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Alan Bush From Industry Icon To Master Winemaker

By: Kelly Taggart for Health Beauty Life
Photos: Allen Carrasco

After great success cultivating one of the most eminent names in hair care a few years ago, industry great Alan Benfield Bush bought some hilltop land in Napa Valley and established his own vineyard and winery. Being on the road for so many years and seeing only the inside of salons and convention centers, he simply wanted to relax and enjoy his land.

Alan fell in love with wine and the thought of owning his own vineyard since visiting France and touring the wine country. He always appreciated the lifestyle and wanted a place of his own. Although the interest was always there, Alan simply did not have the background in raising grapes or making wine, so like any true educator, he set out to learn what he did not know. His apprenticeship of sort is about a decade along now.

Alan Benfield Bush - In The Beginning, Inspired by Hair

Alan’s interest in hair started around age 16 in his native England. He would go into the local barbershop to have his hair done and he became intrigued by how much fun they were having laughing, telling (naughty) jokes and getting paid for it all the while. Alan thought it wasn’t a bad deal, so he jumped in headfirst and completed a three-year apprenticeship at a local small town salon. He went on to own and operate several salons in England, eventually honing his skills at Vidal Sassoon Academy in London, where he achieved the level of master stylist.

In 1973 Alan traveled to California where he became the Managing Director of Education for Vidal Sassoon’s first North American academy. There he found that his real love was teaching hairdressers how to develop technical artistry, communication and business management skills.

During a class one day, Alan wondered why the 10 people he was teaching were not doing what he asked. He kept watching and realized that they were moving the same way but were each coming up with different results. That’s when the light bulb went off in his head and he came up with the technique he uses now.

After leaving Sassoon in the late 1970’s, and with Vidal’s blessings, Alan founded his academies in San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, where he successfully taught his own techniques of condensed cutting, perming, color and setting. By 1988 he partnered with Jim Markham to form ABBA, one of the original natural hair care products on the market. After working tirelessly for nine years, they sold the company and Alan took a step back from the industry to find solace in winemaking.

Turning A New Leaf

Alan bought a ranch in Sonoma County on approximately 130-acres and planted five acres of Pinot Noir vines, which launched what is now known as Bush-Field Estate Vineyards and Winery. On the property was a mid-century inspired Bau Haus, which offered a sense of Los Angeles modernism in a rural Northern California location. The structure is very cubical with about 70% glass, allowing Alan to enjoy his magnificent view from his hilltop home.

Bush-Field is located above the cloud line at the top edge of the true Valley of the Moon above Jack London State Park in Sonoma County, California. These vineyards are in the center of three ancient and prominent mountain peaks: Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais, and Mount Saint Helena. At 2,350 feet, Bush-Field is one of the highest Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County. The microcosmic climate and blend of native plants and trees give the soil the exceptional aromas and flavors found ideal to grow Pinot Noir grapes.

Touring the Winery

Walking through his estate with his 10-year old German Sheppard, Tanya, Alan points out his two separate vineyards. Although both are taken from the same Pinot Noir rootstock or parent plant, the smaller of the two areas contains three different clones or vine cuttings: two numbered or specifically pedigreed grape clones and a single Pinot Noir grape from the Pommard region in France. The larger vineyard features a single numbered clone or pedigree grafting from the parent plant throughout. . Each vineyard yields its own distinct taste, with the smaller of the two winning its first industry award in 2005.

The first area we come across while taking the tour is one and a half acres, which was Alan’s first vineyard at Bush-Field. It was planted in the spring of 1999 and is in a protected area with a slight dip so the taste of the wine is different than the other vineyard. This area obtains more mid afternoon exposure so the canopy is taken down to catch the morning sun. Designed for a slightly higher yield, this vineyard has 8×4 spacing, which translates to an eight-foot span between rows and about four feet between vines.

The larger vineyard was planted in the fall of 2000 and the spacing is 9×5 on three and a half acres, so there is more room to work between the rows as well as the vines. This area acquires more sun exposure than the other vineyard and is grown at a slightly different angle on the ridge.

Alan stops briefly on our walk to unveil some immature grapes starting to form on one of the vines. He points out that after being dormant for the winter, the vines are pruned back around March and then they grow to become very abundant. The vines form a green stem, blossom, and then green berries emerge in sort of a helter-skelter pattern, which is the stage they are in now. Once fully formed, the grapes go through veraison where they change into their signature red color and then they are harvested in late August or the first week of September.

According to Alan, the success of a wine is really determined in the vineyard, not in the winery. Knowing how to water the grapes, tend the vines and placing proper nutrients, much like with hair, is absolutely essential.

To supply ample water, there’s a drip irrigation system in place at Bush-Field that leads to wells 650 feet underground. This system offers water to the vines at a rate of 33 gallons per minute. Alan points out that there is plenty of water on his estate with five springs total and a nearby lake with seven million gallons.

On a different part of the estate once hidden by foliage and used as a hunting lodge, sits a train caboose. It came from the Grand Trunk railroad in Canada, and has its own bathroom, mini kitchen or bar area and even a phone line. Looking to use it as either a guesthouse or private wine-tasting facility, Alan sandblasted the rust and old orange paint on the exterior and remodeled the inside with all wood facings. There’s a Douglas-fir ceiling and mahogany walls with teak and ebony insets for added personality. Alan opted to cover the original wood of the train because he didn’t want to remove the integrity of the caboose itself.

As we wander even further around Bush-Field, we come across a barn where we find what Alan affectionately calls his Tonka Toys - Vineyard-friendly, multipurpose tools that do everything from helping to move the canopies, distributing the water sprayers and clearing the land. There’s a bucket for moving rocks or other items, a forklift for pallets and even an attachment for drilling posts. As he sits atop his tractor with a gleam in his eye, it’s very clear that Alan really enjoys his toys. He seems to take absolute joy in getting out and working his land.

After spending so many years as a hairdresser, Alan now considers himself a vinedresser.

“It’s true,” he says. “You have to coiffure the canopy of the vines, make sure the sun covers the grapes in the heat of the afternoon, and are exposed on the other side in the early morning sun. It’s a daily activity to look after, to check it  constantly, giving the right amounts of water, and holding back when needed to stress it so the water rushes to the fruit at the right time and so forth. The complexity is really incredible but I do have to say that it’s been a fascinating journey.”

Coming Full Circle

Alan maintains that he has not been out of the beauty industry all together, just not as prolific with it as he once was. He has kept his hand in the field by offering consulting, occasional seminars and training people personally, but he finds that he’s ready to jump back in as there is such a strong need for education.

Alan believes that young hairdressers coming up in the world and into a salon don’t realize that they’ll be behind the chair for a long time throughout their career. He feels that the industry has got to be an inspiring place for them and he wants to be a bigger part of that.

“I’m thrilled to take it up a notch by doing more,” states Alan. “Hairdressers really are smart, intelligent and talented people and when we recognize that, we can give them common sense information and methods
that will turn them on and keep them motivated. I truly believe that the method I have is what everybody needs. It is the official language of our craft.”

‘‘Apart from my two sons, my legacy is leaving behind the language of our industry. It doesn’t matter what product line you use. What does matter is that we can all converse with our own uniformly understandable language and that we don’t keep changing the words for our own benefit or ego and lose what it’s all about. This language is valuable and it helps people understand what is needed to survive and be successful in this industry and not just fade out at the end. It’s important  to have a little pot of gold at the end of it all too.”

Alan claims that he still loves seeing someone’s eyes light up when they realize that they’ve got something. It’s that ah-ha moment that puts everything into perspective.

“I get more out of it then they do, really,” Alan adds. “It’s very rewarding and that part of the business I miss terribly. Also, I’m not ready to retire, never will be. I’ll proudly drop dead on stage in front of hairdressers as it’s the only way to  go…doing something I truly love.”

“No matter what you do in life, once a Sassooner you are always a Sassooner. Vidal really is the Governor in my eye - a very wonderful, sweet man. There is nothing I won’t do for him and I am in awe of him always!”

At his writing desk, Alan looks back at all of his awards and honors. Each is special in different ways. Some awards or plaques are from students, some by industry organizations, many for competing. His personal favorite reads, “To Alan Benfield Bush, success and happiness from your staff at the Sassoon Training Center.”

On a whimsical note, Alan proudly drinks as much of his wine as he can and sells the rest. For those interested in purchasing a bottle or case of their own, please visit www.bush-field.com. Special rates for hairdressers do apply!

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Posted in Beauty & Fashion, Celebrity, September 2010