By Rick Baraff | Photos by Rick Baraff & Patrice Ward
Mix one part Thomas Edison (for the ingenuity), one part Willie Wonka (not only because he makes
his own chocolates), one part Sherlock Holmes (for the pipe and drive to figure things out), one
part ’60s Berkeley hippie (hey, he came of age there), and a heap of tough Iowa farmer (the real
roots) and you’ve got the start of Robert Rex. He’s been a tobacconist, trained as a chemist,
could’ve been a professional car mechanic and/or a sailboat racer, is a semi-professional
woodworker and accomplished chef, and—oh, yes—there’s also the award-winning winemaking.
Like a character from a John Steinbeck novel, Robert came from the Midwest to California with his
family, seeking a better life. At nine, he discovered he had a rather advanced palate when he
started complaining about his mom’s cooking and began preparing meals for himself. In his teen
years, he began building hot rods and cruising the L.A. freeways.
He ended up in Berkeley for college, where he almost became a doctor, but turned to chemistry when
he realized that doctors have little time to enjoy the boats they could afford (on which he was
race crewing at the time).
Chemistry was also a pure science and would help bolster the things
he was interested in, such as cooking, baking, and a wealth of other “difficult” endeavors. One of
these was fast becoming wine tasting, thanks to a cousin who ran a local tasting group. This just
happened to coincide with the birth of Northern California wine. He started dabbling in
winemaking—“bootlegging” as he’ll call it because it was winemaking in his garage—when his friend,
PJ, now his wife, bought him a kit as a Christmas gift for fixing her car. His first official
foray, Chateau Rex, a 1972 Zinfandel made in his garage, won the Best in Show at the California
Despite his initial success, Robert didn’t immediately take up as a winemaker. That would take
another nine years because he was already a fairly successful tobacconist. He credits his
post-collegiate employers—the Drucker brothers, a set of old-fashioned, proper Brits who brought
their family’s 140-year-old tobacco shop to the area— for teaching him how to truly run a business.
He eventually bought the shop from them and ran it for nearly 20 years before selling it to a
customer. To this day, he continues to get up at 4:30 a.m. to do his accounting books by hand. He
also works as the main handyman and carpenter at his Deerfield winery.
In 1981, Robert and PJ decided to move to wine country to officially make a go as winemakers. In
what seems like typical Rex fashion— turning all his accumulated savvy and business acumen into
“luck”—they purchased an idyllic property in the upscale Glen Ellen area of California. While
Robert got into the grape brokering business (buying grapes and reselling them to wineries), he and
PJ simultaneously turned their ranch house into a B&B and became full-time innkeepers. At the time,
Robert also navigated his way as a winemaker-for-hire. In the ’90s, he became almost exclusively
his own boss.
In Renaissance style, Robert likes things that are complicated— things that take intellectual and
physical work, requiring ingenuity, a bit of alchemy, and the latest technology. He consciously
pushes the cutting edge, using his chemistry, farming, and viticulture knowledge to go beyond
organic winemaking. He has rooted himself deeply in the Sonoma community over the years, still
selling homemade chocolates in his tasting room.