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The Press Democrat

January 05, 2009


Turning wine into wheelchairs in Mayacamas

Lookout Ridge employs star winemakers and sense of mission for disabled

Published: Monday, January 5, 2009 at 4:20 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 5, 2009 at 4:20 a.m.
If an ordinary winery exists in Sonoma-Napa, it's just about a million miles from what Wall Street publisher Gordon Holmes has created on a hilltop high above the Valley of the Moon.
The finest of the vintages that wear his Lookout Ridge label aren't created by a single winemaker but by a changing cast of some of the region's cult-wine stars. And that's not the chief distinction of the winery that Holmes created.
With the sale of each bottle of one of his premium wines, an impoverished and disabled person somewhere in the world receives a wheelchair.
Holmes turns great wine into life-altering wheels at the winery of his dreams near the county line on Trinity Road. His wife, Kari, only rarely ventures there from the family home in Glen Ellen because maneuvering the steep terrain is tricky in the wheelchair required by the rare form of multiple sclerosis that struck her a decade ago.
That was about the same time that Holmes sold his two investment publications, Buyside Magazine and Research Magazine. Thanks to the proceeds and the income from his other financial endeavors, his winery doesn't have to make a profit.
"It's about making wine, first and foremost," said Holmes, a tall, restless and engaging man of 58. "And about seeing how many lives we can change."
At the heart of his labor of love is the selection of small-lot premium wines created for Lookout Ridge and its Wine for Wheels mission by some of the region's most acclaimed vintners.
Holmes' current top-shelf releases were made by Andy Erickson of Screaming Eagle, Cathy Corison of Corison, Marco DiGiulio, founding winemaker at Lokoya; Greg La Follette, the pinot noir master who made his name at Flowers and Kendall Jackson, and Gerhard Reisacher of Delectus.
While the labels on premium wines commonly highlight the vineyard where the wine was grown, labels on the best Lookout Ridge wines tout the individual winemakers. Holmes sells the winemaker-designate wines for $100 a bottle and tells buyers that for each bottle they purchase, he will donate one wheelchair to an impoverished disabled person somewhere in the world.
He keeps the promise by donating the hundred bucks to the Danville-based Wheelchair Foundation. The nonprofit (www.wheelchairfoundation.org) orders wheelchairs by the truckload and since 2000 has given more 700,000 of them to immobilized people in China, Mexico, the U.S. and 150 other countries.
David Behring, the foundation's president, said the wheelchair mission benefits greatly from Holmes, the contributing winemakers and Lookout Ridge's "unique approach" to generating donations.
"He's been a passionate supporter for several years," Behring said of Holmes.
Both men describe the potent experience of providing a set of self-propelled wheels to someone who never before moved independently, and could never dream of affording a wheelchair.
Behring has delivered wheelchairs to people in many countries. About two years ago, Holmes accompanied him and other foundation leaders on a distribution trip to several towns in Mexico's Baja California.
"You see people crawling on the ground. You see them being carried everywhere they go," Behring said.
Holmes discovered that among all the possible ways to lend a hand to people in great need, the results of providing a wheelchair to someone who is immobilized are dramatic and instantaneous.
"When you give someone in that situation a wheelchair, you change their life," he said.
Winemaker Corison savors being part of Holmes' mission.
"It is astonishing and heartwarming to me that the sale of one bottle of my wine can buy a wheelchair and completely change someone's life," she said. "It puts our lucky lives in perspective.
Holmes' awareness of the essential value of a wheelchair is fairly recent. His eyes were opened after his wife Kari, mother of Aly, 18, and Harry, 16, came to rely on one after she was stricken by MS in 1998.
Her husband's fascination with wine goes back much further.
Growing up in Southern California, "I was bribed not to smoke or drink until I was 21," Holmes recalled. The vow to his parents didn't prevent him from taking a job as a stockboy at a wine shop and gaining an early appreciation of the mystique and value of fine wine.
Ever the entrepreneur, Holmes was still in high school when he began investing his wine-shop earnings into wine futures.
His passion for great wine remained an avocation as he made his mark as a Wall Street publisher. Though he sold his two magazines, he continues to publish online investment newsletters on precious metals and energy.
He and Kari purchased the 50 acres high up Trinity Road in the early 1980s. He planted his first grapes, about four acres of cabernet, in 2001.
From his perch high up the Mayacmas, Holmes enjoys seeing no end to the potential for Lookout Ridge. There are more acres to be planted and more best-of-class winemakers to be engaged. And there about 100 million more people whose lives could be lifted up and put in motion by a new wheelchair.
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