Billionaires in wine caves? Vintners, growers share what Wine Country is really like

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After the Democrats’ debate last month, thanks to the tsunami of social media chatter, Wine Country was reduced to a single image: a cave lit by a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts set off the firestorm when she chastised Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for holding a fundraiser in a wine cave, saying “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

Wine Country suddenly found itself a flashpoint among politicos. But, as with all lampoons, there’s much more than meets the eye.

The truth is Wine Country is rustic chic — part BMW, part Chevy pickup.

It’s a quirky crossroads of the entrepreneur and the farmer.

Despite the grim reality that parts of it are a fragile fire zone, most of us will never leave. We’ll always consider this agrarian cradle of grapes paradise.

While the contenders continue to debate the size of pocketbooks and donations, perhaps it’s a good time to get a broader look at the North Coast by meeting the makers.

Here are a series of vignettes of vintners, winemakers and growers that show the character of Wine Country.


Sonia Byck-Barwick and her brother Rene Byck were crestfallen when the Tubbs fire reduced their Paradise Ridge winery to rubble in October of 2017. The night of the fire, winds raced at 80 miles per hour, spewing embers.

But today, a new hospitality center has replaced the rubble. Byck-Barwick and Byck recently talked about helping the vintners of Soda Rock, a winery that burned to the ground during the recent Kincade fire. Ironically, the Soda Rock vintners helped the owners of Paradise Ridge during their struggle three years ago.

These fires seem to call forth the best in people –– resilience and compassion.

As Byck-Barwick put it, “It feels good to give back.”


For more than two decades, 80-year-old Lee Martinelli has teetered on his tractor, defying gravity on Jackass Hill. With a 60% slope, it’s the steepest vineyard in Sonoma County.

On a rainy day, under umbrellas, the vintner explained how he has to keep his shoes untied and his shirt loose, in case the tractor takes a tumble and he has to jump off.

If the quirky name –– Jackass Hill –– leads you to assume a donkey was involved in plowing the 3-acre vineyard, you’re wrong. Martinelli said the name dates back to the 1970s and has to do with a two-legged creature and a snarky one at that. Helen, the late second wife to Martinelli’s late father, Leno, once groused, “Only a jackass would farm that hill.”


Vintner David Ramey pushes the limits in winemaking with his non-stop tinkering. His cellar has a series of experiments in the works at all times.

The winemaker has raised the caliber of other brands in Wine Country, often anonymously. Ramey was a wine consultant for many brands, in some cases under the radar.

At his namesake winery in Healdsburg, Ramey is currently exploring dry ice on pinot noir must and whole cluster fermentation on his Sidebar zinfandel.

“The only way to progress –– to make better wine –– is through experimentation,” Ramey said. “Just change one variable. You won’t make bad wine, just slightly different –– and maybe better.”


To make peace with the bright lights of Hollywood, Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola made a second home in Wine Country in the early 1970s. Today he has two wineries –– Inglenook in Napa Valley and his namesake winery in Sonoma County.

Coppola said what’s so compelling about harvest is the aroma of fermenting grapes throughout the valley. Who can argue with the man who made “Apocalypse Now” in a steamy jungle in the Philippines? It definitely beats the smell of napalm in the morning.


A classically trained pianist, winemaker James MacPhail was five years old when he began his quest to master the ivories. Who knew that this training was useful preparation for becoming a winemaker?

MacPhail said learning the piano teaches one patience and attention to detail. Best of all, it allows a person to develop the agility to adjust on a moment’s notice.

“The traits translate perfectly to winemaking,” he said.

MacPhail’s brands, Sangiacomo and Tongue Dancer, are striking. And the pianist-turned-winemaker is just one example of how winemakers on the North Coast bottle art.

These artisans give you a window into the earthiness of Wine Country, where people tell time by the growing season of the grape. A place where where BMWs and Chevy pickups converge, where a glamorous cave and Jackass Hill can co-exist, simply can’t be contained in a single image.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at or 707-521-5310.

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