By Raiza Giorgi
The act of picking grapes off the vine, the sound of people talking as they worked, and the smell of wine being poured are some of the things that Daniel and Robin Gehrs will miss as they close the doors on the wine-making business they built for more than 40 years.
“So much has changed in the wine industry since we started in the early ’70s, and I like to think that we played a small part in that change with some innovative and visionary ideas,” Daniel said.
If it hadn’t been for a graduate program at UCSB, life might have looked a little different for Daniel, who had set a path to start a law career.
“I came to Santa Barbara for my law degree and worked as a shipping clerk for a business near Santa Barbara Winery. Robin and I had just married and were working for pennies when I kept persistence at the winery to do anything, and I knew I wanted to be involved in the wine industry,” he said.
In the spring of 1974 the Gehrs moved to the Bay Area and he took an entry-level job at Paul Masson Vineyard (now the Mountain Winery in Saratoga). Masson was one of the pioneers in California wine history. (Paul Masson sparkling wine was the first American wine served in the White House, at President Harry Truman’s Inaugural Ball in 1949.)
“Working at Paul Masson taught me about so many different varietals, from sparkling wine to port, and I feel it was … that exposure which helped me define my career,” Daniel said.
He worked there for two years before he and Robin moved to Villa de Monmarte, an estate in the mountains above Saratoga where the owner had a vineyard that needed a caretakers. Meanwhile, the Gehrs needed a home to start their family and their own label.
“We lived there for 14 years and, literally, our two children Jennie and Jeremy were born in the house, and we really survived on the land,” Robin added fondly.
The Gehrs had the passion and the drive to start their own wine label, Congress Springs Vineyards.
When the kids were just babies their parents would put them into their “Pack and Play” pen, tie a rope to it, and pull them along the vineyards as they pruned the vines or picked grapes.
“I think it’s where I learned my love for the outdoors and animals, because we always had lots of dogs, cats, goats and other farm animals,” Jennie Gehrs Vidmar said.
Toward the end of their time in northern California they started hosting weddings and events on their grounds, but the lack of privacy brought them back to the Central Coast.
“We loved the events but decided it was time for a new change, so I had a friend that told me about a job in Santa Ynez Valley that I couldn’t pass on,” Daniel said.
In 1990 he became the winemaker for Zaca Mesa Winery on Foxen Canyon Road and worked there for a number of years.
Wine Spectator magazine named his first vintage, a 1993 syrah, the number six wine in the world — and it was the first time he had ever made syrah.
“I was known for chardonnay, and after that award I think it started the boom of Rhone varietals in the area,” he said.
“Before that, wine styles were more of a Bordeaux, which didn’t grow very well, but then there was a sudden awareness of Rhone style,” Robin added.
Daniel left Zaca Mesa in 1998 to start consulting with up-and-coming wineries such as Bridlewood, Lucas and Llewellyn, Sunstone and others, and was making his own wine that he sold only at wholesale.
“We decided to open a tasting room and we got a little spot in Solvang across from Solvang Festival Theater, which we figured out quickly wasn’t where we wanted to be. A friend told us about a business in a little cottage in Los Olivos that was for sale and we made an offer quickly, and opened on Valentine’s weekend in 2000,” Robin said.
Their daughter became the tasting room manager as she took a break from college to decide what path she wanted, and Jennie tried her hand at winemaking as well with her own label, Vixen.
“I was probably the youngest tasting room manager at 21, but it was such fun and I knew I was helping my family,” Vidmar said.
It was again on Valentine’s weekend in 2004 when she met a young man who came to her tasting room on a break from Vandenberg Air Force Base and several years later they married. Now they live in Colorado and have three children.
“It was crazy because I was telling him about my wine label and he asked why I chose the name, and I said I liked foxes and the letter ‘V’ so I chose ‘Vixen,’ as it’s a female fox, and he chuckled. Only later I found out his last name was Vidmar, and his call sign in the Air Force is ‘Fox’. I think it was meant to be,” she laughed.
The Gehrs decided once they started their label here in the valley to buy grapes from other farmers because they wanted more freedom on the weekends to enjoy family and getting away.
“I loved being in the field, but we also loved traveling — and having a vineyard wouldn’t allow us that flexibility. Especially when Jennie had her first child and moved away from the valley, we wanted to see our grandchildren,” Robin said.
So after 43 years in the wine industry, and 17 years of their label in the Santa Ynez Valley, they have decided to move closer to their daughter in Colorado and enjoy being grandparents.
“We have had the absolute joy of being a part of the community and doing what we love, and our hope is whoever buys the building enjoys this spot as much as we did,” Daniel said.
“We have met and made friends with so many people from locals to people all over the world that have just walked in our doors, and we appreciate every single one of them,” Robin added.
The Gehrs will be in the valley until the end of March. They invite anyone interested in buying their building or wine label to call them 693-9686.