When entrepreneur Al Scheid entered the wine business back in 1972, Monterey County was barely a blip on the American viticultural map, and California’s grape growers were treated as second-class citizens by the winemaking elites who ruled the day. A half-century later, thanks largely to Scheid’s efforts, Monterey grows more wine grapes than all but two California counties—including the state’s largest crop of Pinot Noir. And, vineyard owners enjoy equal footing with winemakers, now considered partners as much as customers.
“My dad came as an outsider,” says Heidi Scheid of her father, who died at age 91 on March 31. “But he gained a lot of respect because he wanted to make sure the industry was strong, and [he] knew that it was crucial that grape growers had a united voice. It was a much dirtier business back then. Growers were at the mercy of the wineries, so it was a lopsided power dynamic.”
Soon after creating the company that would become Scheid Family Wines, Scheid became a founding member of the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) in 1974. “He really dove into helping CAWG accomplish so much for the winegrape grower,” recalls Jerry Fry, another CAWG founder and the president/CEO of Mohr-Fry Ranches in Lodi. “He was a strong leader, and gave so much of his time, not only while he was on the board, and president, but continually after.”
Scheid was “instrumental” in advocating with State Senator Clare Berryhill to develop the annual Grape Crush Report in 1976, which brought transparency on pricing and volume across the state’s disparate regions. “This is one of CAWG’s greatest achievements for the winegrape grower, and I’m sure few in the business at this time know how it came to be,” explains Fry.
The annual tally “created stability,” adds Heidi. “That was what the growers were really missing before.”
Her father’s life and career experience to that point, which involved significant financial deal-making and the founding of biotech companies, played a role in his thinking. “He did not want to be the lowly farmer taking direction from wineries,” notes Heidi.
Raised during the Depression in Bridgeport, Ohio, Scheid left his hometown with $42 in his pocket. He served domestically in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, earned an MBA from Harvard and took a job with the investment firm EF Hutton. Initially, his foray into wine was because agriculture offered a significant tax shelter for his holdings, but it quickly turned into something much larger.
“It became a passion beyond his work,” says Steve McIntyre, owner of Monterey Pacific, the county’s largest farming company. Scheid’s actions led the way for Monterey’s wine industry to explode into today’s nearly 42,000 acres of vineyard, which produces more tons of fruit than all but Fresno and San Joaquin counties, according to the 2021 Crush Report.
Scheid eventually controlled more than 6,000 acres of vineyard across Monterey, selling grapes to wineries large and small. The family built its own winery in 2005, launched a series of branded wines in 2012 and sold off some acreage. Today, Scheid Family Wines is one of the top 25 largest wine companies in California, overseeing 3,000 acres and producing more than one million cases of wine annually.
McIntrye was in his 20s when he met Scheid, who had a “matter-of-fact,” sometimes “blunt” style and a habit of doodling during important meetings. “He always had his head down, listening intently and doodling, and then he’d say something profound,” recalls McIntyre. “There aren’t many great big luminaires and visionaries out there anymore. Most are just looking at the bottom line, but [he was] looking beyond the present and I miss that. It’s certainly like the end of a chapter, but it’s more like the end of a book.”
Jason Smith, who owns Valley Farm Management, sees Scheid as part of a pioneering pantheon that includes his late father Rich Smith as well as Jerry McFarland, Phil Johnson and Butch Lindley. “They were the group that really put Monterey on the map in the 1970s planting boom,” says Smith. “While they all made a few mistakes, they were committed to this awesome growing region and figured out how to get the right varieties planted in the right regions to produce quality grapes.”
He credits Scheid for being a leader in sustainability, evidenced by the huge windmill that powers Scheid Vineyards’ operations, and a commitment to the surrounding community. Most importantly, particularly upon his death, Scheid kept his company in the family, empowering his son Scott and daughter Heidi to take the reins. “What comes harder and harder to do is to pass along any farming to the next generation,” says Smith. “Al did that well.”
That transition started in the 1980s but was more apparent over the past decade. “He stepped back so gracefully and I have the game of golf to thank mostly for that,” explains Heidi. “That didn’t stop him from emailing us every day, but he really just allowed us to take the company to that next step.”
The consummate businessman never really retired, sending out more emails and trading stocks on the last day of his life. He even attended last year’s national sales meeting. “He’d drink everybody under the table and be up telling stories to the last person,” recalls Heidi. “He was never late for the 8 a.m. start the next morning while everyone else was all blurry-eyed. There’s my 90-year-old dad!”
Scheid had been diagnosed with throat cancer last year and was expected to live another four to six months when he died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Pacific Palisades. He’d been researching hospice options for his life to come, and was staying abreast of the latest biotech and viticulture developments, as seen in the piles of magazines Heidi found in his office.
“That was the way he led his life to his very last day, just this insatiable curiosity about things,” she says. “That’s the way I want to be. You don’t waste any day.”
Last Updated: June 6, 2023