Whether he was helping the disabled, crafting delicious wines or raising four spirited sons, Chris Bilbro was never one to toot his own horn. For 40 years, he quietly worked at the Sonoma County winery he founded, Marietta Cellars, making bold red blends before such wines were on trend. He also set an example for his sons, three of whom are now winemakers.
Bilbro passed away Jan. 27, after battling cancer for several years. He was 72.
"Chris has been one of the unsung heroes of California wine for four decades," said Morgan Twain-Peterson, winemaker at Bedrock. "He quietly helped foster a love for California wine with his Old Vine Red, a wine that focused more on pleasure rather than any vintage or variety. In the process he essentially invented one of the most important categories of present-day wine."
Bilbro founded Marietta Cellars in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley in 1978, renting an old cow barn as his first winery. Sourcing underrated grapes from gnarled old vines scattered around the county, he produced Old Vine Red at a time when consumers were increasingly turning to single-variety wines made from prestige grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. A non-vintage wine, Old Vine Red is bottled in lots. But thanks to word of mouth among retailers and consumers, the wine gathered momentum. Today Marietta Cellars produces 35,000 cases a year of Old Vine Red. Lot 62, reviewed by Wine Spectator in 2015, earned 90 points and sold for $14.
"When I started Old Vine Red there were about two other wineries making that style of wine. I always liked to make blends," Bilbro told Wine Spectator in 2018. "There were a lot of old varieties around—Petite Sirah, Carignan, Alicante Bouchet, old Grenache. I would keep those separate so I could see what they tasted like and then blend."
Stay on top of important wine stories with Wine Spectator's free Breaking News Alerts.
Born in 1946, Bilbro grew up in the Sonoma town of Cloverdale. He played running back at Santa Rosa Junior College and earned a football scholarship to attend the University of Hawaii. He earned masters degrees in both special education and public health administration and began working at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) with disabled people in 1972. He met his future wife, Margaret, at the hospital—she worked there too. They would have three sons before divorcing in 1990. Bilbro later remarried and had a fourth son.
Always good with his hands, while at SDC, Bilbro began a program designing and building wheelchairs for severely disabled people, many of whom spent most of their days in bed. He traveled to Los Angeles to help one of his patients compete in the Special Olympics, in a wheelchair Bilbro had designed.
But Bilbro decided to start a new chapter. He had grown up with relatives who loved good food and good wine, in particular his aunt Marietta, who he liked to help in the kitchen. In 1975, he bought a stake in his uncle's winery, Bandiera. Three years later, he sold his stake so he could strike out on his own, establishing Marietta. He sourced his grapes from old vineyards that were starting to fall out of favor, on land that had been planted by Italian immigrants decades earlier. He credited much of his success to the relationships he made with growers, who were willing to sell him fruit with just a handshake.
"Sonoma was quiet then," Bilbro told Wine Spectator last year. "There was a lot of good fruit. I was a young boy on the block and they weren't sure I could pay for everything, but I always did." Field blends had fallen out of fashion, largely because wineries picked all the fruit at once. Bilbro would make multiple passes, picking each variety when it was ripe. To sell it, he went hunting for wild boar, made sausage from what he killed, and then hit the road with his wine and sausage, making dinners for potential clients.
Old Vine Red's success allowed Marietta to grow, and Chris began to buy vineyards. In 1990, he established a new winery near Geyserville. When he wasn't making wine, he was hunting, fishing or playing the harmonica. He was also raising four boys: Jake, Scot, Sam and Lucas. His three older sons all said they had no interest in the wine business, and all three eventually followed in their dad’s footsteps.
Scot now owns and operates Marietta, which produces 75,000 cases per year. In 2011, Jake and his wife, Alexis, bought the nearby Limerick Lane Winery, which has been recognized for outstanding Zinfandels and red blends. And brother Sam founded Idlewild wines, which specializes in Italian varieties. While Chris stepped back from running Marietta in 2012, he continued working in the cellars, offering thoughts to all three of his winemaker sons and teaching his grandkids a few winemaking lessons too.
"One of the things I will miss the most about Chris was his smile. He had a way of making you feel like an old friend, even if you just met him," said Clay Mauritson of Mauritson Wines. "As much as he loved the wine business and making wine, he valued time with his family and having balance in life more than anything."
Chris Bilbro is survived by four sons and six grandchildren.