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Stewards of the Land

Author: Karen Hart
May, 2012 Issue

The Dutton family has been tending the land in Sonoma County for more than 200 years.

Chances are, if you’re from Sonoma County, you’ve heard the Dutton name. Maybe you’ve driven down Dutton Avenue or passed by the family’s ranch nestled in a valley along Graton Road. Or, perhaps you remember the fruit stand on Sebastopol Road, which was an unofficial Santa Rosa landmark for many years.

The Dutton family’s story began in the 1840s when Warren Dutton moved from the Boston area and settled in Tomales, California. Later, Dutton, an astute businessman with an entrepreneurial spirit and a love for the land, moved to Santa Rosa and in 1881, he had the foresight to purchase 200 acres there. On a trip back East, he’d seen that the prune industry was rapidly growing. Prunes could be grown, dried and they lasted. He purchased 20,000 prune trees from Luther Burbank in a transaction that would later make history (because Burbank was able to deliver the trees within one years’ time—a remarkable timeframe for the day) and, with the help of his brother, Reed Dutton, planted the property with the best variety of French prunes, which were in high demand at the time. The ranch continued to thrive for the next two generations, first under the direction of Reed’s son, George, and later under his son, Warren (named for his great uncle), both of whom worked at Exchange Bank and operated mostly as gentlemen farmers. As family lore goes, Warren worked as an appraiser at Exchange Bank for 50 years, but it wasn’t uncommon to see him come home from work and jump on the tractor, still in his suit and hat, to take care of business at the ranch. The family’s operation prospered for years, mostly on prunes, but it also ventured into other crops such as pears and hops.

 

A passion for farming

While Warren worked at the bank, his son, Warren Dutton Jr., grew up picking those prunes and hops on the ranch. A fourth-generation Dutton, he knew from the beginning that he had soil running through his veins and attended Santa Rosa High School because of its agricultural program. “Our father grew up working the ranches,” says Steve Dutton, president of Dutton Ranch Corporation. “He always wanted to farm.”

After Dutton Jr. graduated from high school, he began farming the family land while attending Santa Rosa Junior College. One year later, he married his high school sweetheart, Gail Rocco. “We were two young kids,” says Gail Dutton Peterson, who was married to the late Dutton Jr. until his untimely death in 2001 at age 57. “He’d planted barley and made $1,000, I sold my car for $350 and we got married.”

“Warren was a steward of the land,” she continues. “Occasionally, environmentalists challenged him for his work, and he reminded them that his job was to take care of the land.”

 

The early days

Dutton Jr. did a lot of custom farming to make money early on, but he and Gail eventually decided to take the business in a new direction. In 1964, they continued to farm prunes but also purchased 35 acres near Graton, which they promptly named Dutton Ranch (it’s where the company’s main office is still located). Originally, the ranch had 15 acres of apples and 15 acres of French Colombard winegrapes. At the time, they were making $88 per ton for their grapes¾which was good money¾and decided it was worth putting more sweat equity and capital into their West County holdings.

In 1967, the Duttons purchased a 20-acre parcel adjoining their ranch and planted eight acres of apples and 10 acres of Chardonnay grapes. They were the first to plant the varietal in western Sonoma County. “We were testing the waters,” says Dutton Peterson. “Warren read about Chardonnay and thought it was worthwhile. He was gambling and I went along, because I knew he would do whatever it takes to provide for his family.”

As they expanded the business, Warren and Gail also expanded their family. Their sons, Steve and Joe, spent their childhood on the ranch and were involved in the family business from the time they could walk.

During those years, the Duttons realized they needed to diversify business. Unable to get the prices they needed for their pears to keep the business turning a reasonable profit, they set up a fruit stand on Sebastopol Road, where they sold apples, pears, walnuts and dried prunes. “We started in a tool shed,” remembers Dutton Peterson. “The kids and I worked the fruit [stand] when the boys were young.” Gail and her sons also sold fruit in gift packs to passing motorists, and they created a mailing list—which was considered unconventional at the time—to keep their customers up-to-date on new products.

 

A new vision

The Dutton family made their money mostly from apples, prunes, pears and the French Colombard grapes, but just before a downturn in the apple industry in the 1980s, Dutton Jr. decided to blaze his way into the wine industry by planting more grapes. Gail had her concerns: At that time, California wine was barely heard of on the international circuit, and the French had complete dominance in the market.

“We were always in debt, and I thought we should focus on apples because wine wasn’t big. I thought apples were safer, because rain didn’t bother them, but it did bother the grapes,” says Dutton Peterson.  “But Warren had a vision and he liked to live on the edge. He believed it would all work out.”

His instincts proved to be right. In 1974, the wine industry took an unexpected turn when California wine won a blind-taste test against the French. The contest put California wine on the map internationally. That same year, Martin Ray Winery became the first winery to designate Dutton Ranch on its Chardonnay label.

“Suddenly there was a demand for California winegrapes, and our whole world changed,” says Dutton Peterson. The family decided to focus more on producing winegrapes. They planted Pinot Noir, French Colombard and continued to plant Chardonnay. In 1977, Warren received an ‘Outstanding Young Farmer’ award from the Sonoma County Harvest Fair and, two years later, Kistler Vineyards purchased grapes from a block on the ranch and designated the Dutton Ranch name on the bottle.

In the early 1980s, the family again increased acreage, this time buying land in Russian River Valley as well as Green Valley, where they continued to plant more winegrapes, focusing mainly on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Around this time, it also became apparent that the two brothers, like their father, had farming in their blood. Steve and Joe grew up working in the fields with their dad and driving any piece of equipment with a steering wheel. “I never wanted to do anything but be a farmer,” says Steve.

“Our summers were all about working in the field or the fruit stand and packing house, where we’d run the forklift. We were running equipment by fifth grade and, to me, it was fun,” adds Joe, secretary/treasurer of Dutton Ranch Corporation. “Our father never had to ask us to work, and he never had to pay us.”

In the mid-’80s, the last of the original 200 acres (purchased by the first Warren Dutton in 1881) was incorporated into the city of Santa Rosa; this prompted the Duttons to sell their fruit stand on Sebastapol Road to developers. It was the end of an era, but Dutton Ranch was on the precipice of another major transformation.

Steve was studying agricultural economics at UC Davis when Joe graduated from El Molino High School in 1987; together, the brothers decided to farm full time. As a result, their father made the decision to double the family’s acreage. “It took 10 years for that to happen, but Dad had two ‘employees’ who worked as hard or harder than him,” laughs Steve, referring to himself and Joe.  “So he doubled the acreage we were farming and planted a lot more grapes.”

Their father’s instinct to expand the business proved right on target. In the early 1990s, “60 Minutes” aired a segment about wine and how the French live longer because they drink wine with their meals.  “After that program, there was another jump in wine sales,” says Steve. The health benefits of drinking wine continued to make news and grape sales continued to boom.

 

A leader in the wine grape business

Today the Dutton family still cultivates apples, but most of their land is planted to winegrapes. They continue to farm the Graton Road property, and their business has grown into an extensive operation. Dutton Ranch consists of 80 parcels of land, totaling 1,300 acres, including 200 acres in apple orchards and 1,100 acres of winegrapes in the Russian River Valley and Green Valley appellations. Some of that acreage is devoted to custom farming for other ranches.

Steve and Joe are partners at Dutton Ranch. Steve spends most of his time in the office taking care of the business side their farming operation, while Joe oversees the everyday responsibilities on the ranch and manages the equipment. Their mother still works at the ranch in an advisory capacity.

Dutton Ranch is well-known in the area for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, but it also grows Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Dutton grapes are purchased by 60 different wineries, and their fruit is prized by some of the most respected wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.

DuMOL Winery, for example, has been buying grapes from Dutton Ranch for 17 years. “The grapes we buy from them are consistently world class,” says Andy Smith, winemaker and partner at DuMOL.  “They’re the backbone of our grape supply; 40 percent of our grapes come from Dutton Ranch. Our wines are some of the highest rated in California and have been served regularly at the White House. Dutton grapes are going into those wines.”

Patz & Hall Wine Company has also been a longtime customer, buying grapes from Dutton Ranch for 15 years. “The Duttons are our largest grape supplier,” says James Hall, owner and winemaker. “We buy 8,000 cases worth of grapes every year.” According to Hall, the Duttons have some of the best vineyard locations in Sonoma County. “Steve and Joe are great viticultural experts. It’s in their heart and blood; they put all their energy into growing wonderful grapes. And over the years, they’ve assembled a world-class staff.”

 

Diversifying business

During the ’90s, the Dutton brothers each ventured into the art of winemaking, continuing the family tradition of diversifying business.

In 1995, Joe and his wife, Tracy, established Dutton Estate Winery, named after the family’s agricultural heritage. The winery is located in the Russian River Valley near Sebastopol. With the help of winemaker Terry Adams, they produce wines that reflect the characteristics of seven of the ranch’s vineyards.

“Our goal is to take some of the best grapes we grow and make wine,” says Joe. “And to let the business grow with our wine club and tasting room sales.” Dutton Estate produces about 4,000 cases per year, featuring Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

Three years later, Dutton-Goldfield Winery began with a handshake in a vineyard, when Steve and his wife, Theresa, partnered with winemaker Dan Goldfield, who’s a longtime colleague and friend of Steve. “We wanted to take our agricultural product from the ground to the table,” says Steve. The two friends shared a vision of developing wines that express the terroirs of their cool climate vineyards and that they’d enjoy drinking at their own dinner tables.

Dutton-Goldfield produces between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of wine per year, featuring Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Their goal is to expand slowly as the market demands and grapes are singled out for production. “We want to find the right grape sources of what we’re growing at the ranch,” explains Steve. Today, approximately 5 percent of the grapes grown by Dutton Ranch go into the wines of Dutton Estate and Dutton-Goldfield wineries.

 

Keys to success

What’s the key to running a successful farming enterprise? According to the Duttons, a successful farming operation is all about hard work, attention to detail and customer service.

“Our employees are a big part of our success,” says Steve. At the height of the season, he says, Dutton Ranch employs up to 120 workers, and about 65 workers during the winter months. There are two full-time mechanics on staff to keep the equipment running smoothly in the shop, and there are two foremen, Jose Aceves and Juan Sanchez, who’ve worked at Dutton Ranch for 43 years and are equal partners with the Duttons in an eight-acre property that has two houses, where the foremen live with their families. The arrangement works so well that the Duttons added houses for two additional longtime workers and are equal partners with those employees as well.

Some employees currently working at the ranch were born while their parents were employed there, and a second generation of employees now continues the tradition of working the orchards and vineyards. Dutton Ranch also features three dormitory-style housing units for employees to live in, as needed, and 10 single-family houses. “It’s always been a big part of farming to have a place for our workers to live,” says Steve. “As we were expanding our acreage in the mid-’90s, we needed nice housing for our employees. It’s critical for us to keep up with the demands of the season.”

The brothers also credit their ability to adapt as a key factor in the success of Dutton Ranch and say their late father’s ability to roll with the changes in the business still serves as their inspiration. “We’re willing to change and adapt to whatever the market is,” says Steve Dutton. 

“Our father was always willing to change,” adds Joe. “He started with prunes, hops and apples, but he was willing to learn about grapes.”

Case in point: 15 years ago, the Dutton Family made the switch to farming their apples organically when they saw that the market was changing. “There was a demand for organic apple juice and applesauce, and we wanted to go into that market,” says Steve.

They started on a small piece of acreage so they could learn how to produce organic apples and say making the switch was difficult and costly. “The orchards suffered the first couple of years. They went through a shock period and we lost money,” says Joe. “But then they came back and we saw full crops again.” By 2008, Dutton Ranch was fully certified as an organic apple grower on all its 200 acres.

 

Earth-friendly farming

Like their father before them, Steve and Joe are stewards of the land, committed to doing what’s best for the environment. As they expand their land holdings, they often find themselves clearing away old cars and other debris left behind. Erosion control is a constant priority, they say, as is recycling glass, plastic, paper, oil, batteries and cardboard from the properties.

They’re also committed to sustainable farming, which involves working the land with minimal amounts of chemicals and fertilizers. “For us, sustainable means we’re using the best products we can to control disease with the least amount of impact on the environment,” says Steve.

“Sustainability is a moving target,” explains Joe. “You have to keep learning as you go. Part of farming sustainably means you have to make these decisions that are good for the environment but still let you make a profit.”

The Duttons follow sustainable practices for their grapes, but, says Steve, they’re unable to farm organically. “It’s difficult to raise grapes organically in western Sonoma County,” he explains. “Mildew is the number one disease and likes to grow in 75 to 80 degree weather. We have perfect conditions for mildew here, so it’s hard to grow organically.”

According to Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, sustainable farming means being environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable. “The Duttons are doing a phenomenal job of farming conscientiously,” he says.

 

Fruits of their labor

Since the first Warren Dutton took a chance by purchasing 200 acres in Santa Rosa more than 100 years ago, the Dutton family has followed its passion for land and farming—and has enjoyed the fruits of its labor for five generations. “Our family has always been very connected to the land,” says Dutton Peterson.

Today, Dutton Ranch has the capacity to produce 8,000 tons of winegrapes and apples annually, and the family business continues to grow and prosper. Nevertheless, the market for fruit continues to change and Mother Nature presents challenges. “Last year was a difficult season,” says Steve. “Springtime brought late rains, and the last significant rain was the first weekend in June. Then we had a cool summer. When you’re farming, there are some things you can’t control. We deal with it as we go.”

Last year, Dutton Ranch harvested more than 3,752 tons of apples and 3,042 tons of grapes. This year, the Dutton brothers are hoping for a normal season. “It’s a cyclical business,” says Joe. “We’re hoping that we’re on our way up and out of an economic downturn to ride the next wave. We’re ready to be on our way up.”

What are their plans for Dutton Ranch in the years ahead?

“We make the best decisions we can to grow the best fruit and enhance our property and vineyards so we can continue this operation and pass it on,” says Steve, who has two children, 14-year-old twins Jake and Jordan; Joe has three daughters, Kyndal (age 17), Kylie (16) and Karmen (10).

Meanwhile, one season flows to the next and there’s always work to be done on the ranch. If you happen to drive past the Dutton Ranch this autumn during the harvest, you’re more likely than not to catch Steve and Joe in the fields along with their workers doing what they love to do best. Farmers never stop, and the Dutton brothers are committed to working the land and keeping the family legacy in good shape for the next generation.

 

 

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