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Organic for a different reason

John Williams of Frog's Leap is all for the green movement -- mainly because he thinks it makes better wine.

January 08, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

At a time when many winemakers have become cult figures, proud of the personal stamp they put on their individual wines, John Williams likes to think of himself as a Zen winemaker.

"I consider it the winemaker's job to stay out of the way, not to have influence on the wine," Williams says. "My style is to remove the winemaker's hand rather than have a heavy personal signature."

This hands-off approach led Williams and his Frog's Leap vineyards to become pioneers -- and leaders -- in the organic wine movement in California. Although it is still small, a growing number of winemakers are beginning to recognize the value of producing wines with no man-made pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer and, in some cases (including Frog's Leap), with no "artificial" irrigation either, just "dry farming" with only natural water sources.

But unlike many who have followed his lead in organic farming -- especially in recent months and years -- Williams doesn't label his wines as organic. "The reason we grow organically is not to gain market advantage but to make better wine, wines that are connected to the soil they come from," he says.

It's not surprising that Williams has gone his own way as a winemaker. He did it in shifting to organic farming back in 1989, when very few were doing so, and he's doing it now, when he won't use organic farming as a marketing tool at precisely the time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created two seals ("USDA Organic Wine" and "USDA Made With Organic Grapes") that provide just that kind of tool.

Williams has always been a bit out of step with the rest of the world.

"I got interested in food and wine at a very young age," he says with a well-practiced grin. "I was the kind of kid who hid Gourmet magazine under his bed instead of Playboy."

Williams -- clad in Levi's and a black, V-neck sweater over an old brown T-shirt -- is sitting in an easy chair in a red barn this morning. The barn was built in 1884 and remodeled 110 years later as an office for his Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford.

Legend -- and an old business ledger -- suggests that frogs were raised on the property around the turn of the century. They were sold for 33 cents a dozen to the restaurants then serving San Francisco's well-heeled and gastronomically adventurous.

Williams is a serious man, as befits an agricultural pioneer, but he is equally well-known for his playful nature and love of a good story, and he isn't about to deny the frogs' tale -- especially not on a morning when he's already disappointed a first-time guest by making a cafe latte so bad that it had to be poured down the kitchen sink.

With a second latte in hand -- marginally better than the first, even if it does taste like a cup of warm milk over which Williams merely whispered the word "coffee" -- he explains how Frog's Leap came about, etymologically, financially and oenologically.

"We combined Frog Farm and Stag's Leap," he says matter-of-factly. "It seemed a good name to my partner and me."

Williams' partner then -- in 1981, when the winery was founded -- was Larry Turley, brother of Helen Turley, the woman who now makes some of the most sought-after wines in the world.

"I met Helen at Cornell, long before either of us made any wine," Williams says, "and when I told her I was going to Napa Valley to try to do just that, she told me to look up her brother, who was a doctor out here. I took a Greyhound out in 1970, bought a bottle of Zinfandel, rode to his place and camped overnight, waiting for him."

Partnership formed

The two men hit if off and after studying at UC Davis and making wine in both the Finger Lakes region of New York and at Spring Mountain in Napa Valley, Williams decided he was ready to start his own winery. He and Turley formed a partnership.

"Since he was a doctor, I figured he'd provide the money, and I'd be the brains," Williams recalls. "But he hadn't had much luck with ex-wives, and he didn't have any money. He had his own ideas about the partnership, though. He figured I'd gone to Cornell, so I must have money, and he'd be the brains."

Since no one had any money -- the brains question was debatable -- Williams says he made "the ultimate male sacrifice: I sold my motorcycle to raise my half of our start-up money."

The two men didn't have enough cash to buy any land, so they bought Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Spottswoode and made the wine at Spring Mountain. They also drew up corporate bylaws for their new land-less, equipment-less winery.

"Actually it was just one bylaw," Williams says. "It said, 'Any decision made while sober must be re-thought over a bottle of wine.' "

Frog's Leap made only 700 cases of its first wine but sold out immediately when an East Coast wine critic raved about it. Five years later, the two men got their first vineyard on the current Frog's Leap site, which had been abandoned for 20 years.

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