Almanac

- December 17, 2008

Miles Files: Woodside Vineyards -- a legacy for sale

Miles McMullin of Woodside is a senior at Crystal Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough. The Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

By Miles McMullin

Just down the street from where I live is Woodside Vineyards, a small California's winery that has been around nearly 50 years. It is located at 340 Kings Mountain Road and it is a delightful place to visit.

Bob Mullen, the owner, made his first wine from this vineyard in 1960. A year later, he bought the property and then built the winery. It's been a wonderful part of Bob's life and now it is for sale.

Given that I feel I have a special tie to Bob and his winery (my grandfather was an executive at Armstrong World Industries where Bob worked, and my granddad personally selected Bob over 50 others and promoted him to move to California), I decided to find out more behind the story of the man and his winery.

Q. Where were you raised?

A. I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on Feb. 12, 1926. I subsequently lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, West Virginia; and three cities in Illinois: Peoria, Chicago and Rock Island. I did manage to attend Peoria High School for four years, where I met and dated my future wife, Polly.

I attended three universities: Purdue in 1943, Miami of Ohio in 1944 (courtesy of the U.S. Naval Reserve), and after a year of sea duty on a destroyer in the Atlantic, finished my last two years at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Upon graduation, I was employed by Armstrong Cork Co. (the name was later changed to Armstrong World Industries). I was assigned to the Chicago office. Armstrong transferred me to San Francisco in 1954 as regional manager for the West Coast building materials operation.

Our first home was at 10 Martin Lane in Woodside. From there we moved to 340 Kings Mountain Road in 1962, when I bought the winery.

Q. Do you have children? Are you married?

A. I have no children; I was married to Polly for 48 years. I now share my life with Marsha Campbell, who, as I like to say, was Polly's best friend before she died and is now my best friend!

Q. When did you become interested in wine and wine making?

A. On my first day at work in San Francisco, I went to lunch at Scoma's restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf. My soon-to-become very good friend, Paul Hershey, started to pour me a glass of Charles Krug Grey Riesling. When I covered my glass with one hand and said, "Sorry, I don't drink," Paul removed my hand, poured the glass and responded, "You're a Californian now, you will drink wine!"

That night after work, I bought a bottle of that wine to take home and share with Polly. The rest is history. In 1961, when we bought the property on King's Mountain Road, we built our home and the winery and started replanting the vineyard.

While this started as a hobby, with our friends, Beverly and Bob Groetzinger, who owned a small vineyard on La Questa Way, we were soon producing much more wine that we could drink or give away, so we applied for our federal and state licenses in 1963, which is our official founding year.

The Groetzingers moved to Europe in 1970, so Polly and I operated the winery alone from then on until we hired a part-time winemaker in 1987. In 1991, we hired Brian Caselden as a full-time winemaker and increased our production to about 2,000 cases per year, which is the practical capacity of the winery.

Q. How did you get your education in winemaking?

A. My education in winemaking has been very limited. For the first couple of years, Bob G. and I pretty well flew by the seat of our pants. We followed the directions in a book on home winemaking.

When we became bonded in 1963, we decided to get a little more serious and I was fortunate to get enrolled in a one-week intensive course at U.C. Davis. I was in the company of a number of individuals who were later to become quite prominent in the wine industry.

As it was summertime, we had access to the entire Davis viticulture and enology teaching staff. Equally important, once we had met them and studied under them for a week, we had access to the staff by mail or phone, and believe me, they bailed me out of a number of difficult situations over the next many years.

Q. What is the most important part of your winemaking over the years?

A. The most important thing in the success of our vineyard over our 49 years was the help of a legion of volunteers — all of whom have helped us with harvest, bottling, sales and tasting events — some for as long as 20 to 30 years. Many of them have become some of our best friends and it is their involvement and our mutual enjoyment of wine that has contributed to this wonderful and enjoyable lifestyle.

Q. What year is your best wine?

A. I must fall back on the old standard, "Every year is a vintage year in California." I really cannot pick one, especially when the answer would not be the same for each of our grape varieties. A year which is particularly good for chardonnay might not be the same for cabernet sauvignon.

We worked hard early on to make the wine better each year, just by doing more "right" things at the right time. Once we were producing regularly at a high level of quality, the goal each year was to maintain or slightly improve that quality. Today, any quality variation is the result of the small climatic changes we do encounter.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced over the years at your winery?

A. Trying to find a way to make a small profit or just break even. It has only been the past couple of years that the winery has shown a modest positive cash flow and I could stop underwriting our losses from my Armstrong income. By the way, "making a profit" is probably the answer you would get from hundreds of other small winemakers in the state.

Q. Did you ever have a disastrous year and wish you had never gotten into the business?

A. Happily, I can say that we have never had a disastrous year. 0h, maybe a lot of little disasters here and there, but not a year that would have made me want to give up. In fact, the whole process has provided a wonderful lifestyle and I would not trade this experience for anything — including money.

Q. Why are you selling the winery?

A. I am selling the winery because it is time. We are making excellent wine, breaking even, we have an outstanding reputation in the industry and I am 82 years old, so it's time to move on while we're on top. In addition, this will insure the continuation of Woodside Vineyards and our extensive vineyard operations here in the Woodside-Portola Valley area. It is my sincere hope people will continue to enjoy our legacy long after Bob Mullen is gone.

Q. What type of person do you hope buys the winery?

A. We currently are negotiating with two gentlemen that seem perfect new owners. They are both in their 60s, both retired from other successful careers; both love wine and they believe that Woodside Vineyards will fit nicely with the other business they are starting. While they both enjoy wine, they know little about the wine business, so if they buy, they wisely will keep Brian on as winemaker and they want me to remain as an adviser.

Q. Is it sad for you to sell it or are you ready to move into a new phase of your life?

A. There is not a trace of sadness; if there were, I would probably find a way to hang on. The winery needs new, younger, aggressive management and hopefully that is just what will happen.

People can reach Bob Mullen at 851-3144 or 851-7475 or Bob@woodsidevineyards.com.

Comments

Posted by Patt Blatt, a resident of Woodside: other
on Dec 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Thank you, Bob, for the many wonderful days Herb& I spent with you and Polly at your vineyard and winery. My happy memories include not just
picking grapes but the great friends that we made who will be dear to
my heart always. Again, many thanks and much love.....Patt


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