Home winemakers embark on new California wine journey
By Khalida Sarwari
From their first date in Napa to modern-day Austin, wine has always been a part of Bruce and Ronda Prothro’s story. In the 25-plus years since their first meeting, the former longtime Los Gatos residents have gone from consumers of wine to producers then back to consumers. Now, their story has come full circle as the couple are embarking once again on a winemaking venture, this time outside of their Los Gatos garage.
But it’s their small two-car garage where the Prothros began their journey as home winemakers in the early 1990s. After being offered pinot noir, zinfandel and chardonnay grapes from a vineyard in the Russian River Valley, the couple, newlyweds at the time, put together a consortium of friends to buy, borrow and rent the equipment necessary for making wine. The process involved a lot of picking, crushing, fermenting, pressing, racking, aging and bottling and yielded, in the end, 120 gallons of wine. Over time, the consortium fell apart, but the couple chugged along, establishing a network of growers and producing anywhere from 200 to 300 gallons a year. The proof was in the garage.
“Our garage smelled very good,” says Ronda, with a laugh.
Along the way, the Prothros got help from such renowned winemakers as David Bruce, Ken Burnap, Burt Williams and Kent Rosenblum. They continued sourcing grapes from vineyards in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley and the Sierra Foothills and continued putting in dozens of hours in their garage, refining their methods and developing a style that used native yeast and extended cold soaks.
“When it comes to structuring a wine, Ronda and I luckily have the same palate and we value the same thing,” said Bruce. “We value—I like to term it—’an experience across the full spectrum of the palate.’ So they’re going to be very balanced, very elegant wines.”
The Prothros would pass on the fruits of their labor to their friends, who even then couldn’t seem to get enough of their wine. At dinner parties, they’d set out their own finished wine next to store-bought bottles, said Ronda. Theirs would usually be gone first. It represented a good time in their lives, Ronda said, but that would all change circa 1998.
“And then we had kids,” Ronda said. “It was just too much work and we couldn’t do it anymore. Kids are expensive and making wine is expensive.”
This next period of their lives involved major changes at home and professionally that forced the Prothros to put their beloved hobby on the back burner for awhile. While raising a son and a daughter, Ronda developed her boutique graphic design and marketing agency in downtown Los Gatos while Bruce climbed the corporate ladder and coached youth sports. Six years ago, his job took them to Austin, Texas, where both he and Ronda made career changes: Bruce is now a consultant for a large multinational medical company and Ronda works as a Realtor.
On the cusp of being empty nesters, the couple slowly started dipping their toes back into winemaking after a 16-year hiatus. “We kind of reflected on the people we were before we had kids and trying to rediscover those people and try to get reacquainted with who we used to be,” said Ronda.
“Only now we’re older,” added Bruce. In a way, that moment served as a “line of demarcation” for him and his wife, he said.
“Making a bottle of wine that someone actually willfully takes from you—that’s a really cool thing and it’s a great experience, and it’s something that gives us an opportunity to share experiences in other people’s lives,” he said. “We wanted to get back to a place that allows us to experience all of that again.”
Last November, Bruce posted a few labels on Facebook and asked for his friends’ input. The feedback was immediate and positive. They found they had a quiet and loyal fan base that was spreading the word about their wine to their circles via social media and word of mouth.
So they’re back to it, only this time, not as home winemakers but as a new business venture, although they’re still very much hands-on and involved in the winemaking process, down to designing and creating the labels on their bottles and doing their own marketing on social media.
“We have this heritage where we picked all the grapes, we swatted away the wasps, we stepped over snakes, we stepped on every grape,” said Bruce.
They have decided to follow the same model used by Stony Hill Vineyard, a small family business in Napa, which offers limited and exclusive wines. The reason for that is simple, said Bruce.
“We don’t have aspirations to turn it into something huge,” he said. “We want to stay small enough that people have and feel like they have a personal connection. It also allows us to keep it artisanal as opposed to growing it into something big and faceless.”
Presently, they sell their wine exclusively on their website via club membership, similar to Stony Hill. Someday they may branch out to select restaurants, said Bruce, but that’s not their focus right now.
For now, they’re just basking in a successful month. Since their May 8 launch, they’ve sold half of their inventory, which included a 2014 Howell Mountain Cabernet from Beatty Ranch and a 2016 Sauvignon Blanc from Morgan Lee Vineyard in Yountville.
“Part of what we’re about is being small and very limited, and that’s part of our story, and I think that people that buy our wines enjoy that,” Ronda said.
Many friends and acquaintances have stepped up to host tastings for them in their own homes, not just in California but even in parts of Texas. But, there was no more suitable launching pad than Los Gatos, where on June 6, an acquaintance hosted a private gathering that was attended by dozens of the Prothros’ friends.
That is where it all started, after all, in their two-car garage more than 25 years ago. The town still draws the couple back two or three times a year to visit friends and revisit familiar sights and sounds.
“For us, coming to Los Gatos, there’s a lot of history for us,” said Bruce. “It was like coming home.”
To learn more about Prothro Family Wines, visit their website at prothrofamilywines.com.