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WINE

Firestone's Family Values

January 20, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY — Scrub brush, grass and weeds ran up the scruffy, sand-colored hillsides. At the peak, cracks in the thin topsoil showed the erosion by rain and wind and the effects of summer heat.

This stark view faced Brooks and Kate Firestone as they drove up rutted, deserted Zaca Station Road in 1972, trying to determine if it was a likely location for a vineyard. The view gave no hint. This was a barren mesa apparently devoid of water, and the rocky slopes clearly posed a hazard for even large earth-moving equipment.

There were no wineries nearby, only one in all of Santa Barbara County, and that one had a history of making not table wine but dessert wines. The entire county had a mere 100 acres of grapes.

Despite the forbidding appearance of the land, the Firestones spoke with experts who believed in the area, so they cast their future here, built a winery and began to make wine. That opened the door to dozens of other entrepreneurs. Santa Barbara County now has more than three dozen wineries, almost all of them family-owned.

To the list of family-owned wineries, you can now add Firestone Vineyard, which until recently was a joint venture between the Firestones and Suntory Ltd. of Japan, the huge wine and spirits company. Last week, Firestone announced he had acquired the 31% share of the winery the family didn't own. "Three years after we started the winery I knew I wanted full control," admits Firestone, 57. "Kate and I now have six grandchildren and we wanted to keep the winery in family hands.

"We've put our careers, our lives--and our line of credit--into this decision because we believe in the future of the wine industry," says Firestone. "We visited Burgundy recently and we saw families that had been making wine on the same soil for 18 generations. We feel families are the soul and essence of this business, and we'd like our children to keep this fire alive."

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Pioneering this area as he did, Firestone awakened a sleeping giant. It's true that other people suspected there was potential for fine wine here. "But Brooks," says Rick Longoria, winemaker at nearby Gainey Vineyards, "proved it in a very convincing way. The Firestone project was very important to this area, particularly with grape planting. They plunked down 250 acres of vineyards just like that, which was a great commitment to the area.

"Someone looking at doing 20 or 30 acres had to feel better," adds Longoria, who grew up in the area. "Brooks fueled so much optimism because he was doing it just as Napa and Sonoma would have done it. It was big-name, big-time. This had been a remote agricultural area, and he was really a famous name."

The Santa Barbara area certainly wasn't without wealth. Some of the nation's top thoroughbred horse breeders had huge ranches between the Danish tourist community of Solvang and pea-soup stopover Buellton.

But Firestone, who was reared in Los Angeles and worked in London (where he met his wife, Kate), didn't feel out of his element in this wild country when he moved here 20 years ago.

"Some people might have felt this was desolate," says Firestone, "but I was like Bre'r Rabbit and the briar patch. The California golden pasture and live oak are where I want my ashes scattered. It was summer when we came through here and the fields were golden, and I loved the smell of the dry grass and the atmosphere. I was totally at home with it."

Firestone's original plans called for growing grapes, not building a winery. "My father had bought land here in 1971 and decided to plant wine grapes," says Firestone. "I had just left the (tire) company, and I went out to see how sound an investment grapes were."

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He said he did an in-depth report for his father. The good news was water: There are subterranean springs all over the property; wells could be dug to feed the young plants. More good news: A neighbor, Dean Brown, had done a 10-year weather study that showed perfect growing conditions for fine wine grapes. "This was the cornerstone of the whole project," says Firestone.

But there was one huge economic drawback, he says: "I told my father there were no wineries here, so he'd be sending his grapes north (to Napa or Sonoma), where they may not pay the prevailing price for grapes." He suggested the family should consider starting a winery.

But the elder Firestone was not convinced and called on his close friend and golfing companion, Keizo Saji, then president of Suntory, to see if the winery was a good idea. Saji, whose firm also owned a winery in Japan, sought assistance from company experts, who did a careful analysis of the area. Finally, Saji said he liked the idea and formed a partnership with the Firestones to found the winery.

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