The Women of RIDGE

Blog Post

March 2023

Sue Crane, a member of one of the founding families of Ridge, has written a wonderful book, “Behind the Barrels: The Women of Ridge,” recalling the founding of Ridge Vineyards and the important roles played by herself, Fran Bennion, and Blanche Rosen. In this essay written by Mark Vernon, we explore the contributions made by three additional key women in Ridge Vineyards’ history: Kathy Martinich, Connie Hillis, and Wilma Sturrock.

The Founding Women of Ridge

The matriarchs of the three founding Ridge families and the roles they played were significant to Ridge’s success alongside the well-chronicled efforts of their husbands Hew Crane, Dave Bennion, and Charlie Rosen. During the ’60s, Ridge was very much a family affair, with a majority of the work performed by all the members of the founding families, including the children. By the late 1960s, Dave Bennion quit his job at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) to work at Ridge full-time. Hew and Charlie continued working at SRI but pitched in at weeknight meetings and many weekends up at Ridge.

As Ridge achieved some success and started to grow, the company began hiring employees to help with the work.  Lee Carrasco had joined in the early 60s helping to care for the vineyards. He had worked with the previous owner William Short to plant and then care for the cabernet and chardonnay vines. Paul Draper joined as winemaker in 1969 and took the lead in 1970, making the red wines and working with Dave on the whites. By 1971 Paul was making all the wines with a crew of five part-time cellar workers. Dave focused on the vineyards managing Lee and the vineyard crew while also taking care of day to day business issues in his role as President of Ridge. Paul was made a member of the Board and joined the partners the previous year in their bi-weekly business meetings that started with dinner and could go to 1 am. The meetings were most often held at the Crane’s home and included Sue.

The Next Generation of Ridge Women

During the 1970’s Dave hired three women who played crucial roles during this period of growth and change for the company. All three would end up working for Ridge for decades and all performed an array of jobs that had a tremendous impact on the success of the company. These women were Kathy Martinich, Connie Hillis, and Wilma Sturrock.

Kathy Martinich – Pioneering Operations

The first to come to Ridge was Kathy Martinich. Kathy’s husband “Dutch” Martinich was a carpenter that Dave Bennion hired in late 1967 to start working on the rehabilitation of the “upper” winery originally built by Dr. Perrone in the latter half of the 1880s. At the time, Kathy was running a leather sandal shop in Palo Alto. When she decided to close down her shop, her husband told her that Dave Bennion was looking for someone to be his assistant at Ridge. In 1971 Kathy was hired and became the only full-time employee working on-site at the Ridge “barn” at 17100 Montebello Road. During the 1960s, the wine was both made and sold at the “barn,” but once production was moved up to the “upper” Perrone winery in 1971, the only production activity still taking place at the barn was bottling, which ultimately moved up to the “upper” winery once a bottling line was installed there many years later.

Kathy did a wide range of jobs as well as helping Dave with the day-to-day operation of the business. Answering the telephone, ordering office supplies, shipping wine orders, greeting visitors, and helping on Saturdays – the one day of the week Ridge was open to the public for tasting and sales. In 1972 Kathy moved on-site into a small house next to the Perrone winery. She recalls that a telephone was installed in her little house that was connected to the main telephone number for Ridge so that no matter if she was at her office or at home, she could answer calls coming in to Ridge. Ridge continues to use that same number today, 408-867-3233, although calls now go into a sophisticated cloud-based system that lets multiple employees, many working from home, answer calls made to Ridge. In addition to the main Ridge telephone number, Dave had also put his home phone number on every label through the ’60s and early ’70s as his principal office was the kitchen table in his home. Once Kathy started working at Ridge, Dave’s home telephone number was no longer included on the labels.

As Ridge’s customer base expanded, Dave asked Kathy if she would be willing to do customer tastings on Wednesdays. A number of Ridge’s early customers were doctors, and many of them would take part or all of Wednesday off. Kathy focused on doing the Wednesday tastings while the founding families and Paul, who by now was a partner, all took one Saturday per month to do customer tasting. In summer, tastings were held outside on an old redwood table. In the winter, they would move into a rundown shed adjoining the barn. The Wednesday tastings continued for a few years but were ultimately phased out.

Connie Hillis – The ATP Advocate

By the mid-1970s, Ridge’s steadily growing sales necessitated the hiring of more staff, and in 1974 Connie Hillis came to work at Ridge. Connie had experience working in retail sales. She helped Mr. Alfred Peet, who owned a coffee shop in Berkeley, open his second location in Menlo Park. Connie also had worked in a very popular record store in Menlo Park. Eventually, Dave convinced her to come to work at Ridge.

Like Kathy, Connie did whatever was needed to be done on any given day, primarily focused on helping with customers and sales. During the week, this included talking with customers on the telephone, packing wine for shipment and greeting visitors that came up to Ridge during the week. Connie also helped out during the Saturday tastings – like Kathy, she helped pull bottles for customers purchasing wine, operate the cash register, answer customer questions, etc. Connie also started the tradition of gathering after the tasting was done and washing all of the glasses while enjoying a glass of Ridge chardonnay.

By 1976 Ridge had increased the number of different wines it was producing, and the partners were trying to figure out the best way to sell these small production wines. Ridge was selling wine not only directly to customers who visited the winery to taste but also through a number of fine wine shops in both Northern and Southern California as well as in a handful of other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington D.C. Paul had also established export markets in England and France. The distributors and even the individual stores Ridge was working with were only offered the larger production Ridge wines because there was not enough of any of the small production wines to offer them to all the stores, let alone the distributors. In those early years, there we not very many fine wine retailers, and they were all very aware of what was being offered to their competition. As a small producer, the partners felt it was in their best interest not to anger any of their retailers. This left them with a large number of wines that they it could only sell directly to customers.

Eventually, Ridge expanded its tastings to include both Saturday and Sunday but that was still not enough to sell all of those new wines. Then during one of the weekly evening business meetings, Charlie Rosen came up with the idea of creating the Advance Tasting Program. The partners felt that many customers would only buy wine after having had a chance to taste it first. And not everyone had the time to drive up to Monte Bello and taste every time Ridge released a new wine. By using the word ‘Advance’ in the name of the program, Ridge proposed that customers would pay to receive two bottles of wine, and that one was to be tasted right away to be sure they liked it. If not, then they could return the un-opened bottle for a full credit for both bottles. If they were pleased, they could hold the second bottle to drink it when it had a little more age and they could order more bottles if they wished. No one ever sent the wine back.

The ATP program was a subscription plan that would automatically ship two bottles of newly released wines to customers every other month. The program launched in 1977 and appears to have been the first subscription wine club in America and perhaps the world.

Connie volunteered to head up this new effort and it quickly took up the majority of her time. Each customer who joined completed an index card with their information, and Connie famously kept these cards organized in a shoe box. Connie would pack up the wine for each shipment and then parcel them out to the few other staff members who would make the delivery using their own cars. As customers had the opportunity to order additional amounts of the ATP wines, Connie handled all of these sales as well. In those days, all ATP wines were paid for by check, so Connie also did all the paperwork associated with keeping track of who had paid and making sure the checks were deposited in the bank. The program proved to be a big success and it quickly consumed the majority of her time.

The Paris tasting in 1976 that included Ridge’s Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon helped open the door for more sales of Ridge wines in a number of other states. Paul, as de facto head of marketing, set up this expansion in the U.S. and brought in Switzerland and Germany as additional export markets. In 1974, he had arranged to sell Monte Bello “en primeur”, that is, on futures in England. As a result, sales continued to steadily grow, necessitating our convincing the Trentadue family to sell us the fruit off the Whitton Ranch, tripling our production of Geyserville zinfandel.

Wilma Sturrock – Shaping the Future

Another of the grape sources for Ridge was the Jimsomare ranch lower down Montebello Road. Ridge had already been purchasing zinfandel grapes from several acres planted there around the turn of the century. Discussions were held with the owners about replanting the cabernet that had dominated the ranch until Prohibition. In 1974 they planted one block of cabernet and more in 1977 and 1980, followed in the next years by additional cabernet, merlot, and for the first time, chardonnay. The ranch had been owned since 1936 by a famous San Francisco family – the Schwabachers. They employed Elmano Homem as their ranch foreman who took care of the old zinfandel and planted the new vines. The Schwabacher parents also employed a woman originally from Scotland named Wilma Sturrock who helped them manage their household activities at their home in San Francisco. Initially, Wilma lived with them in San Francisco, but Wilma would often travel with them when they stayed at their summer house at Jimsomare. A romance developed between Wilma and Elmano, and ultimately Wilma moved to live with Elmano at Jimsomare. Her work for the family became only part-time while they were at Jimsomare, so she went to work for a restaurant in Cupertino where she became the manager. With Dave Bennion working closely with Elmano at Jimsomare, he came to know Wilma, and he was impressed with her organizational skills, ultimately convincing her to come to work at Ridge.

Wilma joined Ridge in 1981 and became Dave’s full-time assistant, helping him manage Ridge’s day-to-day operation in much the same way Kathy first did for Dave ten years earlier.  Wilma was a very caring person and quickly and easily made friends with the rest of the Ridge staff and, in effect, became Ridge’s first Human Resources Director in addition to her other duties. Soon it became common for employees to go to Wilma if they needed help with something or had an idea of how things could be organized in a way to make the business run smoother. Wilma was good with financial information and helped to carefully manage the budget while she kept a close eye on how money was being spent. As Ridge used no titles beyond President and Winemaker, Wilma became the de facto Chief Operating Officer. During this time Ridge’s sales continued to grow, and the winery was achieving significant recognition for consistently producing some of the best wine made in California.

By 1983 things started to change for the original founding families. For the most part, their children had grown up and were leading lives of their own. Charlie Rosen, the oldest of the founders, was close to retiring from SRI. For over twenty years, the founding families had poured their hearts and energy helping to build Ridge into the success it had become. But other than Dave Bennion drawing a salary as Ridge’s President, no money was ever paid out to the founders – they always re-invested any profits the company made into its continued growth. With none of their children interested in a career at Ridge, the founders were thinking hard about the future of the company and their involvement in it. Eventually, they decided it was time to pull back from spending so much time on the day-to-day operations at Ridge and focus more on planning for the future.

The biggest change was Dave Bennion stepping down as President and the hiring of an accomplished business executive, Bill Curtis, to succeed him. Bill was a long-time executive at Owens Corning Fiberglass who had just retired from running their Pacific Division. Bill was a wine lover and was thrilled with the opportunity to bring his business acumen to Ridge. Wilma assisted Bill and helped bring him up to speed on the many aspects of Ridge’s operations. Bill focused on upgrading Ridge’s financial reporting systems to provide the ownership with more detailed and timely financial information as well as improving Ridge’s banking relationships. Bill and Wilma worked together on improving Ridge’s inventory management practices as well as compliance with the many state and federal regulations unique to the production of beverage alcohol.

Navigating Growth and Change

During the mid-1980s Connie continued to manage and grow the ATP program, and Kathy was running retail sales. Donn Reisen joined Ridge as an over-educated tractor driver. By the end of the ’70s, he had come in from the rain to work under Kathy’s tutelage in retail sales. As production increased, Paul, doing the marketing for domestic wholesale and export, brought Donn over as the first Wholesale Sales Manager.

Ridge was producing more and more marketing materials, so Kathy decided to buy an early Apple Macintosh computer. She wanted to see if she could more easily create these materials on the Mac than the old method of pasting things together by hand before sending them off to the printer. Kathy quickly became proficient at using the Mac which greatly simplified the whole process of generating high quality marketing pieces as well as the labels for the wine. Connie also played a key role in the development of the written material being generated within Ridge. Connie had a mastery of written English and was an excellent writer, editor, and proofreader. Paul was writing the labels and the majority of the articles. From time to time, Connie joined in the writing but ultimately was editing everything written by Paul and the others.

A Transition to New Ownership

By late 1985 the founders came to the conclusion that it was time for them to sell their interest in Ridge. They received proposals from several big wine companies but were uncomfortable with all of them. Each one of them intended to make big changes at Ridge after its acquisition. Then Paul and the founders were introduced to Mr. Akihiko Otsuka. He was the owner of a large Japanese pharmaceutical company. Mr. Otsuka had a great appreciation for fine wine and recognized the quality of what Ridge was doing. He stated that if he were to buy Ridge, he would not change any aspect of the business and would allow it to operate independently, exactly as it had in the past. He said that he would not provide funds for the operation of the business or for its future growth. However, he would provide the capital needed to purchase any vineyard essential to the operation. On the last day of 1986, Ridge became a wholly owned subsidiary of Otsuka America, Inc.

Wilma had played a key role in facilitating the sales transaction, meeting with and providing information to various accountants, attorneys, appraisers, bankers, and Otsuka staff. Kathy and Connie were saddened by the news of the sale having worked so long with Dave and the founding families. But they and the rest of the staff made the best of it and were curious to see how things would be with the new owners. In 1987 the day-to-day operations of Ridge did not really change after the sale to Otsuka. Kathy and Connie continued doing much the same jobs as before. Paul continued with marketing and export while Donn managed wholesale. Paul made the wines and managed the vineyard while looking for a full-time vineyard professional.

The First Woman President of Ridge

The one big change that did occur was the retirement of Bill Curtis. After he retired from Owens Corning, Bill had thought he would only work for Ridge for a couple of years, which turned into five. But with the acquisition of Ridge by Otsuka complete, Bill felt there was no need for his further involvement.

Paul had been the chief negotiator of the sale for Ridge and formed the key relationship with Mr. Otsuka and his team. When Bill Curtis retired, Paul was named CEO of Ridge. One of Paul’s first major decisions as CEO was to promote Wilma Sturrock to be President of Ridge. Paul would ultimately make the key decisions for Ridge but worked closely with Wilma who managed all the details of the day-to-day business as she had done as the de facto COO for Bill Curtis and earlier for Dave Bennion. Wilma was the third woman to become President of a California winery, preceded only by Isabelle Simi and Zelma Long (both of Simi Winery).

For the next ten years or so Wilma, Kathy, and Connie all continued in their respective roles at Ridge. It was a time of significant growth as Ridge purchased additional property at Monte Bello and acquired a winery and vineyards at Lytton Springs. Ridge was now open for tasting at both Monte Bello and Lytton Springs on Saturday and Sunday, and Kathy was responsible for managing retail sales at both locations. The ATP wine club had continued to grow, and what started as five to six shipments per year had grown to eight or nine. Ridge wine was distributed in all 50 States and exported to over 20 countries.

Continually Celebrating their Contributions

Around the end of the 90s, Wilma, Kathy & Connie were all starting to think about slowing down and working a bit less. They all had interests outside of Ridge they wanted to devote more time to, but they all loved Ridge and could not think of just completely retiring and no longer being part of the Ridge family. Mark Vernon was hired in 1998 as General Manager and worked closely with Wilma to learn the business and progressively assume many of her duties. Three years later, Wilma became President Emeritus. Mark was promoted to Chief Operating Officer and managed all parts of Ridge except production and sales and marketing. Donn Reisen was promoted to President and became responsible for all Ridge sales, both wholesale and retail, including the ATP club. Connie stopped working full-time – and would work part-time during the week editing labels and marketing materials for Paul and the Ridge staff while continuing to pour on Saturday or Sunday at Monte Bello. Kathy continued to do all of Ridge’s graphic design work as well as cooking for guests at Monte Bello. Kathy continued to offer her advice on ATP and retail sales, and during a meeting in 2001 with Donn, Mark, Wilma, and Paul, it was Kathy who presented the idea to create a second wine club focused entirely on zinfandel – and hence the birth of the Z List.

Wilma would fully retire from Ridge at the end of 2007, and a few years later, she moved to Southern England to be close to her family. Connie continued her role as Ridge’s “editor in chief” until a few years before she passed away in 2019. Kathy turned over the work of Ridge graphic artist to Heidi Nigen and stopped working full-time in 2012 but continues as Ridge’s acclaimed in-house chef at Monte Bello.

It is impossible to list all of the ways Wilma, Connie, and Kathy have contributed to our success. Join me in celebrating these women and their remarkable careers at Ridge.


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