Robert Young, the famed Alexander Valley grapegrower whose vision led him to pull out his family’s prune trees in favor of grapes in the 1960s, has died of old age at 90.
When Young planted his Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, he took a huge risk. Alexander Valley was not known as a source of grapes, and it was far from certain anyone would buy his fruit. “But as it turned out,” Mr. Young told me seven years ago, “we did a lot better with grapes than the prunes.”
Young introduced the controversial practice of dropping fruit, in order to reduce yields, a necessity for improving quality. He also was one of the first to introduce canopy management to Sonoma County, instead of the old California sprawl.
Young’s Chardonnay grapes were so good, they inspired Chateau St. Jean’s then winemaker, Richard Arrowood, to vineyard-designate it on the label starting in the 1970s, a rarity back then, which helped launch the single-vineyard boom.
Young’s grandfather, Peter, was the first in the family to move to California, for the Gold Rush. In 1858, he bought his 206-acre ranch, southeast of Geyserville in the lower Alexander Valley, raised running cattle and planted the crops then popular with farmers, prunes and grains, But it was a combination of declining crop prices and rising demand for premium winegrapes that made his grandson, Robert, sense the potential in the early 1960s. He planted his first Chardonnay in 1967, on the flatlands close to the Russian River. That was followed by his red winegrapes, which he planted on the benches and hills.
His sons, Fred and Jim, and daughters JoAnn and Susan, run the family business, today farming 500 acres of grapes and producing some of Alexander Valley’s best wines under the Robert Young label.
Robert Young was a charming, friendly and unassuming man who enjoyed telling his amazing stories. He will be missed.