Point Reyes Vineyards celebrates 30 years

David Briggs
Steve Doughty began growing grapes to raise the value of his land; now, he wins awards.  

Point Reyes Vineyards, overlooking Highway 1 north of Point Reyes Station, bills itself as the first commercial winery in West Marin since Prohibition. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the winery’s inception: when Steve and Sharon Doughty began plans to cultivate vines on their dairy ranch, and make wine alongside milk. 

“It was more of a hobby that turned into a business,” Mr. Doughty said. “We never intended to totally be a winery, but here we are.”

Ms. Doughty came from a long line of dairy ranchers: the Mendoza family owned three ranches on Point Reyes. When she purchased the 780-acre property near town in the early ’70s, she was married to her second husband, a dairyman who passed away in the early 80s. 

Ms. Mendoza kept the dairy running on her own, but a few years later, Mr. Doughty said, she walked up to the top of a hill “and she said, ‘Okay God, thank you for teaching me how to run the dairy. Now, it’s time for a man.’” 

That weekend, at the Western Saloon, she met Mr. Doughty, who was in town to deliver a camel for the nativity scene at Toby’s Feed Barn. 

The couple married in 1986, by which point Mr. Doughty had retired from construction work in Petaluma and taken on a business partner for his Napa-based private investigation company. He decided to help Sharon run the dairy, which sold milk first to the Petaluma Co-op and later to Clover. “It takes a very special couple to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, which we did for 30 years,” Mr. Doughty said. 

He had never pictured himself as a wine man, though he was raised in wine country and his father worked at a winery. But after getting drunk on cheap wine as a youth, he couldn’t stand the smell of wine. “I thought all wine was cheap and ugly and I didn’t drink it till I was 40,” he said. 

It was the National Park Service’s interest in buying the ranch in 1988 that sparked the idea: Mr. Doughty knew one way to increase the land’s value—and thus get more money from the park—was with grapes. “I told Sharon, you know, marginal pasture land is worth $2,500 an acre, but grape land is worth $25,000 an acre, so let’s see if we can grow grapes on this land down here,” he said, referring to a sunny acre a half-mile downhill from the dairy barn. 

They started planning in 1989 and planted their first grapes a year later. But shortly afterwards, the park service said it was unable to buy the property. “I already had a place picked out in Kauai to move to when we sold it to the park,” Mr. Doughty remembered, “and here we are with these grapes that nobody wanted, because Marin County at that time didn’t have any grapes at all.” 

Only two other properties were growing grapes in Marin at the time: the Pacheco Ranch Winery, in Novato, and Devil’s Gulch Ranch, in Nicasio. “In general, wine was a big deal in the eastern part of the county going back to the mission days when they planted vineyards there,” West Marin historian Dewey Livingston said. “By the ’60s and ’70s, people had commercial vineyards in San Rafael, Larkspur, Fairfax, San Anselmo and Novato.” But with Prohibition in 1920, most commercial wineries shut down. 

Mr. Livingston said he has never seen evidence of a commercial winery in West Marin prior to Prohibition, likely due in part to the cooler climate. At Point Reyes Vineyards, only chardonnay and pinot noir grapes for sparkling wine are grown on site; all other varieties are purchased from elsewhere in the county. 

“It’s too cold to grow any grapes that are going to get super ripe,” Mr. Doughty explained. The grapes for sparkling wine can be picked green, when they still contain little sugar, but other varieties need more time to mature and sweeten—an incubation period West Marin’s colder climate does not offer. 

As the first crop of grapes grew to fruition, the Doughtys were unsure how to go about selling them, and they decided to try their hand at making sparkling wine. 

They bottled dozens of cases for the wedding of Sharon’s oldest daughter, Kathleen. Jess Jackson, the owner of the Kendall-Jackson winery, was a guest at the wedding, and after a toast he made a beeline for Ms. Doughty to tell her that the bubbles were off to a great start. 

Mr. Doughty said the comment encouraged them to make more; sparkling wine is still the winery’s bestseller. 

A few years later, the couple acquired a cabernet sauvignon vineyard in Terra Linda. It had no winemaking infrastructure, so Mr. Doughty built the equipment alongside the sparkling wine infrastructure he had already installed in the dairy barn. 

Back then, he recalls, it was easy to ask for help from more experienced winemakers—Napa and Sonoma wineries were not worried about competition from a small winery out in Marin. 

The Doughtys began to bottle and sell wine commercially in 1997; soon after, they decided to expand by purchasing cabernet and merlot grapes. They also wanted to create a tasting room and were deciding where to put it when, as luck would have it, the owners of the 10 acres next to the burgeoning vineyard were looking to sell. 

The tasting room is now open five days a week in the summer and three days a week in the winter. From Memorial Day on, Mr. Doughty said, “it’s just crazy,” as people heading to beaches and oyster farms stop by to drink wine. 

The couple ran the Sharon Doughty Dairy for 25 years together until Ms. Doughty developed a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2005. The couple decided to move off the ranch and into a house near the vineyard that they had turned into a bed and breakfast. (They subsequently purchased property next door and turned a house there into the winery’s current bed and breakfast). Sharon passed away in 2014. 

Will Clark, Mr. Doughty’s nephew, and his wife, Lena, had come on board in 2009. Mr. Clark, a civil engineer, could see that his aunt and uncle needed help and wanted to make a career change. He now does “a little bit of everything” as overseer of the winery’s production; Ms. Clark does the accounting and runs the property’s bed and breakfast.

“I didn’t know whether to keep the winery or sell it without [Ms. Doughty], but with Will and Lena’s help I decided to keep it and become more conscientious about making wine,” Mr. Doughty said. He added that their help has allowed him to go into retirement mode. 

The winery began to enter wine competitions in 2000, and in the last decade it has won a smattering of silver and bronze awards at the California State Wine Competition and San Francisco Wine Competition. “Now we can kind of prove we can grow and make good wine in Marin,” Mr. Doughty said. “That was our goal.”

Mr. Clark says he tries to gear some of the wines to pair well with local products like oysters and cheese. “We’re trying to not make the wine as buttery or oaky: more fruit-forward so it stays a lighter style,” he said. “Part of it’s choosing what we use for fruit and yeast, using stainless steel instead of oak barrels. Oysters need a more delicate flavor, and oak makes a heavier chardonnay.” 

Their wines can be found at a number of West Marin locations, including Osteria Stellina, Fog’s Kitchen, and Sir and Star. Cowgirl Creamery stocks bottles as well, and Ms. Clark said the store is one of their biggest clients. Though other cheese sellers in the area do not stock his wines, Mr. Doughty tries to take it in stride. “If people don’t buy my wine, I don’t buy their product,” he said. 

The winery also sells over the hill, to restaurants in Mill Valley, San Anselmo and Petaluma. “We’re trying to expand our wholesale, something we haven’t really focused on in the past,” Ms. Clark said. “Steve and Sharon, this was kind of a hobby: they enjoyed doing the grapes, making the wine, having people in the tasting room, so that’s what they focused on. I’ve been working with one of our sales ladies to get more of a presence out there.” 

The winery also has a wine club with around 100 members who receive bottles twice a year. 

Mother Nature, Ms. Clark said, is one of the winery’s greatest challenges. Birds, bees and wasps make for dangerous foes. “Once the wasps bite the grapes, they just shrivel into raisins and have no juice left,” Ms. Clark said. 

And the area’s climate is a creature all its own. “Others don’t have to deal with the wet as much,” she said. “We’re one of the foggiest places in the world.” Mr. Clark estimates that they lose 10 to 15 percent of their crop each ear to mildew. “You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said. “We can’t do a lot about that.” 

Of the property’s three components, Mr. Doughty said the bed and breakfast is “pretty lucrative” and that the tasting room “carries its own weight.” The winery is still paying off debt from a new facility built a year and a half ago. 

Though Mr. Doughty and the Clarks said they have an eye toward expansion, none want the winery to lose its boutique status, which requires selling no more than about 5,000 cases a year. Currently, the winery produces around 1,500. 

When Ms. Doughty died, the dairy went to her daughter, while the 10-acre winery and an additional 70 acres went to Mr. Doughty. He said the extra land “made this a more viable place” for wine-making: he was able to move all the infrastructure out of its former home in the old dairy barn and into a new facility on his property. 

Although Mr. Doughty no longer has anything to do with the dairy next door, visitors will notice dozens of cows roaming the lush grasslands above the highway. He grazes beef cows to sell to friends and, mainly, to keep the grass down.