Robert Young was 16 years old when he took over the family ranch in Sonoma's Alexander Valley following his father's death.
Wine drinkers associate his name with brilliant Chardonnays produced by Chateau St. Jean over the years; it remains a signature Chardonnay for Alexander Valley, with its purity of flavor, elegance, delicacy, vibrant fruit and ability to age.
But less well-known was Young's decision, in the 1960s, to pull out plum trees on the family's property and plant varietal wine grapes.
Young was the quintessential Sonoma gentleman farmer. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, he let his farming do the talking and by all accounts there were no finer grapes grown anywhere. He died June 19 at the age of 90, having lived his entire life on the ranch, which has remained in the family since 1858. His four children survive him.
His association with St. Jean and its first winemaker, Richard Arrowood, put Robert Young Chardonnay in the spotlight. St. Jean produced nearly a dozen different Chardonnays from Sonoma in that era, but through it all the Robert Young bottling stood out as the finest.
Young's vineyard was large, more than 300 acres in size, and he grew a variety of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, the first vine he planted. It's hard to imagine Alexander Valley without grapes, as vineyards carpet the valley. But in the 1960s, wine hardly had the allure it would later achieve. While there were old-vine Zinfandel grapes rooted there, Young's decision to convert his property to wine grapes signaled the beginning of a new era.
Grapes turned out to be more profitable than prunes, and in the ensuing years, others followed Young's path.
The Young family started its own label in the 1990s and named its flagship “Scion,” as a tribute to the family’s patriarch.