Santa Fe lost one of its larger-than-life wine figures on March 5, with the passing of Jim Allen, founder of Sequoia Grove Winery. Jim came to Santa Fe in the early ’70s as a sociology professor at the College of Santa Fe. He built his home atop a hill on Camino San Acacio and planted a small vineyard on the slope below it, mostly to hybrids like Baco Noir. He started making wines from those grapes in the early ’70s. The wines were…not very good.
About that time, Jim helped found the New Mexico Vine & Wine Society, along with John Balagna, John Lilley, Bruce Noel (Los Luceros Winery), Len Rosignana (Santa Fe Vineyards), Richard Jones and me. It was a group of mostly home winemakers who met once a month for potluck lunches, endless bottles of homemade wine and spirited camaraderie. These pioneers pushed the New Mexico wine industry to where it is now.
About that time, Jim heard of my Los Alamos wine tasting group and started attending weekly. As he was exposed to wines from around the World, he became totally smitten by the subject. He realized New Mexico was not the ideal venue to pursue his winemaking dreams—his ambitions were far greater.
In the late ’70s, Jim announced to me his intention of quitting his day job and buying a vineyard in the Napa Valley. I bluntly told him, “Jim, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!” But in the pursuit of his dream, he was not to be deterred by common sense. Jim purchased a 24-acre Cabernet vineyard across Highway 29 from Robert Mondavi Winery in 1978, brought in his brother Steve to be the viticulturist, hired the legendary Beaulieu Vineyards winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, as his consultant, and…as they say…the rest is history. (This history is recounted on Jim’s website jamesallenwinemaker.com and the Sequoia Grove site, ssequoiagrove.com.)
I made my first visit to Jim’s new venture in the spring of 1980. He and his wife Barbara lived in the house there, built in 1908, sheltered in a huge grove of old sequoias. Brother Steve lived in a tiny camper trailer out back. As we walked the vineyard, Jim’s excitement was palpable. He was so enamored by the overhead wind machines for frost protection that he couldn’t resist firing one up for me. The roar and the gale-force winds were impressive. Within the hour, Jim got several calls at home from neighboring vineyards wanting to know what he knew about the weather that they didn’t.
In 1981, he appointed Mike Trujillo, a family friend from Colorado, as his assistant winemaker. Mike was one of the first Hispanic winemakers in the Napa Valley. These days, he’s the director of winemaking at Sequoia Grove and in 2003, he hired current winemaker, Molly Hill. Together, Mike and Molly have taken Sequoia Grove to even greater heights. The accolades that accrued to Jim and Sequoia Grove for their Cabs over the years are well documented. Jim was an early supporter of the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta and made frequent guest appearances here. The Sequoia Grove pouring table was always mobbed by long-time friends welcoming him back, and there are plans for a tribute to Jim at this fall’s Fiesta.
Jim sold Sequoia Grove to Kobrand Wine & Spirits in 2002, but continued to represent the winery at events around the world until his retirement in 2004. Alas, failing health forced his return to Santa Fe to be near his daughter, Alicia. On weekend afternoons, I and other friends would visit Jim at his house on San Acacio to share our wine and apps, and talk about a vast range of subjects. Oftentimes, Jim would insist on retrieving one of his old Sequoia Grove Cabernets from his stash. Invariably, it would be met with “ohhhs” and “ahhhs”.
These afternoon soirees continued into February. Many of the world’s problems were addressed and solved around Jim’s dining table. He was not “just a winemaker.” Jim had a keen intellect and an appreciation for national and world affairs and a mischievous twinkle in his eye betrayed his Irish background.
The success of Sequoia Grove always brought me a great deal of pride, knowing that Jim had the foresight and wisdom to ignore my original advice. With his determination and perseverance, even the craziest of ideas can be successful. Jim showed me that.
He will be greatly missed by me, his family and myriad wine friends around the world.
by Tom Hill