Rod Byers: Last harvest — Remembering Henry Coufos
“Jump in. Let’s go,” Henry Coufos yelled back to me as he hobbled across the yard, leaning heavily on his cane. He reached his vineyard ATV and looked back at me. “You coming?”
I had come to see Henry in the spring of 2019 to get cuttings from his vineyard for my little backyard project. I wanted a dozen or so, a very small amount. I thought Henry would point me to the appropriate row where I would collect the cuttings.
Instead I found myself climbing into the ATV as he dropped into gear and growled along a rutted vineyard road.
If you have never seen it, Coufos Vineyard is a picture postcard scene. Standing at the bottom looking up, the hills form a natural amphitheater offering a panoramic vista with rows of vines forming a patchwork quilt on the land.
But we were creeping along the path at the top edge of the vineyard looking down. Gripping the door tightly, I felt like I was at the top of a ski run realizing that it was way steeper than it looked from the bottom.
We stopped. Henry was out of the ATV heading off to get cuttings. I felt horrible he was making this huge effort for me. I winced, barely able to watch as he lurched unsteadily down the hill. I felt exhilarated when he turned to look back at me with a quizzical look. “You coming?”
There is no good way to say it. Henry was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2006. It was a tough card with a very poor prognosis. Ya, he had cancer. Ya, it affected how he felt. He refused to let it affect what he did.
I realized I better hurry up if I wanted to keep up.
Henry Coufos and wife Janet Wheeling bought an old 20-acre dairy farm in Rough and Ready in 1997 with a vineyard in mind. “We felt that the grapes from France’s Rhone Valley offered the most promise,” he told me.
Coufos had a degree in Agriculture from Cornell and loved farming. Between 2000 and 2004 they planted a total of five acres of Rhone varietals. By 2006, with wine in the bottle, they were ready to open Coufos Cellars.
Greg Schasiepen, Henry’s college roommate and life-long friend, helped plant the vineyard. I couldn’t help but wonder. Opening a vineyard and winery is playing the long game. There is no quick-buck short turn-around.
Faced with such a daunting diagnosis, why open a winery? Schasiepen explained that was always Henry’s plan. “Henry had a strong personality and was a stubborn guy. When they told him, he would never walk again he shook his head and said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen to me’.”
He never stopped walking.
Winery work is physical work. There is always something heavy to lift or difficult to move. Farming is no less strenuous. “I was a bull,” Henry remembered, “able to work long days and just muscle through jobs.”
In spite of endless tests, trials and recurring cancer he never considered giving up. “It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning,” he declared. “Henry was such a positive person nothing seemed insurmountable to him,” Wheeling explained.
Working smarter became the mantra. Tanks and equipment were fitted with wheels and a foot-operated forklift raised barrels and wine cases.
From the very beginning both Henry and Janet were concerned about integrating the vineyard with the land. “We have always farmed organically,” he proclaimed.
“We designed our vineyards to use the existing topography without filling in washes or removing trees,” Janet said. “Instead of fencing the entire 20-acres, we only fenced the vineyard areas preserving wildlife corridors allowing animals to migrate freely.”
Meanwhile, back in the vineyard Henry and I chatted as we clipped the cuttings. I was new to grape growing, soaking up as much information as I could. Henry was so willing to share. The enthusiasm bubbled out of him. It was contagious making me even more excited about my prospects. I wondered how he managed it?
Henry had his foot on the pedal to the very end including working the most recent 2020 harvest. He had been mentoring Eduardo Tinoco to become the vineyard manager. They worked the harvest together.
Having ceased winery operations in 2017 Coufos has been selling the grapes to Purity Wine, an organic-based natural winery in the Bay Area. He insisted on driving the truck to Richmond to deliver the grapes himself.
Henry passed away on October 8th, one week after the completion of the last harvest.
Going forward, Tinoco will continue to farm the vineyard with Purity Wine purchasing the grapes.
Although Coufos Cellars was only in operation for 11 years Henry’s bet on Rhone varieties was entirely correct. The whites, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are well suited to our hot, dry summers producing full-bodied whites. Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre created fruit-forward, powerful reds.
Not only did Coufos excel at grape growing, he was a fine winemaker as well proving without doubt that Rhone varieties deserve a home in Nevada County.
Maybe what I will remember most about Henry was that he always made me feel like he was genuinely happy to see me whenever we would meet. It was a rare skill and I loved him for it. I don’t think I was the only one.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a Certified Wine Educator and wine writer as well as a California State Certified Wine Judge. He is the host of the local television show Wine Talk. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-802-7172.
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