Fred R. Buonanno – November 16th, 2012

I met Fred at his Philo Ridge Vineyards tasting room in downtown Boonville. With manager Jill Derwinski holding the fort we sat down and, with a bottle of delicious pinot gris at hand, began our conversation.
Fred was born in Trenton, New Jersey on July 26th, 1956 to parents Fred Sr. and Molly McKnight. Both of his paternal grandparents were born in Naples, Italy but they did not meet until each had emigrated to the States around 1910 and settled in Rhode Island. Once married they moved to Trenton where among a number of different jobs, grandfather Buonanno was primarily a fishmonger. “My grandfather maintained his strong Italian accent and I vividly remember loving the old popcorn machine they had and him calling me his ‘papacorn boy.’ My father was one of six and he had been born in 1923 at the same hospital as I was, across the street from Trenton High School.”
On his mother’s side, Fred’s grandparents were from Ireland. His grandfather was from Belfast and his grandmother from Arranmore Island, off the west coast of County Donegal in the north. “On the island they say there are 527 people and 2 Protestants! My grandfather died from the after effects of a mustard gas attack in the First World War and my grandmother died not long afterwards – from a broken heart it was said. They had moved to Scotland and my mother was born in 1925 in Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, and raised by her mother’s mother.”
Immediately after high school, Fred’s father joined the air force in 1941 but a plane he was in was shot down. He was fine but wanted to move to the submarine service after that. However, they turned him down because of his color blindness and he ended up in the army infantry. He became a platoon sergeant and when on leave in Edinburgh in late 1944 he met Fred’s mother at a dance. They kept in touch and were married in Scotland on Memorial Day 1945. “My father returned to the war’s final months before going back to the States where he was discharged. My mother went over and was met by his entire Italian family at Ellis Island on a very hot day when she had on her wool suit and $100 in her pocket.”
They lived in New Jersey for a time before moving to Connecticut where Fred’s two sisters were born – Terry in 1948 (who tragically died aged 33 from breast cancer) and Geraldine in 1949. Fred’s father had been a manual laborer but was now getting involved in plastics manufacturing and followed this new career when the family moved back to New Jersey in 1950 and then buying a house, across the Delaware River from Trenton, in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where they lived when Fred came along in 1956. “Morrisville was a middle class town that had a huge mill belonging to U.S. Steel as its primary employer. There were perhaps 10,000 people in town and it was a typical idyllic town of the 50’s – I had a great childhood. I went to Holy Trinity Catholic school from 1st thru’ 8th grade and my father progressed in the plastics industry where he was a designer of the components for various projects – I was the ‘crash test dummy’ for the slip ‘n’ slide! My childhood, and beyond, was all about sports – baseball, football, and basketball. I was very social and remain in touch with a number of friends from my kindergarten days and visit the area a couple of times each year.”
Everything changed dramatically for Fred and his family on December 4th, 1965… “My father had been offered a great job in Boston and my parents and I flew up there for my father to work out some final details and to look at houses. On the flight home from Boston to Newark I was in a window seat on an Eastern Airlines plane with perhaps 60 passengers when I suddenly saw another plane, a TWA 707, that was coming right at us. There was a mid-air collision. The other plane managed to get to JFK airport in New York and our pilot, the only reason I am alive today, managed to get us down in a field without any rudder control at dusk between two silos. When we crash landed the plane broke up and burst into flames. My father released my seat belt, passed me a St Joseph’s payer card, and told me to get out the back of the plane. My mother’s seatbelt was jammed and it took a few moments for my father to get it undone. The plane was becoming engulfed in flames. I went to the side of the plane where the wing had broken off and people were escaping. I helped my mother roll my father out through the flames, he could not move, and we got away from the burning aircraft.”
For a day or so Fred was separated from his parents in a different hospital. “I had some minor burns but my parents had both broken their backs and had third-degree burns on over 50%of their bodies, remaining in hospital for six weeks. I still have the prayer card.”
Fred’s father, aged 42 at the time of the crash, was not able to work again. “After receiving virtually no formal education he had worked his way to the pinnacle of his industry and it was all taken away. He sat around for a couple of years or so, dealing with lawyers and feeling bad about not being able to work and support his family. He died on July 25th 1967, the day before Fred Jr’s 11th birthday, at 44, following a massive heart attack in a magistrate’s office. He was sitting next to Fred Jr. at the time. My mother was fine and is still as tough as nails to this day at 87 years old – she’s gonna outlive me! She had two years at a business college and got a job as a secretary and then as an administrator for the State of New Jersey before becoming the assistant to the Superintendent of the Trenton School Board, finally retiring in 1992.”
At Morrisville High School, Fred captained both the football and baseball teams and played basketball “and dated cheerleaders in-between! I was a linebacker and offensive guard on the football team and first baseman at baseball, and, despite my height, the center on the basketball team. Let’s just say we didn’t win many basketball games but we didn’t lose many fights. Football is ‘king’ in Pennsylvania and on Friday nights half the town would turn out for the football games. If you played on the team everyone in town would know you and it was a huge part of the social fabric of the community.”
Fred did well academically, maintaining a B+ as he focused on going to college to play football or baseball, or both, but not necessarily on any particular career outside sports. He was heavily recruited for football by such schools as Ohio State, Virginia, and Maryland and for baseball he was drafted in a lower round to go to the minor leagues. He decided to go to James Madison in Harrisonburg, Virginia where he would be able to do both football and baseball and after graduating in 1975 he headed there. However, in his first football season he blew out his knee and was still rehabilitating when the baseball season came round. His sports career at a high level was over.
Following his sophomore year he left James Madison and went to Millersville State University in Pennsylvania. He played a little varsity baseball but during his senior year he left, not sure what he wanted to do with his life. He returned home and went to work with his sister Terry, who was heavily involved with the Democratic Party and was working on the 1978 campaign to get Brendan Byrne re-elected as Governor of New Jersey. Their candidate won and Fred found himself with a job in the governor’s office working with Bob Torricelli, assistant to the governor. “Torricelli went on to work on the staff of Vice President Walter Mondale and was with him for six months working on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide between the White House and Capitol Hill– a very interesting and educational time.”
Following that experience, Fred returned to New Jersey and found work with the Environmental Protection Agency as a field investigator. “I saw things that would turn your hair white.” He stayed there in Trenton for two years, living in Morrisville across the river, before his long-time interest in vintage cars led to a new job. Fred and a friend opened an antique car showroom in the tourist town of New Hope, PA, also on the Delaware River, close to where Washington crossed and about thirty minutes from his hometown. “We had a great location on the main street in town and would take vehicles on consignment. My specialty was 1953-67 Corvettes and the older Rolls Royce’s and the business did well for a couple of years. Then in 1981 my sister became ill and passed a year later. I found myself at a crossroads and decided to sell my portion of the business to my partner. I started to sell ads for a newspaper in a nearby town for about a year and at some point took a vacation to visit my other sister in Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco. I had never really thought much about California but I kind of liked it and decided to move out here. My Mom was okay with that – she has never remarried and would be alone but was going to be okay, and so I drove out in the spring of 1983 and saw a bit of the country over a two-month trip. I then spent the first six months here lying on Stinson Beach in Marin with a sheepdog called Rachel, skydiving, and eating at San Francisco restaurants – it was all a very different culture to anything I had known back east.”
Fred thought he should get a job and he saw an ad in the S.F. Chronicle for an ad salesperson. “I applied and got the job. I lived in Mill Valley and caught the ferry and cable car to work in the City. I started on the classifieds for real estate and cars and then moved to political ads, which I really enjoyed. At work I met Bill Vierra who basically became my surrogate father, and his wife Alice. He had been in advertising for over thirty years and he and I became very close friends. He meant the world to me; he died five years ago and I am still in contact with Alice, in fact I spent Thanksgiving with her last week.”
Fred was at the Chronicle for five years from 1983-88 and during that time he attended night classes at the University of San Francisco, “somehow convincing the newspaper to pay for my course in Information Systems Management – not related to my job at all, and I finally got my degree in 1986”
On April 4th, 1987, Fred was at a club on Market Street where “I spotted a tall beautiful blonde. Her name was Heather and I asked her to dance – she claims that I was about twelve feet away when I did but that can’t be right! I then asked her out to dinner and, although she was kind of shy, she agreed and asked when. I said ‘Tomorrow – Sunday’ and she gave me her phone number. I called her the next day and she was unsure, saying how did she know I wasn’t an axe murderer. I told her she would be fine, as I never took my axe on the first date! We went to Little City on Washington Square in North Beach and it all went very well. We married on April 4th, 1988, exactly a year after our first meeting. She was and still is a software engineer, now a Vice president of the company she works for.”
During his first years in Mill Valley and San Francisco Fred became addicted to golf and also played racquetball and went running. “In 1984 I had moved into the city to an apartment on Twin Peaks and would run up to Sutro Tower at the top. My athletic interests have always been a part of my life – restaurants too! I often explored Napa and Sonoma counties as well as the City and when I first met Heather I was a beer and Scotch guy, only getting into wine much later. We had a great circle of friends who we’d see often. We moved to an apartment just above the Castro District for a year before buying a condo on Potrero Hill in 1989, a month before the earthquake.”
Fred had left the newspaper in 1988 and worked for a number of different computer companies over the next year or so as he “immersed myself in that tech world. By 1989, I was with Motorola and had an ‘office’ of sorts on the Peninsular south of the City but any sort of promotion would mean going to the head office in Boston. ‘No, thank you,’ I thought initially. However they made me such a good offer, and as part of that I insisted that I would be able to come home every weekend, a deal I had committed to with Heather, who was doing well at her job in San Francisco. I therefore started on my many years of the long commute.”
Fred would come home to the City every weekend but could be traveling anywhere in the world as part of his job during the week. “Fortunately Motorola was very into golf as part of their hospitality for clients. I flew around 250,000 miles that year before taking a position in the Bay Area that involved less air travel. It was all very ironic – I had almost lost my life in a plane and now I was making my living in one.”
In 1995 Fred left Motorola and went to Fujitsu setting up global distribution channels, working more in Asia and the south Pacific – Australia, Korea, Singapore, Japan, still maintaining that commitment to be back at home with Heather for the weekend. I was helped by the fact that I crossed the international dateline when I left Tokyo on Saturday, therefore arriving in San Francisco on Friday.”
Some years before, around 1987, Fred had visited the coastal town of Mendocino a couple of times, passing through Anderson Valley, and occasionally doing a little wine-tasting, on the way. On one of those visits he and Heather were here for the County Fair. “I fell in love with that event – I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. It reminded me of fairs back east in some ways and, being a city/suburb boy, I was intrigued by the agriculture and livestock. We joined a couple of wine clubs – Handley and Navarro. My friend Bill Vierra had always advised me to buy property, quoting the Mark Twain line that property is good because they are not making anymore, and we began to look for property but thought that the Valley, although very pretty was too remote so we had been concentrating in Sonoma County and the foothills of the Sierras. Heather was working in Mountain View and when I flew in I was also south of the City so a trip up this way was over 130 miles – too far.”
They ended up looking from 1994 to 1999 and entered escrow on two properties in Sonoma that both fell through. They continued to visit the coast and pass through the Valley when “suddenly the light bulb went off – we decided we’d like to live here and started to look for property here in 1999. I was still with Fujitsu and getting more and more frequent flyer miles – all fine except it just means you are going to be on another plane! Sometimes my mother would come with me to Europe and we would stop off in London and go up to Scotland to see her relatives and I’d play some golf.”
“By this time I was learning to enjoy wine – Heather had made it in her garage in the City and certainly has the gift. As a result we began thinking about getting a small vineyard property, sell the grapes, and enjoy the wine. I knew nothing at all about winemaking – some might say I still don’t! I had never driven a tractor and now my business card has me referred to as ‘Tractor Butt / Owner.’ I spotted a property for sale in the Chronicle that was ‘off-grid’ – I didn’t know what that meant. We went up for a look and met the owner – he had long hair and a ponytail with a beard and was wearing slippers! It was Urs Schaub, who also owned the Pick and Pay / Boonville Lodge building in Boonville. He showed us the property and an hour or so later we had bought it!”
Fred and Heather took possession on August 1st, 1999 and soon got to know Hans and Norman Kobler at Lazy Creek Vineyards, who were to be a great help, as was Urs. I said to Norman ‘you show me how to grow grapes and when you want to sell $1/2 billion of communication equipment to China you come to me’ – as I said I knew nothing at first.”
Fred left Motorola and moved to Nortel and was still traveling as much, although now he and Heather would come to the Valley every weekend. “I really and truly enjoyed everything about this new venture but still had my city ways and was quickly learning the ways of the country. I would ask why something hadn’t been done and would be told simply ‘Because it hasn’t.’ Norman Kobler did so much for us – we wouldn’t be where we are today without him as a co-worker and friend.
By 2001 the corporate bubble was bursting and with Nortel offering early retirement plans, Fred took the opportunity to move on. “Later that year we lost our minds and opened a winery! We had planted a further few acres of vines for ten in total and our first vintage was 167 cases, 57 of which were from our cabernet vines planted in 1967. Hans Kobler helped us a lot in those early days, and Milla Handley and the Klindt’s at Claudia Springs were fabulous at sharing information with us.”
In 2003, Heather took retirement. They rented out their condo in the City and for a year she and Fred were up here full-time before she returned to work in the Bay Area. In that time she worked at Taylor Roberts in the Valley. “That gave her time to decompress from the corporate world and I took a job with Brutacao Cellars – I can sell and do marketing and was there from 2003 to 2010, working for a great family and with many great folks.”
By 2010, with ‘by-appointment only’ bringing in maybe 30-40 visitors a year to the winery, situated way back over five miles up Nash Mill Road, Fred realized that he needed to focus on the future of Philo Ridge Vineyards and he left Brutocao. He also opened his own brokerage for grapes and juices, mainly to wineries outside California. Sales at the winery greatly improved and then it was decided that they needed a tasting room in town and with Jill Derwinski as manager they opened in February 2011. “Jill has done a fabulous job for us, greatly helping the business to grow. It has been a lot of fun and I try to spend time here from Friday to Monday when we are open. Schmoozing is in my nature and I really enjoy it.”
“We initially stayed sort of low-key overall, following the backlash against out-of-towners buying property here, but I am here virtually all of the time now and am involved in the community and attend many events. I have quietly got to know people and make donations and support numerous charities. I don’t have time to do much hands-on but try to help in ways that I can. Our social life is generally around winery events and with Heather back in the City during the week our time together is short and has to count. Owning a winery is not all sitting on the verandah sipping wine and watching the grapes grow. It is hard work but I enjoy it and there is no doubt it is a good life and I love the general atmosphere of the Valley.”
Besides work at his winery and brokerage, Fred has been the past President of the A.V. Winegrowers Association and Chair of the Mendocino Wine and Grape Commission. “I have always got involved in things that interest me. When I decide to do something, I immerse myself in it. I love to cook although Heather thinks I am always at Lauren’s or Libby’s. We have two rescue Golden Retrievers and two feral cats who have become three-meals-a-day inside cats.”
I asked Fred for a snapshot image of his father – “Very dapper and fit – he worked out with Jack LeLanne, the fitness guru”… And his mother? – “Resilient, with a huge heart”… The Valley? – “I love the sense of community; the willingness to help out and be open. I also enjoy the solitude I can get here sometimes.”
I asked Fred for his thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation…The Wineries? – “Of course I am biased but I believe they have been good for the Valley. Other industries were fading, the wineries have come in and kept things going in many ways. They are the valley’s major employer although I must say that I think we have hit critical mass at this point”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I like it. Heather reads it every week. I like to read some of it – the Valley People section and the interviews and anything about the Valley’s history. It seems to have changed its tone for the better”… KZYX&Z public radio? – “I love it. We are members and where else can I get much of the information they put out? I love the Celtic music on Sunday mornings, the solar living and ecology shows, and any local stuff.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to Fred and asked him to reply as spontaneously as possible…
1. What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? – “Heather’s smile; playing with the dogs; getting a good order!”
2. What annoys you; brings you down? – “Intolerant people.”
3. What sound or noise do you love? – “A cat purring two inches from my nose.”
4. What sound or noise do you hate? – “Politicians talking”
5. What would be your ‘last supper’? – ‘A cheeseburger and fries with a cold mug of Heineken at Rossi’s Tavern in Trenton, New Jersey. I have one very year.”
6. If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? – “Abe Lincoln.”
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? – “The Prayer Card my Dad gave me when the plane went down; family photos; that’s it…”
8. Does anything scare you? – “Vampires scared me a lot when I was younger and I always slept with the sheets covering my neck. These days it would be not being the person I can be, underperforming… And still vampires!”
9. Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? – “I have traveled all over the world but in recent times I have developed a desire to see more of this country and Mount Rushmore in particular.”
10. Do you have a favorite book and song, or one that has influenced you? – “I like biographies – Gore Vidal’s ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Benjamin Franklin’ by Walter Isaacson come to mind. I also like Clive Cussler’s adventure novels featuring Dirk Pitt… As for music I like jazz and classical but have no favorites.”
11. What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? – Sports – I excelled back then at all sports. Now, it would be wine-making, but I guess that is more of a passion and is our business, and I am determined to get back to playing some golf.”
12. Do you have a favorite word or phrase that you use? – “Crap”
13. What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? – “First baseman for the Yankees.”
14. What profession or job would you not like to do? – “President.”
15. How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? – “I was fourteen and we went to the boardwalk at Seaside Heights in New Jersey.”
16. Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? – “I believe that things happen for a reason. I have made good and bad decisions and accept them.”
17. Tell me about a moment or period of time you will never forget. – “Meeting Heather for the first time.”
18. What is something that you are really proud of and why? – “That I have a great wife, a good job, and wonderful family and friends.”
19. What is your favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? – “That I am open and honest.”
20. Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Well when that happens it would be great to hear him or her say, ‘Welcome – your family and friends are all waiting to see you’ – yes, that would be wonderful.”

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Published in: on November 29, 2012 at 9:07 pm  Leave a Comment