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George Barnwell

Published: Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 4:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.

George Barnwell, a former newspaperman, lifelong outdoorsman and respected grape grower in the Russian River Valley, died Nov. 14 of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 85.

Barnwell was born in Jakarta, Indonesia. His father was an geologist who worked for Shell Oil and his mother was an accomplished pianist.

When he turned 7, his parents sent him and his little brother John Robert to a boarding school in Switzerland, fearing they might develop dysentery. Barnwell was two years older than his brother and kept a watchful eye over him.

When his father was transferred to Europe, the family was reunited in Holland and Barnwell completed elementary school there. By that time, he was fluent in Dutch and French. Later, after his father was transferred again, Barnwell completed New Zealand's equivalent of high school at 16, excelling in both academics and sports.

Barnwell attended Swarthmore College and received a degree in journalism. His first job out of college was with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and he later went to work for the McCook Daily Gazette, a regional paper covering southwest Nebraska and north west Kansas.

At the McCook Daily Gazette, he worked as a general assignment reporter and eventually became an assistant editor. He married his first wife, Ernestine, in Nebraska, and the couple moved to the East Bay, where he landed a job with a daily newspaper.

Barnwell then became co-owner and publisher of the Novato Advance community newspaper in the mid-1950s. He owned the paper for about 25 years, eventually becoming sole owner. During that time, Barnwell and his wife adopted three children. He sold the paper in 1970 and came up to Sonoma County in search of other investments.

That search led him to the Russian River Valley, where he found a great land deal. Barnwell took a number of courses at Santa Rosa Junior College from vine expert Rich Thomas, as well as viticulture classes at the UC Davis.

In 1979, after divorcing his first wife, Barnwell married his second wife, Rosemarie, and the couple had a son Troye in 1983. Barnwell sold his first crush in the early 1980s to Cecil De Loach. He also became a contributing editor for Wines & Vines, a wine industry publication.

"He was really a pioneer, one of the first to grow chardonnay in the Russian River Valley," Rosemarie said.

Barnwell was a former director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association and also an active member of the Fulton 500, a group of family vineyard owners.

He was also an avid mountain climber and skier, taking on many of the world's most challenging heights, including the base camp of Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Shasta and Mount McKinley.

In the 1960s, he helped the Sierra Club chart mountains in Afghanistan, Rosemarie said. Barnwell once did a winter descent on skis from Mount Shasta.

Rosemarie said her husband was a "very simple man who loved family and life and always gave so much of himself."

Barnwell's family has scheduled a memorial celebration of his life on Sunday at John Ash & Co. between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

— Martin Espinoza

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