Raymond Burr and Robert Benevides had met, as professional actors, in the middle 1950s on the television program which was to make a legend of Burr, “Perry Mason.” Motivated in the beginning by friendship, the Burr/Benevides relationship was bolstered and advanced by their individual interest in, and knowledge of, the cultivation and hybridization of orchids. In the next several years this shared hobby began to grow until the obvious resolution was to make it a commercial venture. In the next two decades they registered over 250 new hybrids, most of which were named after friends of Raymond’s.
Simultaneously, Benevides had become one of the producers on Mr. Burr’s very successful television series “Ironside” and together they bought and managed an island in Fiji, where they raised coconuts and cattle.
In 1976, Benevides, on the advice of his father, purchased an abandoned farm in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County, and in the following months, as the eight year filming of “Ironside” drew to a close, Burr and Benevides traveled to northern California, the scene of both their young lives; Burr, born in BC Canada was raised in Vallejo, Benevides on the Peninsula, both attended school in Berkeley, Robert at Cal and Raymond at Willard Jr. High School.
The grapes were planted in 1986: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and for the proprietors, a small section of Portuguese grapes with which to fashion an Estate Port. Originally intended for family and friends, the Port has somehow found its way into wine cellars in Europe and South America.
In 1990 the beautiful Southeast-facing vineyards produced their first vintage which was released in 1995. By 1992 the vineyards were nearing their prime -- and Raymond Burr’s health was failing. At a time when he could have legitimately retired to “watch his garden grow,” he made -- primarily to protect his 200+ film crew -- three more of the two-hour Perry Mason television films and found time to watch, to protect, to nurture the splendid grapes, time to confer with the winemaker, to taste from the barrels the 1992 vintage, and, finally, a few days before his passing, to watch the harvest.
By some coincidence, and not a little skill, the Raymond Burr Cabernets are very like the man; big, full of gusto, complex and jubilantly alive. In a television documentary that he had made about Sonoma County wines, he remarked that “....probably one of the most important things in a vineyard are the footprints of the grower between the rows...” And if those big, wide-paced footprints are actually no longer visible in the earth, they are imprinted certainly in the memories, and hearts, of the vineyard people.
POSTSCRIPT: Raymond Burr planned to call the endeavor (in Portuguese) - A Quinta dos Dois Amigos (The Farm of Two Friends). But Benevides, his partner, colleague and companion of 33 years, after much struggle and thought, decided that, in this case, the parallels of man and wine could not be separated; it is not so much a memorial to Raymond Burr as it is his living, breathing presence.