Dan Berger on Wine: Charlie Tolbert: A Life in Wine | Dan Berger

Making wine can be hard work – early morning hours in freezing vineyards with pruning shears, endless days in grueling heat and downpours, permanently damp and sanitized cellars, climbing inside claustrophobic equipment and all kinds of other unpleasant tasks.

Charlie Tolbert did it all. Celebrating 50 years of doing just about every task faced by those involved in this often gritty world, the word “retirement” never crossed his lips.

Charlie and I had lunch the other day. I have known him for about 45 years. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, but his cheerful attitude remained a constant that I always witnessed.

As for the drudgery of all the tasks he faces, Charlie just said he was blessed to have had the chance to make wine for so many great people. The work? “It really wasn’t that hard – I always liked it,” he said, making it clear that he will continue to contribute to fine wine as long as he is physically able.

It seems far in the future, considering he’s in good physical condition and remains active, albeit in a more limited role these days at 69.

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His dynamic attitude may be one reason why he was always at peace in a fast-paced industry that rewards hard work, especially when everyone on the team is on the same page: quality first. Of which he has been part for many emblematic brands.

Charlie started in this business in early 1972 after a year at college. He was hired by Buena Vista Vineyard Manager Don Von Staaveren to tie the vine buds to the wires. After that task was completed, Buena Vista winemaker Al Brett hired him as a minimum-wage “cellar rat,” cleaning barrels, wooden vats (which involved stepping inside), and many other grueling tasks.

This allowed Charlie to take several months off to travel around Europe. In 1974, he joined the team at the new Chateau St. Jean Winery in the winery, where he learned that winemaker Dick Arrowood was looking for help with a vineyard project,

Charlie suggested the person to hire was Von Staaveren, who was eventually recruited and later promoted to assistant winemaker.

One of Tolbert’s jobs in St. John was to build a deer fence with a crew of workers, “which really helped my Spanish!” he said. He worked for five years at St. Jean and now says, “Working for Arrowood has been a great experience. He is so gifted. And it was great to work with [vineyard manager] Barney Fernandez. He knew so much about the best wineries in the entire state.

Charlie’s next step was as winemaker for Peter Haywood in the Sonoma Valley. Haywood liked to specialize in elegant Zinfandel styles.

“Peter didn’t like chasing scores with overripe wine styles,” Charlie said. “And I loved our Zinfandel, my style of wine – balanced.”

In 10 years as a winemaker at Haywood, Charlie’s favorite project was a blend they made. Haywood developed a national following for a red wine called Spaghetti Red which used the workhorse variety Carignane as its main variety.

From Haywood, Charlie sought a new challenge, so he moved on to working for the Benziger family at Glen Ellen Vineyards, and later Benziger and the family’s riskier cousin brand Imagery.

Charlie really enjoyed his time with Benziger winemaker Bruce Rector, known in the industry for his creativity and adventurous vision. Benziger and Imagery were both “wild places, with Bruce, Bruno [Benziger], and his son, Mike, and the rest of the family. He said the operation was charged with creativity and energy.

Then there were winemaking stents at Delicato in the Central Valley, Eagle & Rose in Pope Valley, and finally Tolbert was hired by the family business Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland in southern Mendocino County. He lived in Cloverdale for almost four years.

“It was a great opportunity to work with [the late] Dennis Martin and Bob Blue in Bonterra, and a whole bunch of really talented winemakers, and with lots of organic vineyards.

In 2004, Arrowood began developing a small boutique winery on a hill in the Sonoma Valley where he could relocate as he downsized his own Arrowood winery. It was called Amapola Creek. Arrowood called Charlie to work at Amapola, as an assistant winemaker. Charlie said it was a dream job because it took him back to Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley, where he had spent most of his life.

It wasn’t until he joined Arrowwood that he learned that Dick and his wife, Alis, planned to spend several months at a stretch in Montana, leaving him to run the store. He was with Amapola from 2004 until he left in 2011, then held several jobs for a wine company, Dunbar, for three years before joining an energetic team of producers at La Prenda Vineyard Management, Inc.

At La Prenda, Charlie works with and consults with Ned Hill and a team of people dedicated to quality wines.

Unwilling to retire, Charlie enjoys his various roles with La Prenda, including driving a flatbed truck during harvest season, transporting grapes to local wineries.

“I love it,” he said with obvious glee. “I get up at 4 a.m., deliver grapes to some of the most quality-focused wineries.” He doesn’t have to work 9 to 5, has plenty of free time, and has literally dozens of friends he’s made over the decades.

La Prenda winemaker Mike Cox is a talented guy who has developed several brands including an eponymous one that makes excellent wines as well as Fifth Hill.

As for Charlie, he doesn’t want to call it a career. It was too much fun.

Wine of the Week: 2021 95476 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma Valley, “McLeod-Hi Vista” ($18) – This remarkably varietal Sauvignon Blanc boasts near-perfect aromas and flavors from two excellent vineyards, contains just 13.7% alcohol and no oak. The name of the wine is actually the postal code of where La Prenda is located! https://www.laprendavineyards.com/

This video shows a wine warehouse being built in the city of Napa from April to the end of October 2021.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at [email protected] He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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