the Random Ridge story
Random Ridge is a panoramic 42-acre ranch perched on the southern-most ridge of the Mayacamas mountains, in Napa’s Mount Veeder appellation.
Bill and Susan Hawley were 27 years old and had a 1-year old son, Emile, when they purchased the wild Mayacamas mountain property in the summer of 1979. The site was densely forested, located at the end of a barely-negotiable dirt fire road marking the Napa/Sonoma County line.
Bill coined the name Random Ridge on a poetic whim. “Once you’ve been here, you know; it just fits.” The land is steep and rugged, on a 2200 foot ridge at the edge of Mount Veeder, an ancient uplifted ocean seabed with rock-strewn decomposed volcanic soils. The north and eastern views toward Napa are of pine-covered mountains, with no homes in sight. The southern view spectacularly encompasses the San Francisco Bay, Mount Tamalpais in Marin, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Sometimes the sunset illuminates a glimpse of the ocean, 30 miles to the west, through a break in the coastal foothills.
the southern view from the observation deck
The property had neither water nor electricity and was a rocky dirt-road mile from the nearest neighbor. “But it had the makings of the best-quality vineyard in the world,” Bill says, “and suited my purposes. Since reading Thoreau's Walden as a teenager I dreamed about building my own house, and this land was a great deal -- even back then.”
Bill and his friend Brion Lewis built the passive solar house “off the grid” in 1980 of scavenged recycled redwood. After the family moved into the house a year later, Bill spent six months clearing acres of knobcone pine, manzanita, chapparel, “and more than a little poison oak” with a chainsaw and planted the first grapevines. The family used the felled pine logs for firewood to heat the house for the next 25 years.
cherry tree now 30+ years old
Growing up in Orange County in southern California, Bill had not planned to become a winegrower. In his high school years during the Vietnam War, he was number one on the school golf team and was selected senior class president and most likely to succeed. He surfed, wrote poetry, and listened to “Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and the Cream.”
He attended Cal Western University in Point Loma for two years and transferred to Sonoma State College in 1972. “There was not much of a surf scene yet, and I surfed alone and rode my bike all over the west county.” Living in the student dorm, Bill objected to the cafeteria food. He created and managed a natural and vegetarian cuisine option for his fellow students. Among his volunteer staff was Nancy Silverton, who is now a renowned Los Angeles baker and chef.
Bill earned his bachelor of arts degree in a special poetry major, researching the influence of Zen Buddhism on San Francisco Beat poets. Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and Gary Snyder were his heroes. And “I spent some time doing zazen: sitting on my butt, staring at a wall, and practicing breathing."
It was at Sonoma State that Bill met fellow aspiring poet Phil Coturri, whose Italian family had a small winery on Sonoma Mountain. Through his friendship with Phil, Bill was drawn into the entrancing world of farming, winemaking, and cuisine. He learned to prune vines from the legendary Joe Miami. After graduation in 1974, he began working in Sonoma Valley vineyards and wineries.
bill and phil coturri 1977
"A seminal tipping-point in my winemaking education was working for maverick developer Walter Benson building a vineyard. We did everything, from preparing the land to planting and managing the vineyard." They then built a winery: "I even worked as a powder monkey blasting a rocky outcropping for the barrel-aging vaults." And they made wine.
Bill met his wife Susan early in 1977 when she happened to visit the Sonoma Valley one weekend while in law school at the University of California at Davis, an hour's drive east. Emile was born in the summer of 1978. The next year the couple purchased their property on Mount Veeder and Susan opened her law office in nearby Glen Ellen. She developed what has become a statewide public-interest environmental practice: the Brandt-Hawley Law Group. [http://www.preservationlawyers.com] Zane was born in 1984.
susan and bill at the coturri ranch 1977
From 1982 to 1988, Bill was employed by Chalone, Inc., at Carmenet Vineyard. "I had a 'real job' as vineyard manager, mentored by the late great Dick Graff. As part of my continuing education, Dick arranged for me to travel to Burgundy and Bordeaux for a month in 1986, visiting cutting-edge producers that shaped my wine aesthetic. Then in 1988 Susan and I traveled to New Zealand and I attended the Cool Climate Viticulture Conference, another mind-blowing trip." Bill credits his Chalone experience with introducing him to many winemakers that remain great friends.
While working at Carmenet, Bill also tended his newly-planted vineyard at Random Ridge. His attention to mountainside erosion control earned him the "Cooperator of the Year" award in 1984 from the Sonoma Valley Resource and Conservation District.
Since then, immersed in growing mountain grapes and making wine, Bill has discovered that the romance of surfing, poetry, music, and winemaking has a cohesive spiritual thread. “Wine captures the essence of a place on earth, its unique flavor. Poetry and music are lyrical concentrations of words and sounds, and surfing is — well, it’s hard to define, but for me catching a ride on an ephemeral exploding wave is a transcendental link with ‘the big bang,’” says Bill. “Saltwater is akin to blood.”
lo-tech: emile, zane, neighbor val, and bill crushing a few grapes outside the home wine cellar 1988
In a symmetry of surfing, poetry, and wine, whimsical wine labels with surf-related art in collaboration with long-time friends and artists Brian Howlett, Lynn Dillin, and John Hanania pronounce the vintages of Random Ridge: Old Wave, Olas, Fortunata, Windfall, Willy Nilly, and (some years back) CloudBreak. As one wine reviewer explained, “The surfer bon vivants at Random Ridge have come up with ... a gorgeously full-bodied (but not in-your-face) ... glass of liquid velvet ... The label alone will amuse your palate.”
zane coloring the label of an early vintage
1988 heralded the first limited commercial vintage of Random Ridge red wine and production continues to grow. The intensely-planted vines produce small but concentrated yields. Bill practices sustainable farming and works the vineyards daily. Shallow mountain soils are built up with organic green manure, oyster shell lime, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops. He depends on seasonal help from Mexican farmers that have become friends: “The same guys return here every year, bringing their sons during planting and their whole families during harvest. Their contribution to the vineyard is immeasurable.” Other friends pitch in for harvest and bottling.
emile harvesting grapes with friends
Bill still likes the synergy of his hours upon hours spent in the vineyard, the shoulder-against-the-wheel daily grind, watching the slow-ripening grapes during their long hang-time. “There is harmony in walking the rows, replanting vines lost to phylloxera in the 90s, riding tractor, smelling the earth, keeping an eye out for possible new pests, getting into the rhythm of the work, — sometimes it’s mindless but it gives my brain great freedom to move.”
And there are always other creative pursuits that keep him busy: consulting with friends (“unpaid consultants”) that have a more scientific background; responding to wine orders; checking in with distributors and brokers; dreaming up label designs; fulfilling governmental compliance work; and endless ranch maintenance and construction projects.
Since 1992, Bill has also sharecropped Zinfandel vines in the Sonoma Valley from which he produces the classic Old Wave Zinfandel. One reviewer noted, “there is something fresh and unique about this winemaker and his Zinfandel ... Brambly earth and pepper spice aromas surround the intense berry fruit. Deep pitched flavors of the darkest and most succulent berries mixed with a floral root spice reminds you of licking your fingers after picking fresh blackberries.”
it snows on the ridge a few days a year; emile and zane sledding 1989
The Random Ridge vineyard on Mount Veeder produces wines that are spicy, extracted, and rich, reflecting the mountain terroir. “These are nuanced wines with sexy aromas and generous personality. They can be enjoyed in their youth but they also have the structure to age for decades with proper cellaring, with the potential to become sublime,” Bill says. The microclimate of the Random Ridge vineyards produces grapes with layers of complexity “like no other place on earth.” Bill does an organoleptic assessment of his vines and wines, relying on his senses and heart.
As do many artisan winegrowers, Bill crushes the Random Ridge fruit off-site. He directly participates in and controls the winemaking. He has learned that there is no secret recipe to exceptional wine: “It is made in the vineyard. Great grapes make great wine; oak is a condiment.”
bill working in the winery
With production totaling only 1200 cases a year, the wines can be found in restaurants and fine wine shops in California and Arizona, expanding throughout the country and abroad.
For better or worse, richer or poorer, Bill has not chosen to send his wines out to competition, focusing on the making rather than the marketing. But the wines have been occasionally reviewed by those that manage to find them. Robert Parker’s assessment of the Random Ridge Cabernets in the Wine Advocate lauded “excellent winemaking . . . copious quantities of sweet, jammy black fruits intermixed with smoke, earth, and spice, . . . a dense, spicy wine with considerable potential, its forward charms are difficult to resist. Drink it over the next decade, but don't be surprised to see it develop more complexity, and last for 10 to 15 years.” Other reviewers have called Random Ridge a “phenomenon” and “hedonistic.”
As the vineyard and wine production have grown over three decades and more, the modern world has reached Random Ridge. After 20 years off the grid, a connection to commercial electricity was achieved in 2000. “So now, after the kids are grown, we finally have a refrigerator, a toaster, a tv, an ipod, and an ipad!”
The dirt road is still rocky and the remote mountaintop is shared with wildlife, including coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, snakes, foxes, rabbits, quail, owls, eagles, hawks, ravens, and abundant migratory bird species. The handmade house is full of art and Bill’s collection of “Hawaiiana” and exotic curios. Over thirty surfboards hang from the rafters.
interior photos: Matty Thomas, mattyfoto.com
A rustic gourmet, Bill likes flavors to complement the character of his wines. He delights in tending to a large vegetable garden. As stated in one of his poems, “Old vines are best with candlelight hospitality.” His donated winemaker dinners at Random Ridge fetch into four figures for the local volunteer fire department and other charities.
Most years Random Ridge hosts a summertime Obscure Wines of the World Tasting event and in the winter there is a “male bonding pruning extravaganza” for a cadre of grape-growing comrades. Bill continues his interest in poetry, largely as a reader and a collector, and over the years has self-published his own work including Youthful Folly, Visions of Baja, Across Purpose, and Unemployed Wizards. His poems focus on: what else? winegrowing and surfing.
Bill balances his loves of surfing and winegrowing. “Surfing and wine complement one another: the seasonality of looking after the vineyard and making wine gives me the opportunity to travel in the summer pre-harvest and in the winter post-harvest.”
The importance of attending to his love of surfing despite the ubiquitous obligations of Random Ridge was made dramatically clear to him long ago. “After we bought the ranch property and I planted the vineyard, I did not surf much for a few years. In 1984 I planned a spring surf trip to Scorpion Bay in Mexico with a high school friend. That’s a very busy time in the vineyard, and at the last minute I bailed on the trip. The day I should have been en route to Baja, I was in a tractor accident at Carmenet that blew out my knee and required surgery. It was a near-death experience as the tractor was set to roll into a deep canyon. I had a long recuperation followed by years of use of a Lennox Hill knee brace. During the months I was recovering, I promised myself always to treat surfing as a priority.”
bill recently heading to surf photo:zane
In 1986, a few years after the tractor accident, Bill packed his knee brace in his suitcase and the whole family spent a month at the surf camp in Tavarua, Fiji, “in its salad days.” Now, he often combines surf and wine travel, including trips to France, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, New Zealand, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Nicaragua, Australia, and Japan. The wine/surf culture of West Oz was a particular favorite: “quality winegrapes, complex coastline, real sympatico people, uncrowded welcoming environment.” Bill surfs less often near home on the cold and rugged California north coast. As his and Susan’s families remain in southern California, they head southward for frequent surf/wine trips. "My wine makes me welcome wherever I go. It’s a great calling card and bartering tool."
the family's first surf trip abroad:a month in tavarua, fiji 1986
One of Bill's greatest pleasures and proudest achievements has been teaching his sons and their friends to surf. Emile and Zane are accomplished surfers and intrepid surf travelers. Among other adventures, each lived for several years in Europe in his twenties. Emile earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and is a certified wine sommelier. Zane has a bachelor's degree in literature and an MFA in writing.
Both sons have worked in the vineyard and winery since childhood and are Random Ridge ambassadors, assisting as schedules permit with harvest, sales, and ongoing ranch projects and events.
emile in his Obama Surfs t-shirt
Bill sees his legacy in his vineyards, wine, poetry, and sons. “Random Ridge is my life’s work. Surfing keeps me inspired. Sharing a bottle of wine with friends and family is precious, as is sharing waves on a clean, clear day. Some days I am lucky enough to do both.”
As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “and the wine is bottled poetry.”
the entrance to random ridge marked wtih the surfer girl sign
photo credit mattyfoto.com