole shebang – – came home and had dinner, and then I was an usher in the theater from 6:30 until 10:30 at night. Then I came home and fixed the furnace again, got to bed at 11. How did I never open book in high school? And tell them where you slept, I think it was in Des Moines.
A: We had grandmother and mother in the two bedrooms, and there was a back porch that was screened. And they. put my bed out there on the back porch and it’s where they had the icebox. And in the winter it got as low as 40 below zero in those days. 20 to 40 below for a month or two every winter, and that’s why I never went back to Des Moines when I got out of the Navy. Now, we’ve been in a warming trend for several hundred years, and this warming trend’s still going on and they’re blaming emissions for it and that’s just bull. I’m sure it doesn’t help any, but that’s not the reason it’s getting warmer. We’ve been on that trend. During my mother’s life, it was much colder. And when I was a kid, we didn’t have any of these emissions and it was still cold as hell. Now, last winter they still had a brute in New York State and all the Northeast. But overall, it’s warming up. But I decided never to go back to Des Moines. I love the city and I love the people. But I was not going to live in those winters. Well they don’t have them now. (laughter) Michael, tell them what your mother did for you. Michael had a remarkable mother.
A: Well, she kept giving me — not to take the easy way to do anything. And I was offered jobs at more money, but she said that’s not going to advance you long-range. But I never I had terrible study habits, because I had no time. I went through — I went through a year of engineering, I rarely opened a book. naval academy, I got an engineering degree, I rarely opened a book. I went through law school, University of San Francisco, I didn’t read a case. Because it was a stupid method of study - came out of Harvard, for god sakes. And when I went to graduate school of business, the same thing. A Harvard stupid method of case study instead of getting down to the nitty gritty. I read, before exams and I’ve got the books, the Horn Book series — all the masters at each part of law each wrote a book on what he was a master on in the whole nation. And (inaudible) contracts, (inaudible) on torts, everything. And I read those books, and I learned the law. These other people were reading these stupid cases and the exams — they gave them exam problems that were a lot like one or more of the cases you had during the semester. But they changed a few important little things. And those people were going on what they remembered about the case in the book, and they flunked.
Q: Well, I do want to hear about that, but before we leave your childhood, I wanted to ask you what did you want to be when you grew up? If you had…
A: I had no idea.
Q: You had no idea…
A: None in the world. Although I did want to go to naval academy. Every army navy game I — and, by the way, just last week we had it over again (laughter) and we blew them out again. (laughter) But I just — that’s who I wanted to play football for, was Navy. Everybody else in my Catholic high school wanted to play for Notre Dame, and some of them did. We had this — we were state champions in football, basketball, and baseball. We were Catholic state champions, and, at the end, they got the public school state champion to play us. And we either beat them or tied them. Mike, on that, tell them how you got to the naval academy.
A: Well, that’s a long story. But anyway, I was in Iowa State, right in the middle of my first year we get Pearl Harbor. But I paid to go until June and by God, I was going to get my money’s worth. So I stayed in school until June. I went down to enlist in the Marine Corps, because I still think the Marines are the greatest military organization in the world. Even better than the Irish and Scots, who are fierce fighters. But they said well, that’s nice, but we’ve got more Marines than we need. You’re going to be in the Navy, buddy, that’s it. (laughter) I said OK. So, they guy said you have a year of college, you want to be an officer? I said of course, dummy. (laughter) And he sent me back to some school, you know.
Q: Was this 1942?
A: Yeah. Yeah, but no, 43. No, 42, I’m sorry. 42. ‘ And anyway, I never did get into a combat thing in World War II, because when you’re an enlisted man, you just go where they sent you. But Michael, you’re missing your mother’s part.
A: Oh, well, she kept — every year she made me take this — see, in the naval academy you have to have an appointment by a Congressman or a Senator or the President. You don’t just go. And so in order not to get in political trouble with all their (laughter) people that vote for them, you have to take tests. And because I’d never studied in high school, I always came out second in state. (laughter) And so after three years, I had written it off. And so mother fixed it — our Congressman owed her a lot, politically. And she cashed in her IOUs and the Congressman went — and he heard about a Congressman from Kansas who couldn’t find anybody to fill the slot for naval academy. And so he gave it to me. And that’s how I got in. But Michael had already had two years at Iowa State by then.
A: No, no, one year. One year that he had paid for, had worked a year to be able to go to school. Anyway, when he got to the naval academy, then he had to start all over again.
A: And I was taking engineering at Iowa State. So it was not — it was all deja vu. But the naval academy, to me, was very juvenile by this time. I had been in the fraternity and gone through all that crap (laughter) before. And so, I just treated it with disdain and whatever they did, they wanted to beat me or do anything else, I’d — but once I got to be an upperclassman, I would not do it to anyone else. I just thought it was silly. But, in fact, Jimmy Carter was there with me. And he was the meanest. He was a wimp, by the way. He was just a little pussy. But he was the meanest little son of a bitch, only with the plebes who couldn’t fight back. He’d just torture them and beat them. He was the meanest little man and everybody hated him. And he was — even though he was younger than me, because I had done all this other stuff he was a class ahead of me, he never messed with me. I would have had to let him until the next year when I’d have beat him to pieces. But everybody despised him.
Q: What year did you graduate from the naval academy?
A: 48. 7
Q: And you were in and then you were assigned right away or what did you do?
A: Well, course you are. They assigned me to a cruiser, an anti-aircraft cruiser which is like a double destroyer.
Q: Do you remember the name of it?
A: Yeah, the — I think it was something like Phoenix or something like? Or Tucson? I forget. Tucson, Tucson.
Q: What did you do onboard?
A: I was running a whole administrative section of the thing. And assistant, really, to the captain, but not second in line. (laughter) But I was working under the captain. And I didn’t like the job and I hated that ship. It was living in a cocktail shaker. Because I’ve spent a whole summer see, at the naval academy every summer, come June, right after you graduate you have June week every year at the naval academy. And that’s when your parents come and your best girl comes and you have parties and they come and watch the parades and when we’re marching and all this crap. Anyway, Grace Kelly was my steady girlfriend then.
Q: The Grace Kelly?
A: The Grace Kelly. And I picked her up — my sophomore year we played the University of Pennsylvania and right across the stadium they have the fraternity houses. And I was a Phi Gamma at the — the [Phig] they call it — and rr was out of state so a friend of mine had been a Phig at Tennessee, who was a classmate, said come on, Michael, we’ve been invited by the brothers to come over to the party. So we went over there in the afternoon. We were dressed in blues and everything. And they were having an afternoon party and then a big soiree at night with a dance band and everything. But in the afternoon Grace Kelly walked in. And it — we still hear from prince all the time. We got hundreds of postcards and all kinds of stuff.
Q: Is that why? Oh, my goodness. Tell them your reaction to Grace.
A: Well, it was just like being hit in the solar plexus, you know. There’s not a more perfect creature that’s ever been made. I mean, flawless peaches and cream complexion. – Unbelievable beauty. So I said, that’s your girl, Michael. So the fraternity brother she was with, I just moved in and she came with me. And we spent the afternoon. Then she had to go home and get dressed in the gown and for the big formal party that night. And she came back and I thought holy balls, this is unreal! (laughter) But I moved in and monopolized her for the evening. And I forgot to ask her address and phone number. I was just probably not thinking. So I knew that her father, John Kelly, had his construction company, so I called information and got the name and address of his — I got the number only, they wouldn’t give me the address. And I phoned him and got the address. And I wrote to Grace in care of her father’s company. And she wrote me back and she came down from Philadelphia and later when she went to New York with the American Academy of Carnegie Hall, every other week for three years. She came by bus and train and any way she could get there. And she came down and we had hops every Saturday night. The big arsenal, huge gorgeous building, and they brought in a big band 18-piece piece big band – and we all had to wear white gloves and dress up in our suits. And the girls had to wear the .
A: — and we had these hops, we called it the hop. Every Saturday night. So she’d come down Friday evening or Saturday morning. They stayed at these wonderful little boarding houses just across the fence —
A: Yeah, all these old broads that owned these wonderful homes — Georgian homes and everything — took in the girls and rented them rooms and everything. And right across from the naval academy. And I could only afford to take her out for hamburgers, but that was her favorite food. And- so I’d walk her — we had to walk a mile or two through town because we’re not allowed to ride in cars. Not even ‘if your parents come down. The whole four years you were not allowed to ride in cars. Unless you went home on leave, that was different. But you couldn’t do it around the naval academy. And we fudged that a little. So, Grace we walked everywhere. It’s a beautiful town. Annapolis, Maryland is — it was the capital of the United States, briefly. They went to New York — from Philadelphia to New York and then to Annapolis while Washington, D.C. was being fixed up. That was a new adventure. So anyway, but you just — well, you’ve been there. And you see the naval academy — my daughter, Sarah, who went to school a couple of big universities back there — I took her to the naval – academy, she says oh my God, it is so gorgeous!
Q: So you’ve actually kept in touch with her and her husband?
A: Oh, yeah. I stood her up for June Week my first-class year. Because I took some other gal. And when we graduated normally you go straight — you get a month’s leave and then you go to your ship. But I was doing a lot of sailing, which I learned there — see, naval academy is, I think, the best educational school in America. You won’t get the liberals to admit to that, of course, because they don’t like military. They don’t like anything they don’t like God, they don’t like anything. But anyway, get the number! I’m trying to put together a four or five-million-dollar deal with an old friend of mine for a ranch up around [Hillsbury]. And we’ve been showing it property for months now, and he’s tough.
Q: Shall I stop the tape?
A: No. But anyway, I was assigned — reassigned to the naval academy — a whole bunch of us graduating (inaudible) naval academy has the most incredible fleet of gorgeous yachts you could imagine. They’re all donated by rich people to take a tax write-off. One of the yachts, we stole from Germany, it was the naval commander’s yacht — a steel- hulled yacht — and brought that over and gave it to the naval academy at the end of World War II. But the one I was on and one of the — we took four of them and we outfitted them and we provisioned them and when we were ready, we sailed form Annapolis up to Newport, Rhode Island and we partied with the yacht club there for five days and tuned up the boat, but that was a joke. And then we sailed the Bermuda race. Every odd year they have Newport to Annapolis, where they have to go all the way down and come up the Chesapeake. And then the even numbered years it’s Newport to Bermuda. And this was even-numbered years in 48. And we — after two days we were two-thirds of the way there. We were going to shatter the world’s record. All of a sudden, the wind just crapped out (laughter). We were just sitting there. And the guy that won was a rich guy and he had a private plane that was flying — you can’t send out any messages, but you can receive. And he was flying up and down the coast radioing them — they sailed all the way down the coast and came up on the south side of Bermuda. But they had the wind, you see, they knew where the wind was. And we just took whatever God gave us and we didn’t win. But I got to Bermuda and I called Grace and I apologized for being such a jerk. And she said well, you’ve got 30-day leave, when you get back come on up to New York. And I did. And we went out, dinners, and we went to clubs and things and had some fun. And she wanted to get married. She bought it up. And instead of talking to her like an adult, I came up with my smart Irish mouth and I said what the hell can I do with you on $218 a month? (laughter) That’s what a (inaudible) got paid in those days. And I — and I said OK, well we might get a housing allowance, but she’s from a very rich family. And I said now seriously, there’s no way — I didn’t give her 1a chance to even get her nickel’s worth in. That was so dumb of me. Because later on what I did was appalling. Anyway, we stayed friends. And when I came back — see, I had a three-year commitment to serve in the fleet. Well, it turned out to be six years because I had transferred. I hated that ship, and thank God, because a short time after I got on there, we took it to Vallejo and put it out of commission. And I was sent down to pick up the Valley Forge, a carrier. And I loved this Valley Forge. And I had the best job you could have for an infantry.
Q: What was it?
A: I was in charge of all the communications and the code breaking. And I also had this big vault with all the super top-secret junk that I had to run and keep people from snitching. But I didn’t have to stand out there in the wind (laughter) in the winter. (laughter) But anyway, it was wonderful and we were in Hong Kong shopping for 12, 14 – days. And we were just — we’re all standing in our whites on the carrier deck, 3,00 of us, ready to away anchor, and they came over the loudspeaker the Korean War has started. So in three days, we were there. And we took out the whole North Korean air force in two days. My birthday — well, the 4th of July and my birthday’s the 5th, and those two days. And we only used our most primitive jets in Korea, the first ones ever invented. Both air force and navy. WE didn’t want our good stuff captured. Because the Russians had captured some of our B-29s and copied them. You know, those guys can’t do anything right. I told Susan when I met her in 1980 and we got together I said don’t worry about a war with Russia, they’re a third-world nation, for God sakes. And nobody believed me. Well, I spent a year out there on the Valley Forge and we covered everything for MacArthur all the battles. Including the Inchon landing which is the most incredible thing anybody ever invented. And, of course, (laughter) Washington, D.C. thought he was crazy. Everybody thought he was crazy. And you know we had 165,000 men in the boats on the way to the beach before Washington approved it (laughter). He didn’t give a damn about Washington. He completely re-did everything in Japan and wouldn’t even answer the phone from Washington. But he set them up with the women’s vote and unions and he took all the lands away from these real rich monsters and gave it to the people. And he just made a wonderful country out of it. And I don’t like those people. They were godless, treacherous people in World War II and in my experience in talking to them, I don’t think a lot’s improved, except it doesn’t show. (laughter) But he just did a wonderful job out there. Genius. World War II he lost less guys on all the whole Southwest Pacific campaign than Mark Clark at one battle, because he tried to save the kids. They’d have 100,000 guys waiting for a battle, he’d just landed 22 miles up the coast and cut them off and starved them to death, and moved on. He was a genius.
Q: So what is the name of this man? So you worked under -
A: Well, I worked for the Navy, but the Navy — we were their air arm and everything else. The air force was new, it had been the Army Air Corps. And the Army Air Corps gets support of the troops. But the deal was when the Air Force broke off, that the army couldn’t have any planes more than a piper cub. And they had to — that’s why they’ve gone to choppers, which are so much more dangerous, because of the Air Force. And they weren’t giving them much help. But our naval air craft were just doing everything for them.
Q: So you spent a total of 12 years for your naval —
A: Yeah. After I was transferred from the Valley Forge, I was transferred — we came back to the States after a year and I was transferred to the first fleet command staff, which is the whole eastern Pacific. And every ship and everything in that whole half of the world or half of the Pacific — we were in command of. And I was, again, breaking code and all this crap. (laughter) And I said when I reported I reported to a guy that I got to love very much. He was an Irishman, he was a four-striper by then. But if you ever see the movie on Midway, they mentioned his name twice. He personally sunk two Jap carriers. I (laughter)
Q: Oh, my goodness. What was his name?
A: Oh, come on. I’m having a senior lapse. I’ll think of it. But he was incredible. And very, very quiet. He was a little Irishman and very powerfully built. He drank a little, but not much — he wasn’t a drunk. And he had a son that went to the naval academy with me and Admiral C. Turner Joy who was commander of naval forces Far East, based in Tokyo, his son went to the naval academy with me. And so I used to stay with him when I was on R&R from Korea — I mean Tokyo, I’d stay with the Admiral or with the Colonel on MacArthur’s staff. And just got to do everything. But — come on, what is his name Suzy? I could put on the movie and get it in a minute. I don’t know.
Q: It’s OK, we will get it. and we’ll get it. I promise I’ll make note of it
A: But I spent another year and a half in Korea on the fleet command staff riding the battleships. And the battleships came and went every six months, and they got relieved and went home, and we just transferred to the next battleship. They were all identical, they were Iowa-class battleships. And I had been on the New Jersey on a tour to Europe earlier, and so we had the Iowa, Wisconsin, and th/ Missouri. They Missouri’s where they signed the peace for World War II with the Japs. And it’s funny, we were hit by shells on two of the three battleships in exactly the same place. And it was the state room of two guys on the staff that were in bed during the day — because they had the night duty — and they blew out the whole side of the state room on both battleships in the same place! And it didn’t hurt them, but all the shrapnel went through the clothes, they were hanging on the bedposts and their caps and everything. They never had — when we went to the third battleship, they said we will not (laughter) take that state room. (laughter) But, you know, it’s funny. But I was with four admirals. One in San Diego who was very brilliant but arrogant, and therefore not as effective as – he could have been. When I got out there, there was a guy that was leaving the 7th fleet and I really didn’t get to know him, but then we got a brilliant admiral and a very lovely guy. And he had the same name — Bobby Briscoe — as the mayor of Dublin. (laughter)
Q: So Admiral Bobby —
A: Bobby Briscoe. And Bobby, see, when he came through San Diego — Coronado was where the staff was tied up — and I had to give him a briefing. In fact, I’ll tell you about ,.. how this happened. I used to go through all the I departments with all these super top — there’s more than top-secret. That’s very low — there’s top-secret, t s way] top-secret, something. And some of the stuff I couldn’t even show the Admiral. It had to go to just a specific person. But anyway, I’d go through the intelligence department and I’d say to this commander there, for Christ sakes, don’t you need an office boy or something in this department? All the time, me, I’m always out for what I want. And one day I went through the department, he said you still want to be in the intelligence department? I said you bet your bippy! And he said well, Commander what’s-his-name is leaving, we have no replacement. I took the Commander’s job as a JG. And I said well, what do I do? And he said well, by Saturday we’re having a new admiral that’s going to take over the 7th fleet come through and we’re going to leave here in about two weeks. And he said you’re going to have to brief him on Southeast Asia. And I said Christ, where is it? (laughter) He said in all seriousness, you get in that vault with all this super top secret stuff and you better start reading. And when I gave him the briefing, all these other guys, these senior 1 officers, gave their briefing first. And I can see everybody was getting a little, you know, so I flashed a signal and handed him a note that said how. about a tY.th inning stretch? So they got him coffee and a roll and that sort of thing. And then I got up and gave my briefing. And the Admiral got up and said that’s absolutely wonderful. And that night we had a big party at the officer’s club. And with my date in hand on the dance floor he came up and said to me, where everybody could hear, he said I just came from a briefing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that wasn’t half as good as yours. I was his boy. And what I got the next two admirals, I got the use of their barges, their cars and chauffeurs, I could do anything I wanted. (laughter) But I even got the Admiral’s chopper when we were back in Korea. And on the east coast it’s deep water, you can go within 100 yards of shore with a battleship. Where we landed in Inchon, it’s a – mud flat with a 4-foot tide. And when we landed at Inchon — I commanded, later, one of those big ships — the tide went out and they were three blocks from the ocean sitting in the mud, the ships were. That’s how dangerous it was. But it went like a charm because we got them by surprise. After that it was — until the Chinese got in — it was a piece of cake. The Chinese got in because of the stupid State Department had those communists left over from Roosevelt. And they blew the whole thing and it cost us, oh, tens of thousands of lives, what they did to us. And Truman, who was a great president, just shook those guys out in a real big hurry.
Q: So it sounds like you got a lot of, well, trial-by-fire.
A: Yeah, but I really had the good lord working for me. Now, when I graduated in the naval academy I wanted to be a marine officer too, but we had four times the number that they allowed to go into the marines. They only allow 7% of the graduates to go to the marines, which is part of the navy. And boy we were tight with them. And anyway, I didn’t draw the lucky number, wound up back in the navy and I was just kicking wastebaskets and slamming doors for two days. But let me tell you about this, all my friends that went in the marine corps in World War II, none of them came back. We lost, between Korea and World War II, my generation lost half a million kids. This is why, as much as I’m in pain over losing one kid out there in Iraq, my god, we lost 10,000 a month, every month. And this is a war with almost no casualties. We’ve lost 1,100 in a year and a half. And really, those are the best kids we’ve got, and I don’t want to see them hurt. But we’ve got to do what we have to do. And when we get it done right t– you see what’s happened, we didn’t count on all these terrorists coming in from Pakistan and Iran. Iran sent down 20,000 of them as car bombers. And Saudi and Syria and Lebanon and you name it. They’re coming from all these countries and guess what? We haven’t had another attack in the United States since 9/11. Because they’re dumb enough to go out and fight our military. And that Fallujah, that town, we lost — I think — 38 between army and marines. We killed 1,500 and captured 2,000. So that’s the numbers. And if we keep that up, pretty soon we’re — now they don’t want to fight. They’re up in these other towns and they’re not really — they thought they had beaten us in Fallujah when we didn’t go in and take them on the first time around. That was a mistake and all the television studios were saying they beat the marines and everything. Once the marines went through there like a dose of salts, (laughter), they don’t want to fight now. And we’re going – to get that under control.
Q: I really want to hear your thoughts on that, because it makes so much sense right now, what we’re going through, but before we leave your childhood and before we leave your
A: OK, well, let’s just finish up with the navy. After Bobby Briscoe was promoted to be — when C. Turner Joy retired - see, he was also the head of the commission of negotiating with the communists for the end of the Korean War. And he gave me a booklet that he wrote on how to negotiate with a communist. But they didn’t want peace. They spent weeks trying to figure out who could sit where in the goddamned conference room, it drove him crazy. But you know, that’s the way communists work. And it drove him mad. But he was an incredible man. Well, Bobby Briscoe took his job and he went to somewhere else. And we got — he had one leg, he was a great fighter in World War II and he got his leg shot off. [Jacko] Clark!
Q: Jacko Clark.
A: Jacko Clark was the last one I served under and Jacko Clark thought that the sun rose and set on me because whatever I would tell him — I told him at that time that I could foresee in the very near future that China and Russia would split. And everybody says you’re insane! Everybody! – Except Jacko, and he listened. And by God, it was — two or three years. But I could read in all the intelligence reports the hatred the Chinese had for the Russians that treated them like they were Coolies. The Russians were arrogant as hell with the Chinese, and that’s a no-no. And the Chinese are so much smarter. They’re as smart as the Jews. They are really brilliant people. The Japanese aren’t that bright — everything they’ve got, they stole from the Chinese or us. They’re hard workers and they make things better, but they’ve never invented one thing in the history of the country. They’re not dumb, but they’re just not overly bright, where the Chinese are bright as hell. And the Koreans are. But the treat somebody that smart like Coolies, that’s just stupid. And that’s what they did all the time. Every intelligence report, day after day after day, they hammered at that, how the Chinese hated the Russians. I knew they had to split. So, Michael says — what did you tell me — you were like 11 years at sea?
A: No, I was locked in the naval academy — which I called Alcatraz with prestige — I was locked in there four years and then I had seven years at sea.
Q: OK, so when you were done with your commission, is that right?
A: Oh, no, I haven’t finished yet. While I was there, [Jacko] let me have his plane, and we’d be up north and bombarding and everything way north of the lines into communist territory. And they had a city called Wan San and Wan San had an island called Yodo Island in the middle of the harbor. You know, like how San Francisco Bay has those islands sitting there? Well, the marines had captured Yodo Island and they’d go ashore time to time at night, pick up military personnel, bring them back. So I would fly in, with an interpreter, I could talk to all these peoif· e. And that’s another reason I figured out what was going to happen with China. But (laughter) they used to shoot at my chopper. But one of my best friends in Des Moines who I loved, (laughter) Tommy Greenwald — his father was a general on the reserves, but he was a big businessman in Des Moines — but Tommy was a big, tall, strong, happy, good-looking guy, very handsome. And he went to [Terralot] in the marines and it’s in the book and the movie. The marines, the first couple, three days after they landed which was a disastrous landing thanks to the navy ignoring what the Australians told them about the tides and everything. They were hiding down — somehow the Japanese had built a log wall about this tall that dropped off right in the beach. They were all hiding behind the logs, and Tommy Greenwald was just out walking around, he said those cross-eyed little shits can’t hit me! And he lasted four days before they killed him. (laughter) But Tommy, anyway, I’m doing this for a reason. I felt the same way, but they were shooting at the helicopter with rifles and whatever they had. And I felt the same way about them Tommy Greenwald did, and they didn’t hit anything. _ And I t was in and out of there a lot. And when I left — I didn’t even know this I got nine battle stars from Korea, and I got the Presidential Unit Citation — my carrier was the only ship, I think, in that whole war to get the Presidential Unit Citation. And the commander of the seventh fleet recommended me for the bronze star. I found out later — my roommate told me, did you ever get your bronze star? And I said what? He said well, the Admiral recommended this but I think your boss was so jealous he sat on it and hoped he’d forget. And I said thank God he forgot it, I’d be embarrassed (laughter) for getting a bronze star for flying in and out in that chopper. And I said I’d have been embarrassed as hell to explain how I got it. (laughter) But he was just that good, these guys were wonderful. And we had a great — but anyway, I was transferred — I was executive officer of a ship out of the Norfolk, Virginia area, on the east coast where I really wanted to be. And later on, I really was the captain of the ship because the guy that was the captain was an enlisted man that during World War II was promoted. And Tommy some — Dime. No, Joe Dime. Joe Dime was his name. Wonderful — he was a gunner’s mate and they promoted him as officer, and later he moved up in rank. But he was a wonderful guy. And he said now Michael, I don’t a god damned thing about commanding a ship. He said I’m a gunner. He said you’re naval academy and whether you like it or not, you’re going to run the snip. So I was the skipper of the ship, but not the responsibility. (laughter)
Q: It’s a win-win situation, really.
A: Yeah, and they always have these tests where they combine all these panels from the high command. They run drills, like man overboard drill, and drill when — what do they call it — when the hell starts breaking loose — general quarters, and all kinds of drills, just tons of them. And I wouldn’t hold any training. And he was just getting because we had this big command bunch coming but what I did is I sat in there with a watch [quartering] station bill and I fixed it so that — enlisted men aren’t that smart about literature and things like that, but what they can do is something that I’d still be trying to do for 50 years later, they can do so many things with their feet, their hands, and practical things. So what I did is I signed their billet so that the guy only had to go in one place for every drill. Every other ship had them going they never knew where they hell they were going. Well, they were dumb enough, when they gave the test, not to give the test and then terminate and wait five minutes and blow another one. While you’re at this one, when it was over, t they blew another one and you never had to — you went from one station to the other, and my people never had to move. (laughter) And we won! (laughter) And Joe gave me a great big kiss on the cheek, he said I wondered what the hell you were doing in there! (laughter) Oh, I had a lot of fun in the navy. But I’m a problem-solver.
Q: Well, save that, we’re at the end of our tape on this side.
A: All right.
Q: So this is the end of side number 1 and we’ll turn the tape over. END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
Q: Hello there, this is Pat Alexander from the St. Helena Historical Society and this is the Voices of St. Helena oral history project. Today is January 7, 2005 and we are in the home of Mr. Mike Robbins. This is a continuation of tape number two, with our oral interview with Mike Robbins. Mike, thank you so much. Checking my recording here, it looks like we’re doing good. Mike, we left off with some of the wine-making techniques you were talking about. You’ve influenced a lot of the later wine techniques with gravity feed, how you got the grape off that plant right away. Could you elaborate just a little bit more on that?
A: Well, people — when I got here, people talked a lot about gravity. But the conventional wisdom of all the wineries being built, back to square one, really wasn’t taking that much into account. Everybody had a sort of workable way of getting the pomace to the press. It really didn’t work very well, but they all had different little ways of’ doing it. So what we did — at that time, I was the wine maker and barrel boy and janitor and gardener for the first three years and I was commuting to L.A. in the process to do (inaudible) every week. But Chuck [Ortman] I brought over, who was a barrel boy for Joe Heitz — he’d actually been a commercial artist before that — and so anyway, I brought him over and when we finally decided that we had enough money to go ahead because I can’t find properties and when we had enough money to get going on the Spring Mountain property on Spring Mountain Road (pause)
Q: So Mike, during this time can you tell me what year we’re talking about?
A: Oh, we’re talking about ’76 or ‘7. And we’d been using other peoples’ wineries to make the wine. And then I had – – I made some of the wine under the house, but I had only two 500 gallon tanks (laughter) and I had a building, oh, several thousand feet, 7,000 feet or something, over on the first – Lodi Lane, behind what was then an antique store. And what’s her name — Marianne something? 7 Green. Marianne Green, wasn’t it?
A: Yeah, Marianne Green, she eventually rented the front part — maybe she bought the whole thing from the two gays that lived next door. But anyway, I rented it for years and it was very sizable. And so we would put the — truck home and put it under the house in barrels or over at Lodi Lane. And (laughter) this is kind of funny, my first cabernet was a marriage of 68 and 69 and I — we’d go through [assemblage] all the time. The French talk about it, but they almost never do it. And nobody seems to do it in California.
Q: I’m sorry, Mike, you referred to that French word earlier. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know how to spell it.
A: OK, let me go on about this first.
Q: Thank you.
A: But through assemblage we determined that the blend of the two made an incredible wine. So we had (laughter) the 68 under the house aging.
Q: This was at the St. Clement?
A: Yeah, at the St. Clement property. And we had the rest, I think, we made it over at Joe [Felt’s], if I’m not mistaken. We shifted to two or three wineries over the years. And so we had what was the guy that had 7 the old tank trucks name? [Bulani]?
Q: Yeah. And his home was right across the street from Tra Vigne there. Wonderful guy. So I (laughter) said, come on over and pick up our 68 and he had two tank trucks, each with 3 compartments — o they had a proportionate part of 68 in all those compartments and then go over and top them off over at Felt’s and then drive around the valley for a couple of hours to get them blended. (laughter) And then I’ll see you over at Lodi Lane! (laughter) And it worked! And we just — when we put that wine together, I was just so excited.
André Tchelistcheff, who had been my first consultant and was a wonderful friend, had his grandson working up there with me. And, oh, I knew we had a winner. And that wine was picked, I think, by Robert North [Ballser] as the best cabernet of the 60s in California. And we blew the hell out of all the French, of course. Lot of people could do, that. Tchelistcheff and Louis M. Martini were blowing them away in the 30s, 40s, and 50s (laughter). I’d take bottles of their wine into Marin County our San Francisco — San Francisco was the last major city in America to adapt themselves to California wine. They were French wine snobs! But anyway, I used to take bottles over and we’d t have dinner parties, and I’d sneak those in. And they were just stunned. That’s why we knew it could be done. We can thank Louis M. Martini and Andre Tchelistcheff. That…’s why we had a bunch of people starting to struggle in up here, because we knew it could be done. Well anyway, I’m getting The French word you were referring to.
A: Yeah. Assemblage. What’s the reference?
A: Well, assemblage — let’s start with chardonnay because when you do cabernet you have to have merlot and cabernet (inaudible) and that complicates this a little. But when we crush we’ll have a tank –several tanks of chardonnay we call them one, two, three, four, and up to ten, and whatever it is. And when we put them in the barrel we indicate which lot it is so we know. Now, barrel — what, give or take six months for chardonnay, depends on how new the oak is and it could be a little longer. But before oh, several weeks before we think it should be bottled, we get the winemaker to go around and siphon off half bottles from every lot. And we — no markings — he knows what they are, but none of the rest of us do — and so then we have a blind a tasting. And there’s myself — I get two votes, because we want six wines, only six wines every tasting. And then the winemaker gets one, the two assistants get votes, and the — I bring the vineyard manager in. Because I’m having trouble – the vineyard manager’s wonderful, but he wants to water my god damned grapes because that’s what they teach him at Davis and Davis doesn’t know anything about fine wine in those days. I hope they’ve learned something since — I suspect they have — but I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that. But he used to come to me, he’d say I got to water this area down here and he said the vines are under stress. And I said well, John, are they going to die? He said of course not. And I said John, if they’re going to die, come talk to me and I’ll go down and look with you. I want them under stress, that makes great wine, dummy. And so I bring him in on the tasting so he can see what I’m talking about. But anyway, we finally through your mind and the years that you’ve been doing this, you say well, I think the best recipe is .. all of this, maybe half of this, and none of this, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and that’s my vote. And then everybody else votes. And then we come back with six wines the next month. And all the sudden why we get a new recipe concocted there, a new idea — everybody does. And so we take the winner of that and five more wines and always take the winner to see — that way, we know we’re competing 1 against the best from that vintage, and we keep tasting and tasting — it may be 25 blind tastings. We don’t spit when we taste, we swallow! So we got — here we got a couple of weeks of some pretty (laughter) happy endings. (laughter) But that way we know what is the very greatest wine we can possibly make. And there’s no formula. Some people say well, my formula is 10% merlot and 10% — bullshit. It changes every year, because every vintage is different. So we don’t have a formula. Like 84 cabernet sauvignon turned out to have 1% merlot, 1% cabernet franc. 85 had 75% cabernet, 20% merlot, and 5% franc. And we eventually got rid of cabernet franc because we don’t need it in California — it’s a little too grape-y. Not classy, it just give you — I don’t know — too many California cabernets are big ballsy — that’s got a lot of cabernet franc in it. And terribly ripe cabernet. But anyway, we keep going and going, and then after we set out that much wine is the first one, we go back and do it over again for the second label. And what’s left over is still a world- class wine. It came from the same vineyard. I sell it to — what’s his name — Nickels down here at [Far Niente]? I’d sell him that stuff to blend in with his first wines, because it was still damn good wine. And 1980, John Williams had come that year — because Chuck Ortman left, and I left him as a consultant for a while. And he finally got that job down at the middle — the central coast and did wonderful things with Meridian down here retired now. But John Williams had come out, I brought him out from New York State. He was working for some little Finger Lake winery up there. So I flew him out for an interview and we had a guy that came up — just got his Masters at Davis and he kept wanting a job, and I wasn’t too keen on that idea, but he kept at it and he kept at it and he kept at it, so I hired him. And when John Williams left after five years to go on his own, I promoted Greg and Greg could have been the best of the three — they were all damn good people.
Q: Greg who?
A: Greg [Vida]. And he’s now down — he has a home south of Carmel on the way down to Big Sur and he’s got 100 acres. They won’t let him build a home — the democrats, Jerry Brown, the Coastal Commission bullshit — he can’t even build a home on it. So they had an old wreck of a home, and he had to go restore it. Then he had a one car garage sized winery there, and they shut him down on that, the government does. That’s why I want to get out of California. I fought two wars to have a free country World War II and Korea — and this used to be th : garden of Eden. And all of a sudden we’ve got the neo-fascists running our life and I mean they are brutal.
Q: Well, I was a little bit curious. This ,is a difficult question and I know you’re going to have to give it some thought, but could you give me maybe two or three of your very favorite wines that you think are the pinnacle of you as a winemaker, as an artist? What are your favorite, favorite — that you’ve made, that your winery has made.
A: Well, there is — I can tell you based on the vintages. The 69 chardonnay was our first. And on that great big tasting in San Francisco was 64 chardonnay mostly from France and from Burgundy and the rest from California — we tied for first in the world. Joe Heitz tied us and what the hell was his name? He was a famous French [Burgundian] vintner. He wasn’t a vintner, he bought the stuff and bottled it. But his [Corton Charlemagne] from [Louis Latour] came in tied with us. After that, nobody – ever tied us. But that was a great vintage. There were oh, 73 was a great vintage.
Q: Of what?
Q: What was the wine? Was it a cab or a chardonnay?
A: No, I’m talking chardonnays now. 78 was a great vintage. 80 was a great vintage, really great. And 81 and4 82 they were all very good because of the way we farmed and did things. But — well, even up to — 90 was the last one that I bottled and that was a damn fine vintage. r e had a bunch in the 80s, I can’t even remember now. But the thing I remember about 80 is through
, we tasted and got the very best wine we had. But the next best wine we had were the leftovers, that didn’t make the cut! And all my staff except me picked that to have Spring Mountain’s label. And I said well, this is one time, gang, when one vote is more important than all the others. This is our 80 chardonnay under our label. And that is second label. And I said I know what you’re saying, right now that’s a little bit more appealing, but I’m’ telling you, the reason I’m demanding you do this is I’ve been doing this longer than you have, by a dozen years, and I can tell you right now that within a year that other one’s going to roar right by it. And by god, it did. They all came back and said wow! (laughter) not believe! It worked. But we had chardonnays you would Two of them. And that took up the whole 100%. We had no leftovers, even. I’ve never seen a thing where it took everything we had for those two wines without finagling. You know, that was the way it worked.
Q: So those are your chardonnays?
A: Yeah. Why didn’t we win the Paris tasting? It was very interesting. We had beaten all the wines who were going - California wines — that we were going to compete against, time and again, in blind tastings. But the guy that was doing this was a Brit who on the Madeleine in Paris he had a wine school, as well as a wine shop. I’m trying to remember his name — maybe I’ll get it and maybe I won’t. But he came out and he wanted me to give him bottles, which I did. And he wanted me to give him a cabernet. Now, I gave him our 72 cabernet, which was mind-blowing. It wasn’t put in the tasting. And I know why. 72 was the worst, worst cabernet in vintage history — in all of history, 79 was the next worst. It rained like crazy for weeks on end and they couldn’t pick the grapes. But because I dry-farmed, I was in the barn before the rain came. And I had an incredible — my 79, same story. I couldn’t sell my 79 because it was such a vintage. But I had a — today, people are talking about that as maybe one of the greatest wines I ever made, was 79, when everybody else’s was not very good or they didn’t even pick. Both of those times, half of the vintage wasn’t even picked. It was so bad! But I gave him the 72 and everybody said don’t put that in the tasting, it’s a terrible vintage. I’m sure that’s what happened! But my cabernet, we came in third. And I said there’s something really wrong. My ex-wife had been a stewardess supervisor with TWA and a stewardess before that.· And apparently that’s where he put the bottles of wine on. And all the other people in the tasting and I should have gone — they took it, put it under the seat at regular temperature and everything. TWA said well, we flew your wine from San Francisco to Boston in the down below and there’s no temperature control, so they froze. Then they said it was sitting on the dock in Boston — out on the dock for almost a week before we flew it to Paris and froze it again. And the people at the tasting said my cork was pushed this much. It was just way up above the bottle and they destroyed the wine — I still came in third in the world! And third or fourth, I forget. And anyway, we were very upset by that because that was a big tasting that’s the one you want to win. And we went to a tasting afterwards of those wines and we naturally came out better than they did. But that didn’t count. (laughter) And we never even got our cabernet in and I’m dead-sure that’s what happened — it was such a terrible vintage that
Q: That sort of leads me to my next question in this part of the interview. Could you tell us about Spring Mountain Winery and how you acquired the property and its history?
A: Well, I acquired lots of properties to get this together. I came up — I discovered in 54, 55, I discovered the Napa Valley. I drove up here with a date and I said oh, wow. .,… And Christian Brothers — their mountain property up on Redwood Road, isn’t it? Yeah. Redwood Road goes up on the mountain and then turns left right up at Christian Brothers and then stops. And it becomes what other road does it become for the rest of the time it’s in the mountains? It’s Mount Veeder.
A: Mount Veeder Road. Yeah. And I just was enamored with this whole thing. So Terry Shaw was a girl I was dating some she later married Herb Caen — and Terry Shaw was half Chicano and half Irish — beautiful girl. And anyway, I was out with her and I said I think I’m going-to be a Christian Brother. And she said whatever for? And I said well, I really love that wine thing they’ve got up there and how are going to get in the wine business? If you don’t have a winery, join the Christian Brothers. She said, well you obviously haven’t heard about Myacamas and I said you’re right. So she took me up. And Jack and Mary Taylor owned Myacamas. He was English, brilliant guy. He, at 35 years old, was the president of Shell Development Corporation. And Mary was very brilliant also and they were neat people. But I took a look and he was driving a very old car and he had holes in the shoes of his shoes. (laughter) Because they had put all their money into this and they didn’t have any marketing. So I put a little money into it and I became a vice president and director of — and it was a corporation, of all things, which I don’t approve of. But anyway, I finally put — I would take trips all over California, at my expense, and just put the wines in everywhere I could. But they made cabernet rose. And I said well, now why are you taking some of the best cabernet grapes in whole world and making rose out of it? And Jack and Mary said well, we don’t like red wine. And I said what the hell’s that got to do with it? You’re selling the goddamned stuff, you know. And people love cabernet. Well, anyway, they wouldn’t change and so I figured what’s the — I couldn’t — I’m much too driven to listen the major shareholders opinion when it is not too sensible (laughter). So I resigned, kept I sold all my stock except $100 worth and kept it, just to keep buying the wines wholesale and everything. And I went — this was now in 82 — and I drove up the road and there was a building that was falling down, and nobody would touch it. And that was now what’s the St. Clement Vineyards’ house. And so, I bought it for 25 or 26,000 with four acres. And I had a Victorian in San Francisco in Pacific Heights that I had bought and had to gut and restore. So I wasn’/t totally unknowledgeable about what to do with these things. But I worked on that and I had a lot of it done, and then I worked on it myself. So it took a long time, weekends, to get it where I wanted it. But we moved up here in 64, full-time. And when I took on the Golden Gateway Center for Alcoa in 65, we stayed here weekends, but they gave me one of those beautiful townhouses down there. And (laughter) lots of money. And so I commuted back and forth. And come time — I ended that in 68, September first. And I had already applied for a license and so I founded Spring Mountain Winery then. And I had a year’s sabbatical to the day, September first of — the following year I spent six years commuting to L.A. to do Century City for Alcoa. But while I was — but then I went out and bought where Mum’s is — just to the north, attached to them, is a 25-acre parcel. And then I bought 80 acres from Catherine Cebrian, who was a dear friend. She wouldn’t sell to anybody else. And later on Joe and his brother figured out that maybe I got something they should have kept, and they threatened to sue me, and I took care of that in a hurry. (laughter)
Q: So how long did you actually operate the mountain winery?
A: 24 years. Yeah.
Q: Raised your sons there.
Q: Oh, my goodness.
A: But my sons, when we started they were involved. Later on, Chuck [Ortman] got too possessive. He wouldn’t let my wife in the winery and then he wouldn’t let my sons in the winery. And then when I’d come in, coming up from L.A. because I have my own strong opinions and I would start telling him what I really wanted done — he got very angry. So I had to let him — I won’t say it. But anyway, it was the end. people. I will say this. Every one of them were wonderful… I had three wine people besides myself. They were all wonderful people, they worked hard, they were loyal, they were intelligent, et cetera. But I looked at what they’re making after they left, which is damn good wine, but it wasn’t what they made at Spring Mountain.
Q: There was a magic there with you all.
A: Part of it’s the grapes of course, part of it’s the farming – system, and part of it is a certain amount of prejudices. And whenever anybody worked for me — even assistant winemaker, anybody — and he’d say I have a great idea for the chardonnay or cabernet, and I’d say OK, that’s your tank. You’re not going to screw up the whole vintage but that’s your tank. And if it’s going to work, great, but that’s your tank. And I just let them tear off and do whatever they thought was right. And — END OF TAPE 2, SIDE
A: — but we had — I kept a certain degree of this is how certain parts of it have to be done. If you’ve got any better ideas, I’m open. If you have ideas about something _ that might add to what we’re already doing, I’m open. But that’s your tank. (laughter) We couldn’t risk the whole vintage. But anyway, we had great people and they were family. I never have called anybody an employee; they were staff and they were family. And we had big, big, Christmas parties for family and other parties and so forth. And when Susan and I got married the only people, almost, that were there were family.
Q: That’s my next question. Tell me who Susan is and when you married and how is it that you met this wonderful woman in your life.
A: Well, (laughter) I came home one night, and this was the worst day I’d ever had in my life. There was a Mrs. Newman from the U.S. Labor Department in Sacramento. You realize that this was in 1979 and nobody in the history of the wine business, going back to the beginning of time, had ever filed a complaint with the goddamned agency up there? They couldn’t stand it. So they turned on the computer and spit out Spring Mountain, OK? So she shows up and she’s a pretty tough old broad. (laughter) And she was just into everybody’s hair. And everybody hated her. And anyway, when it came time for the report at the end of three, four, or five days, whatever it was, this was that day (laughter) we were having a big dinner party that night. But anyway, she said well, I can’t find anything wrong, but I’m fining you for 11 counts of child labor violation. And I said (laughter) you’re what? (laughter) And she said yes, you have your sons and the St. Helena football team working on the bottling wine, for high school. I said well, for openers, they all had permits from their parents, permits from the school, and also the government is out there advertising you to hire students in the summertime, especially minorities, and half of them are minorities that are on the football team with them. What’s your problem, lady? And she said well, they’re allowed to do everything except food processing and I’ve decided this is food processing. And I said all they’re doing is taking and dumping empty bottles onto the assembly line and taking the full bottles, and putting them back in case, sealing it, and stacking it. Well, she wouldn’t give. I said, lady, you made one big mistake, you fucked with an Irishman, and we are not rational when it comes to government. 1 And I went after her. I wrote a letter and got my attorney down at Dickinson, Peteman, and Fogerty to send it off to the government. And I was on her case, and he was on her case. I finally got her out of government as a zealot, but it cost me a lot more money than $550 fine. But I’m not going to do that. But anyway, I was in a real snit. I come back home and I see this gal out there in front of my house, [clipping] all the wonderful flowers and everything. I said what do you think you’re doing? And she said well, I’m doing flowers for your dinner party tonight. I said OK, and I steamed off. And I went upstairs and my resident thundercloud, my first wife, was raining on my parade, also. (laughter) So I just stormed down the stairway through the big dining room, into the butler’s pantry, and there’s charming little creature with her, then, ten-year old daughter, and that’s her daughter Sarah, doing all the flowers. And we got talking and she was just radiating joy from every pore. (laughter) And I said to myself Jesus Christ, where do you get a wife like that? I didn’t see her for a year. I’d forgotten her name, she’d forgotten my name, but we went to the opening party of the St. George Restaurant, which is now Tra Vigne. Tra Vigna screwed up a beautiful building to make it look Italian. But it was a great Georgian building. Gorgeous. Anyway, we were there for the opening party and so we got reintroduced. And so anyway, she said well, what are you doing these days? And, I said well, tomorrow, I’m going down to — come on, the decorator’s center south of market — no, no. The decorator’s center down there at sixth and Brannon, I think. See, Jackson Square is a decorator’s center too. In fact, John [Richie] — his wife’s in the Richie firm up here in real estate — John and I saved that whole part of San Francisco for Jackson Square, because we’d sold and leased it to all the decorators. And that’s where I learned everything about furniture and decorating, from these guys. And I have tons of these antiques everywhere, still. But anyway, she said well I’m going into the decorator’s center too. I said well, you can ride down with me, if you want to. So I took her down and took her to the real decorator’s center, you couldn’t get into. And then I belonged to a top club there in Jackson Square – – it’s really just a — it was a restaurant that was put in by the Italian Consul General to complete with the French club. And it’s a private club. And Walter Sullivan — you know Walter? Well, Walter’s father was Walter Sullivan too and they had a real estate firm and he had the Wells Fargo towers of Montgomery and Sutter, there, 42-story building he was trying to lease and I had the Alcoa building, and we were out in left field. There was no Embarcadero center it was nothing but chain-link fences, and sand, and newspapers. But I was just blowing him away. invited me to come over to Villa [Traverna’s] the name of the club and have lunch. And when you get reservations for lunch, you have it for the whole lunch, which was important. Because I put in ten national headquarters in the Alcoa building. I’m up there with the heads of these firms and here I am putting together a winery and belonging to this club, and those guys can’t get in. And it was never me being a supplicant, you know. It eyeball to eyeball. But I could take them up and down that building, and we had to ride the freight elevator on the outside, just hanging there. And they closed down at lunch hour and we’d have down after climbing around the girders — it was under construction — and we’d miss our god damned reservations. And we’d have to wait. So I said how do you get into this club, Walter — I’d known Walter forever. And he said well, I’m the head of the membership committee, it takes years to get to be a member. But he said I can fix it for your, if you want to get in. (laughter) So he did and I became an immediate member. And he said one thing I want from you is that anybody that you can’t use at your Alcoa building, send them over to me. So I did, and helped him a little. But I was a member there for — oh, God, 30-some years. And I wasn’t living in San Francisco. I for all those — most — well, half of those years. I figured every time I went to lunch it cost me about $1,200 for all the membership dues (laughter) I was paying for the two years between visits. And so I quit. And it was just the wrong time because Sarah could have used it when she was practicing law there. Dumb. But anyway, I don’t know how we got on that. Oh, it was Susan. So I took her down there and we ran into John Paxton, who I had met somewhere and his son is Bill Paxton, the actor, Billy. And John’s in the movie business now. He went and became a movie star. He went to school and everything, and he’s older than I am. He’s having fun. But their family was Paxton Hardwood Lumber Company, all over the nation. And they lived there from Kansas City and his mother was a wonderful old lady. And at 93 she was still driving her big Cadillac (laughter), the police were (laughter). Anyway, she finally died. They went into her mansion and in her mattress they found $19,000,000 in cash because she had gone through the bank failures of the Depression, where the banks went under and you didn’t get your money back. So the IRS heard about this, they went into the house and tore everything apart. Anyway, I called John the moment after I heard his mother died. And I said John, I’m very sorry to hear about your mother, because she was a love. I was really surprised to hear that she left me her mattress. (laughter) But John comes up all the time. We play golf down — he lives at Rancho Santa Fe. And I go down there and play golf with him. And then he comes up here from time to time or we’ll meet in San Francisco or whatever. But he and Mary Lou are old, old, old friends, decades, you know. And Billy, I knew — I haven’t seen Billy since he was about 14. (laughter) I haven’t seen him since he’s a movie star. But his brother, who is in a terrible automobile wreck — he has several, two other brothers and a sister, who I know. He wound up with pinpoint vision. He lost almost his whole vision. And he worked in Wall Street for a while, but he finally gave it up and came to California. And he was staying up near Davis in some wonderful establishment there, kind of a big clubhouse and ” they took good care of him and everything. Now he’s back down south. But Robert used to come over here and we’d go over there and take him to dinner and things. But Robert’s a lovely guy and the poor son of a bitch has just had his life taken, most of it. But Billy was always fun.
Q: So when did you marry Susan?
A: Anyway, that was deadly. We went into San Francisco and across the bay to the people I knew — because Benny Bufano was a good friend of mine.
Q: The sculptor.
A: Yeah. He was the first person I met in San Francisco, other than my uncle. My uncle, Grant Robbins — and this is Grant, my son, but Grant was Grant Junior, my grandfather was Grant — was in San Francisco, had his own PR agency, and very brilliant guy, and he was the head of the Press club, on the membership committee and all this stuff. And they gave Benny free places to live up there at the Press club. And he gave them the black cat the Press club — if you speak in front of the black cat — the black cat’s in front of you on the table and if you speak in front of that, no member of the Press can ever report it. And Benny carved them out the black cat and that’s why they gave him free housing for quite a while. Anyway, the first day, almost, I was in San Francisco, Grant took me to lunch on North Beach and Benny was there. And I got to know Benny really, really well. And he was south of Market, there, and when I was at Coldwell Banker, we’d go across Market Street, and the first (inaudible) street was where we had our cars parked. So anyway, when we came back there was something going. And I had — I don’t know. I didn’t know whether anything was ever going to develop with Susan, but I moved to the guesthouse. I ran away from home. And subsequently, she had a very, very not so good marriage, with an alcoholic. And he was trained by the government to — well, he carried a gun all the time and was violent, that kind of thing. But he was a nice person, normally. And anyway, we eventually got together. And when we went through — I didn’t file, my ex-wife filed, which was fine with me. And anyway, she kept — until it was over, she got the house. And that was for more than two years. She got a lawyer that wanted to milk it for as much as she could — as he could.
Q: This is the St. Clement house?
A: No, the big house. So I moved to the picker’s shack. Way down valley, I have a 20-acre chardonnay vineyard on gravelly soil. 30 feet — it backs into Soda Canyon Creek. And it’s 30 feet above. And that’s very important, because it’s exactly the same thing that Chateau la Maison Aubrion has in France. And it was simply this, let’s start with la Maison. They’re right across the street, on the outskirts of the city of Bordeaux and behind them, in the 20s, the government decided to put through a huge dig out a huge channel for the railroad. Everybody said there goes the neighborhood. Wrong. Because the problem with France is it rains. And they haven’t a clue as to what to do about it. They do have a clue, because they plant a meter ten by a meter 20 apart to dry the roots deep to get them away from the summer rain. We’re doing it here for reasons I’ll never understand. In France, they plant the grapes low to the ground to get reflected heat. And they throw shale and things in to reflect heat, because Bordeaux is the latitude of Nova Scotia. Rome is the latitude of Boston! And so Burgundy is the latitude of God knows what — Greenland, I have no idea. (laughter) But it’s pretty cold. So anyway, we’re copying everything they’re doing in France, which is just nuts. Quick story about Baron Philipe Rotschild in 74 — no, 78, I had been — I loved to go over there from time to time, and I knew quite a few of the proprietors pretty well, still do, but some are dying off like my Pearl Harbor friends here. But Baron Philipe was not in town when I first got there. It was a Friday and on weekends Bordeaux shuts down. You can’t even get in if – you’re — if you want to shut if off until I finish this even if you’re a relative, you might not be able to get into the Chateau on the weekends. Burgundy, which isn’t that far from Paris, they keep it open like they do here for people corning from Paris to buy wine. Well, Friday I figured well, two hours and he’ll be very happy to get rid of me, so I had a couple of other appointments. And one was at four o’clock with the guy that owned — let’s see [Jean Aujin Botterie, Ducours Bocaillou]. And so anyway, Grant and I were there because my ex and my younger son had to go back to Paris to pick up the damned Volvo the Swedes were two weeks late in getting there. So they were’ riding in a big Volkswagen bus. And anyway, they kept us there and kept us there. They took us to lunch and they kept us there. I finally got over to Jean Aujin Botterie’s at six o’clock at night. (laughter) And he said thank God, I’ve had some old ladies here that I couldn’t get rid of all afternoon. (laughter) I loved the guy, but he’s dead too. (laughter) But anyway, we went down to there’s a little bay off the Bay of Biscay, there, south of Bordeaux, but way north of [Biarritz]. I’ll get this right before you leave, and then I’ll forget it again, but it’s [Archichon] and it’s a wonderful bay with the most charming, beautiful little city there. Little town, really, it isn’t big enough to be a city. And they have these — we were in a three-story hotel right on the bay, I get a phone call from Phillipe [Cotain], who was the
for Baron Rothschild And he said the Baron and I want to take you to lunch at Duberne in Bordeaux on Monday. Can you make it? And I said oh, sure. So I left the family there and I drove 20 or 30 miles, whatever it was, to get to Bordeaux. And it was a one star restaurant, but at that time one star was the highest ranking in all of Bordeaux. (laughter) But we had a lovely lunch and I was beginning to figu; out what this was all about, all this romancing. (break in tape) Baron Phillipe said I would like to buy half of Spring Mountain. And I thought about it for a minute and I said well, Baron, I’ll sell you 40%. He said no, I want 50%. And I said no, I don’t think so and he said what’s the problem? I said well, for openers, nobody’s in charge. What happens if we don’t agree? And Baron Phillipe, in his cute little French accent, that is very simple, Michael, one of us will buy the other one out. I started to laugh like hell and he says what’s so funny? I said the idea of Mike Robbins buying out the Rothschilds is a little more than I can handle. (laughter) Now, that was the second worst damn thing I ever did not marrying Grace Kelly was the first — because it was the right thing at that time, but 10, 12 years later, it was the next dumbest thing I ever did. But we remained friends always. And upstairs, if we can get upstairs with all the debris I’ve got around here, behind my desk — or to the left of my desk — he gave me — see, their labels change every year. They have a famous artist that works — puts in a little strip, artwork — and he gave me all of them for 20 or 30 years. Today that collection, Susan read years ago, is worth 25,000. But I had it framed, it’s right by my desk. But we remained friends and he eventually went with Mondavi and I don’t know how they could have done what they did to him. The property he’s got his winery on, the water table is two feet below the surface. He bought it in the early 80s. In the early 80s, he spent 64,000 an acre trying to get the water table down to at least 10 or 12 feet. Then what did he do? He planted the grapes a meter 10 by a meter 20 apart. The grapes are this low to the ground. He’s driving the god damned roots back into the water table he just spent all this money to get rid of. See what I mean about people that don’t think? And here’s a brilliant man — two brilliant men. And they do the dumbest things. They’re people that make DVDs, for God sakes. The talking is at one level. The music is ten times as loud. Now how could anybody be that stupid? I’m a problem-solver, that’s my big fort in life. I could go back to Washington and George Bush would listen to me, and I can solve that fast about half a dozen of the greatest problems, like what do you do about the Israeli-Palestinian problem. You can solve that in one day, easily.
Q: I’ll tell you what, I would love to hear about that.
A: Well, we won’t talk about that here.
Q: But please, I would love to hear your thoughts on that, because that’s huge. And I will cover that in another class that we’re talking about.
A: Social security, you know why there’s a problem? It started with a Democratic Congress, which was in power for 50 years, but now the Republicans are doing the same damn thing. They take the money that we all pay in as social security payments, they call it income and they spend it. Now, they’re giving the social security system IOUs every year for it. There’s almost four trillion dollars of IOUs that they don’t count as national debt that they’ve stolen from the social security, and they’re paying them two percent interest. All I’m going to tell George is pay them prime interest, whatever the prime is going up and down. Pay them prime interest, you got so damn much in the social security system, it’ll last for 1,000 years, but pay them. It’s simple. There’s so many simple solutions to these problems, it’s just — Israel, all they have to do I’ve been saying this for 25 years. And a year ago one of the Saudi princesses came out with it. All they have to do is give them back what they stole in the Six Day War, which they started, and the guy said I can give you 12 adjoining Arab countries that will sign tomorrow. It’s over. And they almost got the whole thing from Barack, who & as the predecessor to this monster they’ve got now. But Barack gave them all but just a little sliver of what they wanted. And they couldn’t take it or they would have been killed by their own people. You know, Michael Collins, when they beat the British empire and got the country and he had to give back those things, his own people killed him for the sell-out. That’s what they would have had with Barack - whatever you call him. But they’ve got to give it back and, I mean, as soon as they do, they’ve got peace. And I want them to have peace. This is insanity, what’s going on.
Q: Well, I know it’s in a lot of peoples’ prayers, but bringing us back to the Napa Valley, and we’re going all over the world, which is what I love. I love it. I’ve never traveled the world myself, so I feel invigorated. I’m so curious, and tell me if you feel comfortable talking about this, but why are you no longer at Spring Mountain – Winery, or is that not something that you feel that you’d like to discuss?
A: Well, OK. This is a long story, sort of. I had to borrow so many millions of dollars to pay off big [Shirl] and Cid Greenburg, my partner, thought he was dying, and he wanted to get his thing straightened out. I bought him out at the same time. And I had to borrow a real gang of money and the interest rate was seven percent. But I got it on three o’clock on the last day that I could wait, or they would have grabbed the property, and I took an open-ended — I didn’t have a tack on the amount of interest I’d pay. And I didn’t have any weight behind me to get and if I’d have waited — it was Friday afternoon, if I had waited until Monday, they would have seized the property on Sunday. OK, it seems like almost the moment I signed the damn thing come on, who was the head of the Feds — Rick — I don’t know. The head of the Feds before the present one. I’ll think of it. He started, because of the inflation, he went on a tear and in eight months he had gone from six percent prime to 16.5% prime. OK, that meant I was 17% interest rate. And the wine market, starting about that time until 1995, the wine market was in the toilet. And I’m told by everybody that I know in the business that probably 80 or more percent of all the wineries are on the verge of going under. OK, well, what I was doing is I was paying them interest and I found out I couldn’t — because Cid Greenburg almost forced me into getting corporations for Spring Mountain and Wildwood, and I couldn’t sell the properties. I got right up to the signing period and the attorneys and the accountants said …
A: –Wildwood. And I couldn’t sell the properties. I got right up to the signing period and the attorneys and they accountants said don’t buy a corporation, it may have hidden debt. Buy assets. No, leave him alone, he’s all right. If he does it on the rug I dropkick him right out the door. (laughter)
Q: What a good kitty cat!
A: No he’s not. They’re so dumb.
Q: But he’s scratching on the pad, Mike. He’s away from your rug. (laughter)
A: Nice going, shortstop. Anyway, I had some interesting little situations there, paying the loan. And I went to my accountant and I said now what I want to do with these corporations, I want to make them sub-chapter S corporations. You understand what that means, of course.
Q: No, I don’t.
A: No? OK, a sub-chapters corporation is one where you don’t pay corporate tax, you pay regular tax like as a person. And it was a great way to do things, or the other one is a limited partnership. But the limited partner, still, the one that was the guy running it, he was exposed. Now they have the LLCs, which I want to do. And nobody has any problem with being sued for everything they own. And you’re not in a corporate structure. But anyway, my accountant said well, you can’t do that. I wanted to do it and then I wanted to merge them, you see. Because I owed myself a fortune for the grape, but I was paying me, I was paying the god damned bank and the government and everything. So they said just liquidate them. Well, I did, and I got a bill, between the state and federal government, for almost a $1,000,000 in taxes for relief of debt. From me to me. I owned 100% of both corporations and I was paying me. And they charged me all this money. So I was really, then, doing a juggling act. And so I was paying — I gave the Feds $100,000 and I gave what I felt – – the state was owned entirely and they said no, you still owe us $141,000. I said you’re full of crap. And then I gave the IRS another $200,000 on Tuesday and this Nazi came over in the collection department from Santa Rosa — and said we have to make a case out of you. You’re a high- profile taxpayer, you own Falcon Crest, and we’re going to just run you to death. And so I gave them another $200,000. And I said now, actually, I gave you too much. You owe me money because you’re charging me penalties in addition to interest, and penalties are charged to people who aren’t trying to pay the taxes, and I’m trying to pay the taxes. I don’t owe you any penalties. And he just gave me the finger. Well, I would sell $1,000,000 of the property and I’d give the banks the money. And I would sell another $2,000,000. And I sold them four orr i ive million dollars of the property, which is all I borrowed. But by this time it was half of what I owed. And anyway, they said I want the rest by Friday or we’re seizing the property on Monday for taxes. I had to file chapter 11, of course. And this went on for quite a while, when I kept paying them all this money. And I’d get behind, but then I’d catch up and get ahead. And this guy [Safra] I don’t really think this should be on tape.
Q: OK, that’s fine. Shall we just omit it or audio…
Q: I love the house on the bottle. I think that’s a lovely label.
A: Yeah, that’s a beautiful label. I’ll give you one of ours. What vintage is this? ’04.
Q: 04. We’re a very young winery. I think we started in ’94.
A: Now, wait a minute, this can’t be a cabernet ’04.
Q: That’s cabernet sauvignon.
A: That was the year it was picked?
A: Yeah. Because this is barely ’05.
Q: Right, it must be the —
A: We always age cabernet at least two years in the barrel. That’s what (inaudible).
Q: Oh, this has been aged in a barrel for its two years…
A: No, it hasn’t. Not if it’s an ’04.
Q: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it is.
A: If it’s picked in ’04 and we’re just a few days into — it must be ’01.
Q: That must be an ’01 then.
A: It looks — I don’t have my glasses on.
Q: Oh, you don’t have your glasses on? Then it’s not ’04. We haven’t released ’04 yet.
A: I don’t think so. No, this is 2001.
A: But the one has a thing on it. (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) I don’t see how it could be 2004. That’s last year. (laughter)
A: I should never do anything without looking at it with my glasses on. (laughter) Well, see, it looked like a four to me too, Mike. have my glasses on either. I don’t
Q: Well, that sort of leads me to the last question I wanted to sort of pose to you. You’ve talked a little bit about when you came here, the valley was sort of in its _ infancy, past prohibition, and you were the 16t h winery.
A: I say that with one qualification, there were three of us that applied that year — myself, Don Chappellet, and Al Bronstein. Now, I’ll be honest with you — we all kid about this — that none of us have any idea who was first, but we were the 16th, 17t h , and 18th wineries in the Napa Va11ey. But we always, all of us, say we were the 16th (laughter) to make it more dramatic. (laughter) But we aren’t sure.
Q: And it doesn’t really matter, because when we’re looking at a 30 or 40-year span, we can sort of see, and feel, and taste what you have contributed to the valley. And now I’m wondering if you could pose your recollections on this. How has this experience changed you?
A: Well, people would ask me in the mid-80s, early-80s, whenever, what’s the future of the Napa Valley. And I said we are going to go from making great wines to making very good wines or good wines. Because number one, the big – corporations moved in, who don’t know diddly about anything to do with wine — they’re money people. And the smaller wineries, when it started being heated up in the 90s and they were just selling all they could make and more, they all doubled- and tripled-production — you can’t double and triple production to keep the high quality, for several reasons. Number one, you can’t get those grapes again at the same quality. Number two, if you get over 25,000 cases, you start to lose control — the person running the thing, what the real philosophy of what he’s doing starts to lose control somewhat. It really you start less than that, but that’s about the max. And that’s why most of the Bordeaux Chateau are 25 or less. For instance, I had the regisseur that they brought in after — what’s his name down the trail, the Frenchman? Clos Du Val.
A: Clos du Val [Bernard Porter].
A: Bernard Porter. His father, Ray Porter was the regisseur for Château Lafite Rothschild . And I will not discuss about what that did to the quality. But they got a new guy in after he retired and the wine seemed to be a little better. And he came out to visit me. I said how many cases are you now making at Lafite? And he said 40,000. I said how can that be when you’re a 25,000 case chateau? Oh, well, we bought some more properties. Well, you see what happens is, both Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild each have three chateaus. The other two are OK, but they’re not top grade. But legally, they can take all those grapes and put them under Le Fit or Mouton. La Maison Aubrion, owned by friends of ours, and they have two red labels, La Maison Aubrion and La Tour Aubrion, and a white label, La Ville Aubrion, which is the best white wine in [Grave].
I didn’t get through with that earlier story about La Maison. When they put the train thing through, it’s all gravelly soil and it drains downwards and now sideways and gets rid of all the water. And they’re so much better than the first [growth] across the road, it’s unbelievable, but that’s also for a couple of other reasons.
They pay the guy across the road, the regisseur, they pay him based on the numbers of bottles he makes of Aubrion. And ergo, he doesn’t want to wait until he gets too ripe, because they shrivel up and lose juice, and he doesn’t do assemblage, he puts everything under the label. Whereas La Maison Aubrion does assemblage and what doesn’t make it for the first label gets La Tour Aubrion, and they’re just ten times the wine of the first growth. Now they aren’t anymore, because the first growth wine, they bought them. (laughter) So they’re doing the same dumb thing there, I’m sure. But that’s the way — and I’ve spent a lot of time asking questions. People tell you you Americans, you’re either geniuses or idiots because you just never stop asking questions. (laughter) And we do it by barrels. When I went over I knew every barrel maker, I knew exactly who did it right and who did it wrong and why. I found out something else, the oak that the French used before World War I, all came from Eastern Europe, OK? World Wat I came along, they couldn’t get the oak from Eastern Europe and they used French oak. When the war was over, they kept on making French oak and that’s considered, now, to be the oak, but it isn’t as good as the eastern oak which they had before. And now the French barrels are so high, if I do a winery in Virginia, I’m going to get the eastern oak which is half the cost and it’s better oak. But you’ve got to figure out who makes it and you’ve got to go over and make sure that he gets it only lightly charred, and there’s no water or steam or anything involved, it’s just bent over an open fire. But I don’t want it charred — I mean blistered. I want it just lightly, lightly charred. And that’s what I demanded and got, and I knew exactly which forest I wanted it from. And all the suppliers said you – know, the French have no idea what the hell I send them. I don’t send them anything, they don’t know. But you Americans are so damned inquisitive, now you know exactly what’s best (laughter) and they have no idea what’s best in France. That was funny.
Q: Well, Mike, what would you say, if you had a wish for the valley or if you wanted to impart some knowledge or if you wanted to leave your impression or your legacy, what is your hope for the valley and where’s the promise?
A: Well, number one, anybody that is trying to get into the wine business in this valley has more money than brains. When I bought property here it was $2,500 an acre, now it’s been as high as $200,000 an acre. When I was here, whatever you wanted to do, you just did it. Today, you fight with the neo-fascists at the county level or the city level, to the point where you just want to scream. I wouldn’t have another winery in this valley for all the rice in China. I don’t want anything to do with California and business. When I owned Spring Mountain, we had 12 acres — the southernmost 12 acres was in the city limits. You’d never know it because there wasn’t much of houses around it. And it was zoned Rl. I could have built 150 or more houses on it, OK? All of a sudden they come along, when the neo-fascists took over, and said you can only build two homes on the 12 acres. Well, I still didn’t bitch because I wasn’t going to build any homes, and it wasn’t suitable for 150 anyway, it was hilly. The next thing I know, they were going to say you can’t build any homes on your 12 acres. I was going to pay tax on scenery. Well, I went down to city hall, and this was — dig out the old newspapers from here — I walked into city hall and it came my time to speak, and I got up, and I said OK, guys, enough. There was one woman, I think, on the committee and the rest were guys, and I said if you pass this measure and I will (inaudible), I’m not only suing the city of St. Helena, but every one of you that votes yes, I’m goi g to join as co-defendants. I’m going to own your god damned homes and your cars. And thanks to Ronald Reagan, we have a Supreme Court that will uphold the Constitution. Well, they ran like rabbits, of course. And the moment that [Safra] bought it, they sneaked that in. But, of course, the next day on the top half of the St. Helena Star on the front page, was on this subject. I was the heavy, not the people stealing my property! The liberals, you know. Can’t deal with them. I used to be a Democrat until 62, and that’s when Reagan got out too — the party just shifted like that to the left, just awesomely. I was running for Congress, for chrissakes in San Francisco. And Roger Kent was the chairman of the Democratic party in California. Kent Field, Kent Woodlands, that’s his family. And he retired and the Burton brothers took over, who announced that economically, they were Marxist socialist. And I said (laughter) whoa, wait a minute! (laughter) And I became an Independent for years. And then when Sam [Hayakawa] was running for the Senate, I became Republican to vote for him in the primary, and he got in. And of course the liberals hated him, but he was a great Senator. And Susie and I went back to his offices and we jJ;t came up from our Congressman’s office, which is all leather and walnut and everything and dull as anything. We went up to his office, he has all these young kids working for him and they’re just having a ball doing things up there. Oh, he was great, just great. The greatest statement he ever mentioned was when Berkeley was going through the problems with the free speech — which is filthy speech — problem, he said — well, they asked Sam Hayakawa you know, Sam, what do you think about what’s Berkeley now? He said they’ve just gone from being a second-rate university into being a third-rate university. And they kidded him because he originally applied to Berkeley when he came out — he came from Canada. And he was a brilliant man, but for some reason Berkeley didn’t hire him, so San Francisco State did. He wound up being president of San Francisco State. But he really stuck it in to Berkeley. (laughter)
Q: Well, Mike, I want to tell you how fun it’s been to listen to your stories.
A: Oh, one little thing we didn’t finish about living in the picker’s shack down there on the property where the chardonnay is.
Q: Did you say also the cabernet?
A: No, it’s we back into Soda Canyon Creek, but just north of where Soda Canyon Road starts, there’s that little grocery store in whatever the hell you want to call it, and the first vineyard on the east side of the road — it’s not planted on a slant. But I put in the chardonnay and I put in a real pinot noir, because nobody in this state except one winery — I have no idea what the hell the grape was they were using. It wasn’t pinot noir. And that’s what Davis gave them. And it was totally alien to pinot noir. And I know some of the producers and the owners of the dominions over there in Burgundy, so I finally had to smuggle stuff in. And the grape is so different — you want to give them tea? They have some tea.
A: Oh, do they? I see — just amazing, the differences. And when we made pinot noir it was like it came out of Burgundy, it was wonderful. But the stuff they were using — now that they’re using these bench grafts and they’re getting stuff from France, they may be truly getting pinot noir, I don’t know. But if so, it’s the first time, because I looked everywhere and I talked to the guy over in Joe Swann. Joe Swann, on pinot noir.
Q: Joe Swann.
A: Yeah. Joe Swann. He was a pilot for United. And I never been able to figure out names — but anyway, he had the real McCoy. And I found out because I said could I have some cuttings, he said of course. And he said you know Rusty — which is Martin Ray, down in the mountains down there near Los Gatos, just to the east of Los Gatos that mountainous area along the freeway — he had a winery there. And that’s where the original [Paul Masson] winery was. And he said if you know Rusty, call him up, he’s got the real stuff. He bought Paul Masson in the 30s, after prohibition was over, and he inherited Paul Masson. And Paul gave him all the information that the cuttings were brought over by Louis La Tour, the father of the present Louis who now is dead. In 1898 chardonnay came from [Corton Charlemagne] and the pinot noir came from Romanée-Conti. And so I called him and he said sure, you can have it and you can have the chardonnay too. So I got stuff from him and I got stuff from Joe Swann, and that’s what we put in down there. Because the stuff I smuggled in, what’s his name up in Sacramento, Darryl [Cordy], who’s the biggest wine man in that part of the world, brought it in for me. But when they packed it — I had a friend in the [enological] station in [Boone] and they didn’t put enough water in the gunny sacks, so it was dead. . But we got the real clone and Sarah went up when she was like 13 and picked the second crop of pinot noir and she made what do you call that? Sorbet.
A: Sorbet out of it in our little maker. (laughter) Oh, my god, I’ve never tasted anything that good. It’s fabulous. But anyway, we were living in this little picker’s shack with a corrugated tin roof, no heat, and somehow whenever you took a shower and anybody turned on the light switch (laughter) you got electrocuted. Mildly, not bad. (laughter) And anyway, we took down antique Oriental rugs and Louis the 15th furniture and put it in this place. And when it rained we had to move everything because we’d sit there watching television and moving the (laughter) furniture. But we had dinner parties down there. Darren Rothschild came to dinner, the movie stars came to dinner with us, and they thought this was really high camp. (laughter) Here we are living the life of (inaudible) with all these wonderful things in a picker’s shack. When I was cooking — when I met Michael, I could make tamale bayou tacos, that was it. And I had all these important people coming, so I just opened up cookbooks and luckily that San Francisco a la carte had just come out at that time, so I made …
A: Well, we had Julia Child would come up and cook. — well, I had others, but I was basically cooking out of the San Francisco a la Carte and luckily, just about everything I made was good. But I can remember making risotto, I had never even heard of risotto in my life. I had no idea, you know? We sit down at the table and we’d have these French people and they’re like oh, I just love risotto! Oh, it’s risotto! And I’m sitting there thinking, oh my God.
A: She became one of the top chefs around the valley. (laughter) No, I did not!
A: Given those years we were there, she became a top chef. I learned to cook, but oh.
A: This is funny. The day we got back to main house and moved out of the picker’s shack, we moved in and of course big Shirl had taken half of everything, and not (laughter) only the money, but the furniture and the antique oriental rug and 1,000 cases of wine out of the wine cellar, this kind of thing. Millions. Anyway, I was still pretty loaded. And I was watching a movie on our set there in the library, and she was running around with shorts, and no shoes, no socks, and a button-down shirt with one shirttail hanging out, and she disappeared for two hours or more. And she came back and says Michael, I just feel like a kid that got his own department store. (laughter) (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) I couldn’t believe it.
A: Well, you grew up pretty well. Her father was the Cascade half of Boise Cascade. (laughter) He had the Cascade lumber mills up in Washington and he merged it wit.h Boise [Peyat] in 61. (laughter) So you didn’t grow up very poor. No, but that huge house, it was like a little castle. It was so incredible. house. (laughter) We had so much fun in that
A: I just feel like a kid that got his own department store. Even when Sarah went off to school, there were just two of us in that house, but we lived in every room in that house. WE lived —
A: Well, Sarah, I really rode hard on Sarah, because my military training and it kept her out of trouble. And she was just furious with me most of the time. She said get out of my life! And I said I’m not going to so shape up. So then she wanted to go to Berkeley, she was accepted. And I said no, you can’t go to Berkeley. And she was just adamant about it. And I said OK, get your little ass out of the house, go to San Francisco, get an apartment, get a job, save your money, and go to Berkeley, but I’m not paying for it. So then she wound up going to Geo getown, which cost me 25 times as much, but it’s a great university and it wasn’t all far left. That’s a stupid place to go. And Stanford’s now worse than Berkeley. They haven’t given grades in 25 years, so they can pass all these people that can’t pass. They give pass fail. And they’re just’ as far left or worse than Berkeley now. We had a great time at Spring Mountain. All I can say, it was so much fun. And during the holidays and everything, we really tried to share it. I used to kick myself and say how did I ever get here? I mean, it was so incredible. And so every day I’d try I mean, we had all these tourists around and we had a pretty big staff because it was mostly tour guide staff — and they all became good friends of ours. But I used to take somebody out and I’d give them a tour of the house or I’d do something nice for them. I’d try, especially if I saw they had little children or something. So we had this wonderful doll house
A: Oh, you won’t believe. –it’s just incredible
A: It cost thousands. (laughter) –yeah, there was some lady, I think her name was Alma and it was down in Yountville, and it was way before I even knew Michael —
A: And nobody had bought this thing forever. go down there and she loved it. So Sarah used to We’d decorate it and we’d take flowers for it and r· everything —
A: It’s all electrified so you have electric lights inside, everything. — but so I guess you could get it in this house because of those doors. It’s out in the garage right now, but most houses you couldn’t even get it in. But it’s so incredible
A: It’s Queen Anne Victorian. Yeah. But so huge and so heavy. And so I’d bring little girls in to look at it, whatever, I tried to do something really extraordinary and —
A: Well, Sarah’s probably going to wind up having only sons. (laughter) Yeah, we have the doll house. (laughter) But the doll house then was, she wanted like $5,000 for it. – And finally she called me — END OF TAPE 3, SIDE A
A: — that was 25 years ago. (laughter) I know, and it was for a doll house. There was no way. And so finally we traded her some —
A: More than that. r — some antiques, I think, or something and then some wine and we did a big trade. But we ended up with the doll house. So it was pretty funny. But it was lots of fun. We had great times.
A: We’ll be married, come August, 25 years now. Yeah, I was 37 when I met Michael. He was amazing.
A: I was 57. He was 57. (laughter) So we’ve been together a long time. It was fun, it was lots of fun. We always had a huge, big Christmas party and we’d invite all the other vintners. And then during the filming of [Falcon Crest] it was one big party. The whole time they were there, people were
A: We’d go down to the studio parties they’d have at the motels. And the stars stayed at Silverado Country Club and the rest stayed at the — what’s now the — what do they call that now? I don’t know. The Marriott?
A: Marriott, yeah. It used to be something else, they changed it. But they’d have dances and things down there. So Sarah and I would go down and we’d go dancing with them. Sarah was in 10th grade or something, and she’s in the bar just dancing up a storm. I couldn’t keep track of her with all the — but they had fun. We put a lot of the local kids in Falcon Crest. We tried. (laughter)
A: Well, we took them, most of the stars, to lunches like [Auberge] and things. And then we went to L.A. and they’d take us out to dinners. And we have a lot of other friends that I’ve known in the movies for years. Joel Gray was a very close friend. And we (laughter) had one night we had a date with Joel Gray to take him out to dinner. And we got a call from Bob Foxworth and he lived with Elizabeth Montgomery. And anyway, they wanted to take us to dinner. And so I told them I had a conflict, so they took us all to dinner. And we went to this restaurant and (laughter) I was sitting here, and Joan Gray, Joel’s wife, was sitting here, and anyway, you were sitting there, Susan — Joel Gray was like half of me.
A: Little guy. He was so tiny. He was like a little miniature (inaudible).
A: He’s a sweetheart. He’s adorable, but he’s so tiny.
A: But he got divorced and whenever he came to town he’d send us a whole bunch of tickets, seventh row, and when he did the thing with the San Francisco Symphony, he sent us seats right up near the thing on the ground floor, with the checkered cloths, and we could eat. And so we took the [Devavras] from France, that wound up owning a winery here t and sold all their chateaus in Bordeaux. They sold 9,000 acres of oak forest, they sold a big home near the king’s chateau in the Loire, and they sold off a wonderfu place in [San Jean de Louis] down near the Spanish border, below Biarritz. They sold off everything except the home in Paris, they go there. They live here. And I took them along with us to see Joel Gray. And they saw this symphony orchestra up there in the summer playing and they said how long has this been going on? I said in Boston for 100 years, and here for 50, they had no idea how popular all this was. And then Joel Gray was getting up and doing his thing with the symphony. And afterwards, Richard Swig Ben Swig, his father, was my close friend that founded the Fair Mountain, he had hotels and office buildings all over America and Ben was one of my best clients and good friend. Richard is running it now and he had Joel up there and had a party for Joel, and we all got to go and have fun. So we’ve had some good times with Joel. And I dialed his number in New York, and I don’t know where he is now. We really got to see lots of movie stars live, and so did Sarah. Especially, it was very good for St. Helena kids because they found out they didn’t want to be movie stars. (laughter)
A: Oh, who wants to be a movie star? God. t But some of my extras, really, I’ve got about three of them that are still working in show business, and one is now a producer. He’s done really well, Craig Connelly. He’s done the best.
A: Craig Connelly is Chuck Carpie’s (sp?) nephew.
Q: Oh, yes, Dr. Connelly. I just saw them about two weeks ago. They’re great guys. Morgan’s an architect, a classical architect. He’s a great architect. And then their sister married one of the Gambles.
A: Well, Cloris Leachman, who you may know, she was in what’s her name’s — Clarice was in Rhoda.
A: No, not Rhoda. She was in the other one with Mary Tyler Moore. She was in the Mary Tyler Moore show, and so was Rhoda. And Rhoda split off. But she’s also been a movie star for a long time. And I went to school with her back – in Des Moines. And a whole lot of other — a couple of other stars and some guys that were top producers and things. They all came out of our group in Des Moines. I went back to I don’t know how many reunions — but a lot of them by now — and everyone in Michael’s class, they get up on the stage and they sing and they dance. They have no I’ve never seen anything like it. i
A: They get up and sing. They get up with the big band, can sing as good as any of the pros. And many of them went on to — well, P.J. Love went on and was a star with Gary Cooper in the one where they were Quakers. Friendly Persuasion.
A: Friendly Persuasion. And she starred in that and a few other things. And Eddie Risson wound up as head of Playboy Productions, came out of them. But they were all on Broadway first. Clarice was, and so was Risson, all of them.
Q: So we come circle all the way around, we’re almost through here. So now for parting thoughts and anything you’d like to share with you. Because this is going down — we are making history right here, today, January seventh 2005. This will be recorded and preserved for as long as we’re able to preserve medium. So any thoughts for the future? Anything you’d like to share with — –
A: Well, there’s still a lot of very, very good wine being made. But they’re all getting — even my friend Mike [Gurgage] who, when he was working, he was assistant to Andre [Chellisheff] at (inaudible) when I first met him. And Andre was my first consultant, because we were good friends. But he didn’t — I was after nitty gritty stuff, and he was way off in space. And so I got Brad Web who came over from Sonoma County and he took over as the winemaker under what’s his name at — up here. The one I ,.. I almost bought. [Freemark]?
A: Freemark. He was under Carpie at Freemark Abbey. But he got in and I took big notepads, these legal pads, and I’d get him in there and he said OK, I read in my book after you pump the wine out of the barrel, you wash the barrel, then you sulfur the barrel, that’s a very glib phrase, you know? (laughter) How the hell do you sulfur a barrel? So he would show me the two ways to do and I just wrote them down. And I said now how do you sterilize all this junk in the morning and at night? And he would go through tell me exactly what to do and all these sterilizers. I’d write it all down. Because I was the only employee for three years, you see. And I learned everything from him, on the basics. Now, I’ll be honest, the whole time I was doing this, I was way over my head. God made the wine, . I didn’t. I just shepherded it along and tried to keep it out of trouble. But I also came up with a lot of very fundamental - there’s a lot of fundamental knowledge I got out of all this. And I found out through an accident — maybe I told you about chardonnay. Now how is this going to help us for your posterity, Michael? What’s your legend you’re leaving?
A: Well, before my grapes were all bearing, I used to buy a chardonnay from Bill [Yeager]. He had 1,000 acres in the valley, he’s got thousands elsewhere. But the big property he has runs all the way to Napa down Big Ranch Road there. Had wonderful chardonnays, because it’s in the cool area with the right soils. And he said you want them machine harvested or do you want them hand-picked. And you know me, I said I want them hand-picked. Well, one year, the last year I bought from him because mine were coming on, he said I can’t get them all to you hand-picked. If you want the rest, you have to take them machine harvested. I said OK. The machine harvested grapes made a wine that was twice as good as the hand-picked. That really stunned me. And I figured now, why is that? And I finally reasoned out that when the machine gets it, it just shakes the wine. And it doesn’t differentiate between first and second crop. .. So you’re getting all the second crop in there. If you pick at 23, 24, you get much less sugar, much better pH, much better acid, and also you get a little flavoring in there, it’s called — there’s a little chemical flavoring in there come on, Susie, you’ve heard me talk. It made the wine mind-blowing. That’s one reason I could always make chardonnay (laughter) better than everybody lse, because — what is this little thing we get? It’s incredible. But that is how you learn. And I would have never have thought that hand-picked grapes weren’t better than machine harvested, and they wouldn’t be for maybe anything else other than the white wine.
Q: Well, thank you so much, Mike. We so appreciate, not just this tape but your contribution.
A: [Amalaceta te]. (laughter)
Q: Thank you so much. This concludes our oral interview with • Mr. Mike Robbins. We thank you so much for your time and your energy.
A: Well, you’re welcome. It’s random nonsense, but I hope you can get something out of it.
Q: It’s so wonderful. Thank you. END OF TRANSCRIPT