Dream Cellars: Steve and Betsy Moulds of Oak Knoll
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
I was introduced to the Moulds through Joel Weiss, fellow collector and neighbor. In fact, you can see Joel’s famed three story wine tower from the Moulds patio that overlooks the valley, from what is truly a priceless view. Having purchased the 57 acres in 1998, the Moulds built their dream home, added fifty Meyer Lemon trees, olive groves which are home to 100 trees of eight distinct varieties, and 14 of the trees are over a century old. Eleven acres of highly sought after Cabernet Sauvignon, and a small section of Betsy’s favorite varietal Cabernet Franc have also been planted on the Oak Knoll AVA property and are managed by Roberto Juarez, who has worked on the property for nearly two decades. After moving up to Napa Valley, the San Jose State alumni couple went through viticulture training at Napa Valley College. Their commitment to sustainability and quality is paramount on the property, preserving and protecting the environment and the wildlife, while doing everything that they can to provide a nurturing environment for their farm workers.
We spent an afternoon together (following social distance guidelines and wearing masks while inside the house), discussing life, their journeys, and of course, wine. I’d actually heard of their wine cellar, though they were not identified in the stories, because of the catastrophic 6.0 magnitude earthquake of August 24th, 2014, the epicenter striking just miles from their home.
They had purchased gorgeous, modern metal racking, that I’ve seen in restaurants and client’s homes, that is actually not wide enough to attach to the standard 16 inch studs, and when the earthquake hit, the racks peeled off of the wall, destroying 2000 of their 3000 bottle collection. The collection wasn’t insured, contained many of their epiphany bottles, and they had no recourse. Friends of theirs came in offering help in the way of barn mucking shovels to scoop out the thousands of pounds of broken glass and spilled wine, but also offering bottles to them out of their own collections. Tom Warner of Thomas Warner Wine Cellars was referred to them by Joel, and set to rebuilding a wine cellar where the bottle’s labels could be displayed prominently, without any fear of the racks coming down in an earthquake. They treat their cellar as if it is a picture album, each bottle having significance, and more often than not, coming from a friend’s winery, or having a personal story associated with it. There is a wall in their cellar dedicated to their winemaker clients’ wines made from the fruit from their property, many of which are Moulds Family Vineyard designates. Their current clients are Behrens Family Wines, Dakota Shy, Relic, Roy Piper, Becklyn Cellars, and Fortunati Wines. They cherish their personal relationships with their winemaker partners that make delicious wines representing the Moulds Family Vineyard fruit. The wines are expertly organized, and at Betsy’s insistence, are now fully inventoried in a computer and kept track of with a hard copy that stays in the cellar.
When I arrived, Steve had a selection of wines displayed on the butcher block, each having been made from fruit from their property. He instructed me to choose a Burgundy from their collection, as well as one made from their land. A truly generous, and very classy move, if I do say so. I was hesitant to go for the 2013 vintage, but following his encouragement, I delicately pulled a bottle of 2013 Domaine Tortochot Gevrey-Chambertin Lavaux St Jacques, and then selected the 2007 Journey West Cabernet made with their fruit at the now defunct Crushpad. The Cabernet was absolutely fantastic, and the Pinot was nothing short of restrained elegance. This was one of those rare occasions in my life, where I’ve had to have a not unreasonable conversation with myself, about the odds that I had in fact died and gone to heaven.
Sidenote: This all was very surreal to me. I had moved up to Napa the year that I graduated high school, and lived in a room in an incredible home that was built to look like a castle, complete with turrets, that is in full view from their patio... So in 1998 while the Moulds were building their dream house, I was living my best life as a 18 year old, with my first true taste of freedom and independence, sunning myself on the turrets, while they constructed the life that they are living now, with their family visiting, grandson partaking in piano recitals via zoom in their living room, and a girl still finding her way in the world 22 years later, and honored to be in their presence.
By the end of our long afternoon together, I was in love with the Moulds. They drink well, but are not pretentious, and they signify all that is right in the wine world. Wine is to be enjoyed, and it just so happens that their friends agree, and are in the same world as them for the most part. They have their guilty pleasures (Kim Crawford from Trader Joe’s) to their indulgences, Sassacaia from Tuscany, and ancient Madeiras from the 1800s. Their home reflects their life experiences, their travels, their causes, and their want to bring people together.
Betsy, a 5th generation Hawaiian, went to Brazil with the Peace Corps in 1967, and majored in Physical Education, and minored in sculptural art at San Jose State. Why Brazil? She told her hosts that she loved Feijoada and went to learn how to make it. She worked with a doctor to establish a health post. Outside of the clinic she collected animals, including ocelots, which lead to yet another series of incredible stories.
Steve had spent time in Honduras working in the Peace Corps, which ultimately is what lead him to Betsy. They met at San Jose State through a mutual friend who introduced them after Steve had gotten back from Honduras in 1966, and before Betsy had left for her time in Brazil. Betsy was driving up Hwy 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains towards her home when she spotted Steve hitchhiking. He had been camping (living in a tent) and was returning to his home in Boulder Creek. She recognizing his smile from their last encounter, and picked him up. After graduating from SJSU, they married in 1972 and bought a ranch in Morgan Hill and became farmers. They started their professional careers, Betsy as an art and PE teacher at a high school in San Jose and Steve as a Spanish speaking social worker in Gilroy. They lived on the ranch for 5 years and then moved to Menlo Park, where Steve began his career in commercial real estate. Betsy taught art and PE at a high school in San Jose, while Steve got into commercial real estate at Cornish and Carey Commercial Real Estate, where he committed to making a deal a week, and in fact leased or sold 52 properties that year, and earned the Rookie of the Year Award in 1977.
Their lives started as one of service and adventure on the other side of the equator, to a life of generosity and abundance, where they integrate their passions and beliefs into their daily lives. Their wine memories read like a travel adventure novel that spans the globe. The gleams in their eyes, and knee slaps at the memories, the stories were unending. What a truly full and rich life that they’ve lived, accentuated by bottles of wines enjoyed over a variety of meals, at hundreds of different tables around the world.
Here is a fraction of their story, as it ties into wine, and their wine collection. (Edited for readability)
When did you get into wine collecting?
(Steve chuckles). I resisted for quite a while, friends in college would drink wine, but I would never buy a bottle of wine if I could buy a bottle of whiskey cheaper. It started after we married in 1972. Our college friends, Bob and Sue Brakesman bought an old vineyard in Angwin and created Summit Lake Vineyards and Wines, and we started by helping with the harvesting of the grapes, and then bottled the wine the next year, hand labeling everything in early 70s. The owners were terrible about holding any wine back, so we offered to take a case home every year, and eventually gave back 18 cases of their wine, which they turned around and sold.
What was your first big purchase?
It was at Vintage Affaire, an auction that raised money for the Penninsula Center For the Blind, which brought in a lot of wineries. Far Niente brought a piano case of Chardonnay, named after the shape of the case that accommodated all 7 bottles, for auction in 1980. A salmanazar to a split at a private estate in Woodside. Betsy heard the auctioneer claim the current bid and turned to Steve excitedly to say, “Can you believe…” and saw that it was in fact Steve that won the paddle for it! Betsy was truly shocked, and thrilled. The auction took place on a hot day, and by the end of the day the corks were starting to protrude. Gil and Beth Nickel offered to recork and fill the bottles at the winery, and to hand deliver them to the Moulds cellar. It was that offer that made them think that they needed to build a wine cellar, so they built one in the changing room of the pool house in their Portola Valley home.
Fritz Hatton, the auctioneer for Vintage Affaire, is apparently responsible for many of their wine purchases through the years, and in 2012, they had a breakfast together at the home where they opened the salmanazar from that original purchase.
What inspired you to start collecting wine?
The time helping with harvest at Summit Lake Winery in Angwin, and when we “repotted” ourselves in the Napa Valley, we took all of the oenology classes at the Napa Valley Community College.
How have your tastes changed?
They’ve expanded. Wines high in acid, crisp, like Falanghina, Sonoma Coast, Russian River, and Oregon Pinot Noir. Ultimately travel associated with purchases and experiences, and the cuisine of the regions. A lot of the personal experiences have been impactful. You get a true sense of the land, the food, and the people. Travel enhances the experiences and personalize someones trip and contribute to the memories.
How do you store your wine? Has that changed?
Betsy spotted a beautiful display rack at Michael Chiarello’s home goods store in Yountville, and had the iron racks installed in their home. As they would tragically find out, the racks are not wide enough to be tied to the studs of the home, and in the 2014 earthquake, peeled off of the wall, destroying 2000 of their 3000 bottle collection. Thomas Warner was recommended to them by Joel Weiss, and helped to design and build their current cellar, which beautifully displays their collection, while ensuring their safety if and when another earthquake were to strike.
What are your most prized bottles?
We lost a lot in that earthquake, The 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet, (the two remaining bottles in their collection didn’t make it through the earthquake). Steve would send Betsy and the kids to stand in line at the winery to get their allocations when he was busy with work. The second wine was DRC la Tache from the 1970s. Steve tasted it in the 80s at a private tasting. “I don't think I’ve ever tasted something so sublime.”
Where do you source most of your wines?
Trader Joe’s for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but primarily friends, family and clients. First Bottle and Last Bottle, a local online retailer. Direct from Littorai, Three Sticks (where their daughter Hayden is the Head of Business Development), William Selyem, and the Ashes and Diamonds wine club, where Andy Brooks, the production winemaker, is a friend.
What is the purpose of you collecting wine (investment vs personal enjoyment)?
Never looked at wine as an investment. Betsy is trying to reign in the purchases.
How, and how often do you enjoy wines from your collection?
Almost daily. We enjoy sharing, whether it’s joint tastings with other collectors, or serving wine with all meals. We enjoy white wine as aperitif. We plan dinners around wine. Even at restaurants. Steve will look over the wine list, while Betsy looks over the menu. Sometimes we bring a bottle for corkage, otherwise Steve researches the wine list and plans accordingly.
Do you collect anything else?
Incredible artifacts from around the world, children toys from Aborigines and New Guinea, all handmade and carved, photos, art.
Did your parents collect wine? Do your children collect wine? Did you help them start their wine collection?
Our parents didn’t collect wine. Our daughter does, and our son collects whatever we give them. We “donate” to them at Christmas. We share a lot. The whole family gets wine and olive oil. Our daughter likes to note that she’s been drinking wine since she was nine years old. While we were on a road trip through Europe we stopped in Barbaresco, where she remembers that time well when the nonna offered her and her brother Reed a bottle of Moscato d’Asti to sip on with a plate of salamis and cheese, while Mom and Dad had a wine tasting.
How do you track your inventory?
Betsy has taken the rains after the earthquake. All on an excel spreadsheet, a hard copy remains in the cellar and we cross off as things go out.
Do you belong to any wine clubs?
A few, to support friends.
What is your best wine memory?
We visited the DRC property of La Tache while we were on that European road trip in VW camper. We sat on wall, while a dog barked at us, drinking what was likely a Nuit-St-George in the rain, while the kids were back at the hotel room.
Do you belong to any tasting groups? What bottles do people bring?
We belong to a Penninsula tasting group which we host at the property once a year. We do a big dinner on a Friday. Everyone brings their own wine. We’ve served steak and foie, and done Salmon with Pinot at past dinners.
What type of stemware do you use at home?
Do you gift (or regift) wine from your collection?
All the time. We don’t regift, but give gifts from our collection. It’s all about sharing.
How do you organize your collection?
Varietal, region, age, size, and winery.
How do you stay on top of your collection as far as knowing what to drink when, and not waiting too long, or opening them before their time?
Do you save OWC/OTP?
Nope, we use them as kindling or for planters.
Any favorite wine education tools?
Friends, Siri...Alexa won’t talk to us anymore. Joel Weiss and Walt Brooks, a former NASA scientist turned winemaker and neighbor.
What are your favorite wine regions that you’ve visited?
Napa Valley, Chile, Rioja and Galicia in Spain, Poncha in Madeira, Alentejo, Muchas Gatas, and the Ramos Pinto winery in the Douro in Portugal.
When we can travel again, what are your bucket list wine regions to visit?
Champagne, Marlborough, and South Africa.