On a mild August morning, I am inspecting the vineyard with my son John. The vines are heavy with our ripening harvest. The grapes themselves look like gems, rich tones of purple and red shine under the leaves. The sky is milky blue, and well-pruned canopies move ever so lightly with the breeze. Alive, abundant, and absolutely glorious. Even now, as a 95-year-old farmer, I am stunned by the gifts my eyes behold.
The men have been working hard the last few weeks to get the vineyard ready for harvest. As of this writing, sugar levels in the Sauvignon Blanc have reached 19 percent. The Zinfandel has matured to a robust l7 percent. We’re thinning out any overlapping grape bunches to make sure that each bunch of grapes has “un espacio propio” (a space of its own), and removing a few leaves to allow more sunshine to fall on the grapes and to promote the flow of air through the vineyard and around the bunches.
I don’t want to go back to the house. Not yet. The view of the property mesmerizes me, and I can’t help but wonder... how did I get here?
Every grower in this valley has his or her own story. Each of us has arrived here riding our own wave of personal and professional choices until we finally chose here, and started digging. As I stand looking over my property – the oaks, the vines, the homestead, the garden, the barn – I think of my mother! That’s right... my mom.
My mother, Olive Marshall, was a Southern girl with Southern ways, the only child of parents who cherished her. They were poor, but they saw their situation as temporary. The Civil War had wiped out their fortune – their land, their dignity, even their families. But they believed that everything could be won back in time. They passed on that deeply held belief to my mother, and that is what I and my sister and two brothers were sent out into the world to do: Win back the family “plantation.”
Born in Arkansas and educated at the state university, life began for Olive with great promise. She was shy but whip-smart. Her academic achievements gave her confidence and courage. During WWI, she was still a young woman but managed to find her way to France where she served as a Red Cross canteen worker near the front lines where trains passed daily, carrying fresh troops to the front and returning with wounded soldiers. After the war she returned to Houston and became a columnist for the Houston Chronicle writing under the nom de plume of “ACEess.” She won a set of flying lessons and learned to fly. Little did she know that she’d need all the derring-do and bravery she could muster in the coming years.
Fortune shifted drastically for Olive when, in 1928 at the onset of the Great Depression, with three children and one on the way, her husband came home in a rage, packed a suitcase and stormed out the front door – never to return. No money, no family close by and winter coming. At seven years of age, I was the eldest.
Those were troubled years. But I remember my mother always encouraging us to learn and make the most of ourselves. There was no question that we’d all attend college and even grad school after that.
We’d share our hopes and ambitions at the dinner table, where Mom never lost an opportunity to tell us about our dignified heritage, how we were proud landholders and we’d be proud landowners again. “Just wait,” she said. “We’ll get a ranch somewhere, or a large farm. You’ll go to school and make your fortune and get property of your own. It is your birthright.”
WE’LL GET OUR LAND BACK. That was the message, and I learned it by heart. For my courageous mother, for my family, for my ancestors, I wanted a hillside or valley or mountaintop of my own. Even though I was busy with raising children, getting ahead at Monsanto, moving around the country, I never forgot that my destiny was to get our plantation back!
And so I did. One a hot summer day in 1974 I got my first look at this special Sonoma Valley acreage we now call Indian Springs Ranch, and I knew I’d found it. I’ve been here ever since.
It is no picnic, growing grapes and keeping a family business together, but I have no complaints. When things get tough, I just think of Olive, and all the obstacles she had to face raising four children alone in desperate times. She inspires me still. To this day, every time I drive in our half-mile entry road I stop the car, roll down the window, thrust my clenched fist out the window and say, “Mom, I got our ranch back. It’s not Tara, but it is close enough!”
Owner, Indian Springs Ranch and Vineyards