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Wine Country Gambler : Brooks Firestone's Southern California Strategy Pays Off

July 19, 1987|COLMAN ANDREWS | Colman Andrews writes the weekly "Restaurant Notebook" for The Times' Calendar section, as well as a monthly wine column for Los Angeles magazine. He is the author of "Catalan Cuisine," to be published next year by Atheneum.

The unusual thing about Brooks Firestone right now is that he is wearing a suit and tie. Earlier today, as chairman of a committee on the future of the wine business in America, he delivered a report before a special meeting of the Wine Institute in Santa Barbara, and he thought that perhaps he ought to dress up a bit for the occasion. Now, though, he is back home, on his 2,300-acre cattle ranch near Buellton, in the two-story, four-bedroom, 1930s-vintage white-and-yellow wood-frame house he shares with his wife of 29 years and their 12-year-old son. He excuses himself and disappears upstairs. When he returns, he has changed into faded jeans, a gray flannel cowboy shirt and work shoes. He looks much happier. "Whew!" he says. "I do like to get out of that thing."

Brooks Firestone, who is 51, tall, and good-looking in a vigorous, ruddy-faced sort of way, is a scion of the Firestone tire family and a dropout from Firestone corporate life. He is well-known in local political circles, both as a high-profile Republican candidate for state Assembly in 1982 and as the son of noted GOP supporter Leonard K. Firestone, former ambassador to Belgium and confidant of Presidents. Brooks Firestone is well-known, too, on the amateur polo circuit, where he plays an energetic game on fields from Santa Monica to Nashville.

What Firestone does for a living, though, and what he would prefer to be best known for, is something that can be more strenuous and less predictable than politics and polo: He runs a winery. Firestone once likened his business to "a moon shot, a long-term venture" that takes a long time to make a profit. "For example," he told a reporter in 1978, long before the winery went into the black, "one month we had sales of $9,000 and paid out $300,000 in costs. . . . If I hadn't had a master plan to cling to, I probably would have jumped out the window."

But as founder of the Firestone Vineyard in Los Olivos, just northwest of Santa Barbara, Firestone's gamble was successful; he is the man who brought premium wine making to the Santa Ynez Valley, now an established, prize-winning wine region. More than that, through his tireless marketing efforts and high-rolling international connections (not to mention the resonance of his family name), he might be said to be the man who finally--and however improbably--put Southern California on the world wine map.

Firestone is also, it turns out, a man who likes to get his hands dirty. He is, as one longtime observer of his career puts it, "a rich man who actually enjoys physical labor." This soon becomes apparent: "We'll settle down on the veranda and have a glass of wine in a couple of minutes," he promises, "but first I've got a little chore to do." He's playing in a benefit polo match in Arizona in a few days, he explains, and the horses leave tomorrow. This afternoon, he wants to check the tires on his horse trailer--a 24-foot, six-stall affair that he helped design himself--and on the pickup truck that pulls it.

Nancy Carter, a wiry ex-professional horsewoman who helps Firestone both at the winery and with his horses, is already at the trailer when he arrives, loading it with tack. Firestone greets her, then pulls a tire gauge from his hip pocket and goes to work. Everything is fine until he reaches the right rear tire on the pickup: It's flat.

"Darn!" says Firestone. "This is going to take awhile."

"Why don't we just call the Triple A?" asks Carter.

"Naw," says Firestone. "We don't need the Triple A." He gets down on the damp, pebbly ground and attacks the flat.

When he's finished, he stands up and stretches and then stares for a moment at the flat and chuckles. "Thank God it's a Goodyear," he says.

Born A. Brooks Firestone ("The A is for Anthony, but at the age of 5 I took offense at being called Tony") in 1936 in Cleveland, the future winery owner moved with his family to Beverly Hills in the early 1940s. He grew up in Coldwater Canyon, attended Webb School in Claremont and then went to Princeton. One evening there, he and two friends headed into New York for dinner. "We had a few bottles of wine," he recalls, "and decided to go over to the old Metropolitan Opera House to see the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Sitting there, feeling pretty brave, we picked the one dancer out of the program who we thought would be most likely to respond favorably to an invitation to supper after the performance. We sent her a note, and to our surprise she came to the stage door and said yes. She brought along two other dancers, and we paired off. My two friends fell head over heels for their dates, but I didn't get along too well with mine. So when we all went out again the next week, a different girl came along for me. It was Kate--and this time the heavens opened and the trumpets sounded and I haven't looked back since."

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