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Brent Parsons
07/10/2014 3:03 PM

I first met Allen on the basketball court. I would guess he crashed our game a decade ago judging by how big his son, Max, is now.

Allen learned, as I did 15 years earlier, that this Wednesday-evening basketball was not an open gym. He had to shoot with his son on a side hoop until the number of regular players dropped below 15 or someone was unselfish enough to let him play in a spot. That doesn’t happen often and I doubt it happened that night.

I remember a couple of things from his inaugural night: Max telling me how good his dad was, and Mark Gianini (perhaps our most senior regular) asking me where I dragged the new guy in from, “Under a bridge in West Point?” Allen showed up in his game clothes: a layer of shirts with a sweatshirt in the mix, a tattered pair of self-styled and stained cut-offs and shoes that didn’t go with anything but maybe skateboarding. I cannot remember the quality of his performance. I imagine he passed more than he felt like and called a foul on himself if there was any question. That is what a new guy has to do. Only less-skilled new ones try to do too much. We soon found out the mannered man that night was not Al, it was closer to the anti-Al. He could play. He hustled, was physical and liked to talk, really talk. We are all used to it now. It provides court color. We miss him when his back is too sore or his night before was too hard or late. But the new guys never know how to take him when he impolitely greets them on the way to the hoop and tells them to “get that bleep out of here.” Whether the attempted rejection involves contact is immaterial to the confrontation. The one met and usually fouled looks for a smile but doesn’t see one. Allen hides it pretty well, almost as well as he hides his winemaking expertise.

I met Allen at his Drytown Cellars. His bottling line was going with a crew of six. He brought over an uncapped fresh one and handed it to Leslie with the words, “We serve no wine before its time.” He looked at his watch and said it was time. He said he would be done in a minute and I poured us a bit in a couple of paper cups I found on the bar. It was good, but the cup choice got a reprimand from Allen and my wife (I’m a beer guy anyway). I drove Leslie home with the 2014 Vaira Ranch Red and returned to get Al’s off-the-court story. We sat in his office, open to his tasting room, which is in the working winery barn.

Tasters get to sit and see where the product they are sampling is made and where it is concocted. Allen’s lab is in his office. The casually dressed laborer a visitor might be watching or drinking with could be the owner.

Allen Kreutzer was born in Scotia, the small lumber-company-owned town in Humboldt County, where his dad was the physician. In the early 1950’s, the family moved to Napa County, on the Silverado Trail, where Allen lived until seventh grade.

When he was two, he lost his dad in a car crash on the highway between Vallejo and Sonoma. His mom re-married and he considers Russell Pillard not only his dad but “a wonderful man who knew a whole bunch about everything.” The combined families had five children.

Russell bought a 200-acre working cattle ranch in Napa, which he sold in 1967 and is now, like most properties in the valley, a vineyard. Dad then bought a red-lava rock quarry off Highway 20 in Lake County. “That purchase was genius,” Allen boasts. “The operation was sold years ago, but our family is still collecting royalties on the rock.” Allen ran the crushers and operated heavy equipment at the quarry through high school. Russell offered him part of the business, but Allen had other plans. He went off to Davis to study pre-med. I asked if he pursued sports. “Not really. I was recruited to play football but after a broken nose, I focused on basketball. In college, it wasn’t long before I knew that was not going anywhere. Everyone was too big. Besides, I really wanted to be a rock star.” He still does.

Allen’s musical diversions extended his college career to about seven years — he isn’t sure, maybe eight. He would get a band together and hit the road until a member found “heroin, God, or a woman.” Whiskey didn’t help much either. “It still doesn’t,” he said. And then the group would break up. Between bands, he would re-register at Davis, where tuition was “ridiculously cheap” and administrative and parental patience must have been abundant. After about six years, Allen acknowledged the obvious, “This doctor thing isn’t working.”

He looked through the academic catalog. Fermentation science looked to be the candidate to best make use of his course credits and a favorite pastime. He figured that if he stayed at it, he could be done in one more year. He skipped his beer brewing final for a $250 gig and got a D-minus. But he did okay in winemaking. He had a class A driver’s license and after graduation went to work for a mobile bottler that was just getting started. The late 1970’s timing could not have been better. California’s wine industry was about to explode. Allen drove around the state with a portable wine bottling facility in his semi. He met a lot of wine makers and sampled a lot of wines. The contacts and experience proved invaluable, and he was a rock star on the road. Fans were waiting at every stop with a product in need of a bottle.

Allen landed his first winemaking job for Villa Armando, a big Italian winery in Pleasanton in 1980. That winery is long gone, but the descendants of the owners are still in the business. He went to work for Pedrizzetti, in Morgan Hill, and he and Suzanne bought a home in the mountains above Santa Cruz in 1983. They had met at Davis in 1977 and she stuck with him through the challenges a drummer’s life presents. “I think her father wanted to kill me a few times, probably for good reason,” Allen recalled. “We finally surprised the family at a Thanksgiving dinner by announcing that we were married.” They had eloped to Minden and paid $75 to a Justice of the Peace. “An Elvis wedding was just too tacky but I forgot about the ring.” We felt some camaraderie when I told him that my wife, Leslie, and I did the same thing in Tonopah, but he was jealous that our celebrant wore tennis shoes under the robe.

Like many winemakers, Allen picked up another consulting job, this one at the beautiful Kirigin Cellars, west of Gilroy. He is still the general manager there through a change of ownership some thirty years later. I was puzzled. “How can you run your own winery and manage a big one 150 miles away?” I asked. He tried to explain. “Initially, with both owners it was consuming. The original owner, a most interesting Croatian WWII survivor, had me basically running the operation. In 2000, he returned to finish life in his homeland and sold to a high-tech Indian lawyer out of Stanford. The new owner asked me to stay on and one of my first assignments was to build him a cricket field. I figured it out and he was so pleased he decided to add four soccer fields to the winery grounds. They are in but I delegated most of that project.

The owner put almost $6 million into the winery, replacing everything, and now I get paid for checking in on it a few times a month. But if there is a problem, I have to step up and take care of it.” He was driving down the next day.

Allen and Suzanne were acquainted with Amador earlier, but got real interested in the 1990’s after doing some consulting for Jackson Valley Vineyards. He said that while on top of the tanks one frozen December morning, he looked out over the land and thought, “I could live here.” A potential 20-acre deal near Drytown fell through in 1999, but county officials kept up the search. “The County was helpful throughout the whole process,” he said.

A few months later, Susan Grijalva, Amador’s planner, called with a lead. The Kreutzers drove up and met Joe and Dorothy Vaira riding in a pickup “side-by-side, like high school sweethearts” on the dirt driveway in Drytown. The ranch house had been a rental and Allen counted 26 broken windows and could see no source for heat.

Joe said the smallest piece he could split off was 40 acres. A price was agreed on, Allen wrote the check and they shook hands. Allen’s neighbor, Brian Oneto, bought the remaining 160 acres. Allen worked to make the house habitable and Suzie came up later that year. They now live in Sutter Creek with their children, Max, a senior and Lucy, a sixth-grader. The winery is built and in full production. Allen loves the location - out of the Valley and right on Highway 49 — “Business is good.”

I asked about his relationship with Amador’s vintners. I guessed it might be like his relationships on the basketball court. “I don’t think they all like me. I am kind of a maverick, opinionated and some might say abrasive. They are in ‘the valley’ and I’m out here in the scrub. But we work, create and are judged together.”

Evidently he has been judged well with an impressive, award-winning resume. He is also producing a hard cider that has taken off. I saw it on a Reno restaurant wine list.

Catch him at the winery or you might catch him performing with his latest band at the Drytown Club. The gig isn’t quite the rock star’s dream, but it’s a gig and his time on the road is short. He can be home in five minutes or at the winery in two if Sutter Creek looks too distant.

Copyright © 2014 Amador Ledger Dispatch
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