It Starts in The Vineyard: An Interview with David Gates

Blog Post

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting with David Gates, Senior Vice President of Vineyard Operations at Ridge Vineyards. David holds an advanced degree in Viticulture from UC Davis, is a founding member of the Historic Vineyard Society, and has been with Ridge for nearly 30 years. In the face of such an accomplished career, his humility and enthusiasm for teaching others were what struck me most. My goal – to share the story of a man who has dedicated the majority of his career to making Ridge the company it is today.

We sat at a picnic table at Monte Bello on a warm June morning, under the shade of an olive tree, birds chirping in the background. David’s hat, which I had seen him wear many times, both in person and in photos sat on the table in front of him, and as I asked my first questions, I immediately recognized his passion for his trade. His smile never left his face during our entire conversation.

David grew up on a 160-acre farm in Corcoran, Minnesota. The middle of six children, he was raised helping his parents farm the land where they grew corn and soy beans year to year, with alfalfa in the off seasons to rest the land. David had the green thumb of the family, and for the majority of his childhood, learned the practical farming experiences “like how to fix a tractor and set a disc up correctly” and his love of the land that would prove invaluable. “There is a mindset around farming — you have to be able to do whatever it takes to get things done.” His mother — his biggest influence — always taught him a good work ethic and that you “shouldn’t just settle […] make sure you always strive for something.”

Higher education provided David with the opportunity to get “as far away from Minnesota winters” as he could. He started out at UC San Diego in Engineering, and transferred to UC Davis after his second year. Once enrolled at Davis, he met Professor Lloyd Lider, who sparked his passion for Viticulture. Once David realized he could make a living out of it, he never looked back.

When I asked David to tell me his story at Ridge, he described its beginning as nothing short of “serendipitous”. In the late 1980s, before the thought of working with Ridge had even entered his mind, David and his wife, Donna, were living in Napa. Donna had recently been accepted to a PhD program at Stanford, from which David was prepared to drive back and forth each day.

In 1989, David had heard from a friend that Ridge was looking for a full-time vineyard manager. So, as serendipity would have it, he applied for the position. David remembers that first interview with Fred Peterson in a 1989 Healdsburg that is now “very different than it was back then.” After a successful first interview, he was asked to return for a second meeting with Wilma Sturrock and Paul Draper which he recalls as a “fun interview.”

On the day of the interview, David recalled, “in typical Ridge fashion, one of the employees was having a birthday celebration, so I do this interview with the President and the CEO and then all of a sudden, I’m thrown into having lunch and a big birthday party with everybody. That was fun!” After accepting the position, David shared his initial plan to stay in the area for three to four years, at which point he and Donna would head back to Napa — “well it’s been more than that.”

So I had to ask David what took him from thinking that they would be here for only three or four years to where they are now. His response is a true testament to the Ridge philosophy and the employees they keep:

“There is a certain connection that you can have with Ridge; there are a lot of “lifers” here, a lot of people who have been here for a long time. There is a culture — basically it’s Paul — that has been encouraged and embraced —and, … it goes all the way back to the hippie culture from the late 1950s and early ‘60s when Ridge was just getting started. It’s a group dynamic — Paul is a master at that. He surrounds himself with people who have that same kind of management style. If you stick, you stick.”

And David has certainly “stuck.” Since 1989, he has worked to perpetuate the humanistic culture Paul started, and for the last nine years, has passed it on to Will Thomas and Kyle Theriot, the Directors of Vineyard Operations at Lytton Springs and Monte Bello.

In David’s memory, his first Ridge vintage was “weird.” After a big rain at harvest, much of the large crop he had hoped for that year was lost. This juxtaposed heavily with the 1997 vintage David fondly recalls as the “most fun,” in which the crop was so large that the fermentation takes overflowed and had to run off into gondolas placed near the sides of the tanks.

It’s hard to sum up a man who has accomplished so much, but from my vantage point, he is someone who cares deeply for the land and preserving its history, has a passion for woodworking and creating things with his hands, hopes to never stop learning and discovering new things about little known grape varietals, and wants to continue to teach and inspire.

Once harvest rolls around, you can be sure that David is getting up early each morning, starting the day with a stretch and a triple cappuccino because “if the stretching doesn’t wake [him] up, that does.”

Murphy Young, Sales and Marketing Coordinator


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