Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
HILL IS FOR HEROES: Saratoga officials didn't believe Bill Hirschman and his partners could turn the Mountain Winery around when he brought a proposal to them. It took 10 years, but he delivered.
The Man Who Saved The Mountain Winery
The bizarre history of Saratoga's chateau and how Bill Hirschman rescued its live music series
By Jessica Fromm
KNOWN AS THE "Duc De Cognac," gentleman vintner Paul Masson loved good wine, good food and good company. A Frenchman who built a substantial fortune and an international reputation as a top California winemaker in the early 20th century, Masson became a legend in his own time both for his award-winning champagne and as a lavish host.
"La Cresta," the luxurious chateau Masson built in 1905 on his hilltop Saratoga winery grounds, had a reputation as a mecca for the glamorous crowd. Folly girls, movie stars, stage performers, politicians and socialites frequently made their way up the Mountain Winery's narrow, winding road to enjoy the chateau's grand views, abundant hospitality and copious amounts of wine. John Steinbeck, President Herbert Hoover and even young Charlie Chaplin were known guests at the vineyard abode, overlooking the far reaches of the San Francisco Bay. After a few glasses of Masson's internationally renowned champagne, it wasn't uncommon for some of these bon-vivant entertainers to put on performances, a song and a dance for their generous host.
Now in its 50th year of offering summer concerts, the Mountain Winery has found its place as a world-class venue sporting brand-new renovations. A favorite of performing artists, tech moguls and music lovers alike, this "vineyard-in-the-sky" seems to cast a spell on all who visit.
But from the heady days of Masson to the boom years of Martin Ray to the controversial '90s, the Mountain Winery's future as a place of entertainment hasn't always been secure. Frequent changes of ownership and shoddy management have plagued the winery since its music series was first established in 1958. The venue's relationship with its neighbors and the city of Saratoga were often strained, causing many to wonder if the winery would ever get back on its feet.
In 1999, when developer Bill Hirschman approached the Saratoga City Council and county Planning Commission with his plans for the venue, he knew he was stepping into a long history of disappointment and distrust in the Saratoga community. Councilmembers were openly antagonistic toward Hirschman and his co-owners, chalking them up to being just another group in a long string of owners who had big plans, but little follow-up on their pledges to make the venue great. Little did they know that Hirschman would not only stay true to his promises but also dedicate the next decade of his life to saving the Mountain Winery.
Flamboyance and Faked Robberies
The Mountain Winery's colorful history stretches back to the days of Paul Masson. With his characteristic flamboyant nature, vigor and barbed wit, Masson was a man's man, a ladies' man, and most importantly, a man about town. His large frame clad in a three-piece suit, he strode around the most powerful circles in the valley, an early member of the prestigious Sainte Claire Club in San Jose.
Flexing his extensive political connections, Masson even gained a special government license to sell "medicinal" champagnes and wine for the sacrament during Prohibition, a time that forced most California vintners into bankruptcy. The 18th Amendment also couldn't stop the champagne-soaked banquets held at La Cresta. When rumors of the revelry trickled down the hill, creating suspicion among local townspeople, Masson simply ordered his men to hitch up a team of horses and drag a fallen tree across the steep winery road whenever he had guests. Even prohibition agents couldn't kill the party.
There were also several reported armed robberies of the Masson wine storehouses at La Cresta. On multiple occasions, raiders posing as prohibition inspectors would show up in trucks, hold everyone at the winery hostage and commandeer thousands of dollars' worth of wine down the mountain. Conveniently, these heists only seemed to occur around harvest time, when Masson happened to need the extra room in his cellars.
Upon retirement, Paul Masson sold his hilltop winery to another vintner, Martin Ray.
"The winery burned on the night of July 8, 1941 during the time of Ray's ownership, leaving doubt as to its continued operation. The greatest treasure that was saved from the fire was the precious champagne yeast culture, which Paul Masson himself had told Ray was valued at $100,000," says Chuck Schoppe, president of the Saratoga Historical Foundation.
After Ray rebuilt the winery, it was sold to a consortium of wine friends named Alfred Fromm, Franz Sichel and Otto Meyer. It was Norman Fromm, brother of Alfred, who instituted the first "Music in the Vineyards" program in 1958. The winery started with a 400-person capacity, quickly increasing to 900 and then 1750 with popularity. The first music programs appealed to a more refined audience, with jazz pianists, symphony violinists, classical performers and opera on the bill. Bruce Labadie, a concert producer and booker for the Mountain Winery for many years, laments the fact that the Mountain Winery has lost what he considers this less mainstream programming in recent years.
"It was the wide range, the combinations of artists, that was so unusual. It was great being able to pair up artists with one another. We were able to bring in Benny Goodman, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, not just the rock artists. It was always tough competing with Bill Graham Presents, so we were lucky just to be in business with them breathing down our necks," says Labadie. "Now, it's more basically rock & roll. It's a lot more commercial then it used to be when I was up there. It's just something you have to do to stay alive."
Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GOLD STANDARD: The Doobie Brothers onstage at the Mountain Winery on July 25. The venue has been hosting live music since 1958.
Heart Attack And Vines
Staying alive has always been an issue with the Mountain Winery's summer music series, particularly in the '90s when the venue had to survive numerous blows to its business and reputation in the Saratoga community.
Ravi Kumra, a multimillionaire with a bad-boy reputation, bought the winery in 1995 for $6 million. Kumra purchased the land in hopes of expanding the venue and building his personal residence on the property.
Current winery co-owner Bill Hirschman, also the president of real estate development company Lexor Investments Inc., was hired by Kumra to look into the potential development opportunities of the property. After a year dealing with Kumra though, Hirschman decided to cut ties with the project.
"He was an interesting guy," says Hirschman. "He had just started the whole county permitting process when we got involved, and we were asked to help. There were some complications, and, that's why I decided to not to get involved. We sort of walked away from the development opportunity there."
Kumra, who was contacted for this story but did not return calls, apparently bit off more then he could chew. The venue suffered under his legal troubles and shoddy management.
Notorious for his wacky behavior, Kumra experienced numerous run-ins with the law during his time running the Mountain Winery.
Over his years as owner, he was arrested for a DUI hit-and-run and an intoxicated assault on a winery security guard and production staffer, along with harassing and making threatening phone calls to employees of Villa Montalvo, then the winery's concert operators.
"This was a pretty big project, and Ravi not being in the development business, I think it was hard for him to understand what he was taking on," says Hirschman. "I think his passion was to have some fun with the property, and I was more interested in doing something to improve it and raise the bar a little bit. Our motivations were a bit different."
With all the time Kumra spent in custody and in court, it's no wonder the Mountain Winery was being run into the ground. The venue was in disrepair and chaos, and the summer series was cut down to a meager five performances a season.
On top of that, the winery's relationship with its neighbors and the city of Saratoga were beyond strained. Residents of the million-dollar houses that surrounded the property had been complaining for years about the unchecked noise and auto traffic the venue generated, but had gotten little response from Mountain Winery management.
Karen Richards, a former Saratoga resident who owned a home a mile away from the Mountain Winery for 13 years, says that the noise coming out of the venue was a common problem, especially when a certain comedian made an appearance.
"The worst thing we had with the noise was when they had George Carlin up there, because he was using foul language. He was using the four-letter word, and I just went, 'This is just not appropriate, I don't want to walk out of my house and hear this,'" says Richards. "We just felt it was very offensive. You could hear it in our front yard. My husband called them on it because it was so bad, but they basically just said, 'Sorry, there is nothing we can do.' They couldn't control what people do."
By the time word got out that Kumra wanted to expand the venue, neighbors were irate, and the city was getting fed up.
Ann Waltonsmith, the mayor of Saratoga, says that when she was first appointed to the council in 1998, the city's relationship with the venue had so deteriorated that they were seriously considering litigation against the Mountain Winery.
"When I came on, we didn't have good relations. We were struggling with them and the county because they wanted to expand. Our whole thing was, you've got to do mitigations," says Waltonsmith.
"We could have litigated if we wanted to, but we really didn't want to; we really wanted to resolve it, and we did. When you start fighting with a big entity, you really have to say, is this worth it? Are we going to litigate if we have to?"
"We weren't trying to throw marbles under their plan. We knew that it's a nice venue, it's a good draw and it brings people into the village to eat dinner. But, politically, you can't just stonewall neighbors. You can't just do that. We found a good compromise, so that they could go and make a beautiful venue."
That compromise came in the form of Bill Hirschman. In late 1998, Ravi Kumra decided that the music venue business was no longer in his interests and approached Hirschman about buying the venue.
"It's a beautiful piece of property. There aren't may of these kind of properties over your lifetime you'll have the opportunity to be involved in," says Hirschman.
Forming the investment group Chateau Masson LLC with his wife, Elizabeth Dodson, along with Hotmail founder Jack Smith and his then-wife Anaflor, Hirschman purchased the winery's 579 acres. Smith and his wife soon divorced, and 25 percent of the winery ownership was sold to David House, chairman of the board at San Jose's Brocade Communications Systems Inc. as well as a vintner hobbyist. After acquiring the property, Hirschman immediately launched into patching up relations with the Saratoga community.
"There was a general distrust of the Mountain Winery. There were noise issues, there were traffic issues, there were parking issues, there were all kinds of issues," says Hirschman. "The property had struggled for quite a while. Therefore, not everything that was done was up to snuff with the neighbors. The neighborhood relationship was not very good and there was a lot of trust that had to be built up again. Because of the neglect, there had been a fair amount of distrust. We've worked very hard with the neighborhood groups to re-establish that. Without them, you don't go very far."
Passed from one owner to the next like a hot potato for decades, the venue managed to operate for over 40 years without a single use or building permit ever getting filed. With his aim being a massive redevelopment of the Mountain Winery, one of Hirschman's first endeavors was to obtain a use permit for the venue. Since only a quarter of the winery's land is located within the city limits of Saratoga, the property had never been subject to the scrutiny of Saratoga's decision-making bodies, another point of contention.
"It started out way up in the boonies, and it was sort of an entity onto itself. As the city grew and as many citizens started building their big homes up in the area, issues and problems started to arise," says Mayor Waltonsmith.
"There had been many years with doing improvements without permits, doing things that maybe weren't in the interest of all parties," says Hirschman. "It needed a lot of work. When we purchased it, it didn't have any of the county use permits. It really was in a pretty dire state. The concerts had been going on since 1958, but by the time we purchased it, they put on only five or six concerts. I took it through the whole use permit process, and the whole approval process, and all the remodeling approvals."
Hirschman and his fellow owners also worked at re-establishing ties with their neighboring homeowners, as well as the Saratoga City Council.
"I think we have a really good relationship; every issue I take right to them, they respond right away. They've come and spoken to our council at least once a year about their plans," says former Saratoga mayor and current Councilmember Kathleen King. "We check pretty often about complaints, and they are following up on complaints right away. They've been really good about that. They're local owners that really care, I think, about their community. With the neighbors around them, who might have some concerns on what is happening, they've reached out to them. I've been impressed whenever I've had an issue—they've been right on top of it."
Ten years and numerous permits later, Hirschman and his co-owners are finally closing in on the complete renovation of the Mountain Winery. Gone are the white folding card-table chairs and the rotting redwood benches with awkward sight lines. The venue's concert-bowl seating area has been redesigned and expanded from 1,750 seats up to 2,500 permanent seats, all in a custom light brown color to blend into the Saratoga hillside. With a stage that is no longer raised, the seats are now at a stepped incline, and sophisticated production values have been added.
"One of the challenges was that if somebody stood up, it blocked everybody's view. That was one of the bigger complaints we got, so we did it in a very classic terraced seating," says Hirschman.
One of the most important projects of the remodel was the retrofitting of the old winery building, a registered California historical landmark and the most recognizable architectural icon of the Mountain Winery. Partially destroyed by earthquake and fire twice, the original sandstone brick walls of the building still stand as a backdrop to the new stage. Though the old winery building had to be gutted and brought up to code, Hirschman made sure to leave the external brick facade and 12th-century Romanesque portal, originally brought around the Horn from Spain, intact. They hope to have the building open for weddings and events by next spring.
"We really tried to preserve it," says Dodson.
Preservation of the site's historical aspects and keeping its characteristic cozy feel were of utmost importance to the Mountain Winery owners. They had to bring the venue's facilities up to current-day building and seismic codes, but without destroying its unique, charming appeal. First to go were the buildings and architecture added in the '60s and '70s, stripped down to the original Masson structures.
Mayor Waltonsmith, who grew up in Saratoga and went to the winery in her youth, remembers the venue's slapped-together look.
"When I was growing up, each owner would kind of add to it. They would flatten out another part of the mountain top and build something else," says Waltonsmith. "It was kind of old and funky, you would take your life in your hands going up that road. It was way, way out in the boonies, and now it's not. The city has grown up to meet it."
Winery co-owner Dave House also says that one of the best improvements have been the removal of these "funkier elements."
"We got rid of a lot of riff-raff that went in in the last 20 or 30 years. That was kind of tacky. There was a bunch of ticky-tacky things that went up, that didn't fit there or go with the architecture, that were just kind of slapped up in a low-cost kind of a way."
Also new to the Mountain Winery is the growing and production of wine on the premises for the first time since winemaking ceased in the vineyard in 1952. With a goal to make the premium wine that the chalky soil of the Saratoga foothills has always produced, House has taken charge of the Winery's vineyard activities and wine program.
"Back in the days of Paul Masson, he would win every award there was nationally. That's what set him up. He was able to come to California, a place that nobody had ever been, and produce a wine that internationally started winning awards. It's because of the climate and soils. The soil is very lousy for growing grass on, but it grows great wine," says Hirschman.
The Mountain Winery had its initial harvest of chardonnay and pinot grapes in 2006, and this season is the first time you can purchase a bottle to drink at the winery. With a vine count of 16,000 planned for next spring, House hopes the vineyard will become a business onto itself over the next few years.
Just Between Us
Good wine may make good friends, as the Masson saying goes, but if there's one thing the Mountain Winery venue has always prided itself on, it's the intimacy of the site.
Labadie remembers that in the past, audience members in the front row were so close they could put their feet on the stage.
He tells the story of one time when the power went out during a Judy Collins performance. The winery staff was able to solve the problem with a decidedly personal touch: they brought a couple of cars down the path, focused their headlights on Collins, and went on with the show, totally acoustic.
"Now there's 2,500 seats, compared to Shoreline's 20,000. It's still, by comparison, very small," says Labadie.
Still, the intimacy of the Mountain Winery could prove unforgiving.
"Everybody is paying attention. If you're an artist and have a bad night, everyone will know because everyone's right in your face and they're staring at you," says Labadie. "It can be a good thing for the artist, as well; if they want that living room approach, they can get it at the winery."
Hirschman says that it is this "backyard" appeal that keeps people coming back.
"It's like your having a party in your back yard sort of thing. People remember this place because they've been coming here for a long time. That's what makes it fun, it's like they're having a party with some friends, and we didn't want to take away from that. It's a unique place, and it's a unique group of people who come here. They are very loyal customers."
With ticket prices this season ranging from $36.50 to $199.50, these unique customers also have to be willing to shell out some dough. But with regulars like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in attendance, the Mountain Winery's demographic seems to be OK with that. The first few shows of the 2008 season have been almost to capacity.
Josh Weeks, the part owner and general manager of the newly remodeled Plumed Horse, the premier luxury restaurant in downtown Saratoga, says that the winery does have a positive impact on his business.
"People were worried about taking away that intimacy of the venue, but it seems, mostly, they've preserved the integrity of that," says Weeks. "I think there is more of an influx as far as lounge and bar costumers, for sure. When you attract an additional 3,000 people off of Highway 9 and through downtown Saratoga, it's a benefit to all of us, whether they stop that evening or refresh their memory as they drive by. Their venue and offerings really fit in with the demographics of what Saratoga is: really fairly affluent, upscale, 30s through 60s."
Although final brickwork, carpeting and a few buildings and additions have yet to be completed, the venue was ready to open its gates for its 2008 summer concert series on July 2. That is, until they found out about "the lighting truss."
On June 29, Hirschman, Dodson and their staff were out on the Winery grounds, celebrating the start of the summer season and the completion of their main renovations in time.
"We had raised everything up, the music was on, we were all out here congratulating everybody. It was so painful; we were so ready. We'd worked so hard to say 'go,'" says Hirschman. Four hours later, engineers from the band Boston brought it to Hirschman's attention that the center component of the winery stage's new lighting truss had been installed backward.
In light of the mistake, the firm that improperly installed the truss was flown in to reinspect the problem. The entire truss had to be disassembled and reassembled, a process that forced Hirschman to push back the venue's opening to July 13, rescheduling and relocating all the other acts who were supposed to start appearing on July 2.
"It was something so simple nobody even caught it. Nobody even noticed, it was just a matter of somebody having reversed it. It probably wouldn't have made any difference at all, but nobody was going to take that chance. We put a lot of weight up there, so we decided to change it, painful as it was, we changed it."
Many Mountain Winery concertgoers have noticed that the celebration of the venue's 50th year has been more of a soft opening. The only evidence that this year is distinctive seems to be the special edition 50th anniversary plastic wine cups that have been littering the venue grounds after their shows this season.
With ongoing construction and the rescheduling hiccups that overshadowed the Mountain Winery's 50th anniversary, Hirschman he regrets that he hasn't been able to celebrate the occasion as many would have liked. So, they're moving the party to next year.
"I wish it could have been more of a big deal. I think next year we'll celebrate our 51st, to really be able to do it right. I really think we'll be able to do that," says Hirschman. "What we're most proud of is being able to bring the facility up to current-day codes, to current seismic codes, you know, everything we had to do, but keeping the intimacy, and I think we did that. The ownership group, we're all history buffs, it was very important to us. We did a lot of work trying to keep it intimate."
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