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Keep on Rolling

Author: Cerrissa MacNichols
May, 2007 Issue


Gordon Holmes’ Lookout Ridge Winery makes great wines and changes lives—one wheelchair at a time.


    Patches of fog nestle among the crevices of the surrounding mountain tops, and a commanding view of Mount Tamalpais looms in the distance. Looking down from the hilltop, the Sonoma Valley floor is speckled with ponds and neighboring vineyards. With his land high on the Sonoma/Napa county divide, it’s no wonder Gordon Holmes chose the name Lookout Ridge Winery when he decided to pursue his passion for wine. Since then, this passion has led Holmes down new roads and has let him create an exemplary existence.

    He and his wife, Kari, were visiting friends in Sonoma in the 1980s when they found the spectacular property that’s now their winery. While his wife thought perhaps they should continue to look at other pieces of land, Holmes knew as soon as he saw Lookout Ridge that this was the one. A believer in love at first sight, he compares seeing this parcel for the first time to his first encounter with his wife. Holmes says he knew immediately that she was “the one” and he had the same hunch about Lookout Ridge.

    The couple built a beautiful, modest and modern home right on the edge of the ridge. Their plan was to someday use it as a guesthouse and to build a larger family home once their winery became established. At the time they did not yet have children (they would eventually have two), but they knew this was where they wanted to raise a family, high up on top of the Mayacamas Mountains. They envisioned a place where their offspring and a beloved dog could explore the meadows, forests and vineyards of their land in the future.

    Holmes knows firsthand what it’s like to wander the land. He was born in Los Angeles as a fifth-generation Californian. His grandfather, Harry Holmes, was a horticulturalist who wrote Practical Horticulture for the Pacific Slopes (San Francisco: Harr Wagner Publishing, 1927). His grandparents had a working ranch in Paso Robles where the elder Holmes applied his professional knowledge to cultivate his land. A connection to the earth was apparent in the younger Holmes, but it would be years before he would embrace horticulture.

    He discovered a new interest, investing, and bought his first stock when he was only 13 years old. As an adult, he moved to New York City to pursue a livelihood on Wall Street. Holmes proceeded to publish two successful Wall Street magazines geared toward professional investors. In 1977, Holmes founded Research magazine; in 1993, he founded Buyside. In 1998, Gordon merged the two and sold the new entity to a New York publishing firm. Holmes says it wasn’t until he lived in New York that he realized he’d taken the freedom associated with living in California for granted. In New York, he says, there’s a different structure of living: “It matters who you are and what you want to do.” His prosperity on Wall Street ultimately enabled him to return to California and pursue his dream of owning a winery.

Learn from the best

    After buying the Lookout Ridge property, Holmes went back to school to study viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. His young son and daughter were amused that Daddy was going back to college, but he wanted to really understand the winemaking process. He then proceeded to hire some of the best winemakers he could find to produce wines that he knew he, personally, would enjoy. Using his Wall Street ingenuity—whenever he wanted to put together a portfolio, he sought out experts in fields such as commodities, blue chips or any other segment he wanted to include—he decided to apply the same principle to winemaking. “I wanted to create a portfolio of winemakers, each one passionate about a specific varietal,” says Holmes. In the wine industry, it’s a unique concept.

    Holmes likens his winemakers to artists. “You don’t tell Picasso how to paint,” he says. Instead, he gives them full reign when it comes to making their varietals. Marco Di Giulio, a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon specialist and Napa cult winemaker “purist,” and Greg La Follette, named one of the five best Pinot Noir winemakers in the world by wine expert Robert Parker, are included in Holmes’ portfolio.

    La Follette says Holmes is “generous with his praise” and, although he stays involved, “he lets the winemaker go where he wants with making the wine.” La Follette goes on to say Holmes is “incredible in his philanthropy. That sets him apart from everyone. He wants to create a good life for his wife and children and to give back.”

The Wheelchair Foundation

    It was in fact a Lookout Ridge Pinot Noir (Keefer Ranch, Sonoma Coast 2001) made by La Follette, that sparked a relationship between Holmes and Ken Behring, the former owner of the Seattle Seahawks. In 2004, Holmes was attending the Second Annual California Cult Wines Classic Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, where his wine was the only Pinot Noir to win “Next Generation Cult Wine” status. Behring, who’s known for his philanthropy, purchased a bottle for $1,500. (The beneficiary of the event was the American Institute of Wine and Food Norcal “Days of Taste,” which was developed by Julia Child to educate school children about nutrition.) It was while socializing after the purchase that Behring told Holmes about the Wheelchair Foundation, a nonprofit he had founded to provide wheelchairs to those who can’t afford them.

    Behring told him about people around the world who had no means to get a wheelchair and who benefited from his foundation. Holmes’ wife had recently been diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, and he was watching her world get smaller as she was forced to use a wheelchair for mobility. He knew how fortunate they were, because they could afford to purchase a number of wheelchairs for her. They were even considering one that could climb stairs. Holmes felt a real bond with the mission of Behring’s foundation, and he also admired his business acumen. Behring had established a low-cost production facility in China, enabling higher volumes and wider distribution.

    Talking to Behring inspired Holmes to get personally involved in the Wheelchair Foundation. He started traveling around the world helping distribute wheelchairs.

    On a trip to Mexico, Holmes watched a father bring his son to the central town plaza in the family wheelbarrow. When the boy was lifted out of the wheelbarrow and placed in a wheelchair, his whole being was transformed. Holmes was caught by the radiance of the boy’s smile, a wordless thank-you that made an instant connection. It was then Holmes realized how lucky he was to be a part of this cause. As he talks about this moment, his own face, framed by short salt-and-pepper hair, takes on an added gentleness and his voice lowers slightly. “You basically change somebody’s life,” he says, “someone who’s been taken care of by their family and people in the village can begin to get around by themselves.” His emotion is genuine. Jeff Behring, director of special events for the foundation, says, “He’s been a great guy to work with. He likes to be personally involved, not just give money.”

    People turn to the Wheelchair Foundation for many reasons. Some have lost their legs as a result of accidents or land mines (in war-torn countries), still others were born with birth defects or have lost the ability to walk due to illness or age. Behring states, “When children are young, people can carry them around. But as they get older, that becomes virtually impossible.” In some countries, the cost of a wheelchair would be more than a year’s earnings for an average villager and is therefore completely unattainable without aid. To date, the Wheelchair Foundation has given out more than 500,000 wheelchairs—but estimates more than 100 million children, teens and adults are still in need.

Every time someone buys a case of Lookout Ridge wine, Holmes makes a donation, large enough for the purchase of a wheelchair, to the foundation. He wants his customers to have a personal connection to this charitable cause. He ensures this by sending the wine buyer a photo of the recipient sitting in his or her new wheelchair: A wheelchair made possible by their wine purchase.

Wine is good, life is better

    Holmes’ love of wine has made this all possible. One of the first wines Lookout Ridge Winery produced, a 2000 Chardonnay, earned 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. In 2004, his 2001 Alta Coma Sangiovese was voted “Best Sangiovese in California” at the California State Fair. Quality wine, not quantity, is Holmes’ goal; last year, he bottled 1,000 cases. Distribution for Lookout Ridge wines is only through the winery (via private, by-appointment tastings), its website (www.lookoutridge.com) and mailing list.

    His “wine portfolio” currently includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and a Super Tuscan (his is a blend of 75 percent Sangiovese, 12.5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 12.5 percent Syrah). The variety of wines he produces are the ones he likes best. This year, Lookout Ridge will be bottling its first estate fruit from the five acres currently planted, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Syrah, all organically grown. Holmes plans to plant an additional 10 to 15 acres on the property, but it will take some time to excavate the rocky soil. He’s also looking for additional winemakers to round out his team.

    Because of Kari’s illness, the couple decided to live in Kenwood instead of on the winery’s rugged terrain. Holmes won’t be constructing a new home on the winery property, but he is fashioning a number of other buildings on the site. His father was an architect, and Holmes has always had an interest in creating structures. He’s currently excavating a wine cave through a hill; it will have large doors on each end that can be opened to let the breeze flow through. Holmes envisioned such a place long ago and plans to one day bring his grapes into the cave to start their fermentation process.

    The Lookout Ridge wine label shows a ridge with a line running across it. When it was first designed, the wavy line was meant to represent the fog that shrouds the hilltop most mornings, but Holmes now also sees it as his cave running through the hill. He explains that, in a perfect world, wine grapes would be picked at night when the temperature is cool and then stored immediately in a cave such as the one he’s crafting. He references Jarvis Winery in Napa, and describes how everything at its winemaking facility is underground. It’s the perfect way to make wine, he says, but it comes at a steep price that makes it prohibitive for most wineries.

    Holmes has adapted well to an organic, Wine Country lifestyle (the tailored business suits of Wall Street are a long way from his current outfit of blue jeans and work boots). And all along, he’s been true to his motto of “recycle and reuse,” especially in creating his buildings. He found felled 400-year-old redwood trees on his property and had the wood milled to use in his structures. The planks are being used for doorframes and as support beams. He’s also had Douglas fir trees from his land milled for use. The rocks being used around the mouth of the cave are all taken from the five acres cleared to plant his first grapes. It’s one of the reasons the cave opening looks so natural, blending in with the surrounding landscape. Likewise, the hues of the buildings match the soft shades of the encircling foliage.

    After his wife and children, “wine, investing, and learning new things” are his passions, says Holmes. The house the family lived in on the property is now the winery office. A copy of Winery Dogs sits on a side table. He mentions he received a number of copies as Christmas gifts after the family lost their 12-year-old dog last year. Atop the fireplace mantle rests a towering frame containing at least a dozen wooden sides of French wine boxes. To the casual observer, it’s a piece of interesting wine art, but to Holmes it represents much more. As a teenager in Los Angeles, he worked at a wine store and bought wine futures—he knew, even then, that he would someday be involved in the wine business.

    Homles says he’d like to take his former Wall Street colleagues on Wheelchair Foundation distributions, so they can know firsthand what it’s like to place someone in a wheelchair. “For these guys, it’s not a big deal to spend $600 on a case of wine,” says Holmes. Which is why he’d like to see these executives connect to the wheelchair recipients in the same way he did—to know the tremendous difference they can make in someone’s existence.

    “What I like about my life is never knowing where it’s going to take me,” says Holmes. But while he may claim to like a measure of uncertainty, it’s clear from his early speculations in stocks and wine futures that he’s a man who decides what he wants and then makes it happen. He sees life as a “personally fulfilling journey,” and understands his own good fortune. What’s more, he’s always wanted to give back to the world, and accomplishing his personal goals has made it possible for him to affect the lives of others in ways he never could have imagined.



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