How the Bilbro Brothers Found Their Own Way in Sonoma
In California’s Sonoma county, the brothers Bilbro—Jake, Scot and Sam—oversee three very different wineries. But they’ve never lost sight of what it means to come together as a family.
How many people can say they once found their father asleep in a mushroom dehydrator? If you grew up at a winery in Sonoma County, your last name is Bilbro, and your first name is Jake, Scot or Sam, you can. As Scot Bilbro recalls, “My brothers and I have epic memories of playing hide-and-go-seek in the winery with my dad. Once, he literally stuffed himself into a dehydrator, a three-by-three-foot box. It was the end of harvest, and he was just toast. The only way we found him was because we heard him snoring.”
Such was being a kid at Marietta Cellars in Alexander Valley. The Bilbro boys’ father, Chris, founded the winery in 1978. He retired in 2012, and now, at a time when more and more California family wineries are succumbing to buyouts from corporate producers—victims of economic pressure, sibling squabbles or both—the Bilbros have mapped out a sustainable road to the future. Marietta, now owned and run by middle brother Scot, age 37, continues its successful run. Jake, 40, bought the moribund Limerick Lane winery in 2011 and has returned it to prominence, making intense reds from some of Sonoma’s most historic vineyards. And Sam, 34, has taken a third path, producing his elegant, Italian-variety Idlewild wines that are now sommelier and insider favorites.
Essentially, a single wine made all this possible: Marietta’s rather unassumingly named Old Vine Red. It’s one of the great oddballs of California wine—a red blend created at a time, the 1980s, when nonvarietal red blends were an unsellable exception rather than the latest hot category (as they are now); a wine labeled with lot numbers rather than vintage years (the current release is Lot Number 66); and a killer bargain. Over the years it’s been wildly successful while also remaining one of the best values in California wine. “I often say I have Old Vine Red running through my veins,” remarks Jake. “Really, that’s where it started for all three of us.”
Still, despite childhoods filled with winery high jinks and, later, winery work—“our chores centered on cleaning barrels,” says Jake—not one of the Bilbro brothers initially planned to go into the family business. “When I was 18 and leaving for college,” he recalls, “I sat down with my dad and told him, ‘I love you, and thank you for everything, but I am never going to work in the wine industry.’ ” His father’s reaction? “He basically patted me on the back, as all fathers should, and said, ‘Go get ’em. You’ll do great.’ ”
With that blessing, Jake headed off into a career as a pro rugby player and occasional ski bum. Brothers Scot and Sam, who each told their father more or less the same thing, landed in equally unlikely pursuits: fishing guide in Alaska and bartender cum punk-rock guitarist, respectively.
The moral, of course, is never say never about anything when you’re 18. By turns each brother was ensnared by home’s gravitational pull, and in their 20s each returned to northern Sonoma County. As Sam says regarding his decision, “If I’d struck gold with the band, that would have been great, but it didn’t take me long to realize that waking up in a van every morning with four guys who haven’t showered in a week is a really horrible situation.”
But maybe this was inevitable. The family arrived in the US in the early 1900s, part of a wave of Italian immigrants who, like many others, wanted to trade southern Italy’s grinding poverty for a new start in Northern California. “I don’t think they moved here to grow grapes so much as just to survive,” Jake says. But grow grapes was what they did. And no, he admits, Bilbro doesn’t exactly sound Italian: “Whatever the name originally was, part of it got hacked off at Ellis Island.”
By 2009, all three brothers were working at Marietta. Even in a family with a gift for getting along, that situation wasn’t easy, especially once their father retired. Sam left first. Marietta’s focus has always been on substantial reds—Old Vine Red is mostly Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah—and Sam’s inclinations didn’t lean that way. “I’m after a lighter-bodied, higher-acid style,” he says. “I love my brothers’ wines, but with Idlewild I’m not trying for density as much as delicacy.”
For a time, Jake and Scot ran Marietta together while also partnering at Limerick Lane, but it was a challenge. As Scot recounts, “I was driving back and forth making wine at both places, Jake was running sales for both, and we started joking that we had so many hats we didn’t even know where they all were.” Over time they reached a decision: Scot would take over Marietta and Jake would devote himself to Limerick Lane. Jake says: “It was, basically, let’s not get 30 years down the road and realize that we don’t talk as brothers anymore because we’re business partners.”
Thanks to decisions like that, the Bilbros definitely still talk. They all live in Healdsburg (Sam recently opened a salumi and wine bar for Idlewild just off the main square), their children go to the same school, and it’s not remotely unusual on a weekend night to find them all cooking dinner together, as on Jake’s 40th birthday earlier this year. “That was at our family ranch,” Sam says. “At one point Jake raised his glass to make a toast, and it was something he’s said to me many times: ‘There’s nothing like friends who feel like brothers, and brothers who feel like friends.’”
Jake, Scot and Sam Bilbro share some of their go-to spots for eating, drinking and having fun.
Bergamot Alley in Healdsburg is my favorite wine shop. Eclectic choices, locals young and not so young, artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches and even a record player.
328 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg, CA; 707-433-8720
Trail House epitomizes the warmth and collegial spirit of the area’s mountain-biking community. It’s a top-notch place in Santa Rosa to get a coffee or a beer, even if you didn’t just finish a three-hour ride in Annadel State Park across the street.
4036 Montgomery Dr, Santa Rosa, CA; 707-843-4943
Underwood in Graton feels like The Great Gatsby meets Paris meets West Sonoma County—it’s got sensational food, cocktails, wine and a terrific overall vibe.
9113 Graton Rd, Graton, CA, 707-823-7023
Diavola in Geyserville is a must. Order the Sonja pizza and add Calabrian chiles—it’s the best pie in Sonoma County.
21021 Geyserville Ave, Geyserville, CA, 707-814-0111
Dick Blomster’s in Guerneville is half bar and half diner—with a Korean twist (kimchi Reubens, for instance). Colorful, delicious and one of a kind.
16236 Main St, Guerneville, CA, 707-869-8006
Fitch Mountain is one of my favorite hikes. Take the spiral fire road all the way to the summit for a spectacular view of Healdsburg, the Russian River and beyond.
Campo Fina in Healdsburg has an amazing atmosphere, and the food is consistently delicious. Bocce on an outdoor patio with rustic Italian food—what’s not to like?
330 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg, CA; 707-395-4640
Flying Goat Coffee is just around the corner from my Idlewild Salumi & Wine Bar in Healdsburg. Grabbing a short latte here is my favorite way to procrastinate and avoid doing office work.
324 Center St, Healdsburg, CA, 707-433-9081
Los Plebes Taco Truck, at the Lytton Springs Road exit off 101, is a harvest essential. They have the tastiest al pastor tacos around. I’ve eaten far too many of them!
3829 Santa Rosa Ave Santa Rosa, CA
The Best of the Bilbros
All of the wines from the Bilbros’ three wineries are superb, but here are some recent standouts.
Marietta Old Vine Red Lot Number 66, $15:Juicy and plummy, this is the wine that started it all for the Bilbros. Their latest release is characteristically irresistible.
2016 Idlewild Arneis, $30:Floral and almondy, this delicate white shows Sam Bilbro’s nuanced touch with traditional Piedmontese varieties.
2015 Marietta Angeli Alexander Valley Zinfandel, $36:Made with old-vine Zinfandel from the winery’s home vineyard, this red is ripe and lush with dark berry flavors.
2015 Limerick Lane Russian River Estate Zinfandel, $42:Sourced from vineyards planted in the early 1900s, this intense, peppery Zin has tiny percentages of such obscure varieties as Peloursin and Negrette.
2015 Limerick Lane Syrah-Grenache, $45A Russian River Valley take on a southern Rhône red (think Châteauneuf-du-Pape), this luscious, herb-scented red should age beautifully for years.
2014 Idlewild Fox Hill Vineyard Nebbiolo, $50:Nebbiolo has an uneven track record in California at best, but this cherry-scented wine captures the marriage of grace and power that is the variety’s signature.