In fall of 1967, a young woman, a freshman at UC Davis, received an invitation from a friend to go with him to dinner at the home of Prof. Harold Olmo. That Olmo was a specialist in viticulture didn't mean as much as a chance to have a home-cooked meal. She brought her guitar in case there might be music.
It turned out to be a birthday celebration for another guest, an attractive, young man called BJ. She played her guitar as the group sang "Happy Birthday" and then BJ surprised her by bringing out his home-made banjo. Together, they provided an after-dinner sing-along; their rapport was instant, their voices complementary, their harmony effortless.
By then, however, she had learned that BJ stood for Brother Justin. The fun-loving man was a Christian Brother, at Davis to earn a master’s degree in viticulture and enology. He was slated to become the successor of the man who, in 1968, was probably the most well-known winemaker in America: Brother Timothy Diener, one of the pioneers reviving the California wine industry.
Only destiny had other plans for the handsome, wine-making monk.
Thus begins one of the great romances of the modern Napa Valley. It’s the story Bonny Meyer tells in her newly published memoir, “Perfectly Paired.” The subtitle is “The Love Affair Behind Silver Oak Cellars,” for that is the winery Bonny and Justin Meyer founded with Ray Duncan, the same week they returned from their honeymoon, some five years later, in September 1972.
While winery books abound, they can be largely forgettable, public relations creations, packed with cliches and fluffy adjectives.
Meyer’s book is none of these things. It packs the appeal of a novel, with deeply honest exploration of love, loss and healing. And, there’s wine.
She opens her story, unexpectedly, by describing with a heart-wrenching clarity, her husband’s unexpected death in the Sierra in August 2002. The day before the two had driven up to the mountains together. They were picnicking at Lower Blue Lake with friends when he collapsed. Within minutes, he is gone. After his body is taken away in an ambulance, she faces a journey back to Napa Valley without him to tell their children what has happened. A friend insists on riding with her, but really, it is the reader that Meyer puts in the passenger seat of the vehicle. And so the journey begins.
The book unfolds, as memories do, jumping back and forth in stories, but all the while moving forward from the meeting and the music to the harrowing image of a woman holding the ashes of her husband of 30 years.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Meyer writes. “I don't know when it happened. I didn’t intend it. Somewhere along the 35 years of loving and being loved by Justin, he became my reason for living. It must have happened slowly, imperceptibly. I didn’t notice until he was gone, when my will to live left with him.”
Grief and love are intertwined in this captivating love story. Despite their prompt rapport, Bonny Meyer, who had considered becoming a nun, had the deepest respect for her new friend’s vows.
Nonetheless, the appealing fellow just kept turning up in her life. Originally a Spanish teacher, he helped her when she was in danger of failing a class. He joined her folk-singing group at the Davis Newman Center. He listened with empathy to her troubles with other young men, possibly not realizing the extent to which he was tossing them into the shadows. He invited her to go hiking.
She learned his story, how he grew up in Bakersfield, “in a family defined by alcohol,” where her his father would “drink a bottle of whiskey and chase it down with a six pack of beer. His mother would join him, both of them chain smoking and frequently quarreling.” What his mother did do for Raymie, as he was then called, was to manage to send him to Graces Memorial High School, setting him on a path to becoming a Christian Brother. He wanted to help other “lost boys like himself.”
He took vows as Brother Justin and anticipated a career of teaching and coaching, but something made him stand out to the Christian Brother hierarchy, and they approached him with the proposal that he become Brother Timothy’s apprentice in the world of wine, in which the brothers were then prospering with their Mont La Salle and Greystone wineries in Napa. Initially, Brother Justin turned them down; eventually he decided to accept the offer, becoming a grapegrower and winemaker whose vision, expertise and love for the work would propel him to the top of his field.
For the teen-aged Bonny, knowing Brother Justin’s story only added to her certainty that anything more than friendship between them was impossible. Not that he wasn’t tempting. She describes how once, after swimming with him in Putah Creek, he lent her a sweatshirt. “I had grown to enjoy the time I spent with BJ very much,” she writes, “and for some strange reason, wearing his sweatshirt and later inhaling it aroused a deep affection and sense of connection with him.”
Her innocence mirrors the Napa Valley in the late 1960s and early 1970s. No one knew what was coming to the bucolic little valley either. When Brother Justin made the decision to leave the Christian Brothers and propose to Bonny, she writes, he had initially hoped to stay on working for them, but the policy required a brother to be in charge of wine making. If they had permitted Justin Meyer to remain, she writes, what happened to their wine-making enterprises in the valley — Greystone sold and is now the Culinary Institute of America, and Mont La Salle is now the Hess Collection winery — would be a different story.
As it was, she and her new husband had to chart their own way. He left the Christian Brothers owning little. The meeting with Ray Duncan, who’d made his fortune and wanted to invest it in wine, became a thriving partnership that led to the creation of Silver Oak Cellars, where Justin Meyer could pursue his vision of making wine from just one grape that fascinated him, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bonny Meyer, who worked alongside her husband, shares the stories of Silver Oak, the creation of the acclaimed Bonny’s Vineyard, the evolution of the winery’s celebrated release parties, the fellowship of the early vintners, along with personal tales — the growth of their family, the ups and downs of a relationship, the stories of a 1928 Ford Model A pick-up and a flashy red BMW. Despite challenges, both the winery and the marriage thrived.
“There are mysteries at work in the universe that we will never work out,” Meyer writes. How and why we fall deeply in love with another is one of those mysteries. There is no explaining it. No preventing it. And no cure for it. Loving just is. The only choice is what we do with it.”
In 2001, the Meyers sold their share of Silver Oak and were making plans for their next stage of enjoying life. Then, in double blow, she was diagnosed with cancer, and he died in the mountains. She was left alone.
In describing wines, one of the recurring terms of praise is to say a wine has “layers,” somehow achieved by the alchemy of the grape and the winemaker. In the same way, Meyer’s moving story has layers: It captures the early, exciting days of the reviving wine industry in Napa; it charts a way to healing after unbearable grief. But most of all it’s a love story.
Meyer says she decided to write the book after “a remarkable confluence of events convinced me that I should share the story. Within the space of a week, three different men with disparate love stories confessed to me that they felt they had never really been in love, had never really given themselves to another.” It led her to question “Why is it that what we are born to do, what we long for most, seem so elusive and rare?”
She writes in the preface, “As my story unfolded in these pages, I realized that alchemical transformation was a common thread wove through the love, the wine, the loss, the reconnection and the resurrection in my life.”
Trust, Bonny Meyer encourages readers, in the alchemy.
“Perfectly Paired, the Love Story Behind Silver Oak Cellars,” ($16.95, Meyer Family Enterprises) is available at Napa Bookmine on Pearl Street; Sunshine Market in St. Helena, Copperfield’s Books in Calistoga and the Calistoga Wine Stop.
Sasha Paulsen in the features editor for the Napa Valley Register and author of the novel “Dancing on the Spider’s Web.”
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