Mike Rowan, you get the feeling, doesn't miss the California wine business all that much. Oh, he remains on the fringes, quietly growing grapes on his 18-acre vineyard in Dry Creek Valley and tending to a friend's vines in Lake County, but at age 61, after good times and bad in the industry, Rowan doesn't hesitate when he says, "I like doing what I'm doing."
It's quite a lifestyle change from his younger days. In the early 1970s, he was part of a new generation of wine pioneers in Sonoma and helped lay the groundwork for one of the county's best-known wineries -- Jordan.
A native of Arlington, Va., Rowan was 16 when his family moved to Sonoma County in 1958. After graduating with a master's degree in viticulture from the University of California, Davis, Rowan started a vineyard consulting business in St. Helena. It wasn't long before he met winery founder Tom Jordan. "He played a very significant role in the early days of the winery," Jordan says.
"That was an exciting time," Rowan recalls. "Now most of the vineyard potential in Napa and Sonoma is used up, but back in 1972, when Tom Jordan and I met, there weren't that many vines in Alexander Valley. There were a lot of prunes."
As general manager and wine master, Rowan planted Jordan's first vineyards, helped design the winery and was instrumental in establishing its signature wine style. Monster, tannic Cabernet Sauvignons were the rage at the time, but Jordan's Cabernets were supple, elegant wines approachable on release.
Today, Jordan is one of the best-selling Cabernets on restaurant wine lists, but when it was first released in 1980, the market needed a little convincing. Rowan spent most of his time on the road, and it began to take its toll. In 1983, Rowan left Jordan to help the late Jean-Jacques Michel start Domaine Michel -- now Michel-Schlumberger -- in neighboring Dry Creek Valley.
"When there's new ground to break, that's what I'm best at doing," says Rowan, who is partial to white cowboy hats. While planting Domaine Michel's vineyards, he also planted his home ranch, adjacent to the winery.
By 1987, Rowan moved on to Lyeth winery. When founder Chip Lyeth died in an accident, Rowan joined Vintech, a start-up company that bought Lyeth and three other wineries. Instead of becoming a major player in California wine, as its partners had hoped, Vintech suffered a high-profile meltdown and filed for bankruptcy in 1991. Rowan was one of the people who had to deal with angry investors and growers. "That last year," Rowan says, "was the hardest thing I've ever been through."
At that point, Rowan decided to focus on the home front. "Before that, there wasn't much of me left over for my family or my community," says Rowan, who has six children, ages 14 to 36, and has been married 25 years to Mary Pat. Today, he sells Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Merlot to Michel-Schlumberger and Clos du Bois, and occasionally does some vineyard consulting for Snowden Vineyards in Napa Valley.
"I always landed where I was supposed to be," Rowan says of his career. "It wasn't where I always would have decided, and some of the fits were better than others, but I won't second-guess it. I'm glad I have a chance to be here and do what I'm doing now. It feels complete."
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