Don Stanley and Frank Saviez bought and sold grapes in a time when varietals were not grown in the San Joaquin Valley.
Over the years, Stanley bought grapes from Saviez for wineries in the Fresno area, including Christian Brothers and Bisceglia Brothers.
Now retired from their respective careers, both were recently honored by the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association (SJVWA) with lifetime achievement awards, an honor the association bestows each year to those who have contributed much to the grape industry.
Saviez currently maintains about 200 acres of grapes – varietals mostly with a few acres of Thompsons – along the San Joaquin River in Fresno County. Retirement for Stanley is a little quieter as he does a little consulting.
According to SJVWA Chairman Rich Hammond, both helped shape an industry in the Central Valley that continues transformation into more than a region known just for raisins.
Stanley began working at age 14 for the late George Davis, a commissioned grape buyer in the Kerman area who kept him busy during his teen years tending the ranch.
“I did everything back then: drove the tractor, irrigated … I did it all,” Stanley says of his formative years.
Davis also had a gondola business he trained Stanley in – a business Stanley would buy from Davis years later after marrying Davis’ daughter Juanita and an illness that prevented Davis from returning to work.
Stanley assumed Davis’ commissioned buying duties, working with Davis’ business partner David Tesei while they waited for Davis to recover. Tesei would line up grapes to purchase from Madera County growers while Stanley worked with Fresno County growers to buy their grapes.
Davis’ health never allowed him to return to commissioned buying so Stanley stepped into that roll for about another 10 years until another opportunity presented itself.
Stanley credits Tesei with helping him along in a business he admits he knew little about at the time. He also holds high praise for Davis, who taught the young Stanley much about the grape industry.
“The reason I mention these names is I’ve only got a high school education and had it not been for Juanita’s dad and David Tesei I would have simply been a hired man,” Stanley said.
Stanley’s success in the grape industry wasn’t without its challenges, he admits.
From Kerman to Reedley
One year, Stanley and others in the region were hit hard by a hail storm which stripped the vines, and left Stanley without a commission as those he bought grapes from were all devastated by the storm.
“So I made raisins from the 40 acres I owned and it rained on them too,” he said with a chuckle.
Not long after that happened Stanley got word that the head grape buyer at Christian Brothers in Reedley was no longer working there and “everybody said I should apply for the job,” he said.
Christian Brothers hired Stanley and shortly thereafter the Stanley’s sold their ranch in Kerman and moved to Reedley. For the next 20 years Stanley would buy grapes for Christian Brothers, until the company sold to Hueblein in 1989.
After that Stanley was hired by Jeff O’Neill to be the general manager of Golden State Vintners’ newly-acquired brandy facility in Reedley where he oversaw operations and much of the early growth as Golden State Vintners expanded.
After Golden State Vintners sold to The Wine Group in 2004, he followed O’Neill to the new O’Neill Vintners and Distillers where he retired in 2006.
Saviez was born and reared into grapes. Unlike Stanley, who started and finished his career in the San Joaquin Valley, Saviez was baptized into a wine region decades before it reached its acclaimed status.
Both of Saviez’ grandfathers had wineries in the Napa Valley prior to Prohibition. Both returned to the wine business after the 21st Amendment took effect in late 1933.
“I came into this world in 1930 in the heart of Prohibition and the Great Depression and I was baptized into the wine business at about the age of four,” Saviez said.
Saviez later attended the University of California, Davis, where he earned a degree in viticulture. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the military where he served during the Korean War.
After serving during the Korean War, Saviez returned to Napa to try his hand at growing grapes. With Napa grapes selling at the time for $50 a ton and little money to be made in the region, Saviez moved on in search of greener pastures.
Saviez moved to the Pacific Northwest for about a year in the mid-1950’s but didn’t like the frozen ground there so he returned to Fresno where he went to work for Wilbur Ellis in 1956 as a sales representative.
Between then and his retirement from Wilbur Ellis in 1995, Saviez was promoted into management where he served as vice president and division manager responsible for stores in California, Arizona and throughout the U.S. cotton belt. After his retirement, he served on the company’s board of directors for about 10 years.
Together with his wife, Alice, they purchased a vineyard along the San Joaquin River and began planting varietal grapes to supplement the program a cousin of his had in Napa. At the time, growing varietals in the San Joaquin Valley was a big deal as it just wasn’t done. Thompson grapes were the predominant variety in the region at the time because they could be converted to several uses.
“I retired for about two weeks,” he says. “So I went and borrowed a bunch of money and we planted grapes and walnuts on the west side of Fresno County.”
Today, Saviez grows several wine grape varietals, including Syrah, Pinot Grigio, Pino Noir, Malbec, Tempranillo, Primitivo and some experimental varieties under study with Fresno State University and small private wineries.
“We are searching for varieties that will make a quality wine from the Central Valley if farmed correctly,” he said. “We have demonstrated that some of our varieties in given years will produce a quality, drinkable wine, particular Syrah and Pinot Grigio.
“Our long-term goal is to establish grape varieties that will produce quality wines in the Central Valley,” he continued.
“The reason the Napa Valley is what it is today is decades ago they grew wine grapes that competed against the French wines and won,” Saviez said. “It caused a big revolution in the wine industry.”
Saviez believes San Joaquin Valley wines could have their place among quality wine circles if the right varieties and farming practices are employed.
As he introduced Saviez for his lifetime achievement award Hammond praised Saviez’ efforts to promote Central Valley varietals.
“He wants to improve what we do here,” said Hammond. “He wants to see the grape industry stay in the Central Valley.”
Saviez believes that the notoriety of California wine regions such as Napa, the North and Central Coasts, and Lodi can be extended to the San Joaquin Valley with the right varieties that are grown correctly.
“We can’t grow tons - we’ve got to grow quality,” he said.
Quality, not quantity
Saviez is known for being outspoken. He believes a seismic shift in how grapes are priced in the San Joaquin Valley must take place to preserve the industry there. Valley grapes must be priced on quality, instead of tonnage, something Napa and North Coast growers currently enjoy.
“There are grape varieties that will produce quality fruit when farmed correctly in the Central Valley,” Saviez says. “You have to decide whether you are trying to sell tons of grapes to the winery, or if you want to sell quality grapes at a lesser tonnage. To do that the wineries must be willing to pay the price for the quality fruit.”
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Getting good contracts from the wineries that are favorable to growers is another piece to the puzzle, Saviez believes.
“The Napa Valley and the North Coast have proven that the major wineries do not control the price of grapes in certain regions,” he said.
Saviez admits it’s a complex issue, but one that must be solved for the valley’s wine grape industry to find greater success.
“I think long-term there are grape varieties that are more conducive to this climate than some of the varieties we’re currently growing,” he continued.