I doubt that Mike Robbins envisioned part of his legacy would be a nighttime TV soap opera set on a remarkable Napa Valley wine estate he respectfully restored.
Robbins loved great wine and wanted to lead a winemaking venture that would add to the inventory of the world’s great wines.
To that end, the energetic real estate entrepreneur invested in Napa Valley property — and eventually in a winemaking project that eventually attracted the attention of the world. A popular TV show helped to that end.
Robbins left the valley two decades ago after making his mark in wine. And in late January, this 89-year-old member of a vanishing breed left us to our own devices, eager to check out the celestial cellars of saints like Peter and Paul.
Robbins used his talents in real estate to fund his passion for wine, a passion he came to late in life, at age 31.
He recognized early on Napa Valley’s potential for producing great wine, investing with Bob Travers in then-new Mayacamas Vineyards in 1960. A couple of years later, he purchased and restored the Victorian home north of St. Helena that is now St. Clement Vineyards.
But his greatest achievement, many say, was the restoration of the Tiburcio Parrott home on Spring Mountain. Robbins purchased the 258-acre estate and large landmark villa in 1974, and for more than a decade painstakingly restored the magnificent home to its former glory, installed glorious gardens and manicured grapevines, then built a state-of-the-art winery to connect to 19th-century wine caves. The winery not only combined tradition with innovation, it also incorporated a skylight and stained glass windows that he designed himself.
No wonder Hollywood types were agog when they first set foot on the property in the early ’80s. Lorimar initially wanted to film a pilot about life in wine country. They engaged “The Waltons” director Earl Hamner to head up the project. Respecting Hamner’s reputation, Robbins and his wife, Susan, gave Lorimar the go-ahead.
Audiences liked the show and “Falcon Crest” was born. Although Hollywood sound stages eventually were used for the production, filming of the show’s earliest episodes took place at Spring Mountain Winery on the slopes of Spring Mountain. For a few years, Robbins gritted his teeth as film crews turned his home and winery into sets for the ongoing story of wine country family infighting. Susan Robbins was tapped as local casting director, recruiting dozens of locals — including the Napa rock band Born Ready — to appear in episodes of the weekly CBS drama.
While Robbins continued his quest to make great cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in the winery, his wife and winery employees were left to deal with the hordes of visitors — especially those from abroad — who came here to get a glimpse of Falcon Crest Winery and actors like Jane Wyman and Lorenzo Lamas.
On one occasion, I was asked to help gain entry to the magnificent estate and home owned by Mike and Susan Robbins. The request came from the publisher of the Napa Valley Register. He was responding to a request himself, that of the owners of the Register at the time, Ed and Betty Scripps. Actually, it was Betty Scripps who was just dying to get a tour of the home she saw in the opening credits of “Falcon Crest,” as well in sundry scenes.
The Scripps pulled up in a big black limousine outside the Register building one Saturday morning. My boss, his wife and I climbed in. Heading up Highway 29 to St. Helena, I was asked to relate several anecdotal tales about the show’s filming, some of the cast members I’d interviewed, along with stories on how Hollywood types interacted with the locals.
We pulled into the parking area by the winery, and the entourage of news folks sauntered through the garden and onto the villa’s veranda. A knock at the door brought Mike Robbins to greet us.
Now, if you knew Mike Robbins, you knew he was a gentleman who respected formal conventions. But he also had a great sense of humor — wry humor.
I don’t know if he’d thought about whom he was addressing, or if his comment to Betty Scripps was spur-of-the-moment. As she was oohing and aahing about the architecture of the staircase and library that was within our view — we’d just come in the front door — and referencing what she’d seen on “Falcon Crest,” Robbins turned to her, looked her directly in the eye and said:
“You watch that crap?”
He knew Betty Scripps was a fan of the show as I’d told him when I made the appointment. Also figuring into the equation, if I recall, he’d become less than enamored with “Falcon Crest” as the initial season morphed into yet another.
The Register’s publisher, his wife, and I reacted as Robbins undoubtedly wanted us to. With guffaws that we individually tried to stifle. Robbins’ reaction to the “Falcon Crest” fan was indeed funny — and totally unexpected, which made it even funnier.
Robbins cracked a slight smile and continued with his banter about the villa’s restoration, his winemaking efforts, how he hooked up with Lorimar and what he thought of Wyman, who’d been married to then-president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
The conversation on the ride back to Napa focused a lot more on newspaper business than on “Falcon Crest” and the Robbins’ estate.
And my boss, his wife and I were not invited to join Mr. and Mrs. Scripps for lunch.
There are lots of humorous stories involving Mike Robbins. In addition, there are many dealing with his quest in both vineyard and cellar for another great wine or two for world consumers. He was obsessed with quality.
No doubt he’s chatting up Bob Mondavi and Andre Tchelistcheff these days, just to make certain he’s consulted on the next harvesting of Elysian fields.