Ted Bennett – February 20th, 2009

GEDC0118I met with Navarro Vineyards founder and owner Ted Bennett last Friday morning at the winery’s beautiful setting alongside Highway 128, north of Philo.
Ted was born in 1937 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, to parents Edward Bennett and Mildred Davies. His forebears were from England/Wales and his father, who had little formal education, was a butcher at an uncle’s shop whilst Ted’s mother, who had run away from home and a “cruel” father at sixteen, first found work at a wool mill as an ‘invisible re-weaver’ in southern England before being sent to Canada as the business expanded. She soon moved up. They had met at a dance, were soon married, and lived in a house on Rideau Street alongside the famous Rideau Canal where Ted was born. “My mother had a good job – she was now a manager, and so when she was at work I was raised by a nanny, Beatrice Hughes and her daughter Evelyn. They helped educate me as a young child and I was reading at an early age. I had chemistry set at the age of six and went from kindergarten to 2nd grade. My brother Richard didn’t come along until I was ten and so I was an only child growing up – I don’t play well in groups!”…It was around this time that Ted developed a stutter, something he has dealt with throughout his life. “I did well at school but I was not very social – the stuttering made it difficult. The diagnosis at the time was simply that my brain was too fast for my mouth.”
When Ted was nine the family moved to Toronto, where Ted’s father opened his own grocery store. “He was very personable, a good salesman – the business did well for a time before he came down with severe rheumatoid arthritis. He lay flat on his back all day in bed – he was so bad that when I would pull a sheet over him the weight of that sheet would be so painful he would sometimes cry. I got a paper route to help financially, soon I had three, and my mother took on extra garment repair jobs from work – she was an expert ‘invisible re-weaver… It was not enough and the store went bust and the family was bankrupt.”
Eventually Ted’s father recovered but no sooner had this happened than his mother, exhausted and distressed by all that had occurred, had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. “We had moved to the Italian section of town – it was rough and I was the only Anglo Saxon wimp at a high school full of tough Italian kids. My Dad found work at a butcher’s shop and I worked there sometimes to get a little extra money. Eventually my mother got better and we moved to the thirteen islands off the shoreline of Toronto. I loved it there – no cars, catching a ferry to school every day – I learned to sail at that time. Then when my mother became ill again my Dad decided our future was elsewhere and so we sold everything and left in a used Chevy and headed for California – my parents, who had had little education, wanted to provide it for their kids and my Dad thought California was the best place to get that.”
Following a two-month drive they arrived in Los Angeles but had little money left and Ted’s father found work on the coast in Pismo Beach. “My mother loved the ocean and so we settled there to help with her recovery and then we moved on to Santa Maria. I attended Arroyo Grande High School near to Pismo Beach and commuted with the Chemistry teacher. We got on very well and he let me play in the lab during breaks. I graduated in 1954 and went to Cal Berkeley to study Chemistry that fall.”
At the end of his sophomore year of college his mother relapsed and he left college to work as a stock clerk and cashier to support the family. He had a couple of years doing this during which time he joined the A.F.L.- C.I.O. union and formulated some of the ideas about workers’ rights that he holds to this day. “The money I earned helped to pay mother’s hospital bills and the rest of my degree. I lived in the heart of Berkeley, at a house run by a Japanese family who felt sorry for me, I think. They were lovely people and it was a lovely place.”
“Berkeley was a whole new colorful world to me and broadened my horizons so much. There were different cultures, different foods, different ideas. I had a great time there. I worked in various grocery stores in the area finally settling at the Seven Palms Market where I became a sort of night manager with a schedule that worked around my lectures and studying and, after some negotiating, I received a union wage.”
On his return to collegeTed had changed his major to Forestry and then to Business with emphasis on marketing and accounting. He graduated in 1960 and began to look for work. Initially he started in an office at Montgomery Ward in Oakland but he soon knew this world was not for him. “I just could not exist in an office/corporate environment. It was not a place that could make me happy.”
He settled at a small wholesale electronics firm called Pacific Radio Supply owned by two partners. ‘The younger of the two, Tom Andersen, was my mentor in the business world at that time. He forced me to become an outside salesman. I had headaches every day for six months as I found it very hard to talk and sell. However, I learned to somewhat control my stuttering during this time and with age it’s effects have become less and less.” The business was not doing well and losing money so Ted suggested that the partners give him some shelves where he could put in a stereo department. “My love for chemistry had shifted to the science of audio – it was a success!”
Within a couple of years half the store was parts and half stereo. “I came up with the idea of selling a complete music system rather than individual components – receivers, speakers, etc. The business took off. We changed the name to Pacific Stereo and opened a store on Market Street in San Francisco. I became a partner and followed my philosophy of ‘good vibes marketing’ wherein we gave good warranties, were very customer friendly, paid the highest wages, and even moved the small print at the bottom of our invoices to the top and in bold so nothing was hidden from the customer. This was accompanied by the words, ‘we hereby give our word of honor’…Our research found that most of our customers were highly educated but with low incomes. The first three things they wanted were a bed, a fridge, and a stereo. This was Berkeley in the sixties and we adapted to our environment.”
Over the next few years the business expanded into southern California, growing at 50% a year. Then C.B.S. made an offer to buy them out. The partners accepted this and signed a deal which enabled them to remain as managers on a five-year contract. “This worked well for a time with Clive Davies as President of Columbia. He didn’t mind that I wore Levi’s and a t-shirt and we got on very well. I even felt that perhaps I was in line for the next head of Columbia Records. Then one day two F.B.I. agents came to the office and arrested Clive on charges of being connected with some drug sales to various musicians. Clive was fired and over the next year or so he was replaced by a series of M.B.A.’s who made one bad business decision after another. After salaries were cut and many people fired I’d had enough. You cannot just say ‘fire 10% of the staff’. I was completely disillusioned by what had happened and I left in 1974.”
Towards the end of 1971 Ted had met Deborah Cahn who was in the graduate English department at Berkeley. She came to work for the company during the summer but once their relationship became significant she left. “Our relationship was more important than work. We moved in together in 1972…It was a tumultuous time in Berkeley that also saw the food ‘revolution’ getting underway. We were very close to Chez Panisse, the heart of the ‘revolution’ and ate there regularly. Deborah was the first women’s libber I had known and part of our deal was that I had to make half the meals – I just took her to Chez Panisse instead.”
Following Ted’s departure from the corporate world they decided that they wanted to be doing something ‘honest’ and farming seemed to fit their ideal way of making a living. Ted had been into wine since first moving to Berkeley, particularly the Alsace wines such as Gewürztraminer. They had initially visited the area in 1972 and fell in love with the Valley. “We began to look for property and one day in 1973 we were in an old Mustang, as usual I had on my ‘uniform’ – Levi’s and t-shirt, and we met with realtors Nick Anderson and Kathy Bailey. Nick jokingly said, ‘twenty acres and a teepee in the hills, right’. By the end of that afternoon I had made a payment on this nine hundred acre sheep ranch and after being here part-time in 1974 we moved full-time in 1975. In a separate deal, with Johnny and Adele Williams, a further four acres were purchased for the house and winery. He was protective of all the trees and plants on this acreage. In preparation for the vineyard we cut down an oak tree and he has never forgiven me – rightly so. The trees do no harm and we now work around them. Johnny and I discussed all the plants on their 4-acre homestead for one year and then the price only in the last couple of weeks. It was a lovely experience to negotiate with someone who valued his plants more than money.”
“We planted vines in 1975 – ¾ Gewürztraminer and ¼ Pinot Noir – “ which was far less popular then than now”…Over the ensuing years Ted and Deborah hired several consultants. “We knew nothing really. Jed Steele, Robert Stemler, Tex Sawyer, John Montero, Tom Lane – they all knew more than me. We finally started to make money in 1985 and since 1991 Jim Klein has been our wine maker – that has worked out really well. I love doing this as much as ever. I still love crush more than anything else – the joke around here is that they will have to dig up the concrete crush pad and put my crypt under there when I go. Harvest is a magical time – having spent so much time growing something and then seeing it harvested – wonderful.”
They spend most of their time these days being involved with the marketing and general management of the business. Their two children, Aaron (born in 1978) and Sarah (1980) are both heavily involved with the family business. Ted still has a big part to play in the final say on things and attends the tastings every morning. He believes the making of great wine is the main point of it all. “I dislike wine scores. The problem is that there are several hundred thousand new wines available in the US every year and lots of young people are enthusiastic about wine. Wine scoring on a 100-point scale seems like an easy way for the consumer to make a decision. But that score is (a) an oversimplification of a very complex and unique food, (b) is based on someone else’s taste, and (c) big scores most frequently go to big wines which creates the incentive for the winemaker to produce big wines. Big wines I suspect are frequently negatively correlated with their ability to properly accompany a meal, which I think is the purpose of wine.
“Wine writers are concerned with terroir/soil and seeing what the wine tastes like from a particular site, either over a period of years or to see how different winemakers treat the fruit from the same vineyard. My goal is to produce the most balanced, pleasing wine I can. In all our years of blending trials, we have never found a wine from an individual vineyard site that couldn’t be improved, certainly made more complex, by blending in the same variety of wine from another site.”
“My goal as a winemaker may be different than those of a wine writer or magazine. I believe that winemakers are coerced financially into making wines that pay homage to the numbers rather than wines that go well with a meal.”
I now turned to some questions about Ted’s Valley experiences. Firstly his favorite spots in the Valley? “Deborah and I do have a couple here on the land. One is on a ridge-top, surrounded by virgin forest…I do like to eat at The Apple Farm – great place, wonderful food…I enjoy being a farmer up here, feeling part of nature. I feel connected in ways that I had never felt before – a part of the big picture in terms of its eco-system. The sense of community here is very special. Its diversity is amazing – just look at the last few interviews you have done, Steve – all vastly different people and backgrounds and yet all here in this small community. It is a powerful thing – perhaps that comes with being amongst people who have different ideas and philosophies.”
Ted went on to say that there is nothing he doesn’t like about life here and although he does occasionally miss the variety of ethnic restaurants or the diversity of live music to listen to, he can always commute to the Bay Area which he’d rather do than have more people come here “where it always smells nice and people don’t honk me off the road.”…And as for a Mayor of the Valley if such a position existed – for whom would he vote? – “Jerry Cox – a very nice and good human being, and he talks to absolutely everyone. You’d have no doubt he was trying to do good things if he was in office.”
It was time to ask Ted about his thoughts on a ‘hot topic’ that is often under discussion in the Valley. The wineries and their impact? – “Having the wineries here is a great benefit to the Valley’s economy. They more often than not provide good jobs and wine is a commodity that touches a lot of money. It is important to keep that money here and we try to do that. We believe it is a better situation for the fruit to be grown here, the wine to be made here, and finally the sale of that wine also to be here. Our wine is sold here and at restaurants – not at stores. Safeway offered us shelf placements at every one of their stores in the country – we decided against it. Now that wasn’t just a moral decision – it was a business decision too and I like to think we can make decisions that combine both morals and business. We are fortunate to be able to do this and I believe many of our business decisions are good moral decisions too.”
“When we started we must have been out of our mind. Deborah and I knew so little. The hardest grape to deal with is the Gewürztraminer. We had no experience – I believe that was a good thing. Deborah called restaurants and arranged tastings; I worked on developing a tasting room. We soon created a loyal customer base and this provided continuity. Our workers are full-time and have health insurance, which is good for the business and this community. We broke out of the usual business model and had a little more margin built in. Our profits were passed on not just to our investment, but also our customers, and of course our employees. I wouldn’t want to sit around sipping wine whilst a worker may not have pre-natal care. I understand that not everyone can do this but I can and so I do. I feel I must.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Ted from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Yes”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “No”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “ Music certainly – all kinds…And I do enjoy being a part of what we have here and thinking about and recognizing my existence in the big scheme of things. Being aware of all the other living creatures that live on this land. They are all fascinating and fit together in a unique way. I am a non-believer really, not just an agnostic, but the complexity and beauty of nature is special and inspiring.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Hate; intolerance; the defense budget – standard things I suppose but I try to work out what makes me happy and work back from there. I don’t like power – it corrupts, and I am sometimes uncomfortable with certain aspects of being the ‘boss’. I am very happy with what we have created – we make good wine, we have good employee relations – it is a very symbiotic relationship. Those few years in the corporate world taught me a lot. I did love the business I was involved in developing but found out that that world was not for me.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The sounds of the seasons – at this time of year it’s the frogs…I also like, err, how can I put it, the sounds of being with my wife.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “The chattering or ‘machine-gun’ noise of Jake brakes on big trucks.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Begins with an ‘f’, has four letters, and rhymes with ‘luck’…”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Playing chess on the computer with the headphones on.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A record producer.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Collecting money and making change in a toll booth.”

What was the happiest or most gratifying day or event in your life? – “Two days come immediately to mind – the births of my children. With Aaron it was a difficult birth and driving home from the hospital I burst into songs that my father had sung to me decades earlier. I didn’t think I even knew them.”

What was the saddest or most disappointing? – “The saddest day was my mother’s passing. Despite all her problems in the first half of her life she lived until 2003, when she was ninety-three, and I know she was very content for many years; being a grandmother here with the kids gave her great pleasure.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – “Well, I do try to be honest. I try to be direct. I know that my decisions are my decisions and I take responsibility for them. I do believe in karma and try to live accordingly. Farming obviously emphasizes this – what you put in will be reflected in what you get out.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Welcome Ted, let’s have a banquet!”

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Published in: on February 25, 2009 at 7:26 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love your site! 🙂

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  2. I am a stutterer who has recently moved to Pismo. I am an Electrician,husband and father of two. I found your story very well written and enjoyable. I hope you and your family are well.


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