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  • Linda Murphy
Written by
  • Linda Murphy
4 Feb 2009

The US West Coast lost two important wine figures last week, Ridge Vineyards president Donn Reisen of California (pictured here) and Napa-turned-Oregon vintner Gary Andrus.

Reisen, 60, the behind-the-scenes guy in Ridge's success with its Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandels, was found dead in his car not far from his Menlo Park home on 26 Jan, the victim of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police. Andrus, 63, who with his then-wife, Nancy Andrus, founded Pine Ridge Winery in Napa Valley in 1978 and Archery Summit Estate in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1993, died 30 Jan in a hospital in Hillsboro, Oregon, of complications from pneumonia.

After Gary and Nancy Andrus divorced in 2001, their shares in Pine Ridge and Archery Summit were sold. Gary bought land in New Zealand's Central Otago region and Oregon's Willamette Valley, jointly creating Gypsy Dancer Estates. In 2006, the Central Otago property went into receivership, due to unpaid debts after Andrus' Gibbston Valley vineyards were decimated by frost in 2004. An increase in the value of the New Zealand dollar versus the US dollar compounded his financial difficulties, and his property was eventually disposed of, partly to the large Gibbston Valley Estate.

Andrus will be remembered for being one of the winemaking pioneers in what became the Stags Leap District appellation of Napa Valley, and for raising the bar on quality and price for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. The Archery Summit wines he introduced were among the best from Oregon, and he priced them higher than his competitors, adding more sheen to the Oregon Pinot Noir image.

While I didn't have much contact with Gary Andrus - I entered the journalistic side of the business at the same time he was bowing out of Pine Ridge and Archery Summit - I knew Donn Reisen far better, and anyone who follows California Zinfandel knows his name. He was gregarious, funny and passionate about Zinfandel and Ridge, which he joined in 1977 as a part-time vineyard hand. He worked his way up to director of sales and marketing, then was made president in 2001.

Reisen was one of the guiding lights and cheerleaders for Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), a wildly successful marketing group that includes Zin producers and consumers from around the world, and hosts 10,000 people at its annual tasting in San Francisco. Reisen's death came just six days before the 2009 ZAP event.

Paul Draper makes Ridge wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains and at an outpost in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma. While he has been rightly decorated for his achievements, Reisen was always his right-hand man. I first met Donn at a ZAP meeting in 1994, when I worked for a small Sonoma County Zinfandel producer. He was warm and welcoming, treating me as if I were a seasoned wine veteran, which I wasn't at the time. Like a big brother, he watched over me during ZAP's marketing tours of the US, and taught me so much about Zinfandel, and celebrating it.

I spoke to Donn four months ago, and we talked about the biking accident he had five years ago, when he came close to death and required months of surgeries and rehabilitation. He was as chipper and enthusiastic as ever, and reminded me that my revisit to Ridge was long overdue. I promised to make an appointment, and Donn had been on my list of people to call when I learned of his death. I regret that I was late.

I will indeed visit Ridge, but it won't be the same without Donn Reisen. It probably won't ever be the same for Paul Draper either.