Interviewer: Claire Scalzo
Interview date: 9/26/16
Claire Scalzo: This is Claire Scalzo. I’m pleased to welcome W. Sloan Upton, who I am interviewing on behalf of the St. Helena Historical Society’s Oral History Program. We are conducting this interview at 10:15 on 9/26/16, at 1533 Kearney Street, in St. Helena, California. Welcome, Sloan. Can you begin by telling us where you were born, and when you first came to the St. Helena area? And what are some of your earliest memories?
Sloan Upton: Oh, my goodness me, that takes me back long ago. Anyway, I was born in 1936 in San Francisco, where my mother and father lived, and where I grew up. I went to Town School, and then I was sent back east to a prep school, and that was quite an experience grinding across the country in a DC6. It was quite a trip, and it was great for me in those days, traveling by myself and getting myself up to the prep school, called Hotchkiss.
Anyway, after Hotchkiss, I had applied to Stanford, was accepted and carried on there. But the problem was, sitting in this enormous great amphitheater taking a course called, Western Civ, I was surrounded by these creatures that smelled so good, and they had all the proper bumps and knobs on them, these dear ladies. And I ran track and swam at Hotchkiss, so we did have two dances a year, but that was about it. And just when the hormones were raging, you know, sitting down at my first year in Stanford, it was unbearably marvelous. And I couldn’t study. I lasted a quarter, and then I was rusticated, which means I was asked to leave for a period of time.
I ended up working cattle down in Chowchilla in the big valley, came back, and I lasted, oh about another year. Then I was rusticated again, same problem. And I went and chopped cotton in the San Joaquin down by Coalinga , and that was really something. That was an experience. It was really good for me in those days because I met and befriended and was befriended by people I never would have met in the normal course of my life. And this ease with other people, it has stood me in good stead for all my years.
Anyway, instead of going back to Stanford, I just said, pox and damnation, I’m going to apply for the, I’m going to volunteer for the draft. And I did, I ended up in the 82nd Airborne, and had quite a time there. Went to Ranger School, etcetera, etcetera. Then I applied and was accepted after six months of rather tortuous activity into Special Forces, i.e., the Green Berets.
I ended up in Viet Nam in ’60, ’61, ’62, and ’63. And we did some very curious things. I was trained in light and heavy weapons, and in demolition. I loved the smell of cordite and blowing things up, that was great. And I did deliver two breach births, which was not in my training. I was, the medical part was battlefield trauma. Anyway, I was able to, with the good lord looking over my shoulder, and my father, who was OB and Gyn. He always said Shakespeare really had the right idea when he called people that do what my dad was doing spreader of old wives tales. Anyway, I used that phrase after I was able, thank God, to deliver two breach births way up north. And we haloed in where we were working, it was all very classified. And thank God we didn’t have those idiots like McNamara, telling us what to do from Washington, he hadn’t a clue, nor did Johnson. Anyway, I would like to put a round in McNamara’s head to this day. He’s responsible for the deaths of some of my friends who were still over there.
Anyway, I came back and got on the GI bill and did grad work in viticulture at Davis. And I moved to the Valley in ’64. I needed a little time to stop dodging rounds from Charlie and the rest of all that. So, I came to the Valley really, in ’64, and I started to dabble in vit, and was hired after my grad work at Davis by Sterling. So, I really got my nose in deep into the viticultural scene in the Valley. In those days, it was just marvelous here. No braggadocio, no people saying, oh I’ve got a little vineyard, you know, two acres, and I make wine. You look at their hands and they’re puffy and red, they never saw the end of a shovel, let alone, they didn’t know what to do if they were given the job to bud. We did all those things.
My brother and I started our vineyard, Three Palms, in 1967. And I was at Sterling, the first vineyard manager, as I mentioned, and things went on in a very good way. Everybody would help everybody else in those days. And with Jack Davies and a number of our older friends, most of them gone now, we got the Ag Preserve passed, and that was a great battle. And we still have to battle it today. The people that want to put second homes on property that they shouldn’t were not able to stop us, but they’re still nibbling away at the corners. So, we have to be very vigilant about that.
And life went on. Our two children were born, not here, in San Francisco, because dad was Chief of Staff at a hospital in the City, and he trained the OB and Gyn doctor that delivered the girls from Priscilla, my wife. And it, that was quite a deal. And we bought our home in, gosh, when was it, ’71, I think. And it was quite different then than it is now. It’s been a labor of love for many years. And —
Claire Scalzo: Sloan, I’d like to ask you a question.
Sloan Upton: Do.
Claire Scalzo: What was it like to plant Three Palms Vineyard. I’ve always heard that it produces such fantastic grapes because of the soil, or lack of soil —
Sloan Upton: Lack of.
Claire Scalzo: That it’s all rock. It must have been quite an experience.
Sloan Upton: It was, and I start sweating as soon as I start thinking about that. My brother and I were lucky enough to go with our mother and father to Europe. And we saw, my brother and I saw what the Germans and many people in France were doing about rocks. And we were able, with Peter Newton’s help, great help, to purchase this rocky pasture land from the Tamani family, a marvelous, marvelous family. And I mourn the older members of that to this day, of that family.
Anyway, we couldn’t deep rip it, it was just too rocky, boulders would come to the surface. And we had to truck in top soil so we could make little mounds around each root stock. And then my brother and I, and a friend from San Francisco, would go up and down two rows at a time with the end of a hose from a water tank on the back of a big flat bed. And that’s the way we watered.
We didn’t have any drip system, we put five holes down, all of them dry except one that had about ten gallons a minute for about eight minutes, but it was 40 ppm of boron, so we couldn’t use that water. But we, John and I, tug the ditches with a rented back hoe, we glued the PVC when a drip line was available. And so, we were kind of on the very beginning of drip irrigation. But before going up and down each row, one on each side with a hose, it was really labor intensive. But we were young and didn’t know any better. But we had lots of energy and we were hoping that things would turn out, as indeed they did. We’re really lucky.
First of all, all the berries went to Sterling, and then Rick Forman, whom I’ve told go down and be interviewed at Sterling International, in the City. He was hired as the winemaker for the new and upcoming Sterling. And was able to freeze some grapes for Tom Renaldi, who was the winemaker at Duckhorn in those days. And Tom produced some amazing wine, and we were best known for our merlot. And that put Duckhorn on the map, and Duckhorn put us on the map.
And we had, I remember, going to flying into New York at this black-tie dinner for the announcement of the Three Palms Merlot. And I can remember with amusement one of the distributors, one of the new distributors came up to me after I got on my hind legs and talked about the vineyard a bit, he said, I noticed your wife is not here. Could I perhaps send a very dear friend of mine for some comfort for you? I said, not that kind of comfort, very well, I’m very happily married. But that was curious, that was my introduction to big business, God help us all.
And things turned out very well, and we got label recognition from Duckhorn at first, and then Sterling picked up the ball and put us on their label. And as time went on, we were able to get Sterling to buy us out. This is when they were, well they’d been owned for so many people, Coca-Cola, not Constellation, Diageo, Seagram. Anyway, they bought us out, so all our fruit could go to Duckhorn, and that’s where we stand now. Except last year, in May, I sold, my brother doesn’t get up any more, which is unfortunate, because we did everything together, but anyway, I sold the vineyard to Duckhorn. And that made a lot of sense, I mean, Kelly Duckhorn, the daughter, used to babysit our two daughters. And it was kind of a family thing.
The only trouble was, all the people at Duckhorn, Margaret and Dan, and their children, all went to Cal, and of course, all of us went to Stanford, Stanford Med School, for my father. And the shenanigans that went on, particularly getting close to the Big Game. Dan came in with a forklift on the back of a flatbed, went down, this is at 2:00 in the morning, went down to the Three Palms, and hung this horrendous big banner that he purloined from Cal, from the president’s officer, chancellor, what it was, and strung it up. And we got to the vineyard at 7:00, we saw this horrid sign in gold letters on a blue background saying, California. Well that was too much. I called up Dan, I said, unless you get this retched thing down, I’m going to shoot it full of holes.
And we had a fair amount of ordinance in those days in the vineyard, here at the office. And Dan trumbled up very quickly and got the damn thing down. And then another Big Game, they came in, we were forewarned, but they came in early, with a flatbed and a big tank of water, powered by a gasoline pump, and they started squirting water at us. I chambered some Teleshot rounds in my 12 bore, and I had those things, you know, used for bird control. And they’d go off with a bang, and then they go out and explode with a bang and a big puff of smoke. I had Archie Burst anti-aircraft fire, invaders, and we repelled them once again. Anyway, we’ve always had fun like that.
But now it’s sad, this kind of thing just doesn’t go on. It’s all bottom line, these retched big companies buy out the little guys and then next year somebody else buys them. And it goes on and on, and the sense, the real sense of camaraderie that we all enjoyed so much just doesn’t seem to exist, except in very few cases. And I’m really sad about that, because it’s been lost, and it’s history. But I was so happy that I was able to be part of that early, early time.
Claire Scalzo: Sloan, what are your activities now? I know that you’re out and about and very involved in the community. And give us a little bit of information about what you’re doing.
Sloan Upton: Well, all sorts of things. The trouble is, Priscilla, my wife, fashioned a license plate for me. And it says, a play on our last name, Upton, and it says “Uptonogood.” So, people can keep a pretty close eye on my activities most of the time. But I’m at the vineyard every day. I don’t give out any information to Duckhorn unless I’m asked, or unless there’s something that really should take place that hadn’t. And the only time I can remember that happening, was maybe, a month and a half, two months ago, I found, in my walking with Benjie, our dog, puncture vine. And as some of you might know, puncture vine is anathema to man and beast and bicycle tires. It spreads from tractor tires and it can take over the vineyard. And it’s very, very hard on one’s feet, because those sharp spines can puncture rubber with ease. So, we were able to take care of that.
But the main thing is, I don’t proffer information. But I’m at the vineyard just about every day, not to boss around, but to just enjoy the fruits of our labor, my brother’s and my labor, over many, many years. We planted it in ’67, so it makes, I don’t know what, 50, 49 years. And I just can’t shut my heart to that. And so, I feel very happy at the vineyard walking in the sun or the rain.
And then I’m active with, we own the house, and with Ole Health and I always have some time to listen to music, or to read. I’m quite a reader and I devour books, particularly about World War II aircraft and tanks because my brother and I, it took us five years restoring a World War II tank. But I’ll wax eloquent about that, but this is not the time and the place. So, there we are.
Claire Scalzo: Sloan, people always remark on the quality of the grapes that come from your vineyard. Could you comment on that?
Sloan Upton: Well I think those roots have to go way down. I dug with a rented back hoe down to 18 feet, and we found roots down there. And so those roots explore the underground properties of the vineyard, and there’s kind of a, because I don’t drink anymore, I gave that up in ’84, I guess it was. It was, I couldn’t, there’s a lot of stuff in Viet Nam that wasn’t as pleasant. And also, the slow death of my father, whom I adored, and I took to booze to mitigate sorrow. And it just doesn’t work as I knew then, and so I just stopped it. I tried Triple A, I mean AA, not the automobile association, and it didn’t suit me, but it certainly does good work with a lot of people, so I just gritted my teeth and carried on. And I’ve been very lucky, I haven’t had any problems with it to this day. And it’s hard in this Valley, not to have a sip or a taste of wine. All I do is beezer it, and by beezer I mean I sniff it, and then I give the glass back to whomever I borrowed for beezering.
And so, I keep very busy. I don’t feel retired. I mean now that I passed over the threshold into middle age, as I tell it, you know, that I’m 80, that means nothing to me. You’re old as you think you are. And I just go on that. And I exercise three times a week up at Meadowood, puffing and groaning on those machines. We’ve got a number of friends, our eldest member of the puff and groan society up there, is Jim Watts, and a dear friend. He’s 96, he just turned 96 two days ago, but so I keep busy. And I’m very happy, and I’m so lucky with Priscilla and our two daughters, Caroline and Cecily, voila Madame Monsieur.
Claire asked me to say something about the life in St. Helena, and life is good, but it could be a lot better. You can’t buy boots for walking and working in vineyards. You can’t do this, but boy, you can buy if you have the money. Jewelry and all sorts of things that we never had, and people just take everything for granted. The building goes on at a high rate, new hotels, we’re still at the fifth year of a drought, God knows where the water’s coming from to support all these people that these huge hotels are going to be drawing upon, no sewage to take care of, everybody’s sewage. And it’s, the quality is too tourist oriented, as I mentioned about boots. You have to go to Santa Rosa or Napa to get work boots. The same with clothes, you can’t buy a pair of jeans, unless they have rhinestones up and down them, in St. Helena.
Claire Scalzo: That’s true.
Sloan Upton: Yeah, it is. And I mean not that I don’t like rhinestones, but not on my jeans. No way, sparkle plenty. And there’s a different attitude. People want to have a second home up here, and a lot of people do. And some of them, thank goodness, support our local endeavors, Rianda House, or Ole Health, or Boys and Girls Club, the litany goes on and on, and they’re all marvelous endeavors. It’s boasting rights, I’ve got a little vineyard here, you know. And you just wonder what the devil they’re up to. It’s just nonsense. And those people I could do without. And it’s the same, I think, more or less, in the whole Valley, but it’s really apparent here in the town that I really love and happy to do work for it for the various endeavors that we’re trying to support and enlarge.
Claire Scalzo: It’s very apparent on Main Street that there has been so much talk and so very long about keeping things local, but it backfired.
Sloan Upton: Yes, we had somebody in the local government, thank God he’s gone. I won’t mention any names, because he’d probably sue me, that made such terrible errors taking money from one pot and putting it into another. All this nonsense, and he’s long gone, I think. I hope he’s in Florida. The first time I went to Florida was when I was in, going through Ranger School, and I arrived by parachute in the mangrove grove, and that was very curious too. But anyway, I’m not going to go into that. Okay.
Claire Scalzo: Sloan, thank you so much for your time and your history, and your funny and amusing asides. It defines your personality.
Sloan Upton: Good gracious, I’m glad I just skimmed over things.
Claire Scalzo: Thank you.
Sloan Upton: Thank you, Claire.