October 12, 2006
Ronald McDonald actor not clowning around with wine
Loads of fun keeps the barrel rolling at GlenLyon Winery
Article by Bradley Gray Special to the Sun.
Photography: Clarke L. Smith
Perhaps you’ve been to a Sonoma Valley wine tasting event recently and noticed the attractive couple wearing kilts. Their names are Squire and Suzy Fridell, and they own GlenLyon Vineyards and Winery in Glen Ellen.
Yes, the kilts give you the impression that these folks like to have fun, but the tartan pattern of the MacDiarmid clan (Suzy’s Scottish family) is only the tip of this theatrical iceberg.
I arrived at the winery last Friday morning to learn more about GlenLyon.
“Do me a favor and zip me up,” quips a very busy Squire Fridell, dressed in a lovely red evening gown. He turns his back to me and bends his knees so I can reach the zipper. His over-the-top mascara and bright red lipstick make him look like a bad… no, REALLY bad drag queen. He puts finishing touches on his Twisted Sisteresque blond wig, and instructs me to grab his mink stole and a bottle of wine and follow him to the back yard.
Enter Suzy Fridell, Squire’s wife, dressed in a white tuxedo with tails. She’s looking quite butch, with a Groucho Marx mustache on that won’t stay in the right position. At her side is Puck, the Australian Shepherd, who patiently wears a jester hat.
They have Clarke, a professional photographer with them and they are preparing to take a photo for this year’s Christmas card. The theme is “Don we now our gay apparel,” and the Fridells claim that all of their gay friends approved the idea.
This will be the first time I’ve ever interviewed a winemaker in drag.
GlenLyon Winery came into being in 1987, first as a home winery, before going commercial in 1997. GlenLyon specializes in estate syrah, which is quite distinctive, and they make limited bottlings of chardonnay, rose and port.
“I never had a clue that we’d move up here, and wine would be such an important part of our lives,” explains Squire. “Suzy and I went to dinner in New York in the ‘70s. She was a dancer, and had been to embassy parties when she taught in France. She knew about wine and turned me on to it. She ordered a 1966 Chateau Haut-Brion. Before that moment, I had never actually tasted anything in my life. You simply ate because you were hungry. It was one of those magical moments where you say; ’Holy cow!’”
Squire Fridell’s life has been full of magical moments, and you probably know him better than you think you do.
Fridell is an actor, and his success came in the form of television commercials, of which he has starred in over 3,000. One of his major gigs was/is playing “The Toyotaman,” which started in 1978, and still employs him today. He’s been on the cover of TV Guide, and starred in “M*A*S*H,” “Newhart,” “Ironside” and “Adam 12.” His biggest claim to fame is that he played the part of Ronald McDonald from 1984 to 1991. This isn’t a clown at carnivals, but the Ronald McDonald that we all saw on TV! Fridell was only the second actor to ever play the official part. Fridell’s wife, Suzy, is no stranger to the stage either, having been a professional dancer and dance teacher for many years. The Fridells moved to the Sonoma Valley in 1977, when they sold their Los Angeles-area beachfront home to come to tamer surroundings.
“I watched the kids (in L.A.) having fun on the beach. They drank beer and smoked pot. We decided that we didn’t want that for our daughter and moved here.”
GlenLyon takes its name from the village in Scotland where Suzy Fridell’s clan originated. The crest of a wild boar that adorns the bottle is the MacDiarmid family crest, paying homage to Suzy’s family.
GlenLyon’s syrah comes from their spectacular estate on Bennett Valley Road. Ravenswood buys half of the GlenLyon fruit, and Squire crafts his syrah from the rest.
Hog Wilde is the label for their chardonnay, which is sourced from Parmalee-Hill Vineyard, near Carneros.
The winery is just below their home and features state of the art winery eye-candy everywhere. In other words, Fridell has nice stuff, especially considering that he produces less than 1,000 cases total per year. Fridell does most of the work himself, with his assistant Roberto, who moved here from Jalisco, Mexico and works full-time on the property.
Suzy Fridell is involved in the operation, too.
“I really enjoy doing the marketing and especially the packaging. I want every bottle to look like a present. We do everything together, but sometimes we have to duke it out over the ribbons and stuff,” explains Suzy. “Oh, and I’m the cellar rat, not the winemaker.”
When she says “the ribbons,” I have to assume that she’s referring to the Hog Wilde Chardonnay, which has a red-and-yellow polka-dot bow tie on it, and the capsule is decorated in red and yellow stripes, just like Ronald McDonald’s socks. GlenLyon’s bottles are certainly distinctive. I personally think that their syrah boasts one of the nicest-looking packages in our valley.
The Fridells reflect on the first years of GlenLyon.
“When we first moved here, I had Ronald McDonald and Toyota (as acting jobs). We planted our grapes, but I didn’t do very much of the harvest. I was averaging 55 round-trip plane trips a year,” says Squire. “It seemed like every year, right at harvest, he’d get a Toyota-thon,” explains Suzy.
Fridell admits to learning a lot from Chris Loxton of Loxton Wines.
“Whenever I have a problem, or just get stuck, I call Chris Loxton. He used to make our wine. I’m a firm believer in education. If someone has a master’s or Ph.D., it’s better to talk to them. Plus, everyone is so darned helpful around here!”
GlenLyon sells most of its wine to its wine club (they call it their “Clan – with a ‘C’ so it’s politically correct”), which is host to 700 members. Locally, their wine is available at The Wine Exchange of Sonoma and at Carneros Bistro. Additionally, GlenLyon can be found in 16 Manhattan restaurants including the 21 Club.
“Does it taste better as a $100-dollar bottle?” asks Squire rhetorically. “The answer is, ‘Yes it does!’”
Fridell explains the GlenLyon terroir and style: “This is not the cool-climate syrah with berry and tar, or the hot-climate syrah that shows jammy overripe character. It’s right in the middle, and always shows good tannin and balance. As long as I don’t screw up the winemaking, it tastes like GlenLyon.”
Though GlenLyon occupies much of their time, the Fridells are still involved in a number of other projects, including raising money to build theaters for local schools. In recent years, Squire has written five melodramas and one adaptation that students perform annually. Visiting the Fridells was a blast, and since they are both entertainers, they love being “on.” They are passionate about all the things they do, and my visit to GlenLyon reminded me to spend a little more time enjoying life. And, of course, good wine!
2005 Hog Wilde Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley
This delightful chardonnay shows rich, creamy lemon meringue on the nose, with similar flavors that are big and rich. There is just the right amount of oak on this well-balanced wine, with subtle allspice and smoke on the finish.
(buy it now)
2003 GlenLyon Vineyards and Winery Estate Syrah, Sonoma Valley
Intense aromas of black fruit and coffee lead to dark, brooding flavors of mocha, inky blueberry and spice. Lots of grip suggests cellar ability, while balance and elegance carry through the long finish. This is a terrific syrah!
(buy it now)
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