Knight Michael Robbins was a member of a vanishing Napa Valley pioneer breed who came to the valley in the early 1960s with a big dream: to make the finest wines and put the Napa Valley on the wine map of the world. He founded Spring Mountain Vineyards, the 16th winery in the valley. His acclaimed 1968-69 cabernet was his first release of 33 vintages, many of which were highly regarded, placing in the top tiers in prestigious wine competitions.
Michael passed away at his home in St. Helena on Jan. 29, 2013, at age 89. He was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 5, 1923. His father died when Michael was 3. To help his mother, Michael started working at a young age. His strong work ethic and drive to succeed stayed with him throughout his life.
After high school, Michael enlisted in the Navy, was appointed to the United States Naval Academy and graduated in 1948. His time at Annapolis was formative with its rigorous academics and disciplined routine. Michael could still “sit” at a table with no chair well into his 70s. At Annapolis, he met the young Grace Kelly, who remained a friend of his throughout her life. Michael served three tours in the Korean War.
After the Navy, Michael worked in real estate, leasing the Alcoa Building in San Francisco and Century City Towers in Los Angeles. From his project in Los Angeles, he commuted back to his home in St. Helena every weekend to pursue winemaking. During this time, he also attended night school, eventually earning a law degree from the University of San Francisco.
Michael did not have his first glass of wine until age 31, but once he discovered his passion for wine, he pursued it intensely. He envisioned creating a wine estate in the image of the great French chateaux, but he also wanted to challenge French wine tradition and help put Napa Valley on the fine-wine map. His Spring Mountain wines were represented at the famous 1976 Paris Tasting.
In 1963, Michael bought and restored the Victorian house on Highway 29 that is known today as St. Clement Vineyards. It became the original home property of Spring Mountain Vineyards. In 1974, Michael purchased the old Tiburcio Parrott estate on Spring Mountain Road, near St. Helena. He painstakingly restored the large villa to its historic beauty and then set about designing and constructing the winery buildings, which were completed in 1977. No detail was too small for his attention. He even designed the stained glass for the winery’s “Spring Mountain,” “Chardonnay” and “Cabernet Sauvignon” windows.
Michael’s own interest in the Napa Valley was sparked in part by seeing the movie “This Earth is Mine” in 1959. In 1982, the producer of the “The Waltons” approached Michael to film a television pilot at Spring Mountain. This pilot became the long-running series “Falcon Crest.” The show featured some of Michael’s favorite 1940s movie stars, but its unexpected popularity overwhelmed the private estate winery with fans. The series brought many visitors to the valley, particularly international tourists.
Throughout this period, Spring Mountain Vineyards continued to make elegant, cellar-worthy wines. The Robbins family left Spring Mountain in 1992, with Michael refocusing his passion on golf, 49ers football and the potential of a new winemaking challenge in Virginia.
Michael founded an extraordinary wine estate and was a recognizable character in the wine world. He will be deeply missed by his beloved wife of 33 years, Susan; his children, Grant and Matthew Robbins; his stepdaughter, Sarah Richards-Gansa (Andrew); and his grandchildren, Luca and Renzo.
A memorial service celebrating Michael’s life will be held at St. Helena Catholic Church on Friday, Feb. 15, at 1 p.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the St. Helena Fire Department and Hospice Napa Valley.