Sharon Sullivan – July 21st, 2012

I met with Sharon last weekend at her lovely and peaceful home on Guntley Road on the Holmes Ranch at the northwest end of the Valley. She served up a delicious garden salad on what was a very hot afternoon, and we sat down to talk…
Sharon was born in December 1948, in Athens, Ohio, the eldest child of three born to parents Daniel Sullivan and Doris Baker. Her father had a son from a previous marriage, Sharon’s half brother, also called Daniel, who despite his efforts to work on the family history has not come up with much and Sharon knows very little about her Sullivan heritage. On the Baker side there is not much more to share. Her grandfather died of cancer but Sharon knew her grandmother well, a Swedish woman, among other nationalities, and “a very tough woman to reckon with”. The Bakers lived in Kirtland, Ohio, a tiny rural town about forty-five miles from Cleveland, and Sharon’s father, who was a salesman, met her mother on one of his business trips to the town and they were married a year or so later. Both of Sharon’s full siblings, Leslie and Timothy, have now passed.
The family lived in Kirtland while Sharon was growing up and when her father died of stomach poisoning they moved into her maternal grandmother’s house. “My grandmother never approved of her family moving out – her dream was for all of her family to live at her home. She hated outsiders. My mother’s sister Lois ‘escaped’ from the family home, as did my uncle, grandmother’s favorite who could do no wrong in her eyes. It was difficult for my mother and at various times we were briefly put into foster homes and, for three years from the age of six to nine, I went to live with my Aunt Lois and her family in Germany where my Uncle was a captain in the U.S. Army. This made the local papers in Kirtland where there was a photograph of me packing my suitcase! My aunt and uncle were strong Catholics so during those years in Germany I had my first communion, and had to go to mass every Sunday and catechism on Saturdays. I hated it and have never followed any organized religion since – I am agnostic. Apart from that I liked being with this ‘normal’ family and my aunt knew that my life at home was not good and wanted to adopt me but my mother refused and I returned to Ohio in 1957. My mother stayed at home for a few more years and was dominated by my grandmother, who one day shared with me that she ‘hated men’. This was around the time that my mother was re-marrying, to a man called Wiley Bishop, who became our stepfather when I was about eleven. He and my mother then had a child, my half-brother, Robert.”
Kirtland was home to about 1200 people, mostly farmers, and it was where Sharon attended elementary school, which was a short walk down a dirt road from her grandmother’s home. “My memories of those days are very scattered. I remember the deep snow in winter, breaking my arm twice, a girl dying in the school hallway, and being a member of the local 4-H group. My mother worked as a waitress in a Cleveland restaurant that was near to a wonderful old theatre/movie house where my stepfather later took me to see the film ‘Cleopatra’ starring Elizabeth Taylor. My mother was not at all strict with us, that duty was left to my grandmother. We loved Grandma though and played tricks on her all the time.”
The family moved around quite a lot during Sharon’s early years but after her mother married Wiley Bishop, the family moved to Cleveland Heights in the Cleveland suburbs. “It was a big beautiful house with lots of rooms. It turned out that the money for this came from my stepfather’s embezzlement activities, for which he eventually spent time in jail. However, for four years or so, until I was about fifteen and he went to prison, I thought he was the best Dad. I could really talk to him. I remember one night coming in two hours late from a date and he was very understanding, realizing that I knew I had done wrong and that was punishment enough.”
After doing time in jail, Sharon’s mother and the kids saw Wiley one more time and that was it. “We never saw him again. My grandmother hated him and my mother told me many years later that he was gay but that kind of thing was never discussed in those days. I attended the local schools but as had happened throughout my life to that point, we continued to move every few years and I was at three different schools through my junior and high school years. I made friends at each but always left them. I was also quite shy, actually insecure would be a more accurate thing to say.”
Sharon hated math but did like art yet felt she couldn’tdo it very well. As for sports she only did them if she had to, mainly because the P.E. teacher was “mean, mean, mean.” During her sophomore year at Cleveland Heights High School, she had a part-time job on the candy stand at a movie house owned by the father of her boyfriend at the time but she then spent her final two years of high school at Warrensville High School and did not work during that time. She was more social at this school and enjoyed a couple of ‘wild’ years that included partying and a number of boyfriends, one of whom was the football team captain.
Sharon graduated in 1966 and further education was never really thought about. “I had no real ambitions. I wanted to go and live with my aunt and get some discipline in my life because I was aware that I did not know who I was or what I wanted. I needed some structure in my life. I moved to live with Aunt Lois in Cincinnati and found a job as a waitress at a Marriot Restaurant. I soon started dating a guy and in late 1966 became pregnant. Abortion was illegal and there was no other option than to have the baby. My aunt and uncle, good Catholics, immediately packed me off back to my mother’s in Kirtland and I ended up in a Salvation Army home for unwed mother’s. I was, and always have been, very practical, and I made the decision to give up the baby to adoption. To me, bringing a life into the world where that life was gong to be so unstable was wrong. My mother wanted to adopt the baby but I was adamant about the child not being in that environment. I knew there was a good home for the baby to be found somewhere else. I gave birth to a baby boy in August 1967 and was with him for fifteen minutes before I signed the adoption papers. He was then taken away from me.”
“I do think about this sometimes and wonder if he will ever try to find me. He would be about to turn forty-five now so I guess not. I did give my name to a registry some years ago but if it happens, it happens; it is beyond my control. I was together mentally; I was very practical. It was not some sort of hysterical decision. The father and I had split up and I had a new boyfriend who knew the situation and came from Cincinnati to visit me in Cleveland at my mother’s. He proposed to me and I accepted. Unfortunately it did not last and I broke off our engagement a few months later.”
Sharon returned to Cincinnati and started a job at the Coca Cola plant where she was a production assistant and tour guide for this well-known bottling factory. She found an apartment to live in above a pharmacy in the area around the University of Cincinnati. “It was a very nice area with lots going on and it was fun for a time. Then in 1970, I returned to Cleveland to live with my Mom at her place in something of a hippy area with health food stores, cafés, and cinemas showing independent films. I got a job as a waitress at a deli close by and started to date a hippy guy. A neighbor of mine said I couldn’t be a hippy because I didn’t dress like one. I thought it was not about the clothes, rather about where your head was. I was right but I did start wearing the hippy clothes soon after anyway. I did all the things that were the part of hippy life at that time – the hippy boyfriend and lifestyle, the ‘look’, and experimenting with the drugs of that time. It was all part of life’s learning process. I enjoyed the ‘scene’ and had always possessed that way of thinking, despite my conservative upbringing and appearance up until then. I moved into a house with a bunch of people, hung out at coffee shops and music scenes, and it was a good time.”
Unlike the philosophy of some hippies, Sharon always had a sense of responsibility and work ethic. She worked at a bar in the financial district of Cleveland “for which I wore a different set of clothes!” Then in 1971, she and her boyfriend, Vic, decided to head west. “He had a brother in Phoenix, Arizona and I packed lots of peanut butter and jelly and bread and we headed out in our car that had no headlights, meaning we had to drive from dawn to dusk. We ran out of gas in Albuquerque, New Mexico and had to panhandle for gas which got us to Flagstaff when we ran out again but a cowboy gave us $5 and we finally arrived.”
Sharon ended up staying in Phoenix for three years. She worked in a pub as a bartender and she and Vic lived in an apartment in town. She eventually found a job at Savin Business Machines, initially as a filing clerk and later as the production manager’s secretary. They had some friends who were from Vallejo, a little north of San Francisco and so when she heard that Savin’s location in Brisbane, California, a little south of San Francisco, was hiring she applied for a transfer. “That was great – we could go to San Francisco and I would already have a job. We left Phoenix in 1974 and came out to the Bay Area. For a time I commuted to work from our friends house in Vallejo before we found a place to live in the Bernal Heights district of San Francisco. I broke up with Vic and by 1975 had moved to live in Brisbane with some friends from work.”
Sharon left Savin and started to work for a hotel chain as an administrative assistant and reservations secretary. She also found a whole new set of friends who were bikers – the Brisbane Burnouts, whose logo or patch was Hagar the Horrible – the cross-eyed Viking. “The group were not hardcore bikers but we did love to ride and had Harley’s and Triumph motorcycles. I was not a biker myself; I was a biker chick, and started to date a biker called Ace Chernoff. It was on one of our rides north that I first found and traveled through Anderson Valley – around 1976 or ’77, I guess. We stopped at The Boonville Lodge and somehow had a verbal altercation with a local guy. He followed us in his truck and not long afterwards he tried to run us off the road by Gowan’s Oak Tree. He tried again a little further along the highway and two bikes ended up off the road. The police came, called it a ‘civil dispute’ and didn’t pursue the case any further. I did not come back for a few years.”
Back in Brisbane the Hell’s Angels wanted the Burnouts to join them and there were a number of parties at which both groups talked. “Those were wild parties with all the obvious stuff going on. I was no longer with Ace and now dated Chopper Tom. I liked the Angels but they were too much for me, particularly after I had seen them beat people up. The rest of our group didn’t want to join anyway – too many meetings. We just wanted to ride and have fun, and did not want to get too serious about it and make it a lifestyle. I still had my good job and chose the times when I wanted to party; in fact our whole group had regular jobs. For all the wild stuff around me I was able to handle it and still function well in the ‘real world.’ Around that time, early 1978, I became close friends with a woman called Jay. We decided to quit our jobs, take a break, and after Ace loaned me his Cadillac off we went, to a biker friend’s house in Starrett Hill near to Guerneville on the Russian River, an hour or two north of San Francisco. We claimed unemployment and at some point that summer we went on a trip to Pennsylvania with a friend of ours, Steve, whose sister lived in Blooming Grove, PA. Our road trip was fun but Jay came back after we had reached Cleveland while Steve and I continued to Pennsylvania and then went up to Montreal in Canada for a time.”
“After a month or so, I returned to Blooming Grove and ended up staying there for over two years. It was a very small town in the Pocono Mountains, just a bar, a general store, and an auto shop. I found work at a nearby honeymoon resort as a cocktail waitress for a time before settling into a better job selling vacation rentals where one of my co-workers was the original ‘Marlboro Man’, who later died of lung cancer. I enjoyed my time there but in 1980 I was at a wedding where I met a hippy guy with a van who lived in Guerneville! I hitched a ride with him and returned to California.”
On her return to this area, Sharon stayed with her friend Jay in Ft. Bragg on the Mendocino County coast. “Jay left for New York so I found a place in a house with a bunch of people. I worked at a couple of bars, one was where all the fishermen would go – The Basin South Bar – where I became a really good pool player. I met and dated a guy called Bear for a time and when we broke up I got a job at The Rosebud Bar and moved into the apartment upstairs. I was drinking a lot at that time. Fortunately, I then met a guy by the name of Dan Bender and he helped me. After initially being just friends we started to date in 1985. He lived in Navarro in Anderson Valley and with our good friends, Ed and Donna Ronne, the Playboy ‘Playmate of the Year’ in 1964 (as Donna Michelle), who also lived in the Valley, they helped me move from the coast, where I had lived for five generally good years, to Dan’s house. I had become a close friend of Donna’s and gradually met other Valley people. After a year at Dan’s, although we were in a solid relationship, I moved into my own place on Gschwend Road, a cabin owned by Kathy Bailey, where I was to live for many years, until 2004, in fact.”
While Dan continued to work as a mechanic at Starr Auto in Philo, Sharon worked at the Elk Cove Inn on the coast and also the Oasis Bar, also in Elk. Then the Floodgate Restaurant was opened near to Navarro by Franklin and Francine and she began to work there as a waitress, just a few minutes from her home. She and Francine would also do catering jobs, one of which was for Roederer Estates, the sparkling wine producer in the Valley, and it was there that Sharon first met Michel Salgues, the winemaker. “I had been at Floodgate for a couple of years I think when Michel said Roederer were planning to open a tasting room and they needed to hire some people. He offered me a job there and on May 13th, 1991 I started. I have been there ever since.”
In September 1992, Dan became sick. “We thought it was just the flu. It wasn’t, it was liver cancer. My mother came out to help with his care but there was little we could do. He was too weak to do chemotherapy and Dr Apfel here in the Valley was great in his care for Dan in that short time. In November 1992, Dan died, just two months after diagnosis, He was just forty-three. We had been together for seven years – the longest relationship I had been in.”
Sharon continued her work at Roederer, eventually becoming the tasting room manager, working for Michel until his retirement in 2002 and since then for Arnaud Weyrich, who had been an intern there in the 1990’s. “I hoped I was nice to him back then because he became my boss!” Her current title is Director of Hospitality and Tasting Room Operations and she does this for Roederer and their sister winery Scharffenberger Cellars in Philo.
With her job came various social interactions and Sharon made a number of new friends in the Valley. “I was a part of the wine-growers association, made friends with Linda Baker at Handley Cellars and Pat Daniels at Navarro Vineyards, and my activities in the wine business led me to being more social and active in the community in terms of attending events. I dated Larry Blackshere who lived here for a time in the late 90’s and got to know some of his musician friends such as Mitchell Holman, Pilar Duran, and Jennifer Schmitt. Larry was later murdered by an intruder into his home in San Leandro. I then went out with Burton Segal, another musician and KZYX local radio presenter, and got to know his crowd of friends too.”
On Good Friday, 2004, Sharon’s friend Donna Ronne died of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-eight. There had been a will that left everything to two friends who had not been around Donna for ten years or more. A piece of paper was found in the house that was called a holographic will, one signed and dated by the now-deceased but without any witnesses. It is valid in about half of the states, including California. “This second will left everything to Donna’s pets, myself, and another friend of ours, Buffy Paula, who had helped take care of Donna’s dogs. The pets received 51%, and Buffy and I the remaining 49% – the house. The animals would therefore be taken of financially and I agreed to do this. Buffy then sold me her share of the house, very generously, at 24.5% of the house’s value, and I have lived here since. All of Donna’s pets have passed now, except two of her cats who are outside cats, and I have been so very fortunate to have this wonderful home on twenty peaceful acres.”
Sharon had broken up with Burton and in 2004 she started to go out with local contractor, Steve Mize. They are still together. “Neither of us feels the need to get married. We both still have our own homes. We like it that way, it suits us. It is the longest time I have been with someone, and my time here in Anderson Valley is the longest time I have ever lived anywhere. I love the Valley’s peacefulness and its people, their diversity and sense of community. I do not like those who have little respect for the Valley and its ways.”
I asked Sharon for a memory of her mother. “I remember that when Marilyn Monroe died, I made the comment that it was ‘no great loss.’ My mother was furious and laid into me. I never forgot that and it turned around my life in the way I thought about people. My mother was wonderful and kind but was depressed for most of her life, with dementia affecting her later years. She tried to commit suicide a couple of times and I knew she was never really happy apart from fleeting moments. I always wished I could have won the lottery so I could take her to Italy for an opera – a dream of hers. She was a good person, but she was lost. She died a few years ago and my remaining family all live in the Cleveland area and I am in touch with my nephews.”
I asked Sharon for her thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation… The wineries? – “Too many”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I love the idea but sometimes the monotone talking is not what I want to listen to and I often turn to other channels”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I love it. I know some people say it is full of gossip but it is actually very informative, particularly the local pages. As they say every week on the front page, ‘Newspapers should have no friends’ – I agree”… The schools? – “Well I have no direct connection but I love that they are so highly rated against other similar-sized schools”…
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Sharon and asked her to just reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? – “My home, my job.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down? – “Politics, prejudice, hatred.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – Birds singing; the quiet mornings I have here.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Gunshots.”
5. What would be your ‘last supper’? – “Duck, served with a bottle of Roederer’s 1998 L’Hermitage.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? – “John Lennon.”
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? – “Photographs of loved ones; my collection of mirrors – I love the way mirrors reflect so much light; my two cats – Etta and k.d.”
8. Does anything scare you? – “Being incapacitated and unable to help myself.”
9. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? – “Southern Italy, Spain, Portugal.”
10. Do you have a favorite film/song or one that has influenced you? – “Films would be ‘Fried Green Tomatoes or any with Bette Davis, particularly ‘Dark Victory.’ A song would have to be John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ that sums up what I feel perfectly.”
11. What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? – “I have never really had a hobby. I never had the patience to really pursue one particular thing.”
12. Do you have a favorite word or phrase that you use? – “Apparently that would be ‘Absolutely’.”
13. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “A vegetable farmer.”
14. What profession or job would you not like to do? – “Anything that is monotonous – assembly line work in a factory.”
15. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was fifteen and we went to see the movie ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and then sat and talked in a coffee shop for hours. I cannot remember the boy’s name though. That has not really changed, I can never remember people’s names.”
16. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I would have gone to college.”
17. Tell me about a moment or period of time you will never forget. – “Donna’s passing and the way my life changed as a result.”
18. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “That I survived!”
19. What is your favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? – “My sense of responsibility. A quality I also have is that I am a little shy and perhaps people think I am stand-offish, but I am not.”
20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “ I think ‘Welcome – you lived a good life’ would be just fine.”

The next interview will appear on the 2nd Thursday of the month – August 9th.
The guest interviewee from the Valley on that occasion will be
Walt Valen

Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Next week…

Dear readers,
There is no interview this week. The series appears on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month and the next interview will appear on July 26th when my guest will be Sharon Sullivan of Roederer Estates and so much more…
Thanks for your continued positive comments and support,
Kind regards, Steve Sparks.

Published in: on July 19, 2012 at 6:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jim Taylor Roberts – June 29th, 2012

I met with Jim a couple of weeks ago at the property he owns just south of Philo on Hwy 128. He lives in a beautiful house alongside The Madrones small business complex, home to some of the Valley’s lesser-known but up-and-coming wineries. We sat down to talk in the kitchen with a cup of tea and some freshly made deli sandwiches that Jim had kindly picked up at The Boonville General Store.
Jim Taylor Roberts was born in Upland, in Riverside County, southern California although he basically grew up in nearby Orange County – “behind the orange curtain.” His parents were Rosemary Taylor and Herbert Roberts, “My father was second or third generation Californian, and although my grandfather was in banking, they were mostly farming people outside of L.A. They were very working class and suffered in the Depression along with many others. My mother was Cherokee/Scots/Irish and she can be traced back directly to Pocahontas. Some branches were what were known as Black Dutch, a group with a mixture of Cherokee and African American who were mainly in Alabama. My grandparents all died when I was young and my mother went into ‘show business’ after running away at fourteen. A Jewish family took her in and her talents encouraged. She was Miss Florida 1954! She joined a dance team and on one trip to a gig in California she decided to stay and found work at a restaurant. This was where my Dad was the manager. He had been married and had a daughter, my half-sister Connie, but his wife committed suicide. He and Mom hit it off and were married in 1957.”
Jim’s father worked at a famous restaurant called The Stuft Shirt and he and Rosemary started a family with Howard and Diane coming along four and six years before Jim and then they moved when he was two from Upland to Tustin, near to Newport Beach and the nationally known restaurant. “The restaurant was fine dining in those days with many celebrity guests such as John Wayne, among others. It was an ‘event’ restaurant where many people went to celebrate special occasions and had a really good reputation. On many days my Dad wore a tux and dickie to work – he was the manager and president of the corporation that had three restaurants. My mother had her own catering business for a time and she would host at the restaurant in the evenings.”
“I had a really nice upbringing and we lived in a big old Spanish-style house that had been abandoned and which was not in vogue at the time. I have lots of fond memories of that property – climbing the trees, raising chickens and rabbits, bicycling, the veggie garden. Apart from the fact that the house had some property it was a typical L.A. lifestyle I had, with lots of hanging out at the beach. We also had a house in Mexico and would go there as a family sometimes.”
Jim attended the local schools from elementary all the way through Tustin High School. His father worked many hours and his mother was often working too. “I guess I was something of a latch-key kid. My parents certainly instilled the work ethic in me. I was close to my siblings and had a good, happy upbringing and have no negative memories. I was a little introverted, and still am kind of that way. I had good friends but did spend a lot of time alone, not unlike today. My mother had an antique store and I became very interested in this as early as the age of nine or ten and would go along with her to auctions in L.A. to get inventory.”
The Stuft Shirt closed in the late seventies, the primary owner decided to purchase vineyard land and pursue a wine business. Jim’s father was laid off. “We had some financial hardships around that time. I was about twelve or thirteen and it was not easy for an ‘old school’ restaurant man like my father to find a job. We were not from money on either side of my family, my parents had earned what they had and now Dad was out of work. My parents had certainly been middle class and successful but then it was tough for a couple of years.”
“I was a fair student at school, I guess, but did not really enjoy high school and dropped out in my senior year. I was simply more interested in not being there. I smoked a little pot, hung around with my best friend and his hippy brother; we had eclectic taste in music, listening to Billie Holiday and the Rolling Stones. By that time my parents had broken up and I was living with my Dad near to Laguna Beach. I had enjoyed horticulture and art at school and wanted to explore my creative side. Strangely, as it turned out, I wanted to move to either Maine on the north east coast or more likely Mendocino in northern California – I had read about the area or the rugged coastline and wilderness really appealed to the southern Cal boy in me as something very different. I could not wait to get out of southern California. I had always felt somewhat lost there; it was so vast, track housing for miles on end. I would go on long bicycle rides and some parts were beautiful but by the time I was eighteen I was ‘lost’ and had no sense of myself. Sure I did some partying there but it never really appealed to me. I wanted out.”
With this in mind, at eighteen, Jim set out alone in his car with $400 and headed north. “I had never lived alone, nor traveled alone. I got as far as Carmel when a very bad storm hit. I had never seen rain like it so I stayed around town. A few days later I decided to get a room there and then found a job at a landscape nursery, with a waiting job in the evening at a restaurant – I had bussed tables at my Dad’s restaurant so knew some things about the business. I worked at the nursery for a year and then told my boss I wanted to go it alone and started my own business. I did o.k. and one customer was Mrs. Nordstrom, of department store fame. I lasted about a year before returning to L.A. but during that time I did manage to make one trip up to the village of Mendocino. It intrigued me but I was not quite ready for the move; it probably felt a little remote, now I think about it, and there were still things I needed to do.”
Jim’s mother had moved to Hawaii and so he moved into her house. He enrolled at Irvine Valley College to study art and did quite well. “I was an o.k. artist and was one of just twenty out of twelve hundred artists to be invited to the Laguna Beach Festival of Art. However, I was struggling to make ends meet although I was selling a little of my art and waiting tables part-time. I decided to visit my Mom in Hawaii and rented a studio in the red light district there.” Jim painted street people and was represented by three or four galleries and helped my mother with her home design business. He soon grew to dislike the gallery system and somewhat abruptly gave up his painting.
“Looking back, I gave my art up almost overnight. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It seems like I have always been able to re-invent myself easily and have thrived on doing that. I like it. I have always had opportunities and although I have had some good fortune, mostly I have created those opportunities as opposed to just going out and getting any job as my default move.”
Now in his mid-twenties, Jim decided to utilize his art abilities in the world of film and commercial post-production. “I had a couple of very lucrative years in L.A. and San Francisco but I don’t think I was ever quite trained well enough in that field and fell short in some areas. I left the business and moved full-time to S.F. where I waited tables at some high-end restaurants such as The Elite Café and worked for the artist Marco Sassone. I made good money but still drove my old ’68 Volvo and prayed it would run every day. Then in 1986 I was laid off and decided to spend a summer in Mendocino. I worked at both 955 Ukiah and The Hill House restaurants, often doing a double shift a day. I had a good time that summer but it was too foggy and the coast was not for me. However, on returning to the Bay Area, I came through Anderson Valley and just fell in love with it, and the weather was so much nicer than at the coast. I think I decided then that I’d like to live here one day.”
Upon the suggestion of his mother, Jim next moved to Hawaii once again and this time he worked full-time alongside his mother in her interior design business. “It was the right time. She worked on many unbelievable homes and I was her assistant, doing everything from hanging wallpaper to deciding on design and hardware. It was the time of the Japanese purchasing boom and they would come over with suitcases of money and buy luxurious homes on the waterfront that we had been involved in building from the ground up – spec houses that we had put together, working with two or three developers who would each have a couple of houses on the go at the same time. The business had a huge following there and we were also hired to help market finished houses that were not selling. The business was Rosemary Roberts Design and we worked out of her house. We never got caught up in all the razzamatazz and did very well indeed. We would fly to L.A. and buy the furniture, sending it over to Hawaii in large containers. We might have as many as a dozen or more houses on the go at any one time and I learned a lot about the industry which was to help me in my own business later.”
However, by 1991 the Japanese recession had hit and the whole market collapsed. “We were on a buying trip for some multi-million dollar projects and almost overnight the market just shut down. It was like the market here in 2008. I returned to San Francisco and got a job with the Orkin Pest Control Company at their interior plants division – quite a change! Prior to leaving Hawaii, in the days of that Japanese boom, as a result of being so impressed on earlier visits, I had bought two acres on Hwy 128 just outside Philo and my mother had bought a 160-acre ranch in Yorkville. I figured it might be good to have some commercially zoned property here as I might want a little art shop here at some point – an art, antiques and garden item shop, called ‘Sun and Cricket’.”
Jim lived in a small apartment with a partner in the Noe Valley district of San Francisco but it was a tough couple of years for Jim in that he could not find a decent job where his expertise would needed. “I did land the Macy’s account for the company and learned how to cold call and how to have nothing and yet sell it as something.” In 1994 Jim became the director of design for Model Home Merchandising but realized there was a clash in business styles with the owner of the company. “It was like a three-ring circus and after a year I had had enough. I figured if I stayed there any longer I wouldn’t be able to maintain a good reputation in the industry, so I left and after a break decided to go it alone.”
In 1996, Jim knew it was time to start his own interior design business. With $1200 he began Taylor Roberts Inc, an interior design company, based in his kitchen. “I soon had two projects, one in the City and one in El Sobrante. ‘How did I do that?’ I ask myself looking back. It was a very competitive business and hard to get off the ground but the timing was perfect with the housing market on the rise With a couple of projects a year I would have created a job for myself in my field of expertise. I did not expect to it to get any more than that.”
Meanwhile, Jim was developing his property in Anderson Valley. He planted trees, improved the building, and had tenants. He visited for weekends every couple of months or so but eventually moved on to the property himself and stayed for longer periods of time. He had been in a serious personal relationship in the late nineties but that had broken up and in 1998 he decided to bring his new business to the Valley – “To ‘get out of Dodge’ as it were. I hired my first employee, Barry Chiverton, as the bookkeeper, and we were installed in an ugly trailer that I bought for $300. As Barry would say, ‘it was either an ice box or an oven depending on the time of year.’ Taylor Roberts of Philo was born and it just kept on growing. I continued to work on the property and my house. Offices were built, remodeling done, gardens put in. I had made a sketch of what I would like many years earlier – a little mission-style development. I was ‘Father Whatever’ and that is what we created.”
“We soon had ten employees and had a number of builder clients, mostly in the Bay Area, with one in Hawaii. Our expertise was merchandising and market, studying the psychographics and behaviors of new homebuyers, as apposed to just staging a home and making it look nice. We wanted to know how society was living; what their homes meant to people. We had many growing pains and it was a challenge to get good staff here, where very few had any training in the design world. I had never had employees before but eventually we had a staff of forty here and in the warehouses in Ukiah. We had a great run for quite a few years.”
By 2008, after a number of years of great success, the economy took a dive and the interior design business was adversely affected as much as any industry. Jim says he worked very hard to keep things going. “I did the best I could. For the most part I treated people very well and the staff were well paid. I introduced profit sharing, bonuses, flexible workweeks, and a social responsibility committee to organize donations to the community. It is tough for country businesses and ours was deadline driven making it even tougher. The staff worked really hard and we created an efficient corporate environment in an area where most had never had a corporate job. We had a really good team and remained very down-to-earth with no attitude, which is refreshing for that industry and we created a pleasant work environment. It was miserable having to deal with the lay-offs and I handled the first one horribly. We needed to work smarter and make adjustments when the workload went down. I did not do this and did not realize that this was a business not an employment agency. I had a very hard time saying no to hiring and had many staff and took on many new jobs – opportunity is one thing that can wipe your life out if not handled effectively and I was flattered into performing more.”
Anyway, that all ended, people lost their jobs and I was crucified in the local newspaper and did not respond well. Meanwhile, along with the dive in the economy, I found out that the company’s accounting was way off. It was very hard to stay on top of where we were financially during the jobs we had. Nevertheless, it was my ultimate responsibility. The economy changed, and people made mistakes. We all contributed and were not prudent but even if we had been it was ultimately the market that killed us and we may not have recovered anyway. It was a fun ride but I wanted out. I felt really responsible and took it all on and internalized it.”
“Money has never been my main motivation. It was always the by-product of working hard and doing a job well. It gives you a chance to succeed of course and I liked that we did things well and created jobs. In the end I felt so bad about the lay-offs and we had just eight staff left. I felt so bad about it; it was difficult to even go into a local restaurant or store and face the community, so I decided to leave the Valley. I returned to the Bay Area where I lived for two years, visiting the Valley occasionally but I didn’t have many ties here and I’m sure a number of employees did not want to see me. I basically took a couple of years off. I worked out, lost weight, took a mental retreat, and thought about what I could do next. A few jobs still came along that I ran from down there and I was very fortunate that a few employees stuck with me to do those. I still do a couple of jobs a year.”
With the steady demise of Taylor Roberts, Jim sold his property in the Bay Area and endured a bad financial period. “I decided to return to the Valley in 2010 and ‘save the farm’ as it were; and save myself at the same time – I had put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the property in one way or another. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I had empty buildings and a big mortgage and it was like walking into a time warp with everything exactly as I had left it.”
Jim decided to rent the space to various small wineries. They were struggling as distributors dropped them if they were not big enough and a number of such wineries were interested in taking a space at what was called The Madrones – the converted offices of Taylor Roberts. Lula, Drew, Bink, and Berridge wineries opened tasting rooms in the complex, although Berridge has now left. Jim also got to do his shop ‘Sun and Cricket’, as well as a couple of guest accommodations for travelers “It has worked out and it seems as if these small wineries with links to the Valley are doing well here. I am enjoying what we have here and I am able to enjoy the area and the community again. I work a couple of days at the shop and am meeting more and more people. I am going out in the Valley a little more although I am not a very social person. Given the choice between attending an event or working in my garden, I would choose the garden.”
I asked Jim for a quick verbal image of his father. “A really nice man; patient, quiet, with a great dry sense of humor. He died about twenty years ago and I have very fond memories of him, he and I would go to Mexico together, although he did work a lot and was often not around. He was of that generation – they worked and provided”… And Jim’s mother? – “She is still going very strong; definitely a can-do-it-type. She is enthusiastic and works really hard at whatever it is she turns her hand to. She moved here to love about fifteen years ago and I have a lot of fun with her. She has a few close friends and spends lots of time in her garden.”
“I love the Valley’s natural beauty and the connection to nature you can have here. I love farming and gardening, the country life. I plan to put on a number of workshops in rural practices = food preservation, olive oil, birding, foraging, etc. I am able to pursue hobbies such as mountain biking and paddle boarding on the river. I have met a number of wonderful people here and near points beyond. There is little I do not like although sometimes there is some small-mindedness here and an unwillingness to embrace outsiders. I have no thoughts of moving on at any time soon, although I would like to live in Europe at some point, Italy particularly. I would like to get to Hawaii over the winter months on a regular basis too.”
I asked Jim for his thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation… The Wineries? – “I like farm-based businesses. It is a hard business and while grapes are the thing here now, perhaps it will be something completely different in twenty/thirty years. I don’t think the winery industry is an evil thing. I enjoy the beauty of the vineyards, though I want to see the natural beauty of the valley maintained”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I think the point of view has softened in the last few years. I thought it was a bit of a bully-pulpit at one time but not now”… KZYX local public radio? – “It provides a good service and I am glad we have it even though a lot of the programming is not to my taste”… Changes in the Valley in recent years? – “All-in all, people think it has changed a lot but in reality I don’t think it has. However, old timers passing and new people arriving is a big change and I feel for the old-timers who may not like the changes. Personally, I have never been afraid of change, I like it.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Jim and asked him to reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? – “A new project and spending time in nature.”
2. What annoys you; brings you down? – “Negativity, intolerance, petty gossip.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “Wooden bells on sheep or cattle; the huge set of chimes on my deck.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – Music played openly with a heavy base; the sound of guns – I never really hunted although my Dad and I had matching hunting jackets!”
5. What would be your ‘last supper’? – “Probably a pasta dish of some sort.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? – “My Dad or some friends I have lost.”
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 two dogs – Winston the French bulldog and Charlie the Pug, and my laptop computer.”
8. Does anything scare you? – “My temper.”
9. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? – “Katmandu in Nepal.”
10. Do you have a favorite film? – “Harold and Maude.”
11. What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? – “I played a lot of tennis as a teenager but these days it would be gardening or perhaps mountain biking or paddle-boarding.”
12. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “The other side of the design process – the construction design.”
13. What profession or job would you not like to do? – “Anything repetitious.”
14. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “To the high school dance when I was sixteen.”
15. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I don’t really have a ‘rear-view-mirror’ and have not really lived my life that way.”
16. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “I have always tried to treat people fairly.”
17. What is your favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? – “I am a kind person.”
18. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Spirituality is important to me although I do not follow any organized religion. Yes, I have a few ‘woo woo’ things about me. I believe we are brought ‘back to the fold’ and so ‘Welcome back’ would work for me.”

The next interview will appear on the 4th Thursday of the month – July 26th
The guest interviewee from the Valley on that occasion will be…
Sharon Sullivan

Published in: on July 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm  Leave a Comment