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Sonoma Wine Legend Davis Bynum Dies at 92

Visionary newspaper reporter–turned-vintner made Russian River Valley's first single-vineyard Pinot Noir
Davis Bynum (left) with winemaker Greg Morthole
Photo by: Davis Bynum Wines
Davis Bynum (left) with winemaker Greg Morthole

Aaron Romano
Posted: December 5, 2017

Davis Bynum, a former journalist who turned his home-winemaking passion into a pioneering Sonoma County winery, died Dec. 3 from cancer. He was 92.

Bob Cabral, winemaker at nearby Williams Selyem from 1998 to 2014, considers Bynum one of the original icons of Russian River Valley. "There's him, the Rochiolis and Bacigalupis; they were the only ones really growing grapes on Westside Road in the 1970s," said Cabral.

Home winemaking is where Bynum got his start, but not before a career as a newspaper reporter. Born Jan. 2, 1925, Bynum was raised in Pasadena, Calif., and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1945 with a degree in history. He then went to work at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Bynum became a frequent visitor to Napa Valley in the early 1950s, after his father purchased a vineyard. Lindley Bynum was a California historian and a regular wine judge at state fairs; he also wrote a book called California Wines and How to Enjoy Them. Among Lindley's acquaintances were pioneers Lee Stewart of Souverain Cellars and Beaulieu Vineyard's André Tchelistcheff.

On one particular trip, Davis met Robert Mondavi, who agreed to sell him one 50-pound box of Petite Sirah for $1.80. Mondavi asked if there was anything else he could do for him, to which Bynum replied, "Yeah, how do you make wine?" Mondavi suggested he talk to his truck driver, who was a home winemaker.

Bynum dabbled in this hobby for years before deciding to make wine professionally in 1965, at the age of 40. He established his winery in a former plumbing warehouse in Albany, Calif., not far from the University of California at Berkeley.

Bynum had his sights set on Napa Valley, and in 1971 he purchased a 26-acre vineyard, now Whitehall Lane. At harvest, he transported the grapes to Albany on a 1946 Studebaker flatbed truck. Construction restrictions on the Napa property prevented him from building a winery, so he looked west to Sonoma County.

In 1973, Bynum and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Russian River Valley's famed Westside Road, just south of Healdsburg, to an 83-acre plot that would eventually become home to his namesake winery. Later that year he made the first designated single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley, with grapes purchased from his neighbor, Rochioli Vineyards. At the time, the Rochiolis were selling most of their Pinot Noir to be blended into jug wines. There was little market for Sonoma Pinot.

In 1978, Bynum hired Gary Farrell to take over winemaking. Farrell continued to make the wines even after launching his own winery just down the road. "The quality of some of [Davis'] early efforts were literally breathtaking," said Farrell in a statement. "I owe him much for allowing me to simultaneously launch my namesake brand while continuing as his winemaker."

"For Davis, quality and craftsmanship mattered most," said Greg Morthole, the current Davis Bynum winemaker, in a statement. "He was inventive and explored what his vineyard could do. He wasn't afraid of pushing the boundaries to find out where they were, planting Merlot on his property in the Russian River, for instance, something that he called one of his worst mistakes."

Bynum was known as a pillar of the community. Humble and soft-spoken, he advocated for protecting the environment, farming organically, and he promoted Russian River Valley as a premier winegrowing region. Cabral called Bynum, "a tough old guy," but noted that he always saw him with a smile on his face, strolling the Healdsburg plaza, or dining in the town's many restaurants. "Davis always had something nice to say," said Cabral. "He brought a little bit of sunshine to every conversation."

Dorothy died in 2001. Bynum retired and sold his brand in 2007 to Tom Klein of Rodney Strong Vineyards. The Davis Bynum brand lives on, sold and distributed by Rodney Strong Vineyards, with wines focused around Bynum's estate plantings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

"Davis always offered me day-to-day winemaking advice, but through stories and mentorship and friendship, he gave me so much more," said Morthole. "More than anything, what Davis helped me realize is that in this business, you don't have to have a big personality to make great wine and leave an impact."

Bynum is survived by his second wife, Virginia, his daughter, Susie, and son, Hampton.

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