Calaveras County recently lost one of the greats in the local wine industry.
On Aug. 11, Stephen Collum, the founder and owner of the Murphys-based Vineyard Concepts consultation and management company, passed away from liver cancer at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Stockton at the age of 64.
“Steve was a HUGE part of the Calaveras County wine community not only as a vineyard manager but as a friend to many,” a press release from the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance (CWA) reads.
“Steve was a loyal supporter of the CWA where he served as a board director for years and also chaired the Education Committee. Steve connected top-notch speakers and educators from across California to serve CWA growers and winery members in the monthly education program. Steve led the CWA Vineyard Tour every summer and helped many grape growers start their vineyards.”
As a young man, Collum attended California State University, Fresno, where he received degrees in biology and viticulture.
Afterwards, he moved to Sonoma County with his wife, Cindy, working in management at several small vineyards before finding a job with Kendall Jackson.
Through this job, Collum landed in Tuscany, Italy, where he helped develop a property in southeast Chianti. It was there that he became passionate about the Sangiovese grape and decided to look for an area in California with similar characteristics where he and his wife could develop a vineyard.
This search led the couple to Calaveras County in 1988, where they purchased a property and developed a vineyard specializing in Sangiovese grapes.
A few years later, Collum established Vineyard Concepts, a consultation and management company where he focused on “blending the owner, site, winegrape variety and winemaker to produce award winning wines,” according to the company’s website.
Vineyard Concepts now manages about 200 acres in California, including most of the vineyards in Calaveras County.
Elissa Reisbeck is the office administrative assistant and sales and marketing assistant for Vineyard Concepts. She said that a job at the Lavender Ridge tasting room led her to work for Collum about 10 years ago.
“He would always come in and get a glass of rosé in the afternoon, and he would always be talking about all of this stuff in the vineyards,” she said. “He just held all this information, and he was always wanting to share it and teach. And so it intrigued me a lot.”
Reisbeck began working for Collum as an intern in the vineyards, and now manages the business side of Vineyard Concepts. During Collum’s illness, Reisbeck played an increasingly important role in running the business, along with Vineyard Assistant/Tech Kelly Reisinger.
“She and I are taking over for now,” Reisbeck said. “We’re going to try to finish out harvest together, and then once everything calms down, we’re going to try to figure everything out.”
In recent years, Reisbeck worked with Collum to establish a side business, Concept Covers, which sells special covers to keep grapes cool during the harvesting process, one of Collum’s many innovations.
“He just always had a solution,” Reisbeck said. “He always would figure it out, and that’s what us girls are trying to do. A lot of that was in his head, so coming into harvest, we’re like, ‘What would Steve do?’ He just always was a problem-solver and he didn’t really sweat the small stuff. He always had a plan, so that’s so hugely missed for us girls now. We’re constantly wishing we could call him up.”
But it wasn’t just Collum’s extensive knowledge that made him so influential in the local wine industry.
“He was very giving,” Reisbeck said. “Anyone who wanted information, he would just sit down with you, was always giving out favors, because he wanted what was best for the wine community. It wasn’t really to him about making a successful business for himself. He really cared about the wine community and how everyone was doing, and that’s just the kind of guy he was.”
In the CWA press release, several members of the local wine industry shared their thoughts on Collum.
“Steve was the driving force for bringing education, enthusiasm and commitment to improving and excelling in all things related to the vineyard,” said Kate Boyle-MacDonald, winemaker and owner of Boyle-MacDonald Wines, in the press release. “As a winemaker, working with Steve not only directly resulted in improving the quality of my wines, but he was a delight to be around. A truly stellar human, one of the best. He will be sorely missed by myself and our entire community.”
Collum was devoted to sustainable practices, and helped Rob and Sheri Hendriks turn Aloria Vineyards into a sustainable vineyard.
“Stephen helped us obtain our California Certified Sustainable Vineyard Certification in 2019,” Sheri Hendriks said in the press release. “He explained that certification doesn’t mean that our job is done, only that we are fulfilling a greater purpose to work towards. To be fully sustainable as an operating vineyard and winery, he explained, means that we work towards a perfect balance of stewardship, opportunity, growth and prosperity within our organization and our community. Our frequent conversations around town, in the tasting room and ‘Friday’s with Stephen’ at the vineyard were the highlight from bud break to harvest. He passed the love of grape farming on to us in our short time together. We hope we can make our friend proud and like he taught us, listen to the vines.”
CWA Executive Director Sandra Hess also acknowledged Collum’s contributions to the local wine industry.
“I met Steve just a few short years ago and was always impressed by his big heart and care for the community,” Hess said in the press release. “Steve would drop by the CWA offices as he had time to see how we were doing and offer advice. I am in shock by Steve’s passing as he was actively helping this past spring. He was one of the greats and will be dearly missed.”
Vineyard owner Gay Callan said that Collum was the first in the area to start a vineyard consulting business which expanded the horizons for the industry in Calaveras County and beyond.
“His dedication to community, his expansion of agricultural education and his love of the earth (grapes) was contagious,” Callan said in the press release. “Whatever you asked him to do, he would silently get it done, he was humble, funny, had a great sense of humor and most of all was so generous with his time and knowledge. We have lost another terrific mentor for a lot of people, but mostly – we have lost a dear friend. You could always count on Steve! I am grateful to have known him and to have worked with him over the years. There are no other words to say other than my thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Nathan and Dre Vader, the proprietors of Vina Moda Winery, said that Collum played a big role in making the local wine industry what it is today.
“Our hearts are so heavy,” they said in the press release. “Steve was more than a colleague, he was also a visionary, a pioneer and an incredible friend. He was such a good man, and the ache of his loss will be felt in our community for a very long time to come. The Sierra Foothills wine region would not be what it is today without Steve's expertise and loving care. We will always cherish our memories of him, as well as his influence in our lives and in our wine. Our harvests will just not be the same without him. We will be dedicating our 2019 Sangiovese to Steve's memory. Grown on his own personal vineyard, Steve tended those grapes with love. As the last vintage he got to harvest, we are especially grateful to have it nestled safely in our barrels. We know how much he was looking forward to tasting what we created together, and we only wish he had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful wine his grapes have become.”
On Aug. 13, Scott Klann, the owner of Newsome Harlow Wines and a longstanding local winemaker, organized an industry meet-up in Murphys Community Park to pay tribute to Collum.
“Steve was incredibly collaborative and aware of how to teach people,” Klann said in the press release. “Steve taught me about the spaces in between vineyard and cellar – the microfibers that connect things. We lost someone who pushed himself and loved to learn every day. He wasn’t afraid to try news things and explore. Steve will be forever missed.”
The CWA plans on hosting a memorial service for Collum once the family has had time to hold their own service.
“Several CWA members have offered their outdoor venues and we hope to schedule a series of memorial events for up to 100 people each as per social distancing policies during pandemic,” the press release reads. “Information will be shared once dates are confirmed and the CWA office staff can be reached at email@example.com. For now, friends of Steve can help by donating to the Go-Fund-Me Campaign established by his team at Vineyard Concepts. The immediate need is financial to cover medical bills and the donation link can be found at gf.me/u/ypa58f.”
Though the county has suffered a huge loss with the passing of Collum, his life and work in the local wine industry will continue to bear fruit for many years to come.