New life in the vineyard

Woodside 'garagistes' turn acreage to vines, and offer small-production pinot noir to their community

By Renee Batti

Almanac News Editor

Paul Smith of Woodside describes himself as a man who, looking for love, found much more -- "an entirely new life." That's hard to dispute.

Born in England, he has lived in this country since attending business school at MIT in the mid-1980s. Although he considered himself a "social drinker" in the past, his taste for good wine didn't approach that of the aficionados he would meet after moving to California in the late 1990s.

Now, the former New York advertising executive not only has a deep appreciation for refined wine, he is making it, "garagiste" style. He makes pinot noir from the grapes he and his wife, Robin -- whom he met after moving West, and yes, that's the love connection -- planted on four lots at their Phillip Road property about 10 years ago, two years after they bought the land and built their home.

Last year, the Smiths began selling their wine under the label GBH Vineyard, named for the great blue heron "who assists us with gopher management from time to time," Mr. Smith notes. The wine, a 2007 pinot noir, is sold only in Woodside, he says, in keeping with "garagiste" practice.

"Robin and I had traveled through France, Spain, and Italy, and were always impressed with the 'garagiste' winemakers we found -- small family-owned wineries (that) farmed their estate-grown varietals and sold primarily in their local towns," he explains.

"The wines were very affordable, and the communities supported the winemakers in their region. We liked the family aspects of winemaking, and hence the idea to do it ourselves in Woodside."

Mr. Smith says the wine can be found at the Little Store, the Woodside Bakery, and Buck's restaurants, and at Roberts market (Woodside only).

With a little help from ...

The Smiths may have been new to Woodside when they were ready to plant their vines, but they were already familiar enough with the community to know whom to turn to for help. "Bob Mullen (founder and then-owner of Woodside Vineyards) got us started," Mr. Smith says. The terroir -- soil, location, climate -- was thought to be "terrific for pinot noir," he says.

Mr. Mullen planted the vines and did some initial maintenance, "but after some training and vineyard work, I felt very comfortable doing it myself," Mr. Smith says, adding that the personal, "hands-on" approach to working the vines greatly appealed to him.

The four blocks of vines are French Cote d'Or clones, and the soil in which they grow is stony and well-drained, Mr. Smith says.

He and Robin both work full time as executives in the technology world, he says, but they gladly find the time to tend to their family business, with Mr. Smith working the vineyard and making the wine, and Ms. Smith marketing the wine and working with designers to produce the labels.

Using French oak barrels for fermentation, Mr. Smith makes wine in the large garage of their home. He works "with a light hand," he says, which lets the terroir of lower Phillips Road speak through the wine.

The 2007 harvest produced 100 cases, and Mr. Smith hopes future harvests will provide enough fruit for 125 cases.

Mr. Smith has found more than the soil on Phillip Road rich and fertile. The experiences of his new life as a vintner on the West Coast have proven to be rich enough to write a book about. And that's what he's doing.

With "The Accidental Vintner Passing Through Woodside," Mr. Smith says he will describe life among the vines and in the bucolic town he now calls home, where people he has encountered include "a crazy old winemaker," and characters he labels "gopher man" and "the landscape lothario."

Other pursuits

The Smiths' large home and surrounding fertile property make pursuing their other many interests easier. Cooking is a shared passion for Robin and Paul, and their spacious, well-equipped kitchen allows them to engage in sophisticated cooking projects, and some friendly competition.

After becoming enamored with the Iron Chef cooking program on television, the couple decided to create their own kitchen contest. For the first event, they asked their two sons to judge, which didn't have the best of consequences.

"My wife was very annoyed that I won, considering she had jumped in to help me remake a pate choux (my first effort failed)," Mr. Smith writes in an e-mail.

Since then, they've turned the "contest" into a judging of their teamwork in the kitchen, with the boys, now 14, still participating. The sons, from previous marriages, are Jesse Rothbard, who graduated from Corte Madera School in Portola Valley last year; and Stefan Jandreau-Smith, who goes to school in Marin.

The Smiths also harvest the fruit from 10 Manzanillo olive trees, and use the oil in their kitchen. Last year's harvest produced five gallons, Mr. Smith says.

Robin Smith has for years tended an herb garden outside the kitchen, and recently planted a full organic garden, Mr. Smith says.

Mr. Smith's next project: beekeeping. He says he became interested in that enterprise while visiting the Filoli garden in Woodside and spending some time with the beekeeper there. "He showed me how to care for the bees and be unafraid of them," he says.

He's already purchased the hives and a beekeeping suit, and may begin the project this April. The effort might produce some welcome honey, but the prime motivator would be "to observe nature and to care for these creatures that mean so much to our land," Mr. Smith says.

Go to GBH Vinyard for more information about GBH Vineyard wines.

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Like this comment
Posted by Bobbo
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 8, 2010 at 1:38 pm

God, do they ever sleep?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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