So long, Davis Bynum, and thanks for all the wine

My wife Amanda and I were up visiting Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (whose site is built on Drupal – natch) and decided to take the long route and pass by some of our favorite wineries, including Davis Bynum.

I’ve long liked the the Russian River / Alexander Valley / Dry Creek area of Sonoma.  Compared to the other side of the ridge, it’s more laid back, quieter, and you get meet people closer to the actual winemaking source in the tasting rooms here.

Davis Bynum has been a favorite for a number of reasons.  They produce great wines, for a start.  I’d heard the tasting-room folks tell the story that Bynum was one of the originators of the Meritage blend – say it like an American, for it’s not a French word at all – which is a US standards-based version of a Bordeaux blend; well, he’s not mentioned in the online history books, but Bynum’s Meritage has been a favorite among my friends for years.

And on one visit, while a bunch of us were outside enjoying their small picnic spot, a tall young guy with a dirty t-shirt and shorts named Ryan asked us if we wanted to see the permaculture garden “up top.”  We said of course, and got an intimate tour of an amazing permaculture experiment on the ridge above the winery that was entirely supported by Davis Bynum’s sustainable agriculture beliefs and practices.

So Amanda and I were confused on this trip when we saw the Davis Bynum sign replaced by River Bend Ranch wines.  Turns out, we’re late on the uptake – Davis Bynum sold his wine brand to family winery Rodney Strong last fall.  In a strange lateral move, Strong bought the existing stock, brand name, and got Davis on as a consultant – but did not buy any existing vineyards or the facility, which continued to produce wines under the River Bend Ranch label – and has just recently been sold to a Canadian family.

I don’t know if my reaction is as strong as Robert Simpson’s, so far the only other blogger I’ve found who has an opinion (one other neutral mention, to be fair).  Back at the winery, they seemed to think there was more going over to Strong than just a brand name – I got the impression Bynum bought as many grapes as he grew, so perhaps Strong didn’t feel the need to invest in Bynum’s own plantings?

In any case, when we were there, the winery was having a fire sale brought on by the sale of the facility – cases of River Bend Ranch Syrah for less than $40.  Not quite my favorite, since it’s a hotter and fruity American style, but who can complain at $3 a bottle?

We got to meet Mr Bynum himself, who was very friendly and generous with his time.  I lamented the fact that we could no longer buy a Davis Bynum Meritage there (they are not allowed to sell any DB-brand stock) – but in the tasting room they had some old stock they were tasting, so we stuck around and tried a 2002 Meritage, and a bottle of his 1996 Meritage (excellent).  It was past closing time, and I guess I had made enough lamentations about the wine, because as a parting shot, they gave us a “gift” of one of the tasting room bottles of Davis Bynum Meritage.  Perhaps one of the last bottles of it’s type to ever to leave the building.

As fate has it, the next day was my birthday, so we celebrated with this 2002 Davis Bynum Meritage.  Thanks, Mr Bynum.

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8 Responses to “So long, Davis Bynum, and thanks for all the wine”

  1. 1 Mark V Marino February 24, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    Yes, they are completly out now I guess Davis has had enough of the wine business. I too wrote several articles of the whole thing, I was shocked at the first sale but the second was unreal. The whole family was there kids grand kid Lindley geez they were the nicest family. I never woukd have thought they would quit the business but it just goes to show how business can look good from the outside but be difficult from the inside. So you got some of the closeout $3 bottles wow good for you great deals!

  2. 2 Ryan Meyers August 25, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Whew, I was not aware of the second sale as well. I am that tall dirty Ryan whew was working the Permaculture Garden and I have recently heard that they have bulldozed it. Yikes. I must go have a look, or maybe it will be too difficult to comprehend… oh well, cherish the moments we have I suppose while they are still here.

  3. 3 smokinggoat August 25, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Hey Ryan! Well, it’s awesome that you made it back full-circle (to this blog, at least). I assume you know I meant nothing but praise calling you tall and … well, covered in dirt. 😉 It’s nice to see folks who are obviously putting their hands in the dirt at these well-coiffed wineries. Not that DB was ever overly well=coiffed.

    I don’t know the fate of the garden – it would be a shame if they bull-dozed it. All of us that went on that tour still talk about it as a highlight among our wine-country visits.

  4. 4 Ryan Meyers August 27, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I found a photo album of all the work the new Canadian family has done… and you betcha – GONE ! Too bad they did not see the value of any of it…, all the oaks are gone too. Here is the link and you can see the one with the ‘utility trench’ is right when you first came up to the garden… that would have been the heart of the garden and you can see remnants of the picnic area on the right… ouch. Those 2 years I spent up there were surely some of the most magical times of my young life…

    here is the link:

  5. 5 tom January 22, 2010 at 8:07 am

    we found a whole case of the 2002 meritage that they shiped us
    instead of the wine we bought we forgot all about it and found it this week
    we thought if we knew what it was worth we might appreciate it more when we open it

  6. 6 Noel V. Bourasaw February 2, 2010 at 12:33 am

    What a tasty confection your story about Davis is. Much sadness in the present day. The absurd decision to plow up that eco-piece, bah, humbug. But oh, those old days 25-30 years ago, helping now and then as a novice cellar rat. Hearing his stories, experiencing a maverick winery up close.

    And how I miss Rodney Strong. Such a brilliant artist in his right, choreographing dance and wine. There will likely be less of people like those guys, now that there are hundreds of wineries and almost everyone has to stay on the straight and narrow path once they have found a niche. Both Davis and Rod would turn on a dime, if a project struck their fancy. Your meritage review was excellent. You extracted that flavor and bouquet well. Bravo.

    I stopped writing about wine about twenty years ago. And after a few years writing while based in Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon, I returned to my native state of Washington. I edit books and websites about Northwest history now. But in 2009, while recuperating from cancer and surgery, I wrote a review for a publisher friend while visiting Cloverdale. Now I find that all that red wine that replaced my blood cells is still flowing strong after all these years, so I may keep doing this. I wrote a piece from the same kind of point of view that you have. You can read it here:

    Keep writing like you did above. Sorry I caught this train late, long after you wrote about Davis. This might be in the archives now, kind of like me.

  7. 7 Henry Sloan III August 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Happened on this site while searching for info on Davis Bynum winery. Was thinking of making a trip through there. Visited the winery several times in the 70s. Mr. Bynum was always a gracious and generous host, and the wine was excellent. The region is one of the most attractive anywhere. Very sorry to learn of what has happened to the place.

  8. 8 roger rolke June 23, 2012 at 9:28 am

    We recently opened a left over bottle of Davis Bynum Cabernet Sauvignon that we got by buying futures in 1968 or ’69 at Davis’ shop in Albany, CA. It was wonderful and brought back great memories of those many bottles of Barefoot Bynum at $.99.

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