Enjoying the Fruit of their Labor.
Leroy and Mary Louise Chase represent many long time farmers, not only in Mendocino County but throughout California’s wine country. Grape growers who do it all themselves while working other jobs and raising kids, the Chases also give back regularly to the community. As we sit at the table in their comfortable home on a knoll overlooking the vineyards, Mary Louise sets out cheese and Leroy opens a bottle of wine made from his grapes.
“You gotta’ work. We planted and pruned and still do,” says Leroy, a gentle giant of a man whose family came to Mendocino County in the 1920s. “We used to spend all our weekends working in the vineyard,” says Mary Louise, petite with short graying hair and an energetic, gracious, can-do outlook. “We took our vacations during harvest,” she says.
Their ranch, located in the eastern hills in Redwood Valley, originally belonged to Mary Louise’s family. Born in Chico, she was a child when her family moved to Redwood Valley in the late 1940s. Her dad, Doc Ekenberg was a logger and owned several saw mills in Ukiah, Potter Valley and Garberville. He purchased sixteen acres of vines here, most of which have since been replanted.
“We picked grapes into wooden boxes in those days,” says Mary Louise, “and we learned to drive at an early age in the vineyard.” Mary Louise went to Redwood Valley elementary school and then to Ukiah High. Mary Louise has one sister, Betty Foster Borges, who owns Elizabeth Vineyards in Redwood Valley.
Leroy was born in Ukiah and raised on Main Street “with the Italians” he smiles. His dad Dell Chase came to the area from Minnesota around 1925. His mother Tillie, born in Garberville, arrived a couple of years later. Leroy remembers that he played ball with the neighbor kids on the then unpaved Main street.
Leroy’s sister Pauline and her husband Morgan Ruddick also raise grapes near Talmage. His brothers include Don who lives in Ukiah, Fred from Napa and the late Bob Chase. Their dad ran the DeSoto and White Truck auto dealership in Ukiah. While still in high school in 1956, Leroy’s dad died.
He helped his mom run the business, which, he says was built on his father’s personality and reputation. It was eventually closed and in 1959 Leroy left Ukiah for Santa Rosa Junior College.
Leroy and Mary Louise met at Ukiah High School, after which Mary Louise went to college in Sacramento for a short time. Then, in 1962, she and Leroy got married. When he was about to be drafted he enlisted in the Army and was soon sent to Vietnam at the beginning of that war. “I was one of the first 5000 American soldiers in Vietnam and spent 13 months there,” he says. “I wanted to go with him,” says Mary Louise. But spouses weren’t allowed so she stayed in San Francisco. When he returned she joined him at his base in Arlington, Virginia, where they remained for 18 months until he was discharged from the service.
The Chases returned to California and Leroy did construction work around the state. Moving back to Mendocino County, Leroy became superintendent of a saw mill in Philo for one and a half years. He then worked for Joseph LaMalfa for approximately seven years. He started working for Parnum Paving Inc. in 1979 as General Superintendent, now owned by Granite Construction, and retired after 25 years.
All the while Leroy and Mary Louise were farming grapes. At one time they leased or owned a total of 100 acres of vineyard. Mary Louise worked full time at the Savings Bank of Mendocino County until 1996. And they raised two children. Son Lorne now lives with his wife
Karen, daughter Karli, 15 and son Garrett, 12, in a house he built on the site of his grandparent’s original home on the ranch. Lorne helps out when he can at the family’s ranch. Daughter Del and her husband Don Buker and granddaughter Tiffany, 22, live in New Hampshire.
Leroy, who fell naturally into loving the land and vineyards, quips, “I was the city kid and Mary Louise was from the ‘country’.” When he and Mary Louise purchased her family’s ranch in 1971, the two of them began pulling out the older varietals and replanting the vines. Over the years after various replantings and managing several other vineyards the Chases have settled on Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane grapes on their 44 acres of organic vineyard. “We still have old Carignane vines here,” says Leroy, who loves the varietal and has
25 to 50 cases of Carignane a year made for himself. His latest bottling, a blend of 2006 and 2007 vintages, is a jammy fruit forward wine that went beautifully with the Calef Country
Store’s sharp cheddar cheese, a New Hampshire specialty sent for Christmas by their daughter.
“Farming has been good to us,” says Mary Louise, “we’ve always been able to sell our grapes.” She talks about years when there is a smaller crop which means less income. “The vines can’t produce a bumper crop every year,” she says philosophically. While Leroy supervises the picking crew, Mary Louise tallies the buckets and drives the tractor. “I just put the pencil in my mouth and move the tractor,” she says, adding, “you o what you have to do to get the job done.”
The Chases can laugh now at some of the more challenging moments. Mary Louise shares memories of a harvest in 1978 when she had to start picking Zinfandel because the grapes were ready. Leroy was still at work and it was raining. Leroy came home and the trucks were all loaded with the bins of grapes but they were stuck in the mud between the vineyard rows. They covered the grapes and the next day friends brought in a couple of D2 tractors to maneuver the trucks out, which took all day. “It was colder than ….,” says Leroy and they had to park the trucks in the barn for another night.
Leroy attributes his love of wine to his brother-in-law Morgan Ruddick and his friends John Parducci and the late Harley Hayes. Around forty or so years ago Morgan had a couple of barrels of wine he made with Hayes. “It was the best wine I’d ever tasted,” recalls Leroy. From that moment Leroy says he kept looking for wine that tasted as good.
In the early days he sold the grapes to a variety of producers including John Parducci, who then had Parducci Winery. “We didn’t need a contract in those days,” recalls Leroy, “business was done on a handshake.” Today he sells some of the Chase Ranch Zinfandel to John Parducci’s grandson Rich Parducci, proprietor and winemaker at McNab Ridge Winery. McNab’s 2002 Zinfandel, about 85 percent Chase Ranch Zin, won a double gold medal and “Best of the North Coast Appellation” at the California State Fair in 2005. Chase Ranch Zinfandel grapes also go to Bonterra and Paul Dolan wine. He sells to Edmeades which is part of Jackson Family Wines and in some years a Chase Ranch designation is on the label. Chase grapes have also been in several wineries’ CORO, which is a high end red blend made according to a strict peer controlled protocol and is becoming a Mendocino County signature wine.
Mary Louise is a renowned hostess and good cook, “I like to cook and we never have a meal without wine,” she says. In addition to entertaining at their home, they also have friends and family out to the Chase Family Ranch on Highway 20, which has been in Leroy’s family since1946. The highest drawing auction item at the Mendocino College Foundation’s and the Sun House Museum’s fundraisers is the barbecue for 20 at the Chase Ranch. Leroy tends the giant barbecues and Mary Louise hosts and helps with logistics for that prized event. Leroy is on the College Foundation Board and Mary Louise is on the Board at the Sun House.
They also have reunions for their Ukiah High classes of 1957 and 1959 every five years at the ranch. These three day events still attract a crowd. Mary Louise and Leroy are active in the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission and rarely miss an event.
“We have a good time in the vineyard,” says Mary Louise. Leroy quickly adds in his inimitably dry way, “We always have a real good time when it’s all done.”
After years of spending vacation time harvesting, pruning, and planting or replanting, the Chases now have occasional time off. They’ve been to France, just returned from Mexico and have driven a few times across the country with their dog to visit their daughter.
They both agree, “It’s been a good life for us.”