Some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life have been from my dad. This might surprise people who know us both because we’re very different people. When I was younger, I found our differences very challenging. Here I was, a surfer raised in Laguna Beach to some degree of privilege, standing in the shadow of a father who grew up very modestly; an entirely self-made man who literally came from nothing.
Once, when I was about fourteen, I needed cash to go goof off with my friends. My dad told me I could have 5 bucks if I washed his car. After I was done, he came out to observe my work. After walking around the car a couple of times he told me that if I wanted the cash, I’d have to do it again. My first reaction was, “F— that!” Of course, I said that in my head.
Contemplating, I decided I still needed the money and I washed his car again. That was a huge lesson. Not only did I learn how to better wash his car in the future, so that I’d get my five bucks the first time around, I also learned, more importantly, that there are no short cuts in life. This vital lesson has translated well into my work at Melville. When I’m hiring cellar help at harvest time, for example, I’m fully prepared to demonstrate for someone exactly how we want our barrels washed, our bins washed, our barrels stacked, our wines racked, because I’ve done each one of those chores myself.
These days, there are all kinds of warm and fuzzy platitudes about how, in one’s sunset years, one shouldn’t think about their success in business, or how many days they spent at the office. Instead, presumably, they’ll be better off; they’ll be better people, if they think about love, nature and what really matters in life. But, what if what matters most to someone is the work they did? The success they had? If they came from nothing, and created for their family a life beyond their wildest imaginings, isn’t that also important? Isn’t that also purposeful? Being a parent myself has, I hope, made me a better son. In this, my 46th year, I’ve had a revelation.
A few years ago, I thought I was pretty smart when I realized that I couldn’t get away with trying to raise both of our children in exactly the same way. I patted myself on the back the day I finally saw them as individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I began responding to their individual and unique attributes and fallibilities, rather than demanding that both of them do what I say, when I said it, for reasons that I alone deemed valid. I began to truly understand that they each needed different things; different lessons learned, and different approaches to teaching those lessons. When I saw them as real individuals, rather than as conceptual children that were supposed to fit into some framework of what I thought children were supposed to be like, I started to enjoy parenting more. And, most importantly, I appreciated them more as fellow human beings.
So, why did it take me 46 years to realize that those same principles apply to one’s parents? Instead of expecting my father to fit into a pre-conceived notion of what a father should be—a notion I got mostly from society, from television, from the movies—I started to see him as an individual. It was through that lens that I finally saw him for the exceptional man that he is.
Ron Melville was brought up by a strict, military father, and by a mother who was very strong and reserved. As a result, he grew up with a great deal of structure, discipline and relentlessly hard work. As a boy, he heard stories from his mom about how she was raised in a home without refrigeration. She would tell him about what a privilege it was just to be able to afford to eat meat once a month. As a result, he learned as a very young boy that nothing in life comes free.
My father will work every day for the rest of his life. He’s that type of man; a different, rare breed. When he goes on vacation, he’s still not really on vacation. His mind is on the business. His mind is on how to improve. His mind is on continuing to analyze and figure out how to make things better.
When my dad bought this land in the Sta. Rita Hills in 1996 and 1997, it was with the intention of planting and growing fine wine. At the time, my brother was in a position to essentially start working in the vineyard pretty much right away, and he relished it. He’d call me up almost daily to tell me about how great it was to be outside every day, farming, planting, planning a winery.
Due to commitments I had at a job in the world of finance, I wasn’t able to join the family business right away. Finally, after a couple of years, I transitioned out of my burgeoning career in finance and told my dad I wanted to join him and my brother out at the winery. My dad’s response? “Why would I hire you? You have no experience.”
And you know what? He was right.
So one spring day, I decided to stuff my backpack full of about 40 resumes and attend a Santa Barbara County wine festival, in the hopes of networking with winemakers who would hopefully hire me. Looking back now, it was maybe the worst day of the year to try and find a job in wine country. Winemakers were engaged with their customers at a busy festival with nearly 1,000 attendees. Add to that the fact that my resume reflected I didn’t have a stitch of experience working in a winery. But, of the 40 resumes I handed out that day, one winery reached out and called me: Santa Barbara Winery.
I went to work for Santa Barbara Winery in early 1997, still located in downtown Santa Barbara (perhaps one of the first successful urban wineries in the nation), for a gentleman named Bruce McGuire, who put me to work in their tasting room; learning the ins- and-outs of hospitality; how to properly and politely present wine to the everyday consumer; how to demystify wine while still making it somewhat romantic and interesting; how to provide good, fundamental customer service. It was an invaluable time. After a while there, I transitioned into the cellar and worked harvest, dragging hoses, cleaning barrels, driving forklifts, washing bins. I remember being so tired some nights that I could barely remember my own name.
After I got plenty of experience at Santa Barbara Winery, my dad hired me. I remember that day very clearly. He said, “Okay, you can live in a trailer in the vineyard, drive the old white vineyard truck and I’ll pay you minimum wage.” In case I hadn’t learned it that time I had to re-wash his car, here was that lesson again; in life, there are no short cuts.
These days, with regard to parenting, we talk a lot about wanting to give our kids things we never had. We want to shelter them from the harder aspects of growing up: disapproval, not being accepted, not being popular, not being liked, being rejected, and not getting what one really wants every single time.
None of that stuff was really talked about among my father’s generation. What my dad wanted to give me he did in fact give me. He wanted me to appreciate what I have by making the road to my success the hardest it could be. How would I be able to appreciate what I have today if I didn’t have to earn my way there? I can look my father in the eye now and say, ‘It was such a rough road to get here but I’m so glad you made it that rough on me.’ My own personal success means so much to me today because I’ve cleaned toilet drains at the winery; the septic system, barrels, lugged hoses over my shoulders while soaking wet at the wee hours of the morning (and that was just a few months ago). I’ve worked in the tasting room, packed wines to ship to our wine club members, gone on sales trips, planted vines, pruned vines, picked grapes, farmed our estate blocks day in and day out, I’ve hired and fired people, you name it, I’ve done it, and I’ll keep doing it. Having earned my way here has made me love it all the more.
Like my father, I’ve been fortunate to find work that I love at a relatively young age. My dad discovered early on that he loved numbers, math, and how they relate to the stock-market and to risk-taking. He is a low-risk taker. In the world of finance, he’s the kind of guy that hits singles; he doesn’t swing for the fences. He doesn’t need to hit a home run every single time. If he hits a home run, well, then he’s thrilled. But, the next morning, he’s right back to asking himself, “How can I get on first base?” “How can I steal second?” “How can I get that run home without striking out?” Once my father makes a profit, he takes it off the table, always limiting his risk. That restraint and self-discipline has been the key to his success. It’s very hard to exercise self-discipline and restraint in what is often a frenzied financial environment. But, that’s how he made a living in the world of finance for so long. So many people burn out in that world early on because they lean in strong and take huge, anxiety-producing risks. My father has taught me that the people who last the longest in business, in ways that allow them to sleep at night with a clear conscience, are not the flashy ones.
Last year, I took over the reins as winemaker at Melville. Not long after, someone asked me what my title was. My father never cared about having a fancy title; he was busy keeping his head down, doing the work and holding on to his integrity at every turn. I like not having a title these days. It keeps me inquisitive. It hopefully keeps me humble. Someday, I’d like to be as humble as my dad. Like I said, he’s had a lot of success, and he could drive a really fancy car if he wanted to. Like some winery owners, he could go around wearing tailored Armani suits and fly first-class everywhere he goes. Instead, dad drives a Jeep Cherokee. His daily uniform is a pair of jeans, a simple, pressed, short-sleeved work shirt and top-siders. If he reads that a local store is having a sale on steak on Tuesday, he’ll wait until Tuesday to buy that steak. He is never, ever far from his roots. He is hard-wired to have a deep, abiding respect for things that bring true value to others. I am often asked how we can price our 100% estate grown, Sta-Rita Hills-born Pinot Noir for 36 bucks. That was my dad’s doing.
About 8 years ago we got the highest scores that we’ve ever received for our wines. We always get pretty good scores from wine critics, but that vintage, our scores were exceptional. We got 99 points for one wine, and a slew of others in the mid-90’s…and then one 91. When I saw the scores, I emailed my dad right away. I was so excited! His response was, “what’s up with the 91?” For a moment, I felt like I’d just won the Super Bowl and was throwing champagne around in the locker room, just to have the coach stop me to talk about the penalties I’d gotten during the game. After feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes, I re-tasted that particular wine. I found myself asking, “Why wasn’t that score better? How could I have farmed that block better; to better highlight the specificity of it?” I guess these days, we’d call that a “teachable moment.” And, it was. I learned a lot that day. Mostly, I learned how important it is to keep one’s feet on the ground, especially during those heady moments.
Recently, my son Caden told me and my wife he wanted to play football. It was during a family dinner out at a Mexican food restaurant. I told him that if he wanted to play, he’d have to show up at practice every day. Even when he didn’t feel like; even when he was tired, even when it was cold, he’d have to show up. I flipped the menu over, wrote out a contract to that effect, and had him sign it. He hasn’t missed a day of practice yet, even when he injured his knee pretty badly. In that moment, I could feel our bloodline flowing down from dad to my son.
As I get older, I make fewer New Year’s resolutions, but I take each one more seriously. As I was thinking about the kind of man I’d like to be in 2017, I recalled a day from my youth. We were looking at colleges for my brother up in Berkeley, California. While we were at a gas station, and dad was refilling our car, a stranger walked up to him. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because the windows were rolled up. My dad opened up his wallet and gave something to the stranger. After he got back in the car, as we started to drive away, I asked my dad what that was all about. He told me that the stranger had run out of gas and needed some money. “So I gave him some money,” he said. He didn’t say anything else, and I knew enough, even then, not to prod, because he’s always been a bit stoic. It was such a quiet moment, but taught me so much about the kind of man my father is; sometimes hard on the surface, but with a deep humanity.
So, my resolution for 2017 is to be just a bit more like him. I’m not as good a man as he is yet, but it’s nice to have something to work towards.