John Scharffenberger – November 18th, 2011

I met with John at his lovely home set amongst thirty-plus beautiful acres just outside Philo. He made some strong coffee and we sat down to talk in the spacious dining room, with dogs Boris and Mocho nearby, relaxing alongside the wood-burning stove.
John was born in 1951 in Paterson, New Jersey to parents George Scharffenberger and Marion Nelson. The Scharffenberger’s were from the Catholic Bavarian region of Germany and it was John’s great, great grandfather who had fled their homeland in the 1860’s during the Franco-Prussian war, and moved to the United States, settling in the New York City area. “He was drafted into the Union army towards the end of the Civil War and then married my great, great grandmother, half American Indian, half English, and they settled in the rural area outside the city. My grandfather was a skilled lithographer and my father grew up in a working class family in Hollis, New York, which is where J.F.K. airport is now situated on Long Island. It was an open area with small farms – they had fruit trees and my dad kept bees. My grandfather died when my father was 10 and he was raised by his mother with help from relatives, who also helped send him through college.”
The Nelson’s were Swedish who, along with many other Scandinavians, came to the States in the 1880’s following two years of failed harvests in their homeland. “Many of them settled in Minnesota and that region of the U.S. but they settled in New Jersey, where there was work in the many textile factories that were opening at that time and it was a bustling place. My grandfather was a seaman in the merchant marines who joined the Navy and was in China during the twenties. He later served in the Navy during World War 2.”
George Scharffenberger graduated with a business degree from Columbia University and then lived in northern New Jersey where he had found work in the booming telecom industry of the day. He met a secretary, Marion Nelson, and they were married in 1948, living initially in the densely populated and industrial Patterson, where John was born, one of six children. “We were brought up Catholic but by the age of seven I was suspicious of the stuff the nuns taught at Sunday school and decided to take it all with a grain of salt.”
When John was three, the family moved to Wyckoff, New Jersey, which was real suburbia. “The neighborhood was mostly made up of Catholic families with lots of kids. With Mom at home raising the family, my Dad was moving up at the telecom company and by the time I was nine, in 4th-grade, he had become very successful and was offered a job with a high tech company in California – Litton Industries. We moved out to southern California and that was a real wrench for me. I had to leave my many friends in the neighborhood where we lived and where I was always hanging at their houses – I was a very social kid.”
The family moved to Woodland Hills, to the lot where the factory to be run by George Scharffenberger was situated. This was rented from Warner Brothers film studios, and the house where the Scharffenberger’s lived had been the ranch home of the Warner family. “We were in this huge house on two thousand acres and so I went from being very social with lots of friends in the urban suburbs to hanging out with my brothers and sisters, in our family ‘pack’ in the countryside for a few years. However, when I was twelve, my parents bought ten acres in a ‘horsey’ part of Los Angeles – Rolling Hills, and I went to junior high and high school there. It was the suburbs again but spread out and a nice place to live. My father had started out with nothing and now he was very prominent in his industry – the developing space and aeronautics field and L.A. was the ‘capital’ of this new industry…”
“The public education in Rolling Hills was very good, as good as it got anywhere in the sixties, I believe. However, I did not like school and had become less social than in my earlier years. I was a crappy student with lots of B’s, although I guess I did like history, geography and literature. I think I perhaps had a learning disability. I was on the tennis team and joined the film club where the ‘radical’ kids hung out. I was on the student council and was in charge of the morning announcements. The national anthem was played every day but on one occasion I played Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. A right wing teacher physically threatened me after that. The next week I played the Jose Feliciano version of the national anthem and was relieved of the ‘job’…
I had various paying jobs as a teenager, such as gardening, fence building, and painting, which I liked. My mother was still making us go to Mass and take catechism but the perk of this was that, at sixteen, I got a job as the driver for the local Monsignor, a senior Priest. That was fun and sometimes I’d drive him, in my mother’s station wagon, to meet with his girlfriend at a fancy hotel in Beverley Hills!”
In June 1969, John graduated and in the fall went to college at U.C. Santa Barbara studying for an Economics degree. “I dropped right in with the student radicals and was soon involved in the protests of the day – just some stupid kid suddenly hanging around with these serious radicals. My roommate was one of the Santa Barbara Twenty who were charged with burning down the Bank of America in town and made the national news. The police came to our house and pulled me out of bed and dragged me downstairs naked, thinking I was him. Another good friend, Suzy Fong, was arrested and I ran the committee to raise money for her bail… Needless to say, I was doing badly with my studies, spending lots of time on the beach – surfing, partying, taking drugs, as well as attending the protests. I headed out to attend the Altamont Music festival that fall but the traffic was so bad that we couldn’t get there and I spent the weekend in Berkeley. That was something else and I thought ‘Damn, this is where I want to be!’ It was more urban and exciting and I decided to move there and change my studies.”
John was accepted into the landscape architecture program and lived in an apartment with friends. “I realized that I really wanted to go ‘back to the land’ with my studies, something I had always been into. Meanwhile, my friend Suzy now lived on an anarchist commune and I’d stay there sometimes. They were really nice people but years later they were the ones who formed the Symbionese Liberation Army, who would go on to rob banks, commit murder, and kidnap Patty Hearst… It was a time of great change for me, I was ‘coming out’ and being exposed to other cultures for the first time in my life – black people, Jews, etc, etc. I decided to work as well as attend school so I got a job at the Botanical Gardens where I met many ‘crazy’ and fun older women gardeners who taught me so much. Then in my second year I got a job as live-in gardener at a home in the Berkeley hills which had a big community garden and I got to work with many eco-gardeners.”
John realized that his coursework as a Landscape Architecture student was not really teaching him about what he wanted to know so he arranged his courses around his own ‘personal’ major, combining classes in soil science, forestry, botany, ecology, the relationship between plants and mankind, and the interaction between agricultural systems and nature. It is taught now as Agricultural Geography at UCLA, where Jared Diamond who wrote ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ is the main professor…
Meanwhile, some of his ‘radical’ friends from high school were studying under Alan Chadwick, a bio-dynamic gardener, teaching this, then new, system of looking at the natural world and growing plants, at UC Santa Cruz “This went way beyond organic gardening as it attempted to understand the whole natural system and was then a somewhat subversive type of gardening which has now become much more mainstream.”
“My ideas about farming began to form when I rode a bicycle over a thousand miles in Europe when I was 15 and was taken by the beauty of the small-scale farming there. Vineyards were my favorite because they were so beautiful and could be planted on variable topography along with other crops. My friends from Santa Cruz and I started to plan a small farm in the same style, using the things we had learned from Chadwick – we could grow pot and make enough money to start a winery”
The first step was to getting this started was to look for a place and John and a friend came up to Anderson Valley in 1971. “Husch Winery had just started, Edmeades too. Tony Husch showed us a property on Greenwood Road that is now Greenwood Ridge Winery. It was perfect for us, but it was taken off the market when we showed some serious interest. Anyway, it was back to the drawing board so the project was put aside, but I was certainly now aware of the Valley as a beautiful place to live and farm… My father had tried his hand at running a dairy farm in New Jersey when just out of college. He almost went bankrupt and went to work to pay his debts off. He kept the land and rented it out. Now that we were on the west coast he asked me about the farming possibilities in northern California. From my experience of trying to start the little farm with my friends, I knew that Napa was too expensive and crowded but Mendocino was far enough away to not be a commuter place and still reasonably priced.”
While his father continued to encourage John to keep looking for the ‘right spot’, John stuck at his studies, including summer school in UC Santa Cruz for chemistry and physics. There were lots of opportunities to work in the anti-war movement and John volunteered to participate in those pursuits in Ukiah, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. On top of all that, some weekends were spent in Santa Cruz working on garden projects.
Dr Russell Lee, who had started the first community health clinic in the States, had bought 40,000 acres all over Mendocino County and Sonoma. Some thought him a socialist, he was wealthy and a devoted gardener and beekeeper. John had looked at one of the ranches in Sonoma, met Dr Lee, and the two had got along well. “Russell was very happy to talk to anyone who had a passion for the land and growing like I did. By my senior year I really had decided that I wanted to work in the wine world and he said he’d hire me after I graduated to do an inventory of all his properties in terms of what would grow well and where.” Meanwhile John began to take viticulture related classes at U.C. Davis and worked at Stony Hill winery in Napa. “They were innovative, being the first American winery to put chardonnay in French oak barrels, planting on hillsides so that there was no frost damage, and doing a minimal treatment of the grapes with a light touch and few chemicals. They were also devoted democrats, causing a stir when they refused to sell wine to Richard Nixon!”
John graduated in June 1973 with a degree in Biogeography and was hired by Russell Lee. However, Lee suffered from a stroke not long afterwards and the Lee family decided to sell the properties. “I found a job at the Souverain winery in Geyserville, and was staying on Lee’s property in Cloverdale. A month later my father called and told me he’d sold his property in New Jersey and, to avoid taxes, we needed to buy something within sixty days. A few days later I passed a sign on the highway for a ranch that was for sale near to Ukiah. I checked it out and it was perfect. It cost about the same as the property had sold for in Jersey and so he bought it and hired me, on a salary of $12K a year with a truck and house, to develop the ranch. I did not even know how to change the oil in my truck when I started but now began to run a two thousand acre ranch. Over the next 12 years, I dove into the project, hands on, building fences, planting vineyards, reforesting, and doing most of the mechanical work. It was a 25-minute drive to Ukiah so I was stuck with a lot of challenges to fix things and figure stuff out alone. I had a guy advising me on some of the vineyard stuff for the first year, but found that my study of horticulture proved to be more helpful than anything else I’d done.”
Over the previous years, John had dated several girls but had always known that he really liked guys better. “I was a bit of an anomaly being a gay redneck – there were few professional farmers who were gay – at least that I knew. I began to develop a social life in the San Francisco area and spent free time there when I could get away.”
“In 1979,I was at a wedding in Ukiah and the American champagne served was horrible yet the French ‘bubbly’s’ were great. ‘Why is there such a difference?’ I wondered. My studies taught me to look for factors of geography and it occurred to me that the Anderson Valley had summers as cold as in Champagne, France and maybe should be producing like the French. I decided that I’d like to try to make something like Champagne over there some day.”
During this time he bought a little farm in Ukiah but ran into trouble and couldn’t keep up the payments so he sold it for a surprise profit of $100K. “I now thought that I had what I needed to make begin my ‘champagne’ project was to go to the ‘experts.’ I traveled to France with a winemaker friend and visited twenty or so wineries in Champagne and talked to anyone I could find who knew anything about the process. On our return, I rented an inexpensive steel building in Ukiah, and began to fit it out with the equipment for production. We were on a shoestring budget, so we fabricated things and bought a lot of used tanks and pumps. In 1981 I made a deal with Valley Foothills vineyard in Anderson Valley to buy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and began production. By 1983 we came up with a bottle of sparkling wine that was drinkable, made from the 1981 crop – a year before Roederer.”
“We struggled along, but I was able to hire some top people, including Tex Sawyer and between us we figured it all out and by 1987 we were making pretty decent stuff… What I hadn’t counted on was that about twenty other people had similar ideas at the same time and many of these were larger established French wineries that had deep pockets and existing marketing channels. I decided to spend all of my time working at the winery so, I sold the equity I had in my Dad’s ranch back to him and bought an old house on Anderson Valley Way just north of Boonville, near to the elementary school. I needed a place to show the wine and this was a beautiful house. I planted a great garden and I really got into the hospitality aspect of the business and put on wine lunches and parties for wine buyers. It was a success and I was soon one of the largest buyer of grapes in the Valley.”
Despite the success, money was always tight and by 1989 investors were needed. “With more that a little luck, I was invited to a lunch that John Fetzer was giving for some French people. It turns out that they owned the Pommery and Lanson Champagne houses. My sparkling wine was served at lunch and they were impressed. They visited my modest facility in Ukiah and brought up the idea of us working together. I couldn’t believe my ears, but over the next few weeks we developed a plan to expand Scharffenberger Cellars, buy vineyards, build a winery and expand. The French guys were from what is now called Danone Company, who produced Evian water, Danone yoghurt, etc. I found the sheep farm that is now the home of Scharffenberger and began what became the most fun project of my life. I was very lucky – I was working with lovely people who wanted to do everything right and they had the funds to make everything happen. We did make a mistake once when we unknowingly pumped water out of a well, which was 100 yards away from the Indian Creek. We stopped as soon as we found out that the pumping was reducing its flow. To make sure that the mistake never happened again, we pulled out the pump and gave the water rights there to the A.V. Land Trust. We planted about 18,000 trees on the overgrazed lands above the vineyards and it is a great pleasure to see 20’ tall trees growing in canyons that had been barren when we started.”
John built a lovely winery and grapes that did well in the local climate. “Together with the knowledge brought in by Tex Sawyer and Tom Hartlip, this led to increasingly better wine being produced. Many of our Mexican workers were with us for many years and we had a very nice continuity. We had a grand opening in 1991 on my 40th Birthday by which time I had learned a lot about the process myself and I was very aware of being careful about the pressing and the handling of the grapes. We had a very successful few years.”
By 1991, Danone were changing their focus and sold their champagne holdings to Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods company. This company did not see Scharffenberger as a good fit but for a time made it work. However, by 1995 John had had enough. “They were difficult to work with and I sold my shares back to them and I decided to quit my job. They changed the name to Pacific Echo and basically ruined the business. The company was bought by Roederer and has been brought back to life with most of the original employees.”
In 1996, John moved from his house in Boonville to the property in Philo where he continues to live. Looking for other agricultural projects he became involved in areas other than grapes, including planning a sparkling cider like the “scrumpy” of England that would save the waste of hundreds of tons of apples and pears that were growing around the county. In 1996, a good friend of his, Robert Steinberg, had an idea about making top quality chocolate. “I was asked to come up with the business plan and with another friend we started Scharffenberger chocolate. We rented a building in South San Francisco and began to scrounge up the needed equipment much as I had done with my first winery. We employed similar tasting assessments as I’d done with the sparkling wine and by 1998 we came up with a blend we liked. Fortunately we ended up with a good product before my savings ran out.”
“We found investors who liked the product and soon the consumers did too. We basically re-wrote the book on American Chocolate. There had been no new chocolate manufacturers started in the US, since the forties. Despite his terminal illness, Robert remained a great analyst of flavor and design. I was more pro-active, working full time and spending lots of energy. We worked very well together and we were both equally as important for the company’s success”… They opened a factory in Berkeley and “did it right. “We paid our staff well and had a wonderful team. Within a year we were in People Magazine, were written about in the New York Times, and appeared on Martha Stewart’s show. It all became very big and soon I was doing public presentations all over the place. Robert and I became the go-to guys for anyone writing about chocolate and we shared our information freely. If one “googled” the word chocolate in 2001 Scharffen Berger would be the first, and usually 4 of the 10 results worldwide.
“To find the right beans to make the chocolate we had to visit all of our cacao suppliers and that meant visiting twenty-eight countries around the world, such as Guatemala, Venezuela, Ecuador, Ghana, Vietnam, etc, etc – all very different with a wide range of agricultural practices of which I wanted to be aware. We discovered that “fair trade” was a sham in the chocolate world and paid over double what most “fair trade” chocolate makers paid their growers.”
Meanwhile, John built a beautiful rammed-earth home in Philo and would spend two days up here and five in the Bay Area every week. “Around 2005, Hershey’s showed up and offered to buy the business. We said ‘No.’ They doubled their offer and Robert and other investors said ‘Yes’ but I said ‘No’ again. Hershey’s doubled their offer again. I loved our company, but people had invested and wanted returns on that so in 2005 I agreed to sell. The Hershey Trust, an organization that helps under-privileged kids now runs it but I still consult with Scharffen Berger and began a project to grow both cacao and mahogany together in Guatemala. In the end I finally realized that I really don’t like the tropics! So I now help some small companies in the Bay Area and spend 5 days a week in Anderson Valley.”
John is now working on a blog that provides information on the 3 million small farmers of cacao around the world, articulating the agricultural and economic differences between them. 85% of all cacao is produced on family farms of less that 8 acres, vastly different from coffee, tea and most other commercial crops. “Hopefully spreading “best practice” information will eventually lead to better farm incomes – even the poorest farmers that I have met have some access to the Internet”.
One of the practices that he is focused on is the abuse of child labor in Africa. When traveling in Vietnam he noticed short trees that were carefully pruned and produced large crops. The trees in Africa are unpruned and twice as tall. “This means that children have to be used to climb the trees to pick the fruit, many times carrying machetes. During harvest, they are taken out of school by their families and put to work. If the Vietnamese method of training was employed, adults could pick the fruit easily without any children helping. The Gates Foundation is running a project with 25 cooperatives using my specifications and we will know in a year of so if we can get the results that we are hoping for. I have also been working as an advisor with small food companies to continue my interest in the food business and I’m currently working on a sauerkraut project. Other than that I am on various boards – the UC Berkeley Foundation, the UC College of Natural Resources, the Botanical Garden in Berkeley, but I try to be up here for five days and elsewhere just two.”
I asked John for a verbal image of his father. “Tough love. Very loving and generous with a tough edge. He was the bear you approached carefully”… And your mother? “We were never very friendly but now she is the best friend I have. She is wonderful.”
John remains very busy with his various projects and social life. “ I am lucky to have an evening free and alone here and have more going on than I can deal with sometimes. However, I originally came here to grow things and I still do so that’s why I stay here. The Valley is a beautiful place and I love this area although it does get a little hot in the summer…”
I asked John for his responses to various Valley issues… The wineries? – “I don’t know why anyone would move here without a passion for food, farming and forestry – maybe some have come to hide from the world and it may be these people who seem to object to any kind of change. With a few exceptions, traditional agriculture was dying out here; the wine business is keeping agriculture vibrant. It is exciting to see all kinds of new food production follow it. This place would just be a suburb of Ukiah without farming”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “Great literature – I wish there was more journalism, although I do think it the local coverage is getting better”… KZYX & Z local public radio – “It gives people with too much time on their hands something to complain about though I’m glad it no longer plays all that Celtic music. It was a struggle to get started and I feel lucky to have it in our community”… The school system? – “I don’t know much about it but I believe that it is doing a pretty good job”… Marijuana? – “Been there, done that. I am bored talking about it”… The Health Center? – “I support it”… The Elder Home – “Good idea but nobody seems to know what has happened with it”…
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to John and asked him to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “The autumn colors.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Too many days of rain in succession.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Kids playing. I have lots of friends with kids.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “A single dog barking.”
5. What is your favorite food or meal? – “The hot turkey sandwich at Lauren’s Restaurant – simple but delicious… Oh, and I must add a hot fudge sundae with toasted walnuts.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? – “Walt Whitman.”
7. If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? – “My dogs and my computer.”
8. Do you have a favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? – “Well the music would be Handel’s opera Aria’s… The film ‘Paisan’ directed by Rossellini, with Fellini also involved; and a book would be ‘The History of the World in 10½ Chapters’ by Julian Barnes – it’s very funny and very good.”
9. What scares you? – “I’m not afraid of much – that is kind of a problem… Maybe of somebody veering into me on Hwy 128.”
10. What is your favorite hobby? – “I’m crazy about growing things…”
11. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “A civil engineer – building stuff.”
12. What profession would you not like to do? – ‘There are loads of those… Let’s go with a job at the D.M.V.”
13. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was 15, she was 16 and she could drive. That was Denise Dorr and we went grunion hunting on the beach, which was just an excuse for taking a girl to the beach.”
14. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “Perhaps I should have gone to university back east – that may have broadened my horizons earlier.”
15. Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. – “The Santa Clara Pop Festival of 1968 – it was the dry run for Woodstock with many of the same acts. It was the first time that I felt like I was in charge of my own destiny.”
16. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “Making a chocolate that was delicious, and enough of it so that people around the world could enjoy it… And my garden here in Philo – something I am very proud of.”
17. What is your favorite thing about yourself? – “I am tall! Also my curiosity – I have more than most people and it gets me into trouble, but at the same time it has helped me do everything I’ve done.”
18. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well it would be great if he just said ‘Welcome, would you like a hot fudge sundae?’… Actually, when I was still around the nuns as a child, one of them told me that heaven was all the strawberry ice cream I could eat. Well, I hated strawberry ice cream so I never wanted to go to heaven. Meanwhile, as you can tell, ice cream generally is very important to me.”

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Published in: on December 8, 2011 at 8:52 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Great article about John. Somehow he is a relative and looks just like my Dad and I……AMAZING. I would love to talk with or e-mail John to learn more about his family.


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