I met Jill a couple of weeks ago and as befits the manager at Brutacao Cellars we sat down to chat with some delicious wines. Chardonnay for her and Pinot for myself. Perfect.
Jill was born in 1951 in Chico, California, the oldest of four children born to Ray Johnson and Peggy Kepple, and she grew up in the nearby town of Paradise. Her paternal heritage is Swedish. On her mother’s side there are German and French roots, although both sides have been here in the States for several generations. Her siblings all had the same letter at the beginning of their first names, a trend in the 50s that I have found to be not uncommon in interviewing people born during that period. The Johnson kids are: Jill, John, Judy, and Jana.
Jill’s mother was a homemaker and her father was a car salesman in Chico, a rural town in those days with nearby Paradise not even having streetlights. “It was definitely the countryside; not unlike Anderson Valley and, like here, the crops were mainly apples in those days. I found school quite easy but much preferred being outside in the woods. I was a country girl at that point. We always had dogs and cats and I loved horses too. We didn’t have any but I did get to ride our neighbor’s”
In 1967, Jill’s father moved with his job to Alameda in the East Bay and Jill found herself in a new school for her sophomore year at high school. “I was suddenly in a huge school, Alameda was the big city to me and at that time the whole hippy and counter-culture movement was going on. I begged to stay with my grandmother in Paradise and managed to persuade my parents to let me do that for a semester but then I had to join the rest of the family in the January. I cried until May. I hated it. I missed the countryside and the woods and to this day I remember the smell of oil that seemed to be everywhere I went in Alameda. On top of that I had a boyfriend back there — the love of my life at that point. Every weekend I would catch the train at Jack London Square in Oakland and go to Oroville and stay at my boyfriend’s family’s house — our family and his were good friends. I am still in touch with him by e-mail, and a few other friends too from those days in Paradise.”
Jill had always managed to get good grades at her previous school but now she started to cut classes and fell behind. “I did slowly make some friends but my schooling was suffering until one day my counselor told me I would not graduate unless I got A’s in four of my finals. I was told, ‘you are smarter than this.’ Well, I finally started to try again and worked hard and got the grades I needed so that I graduated on time in 1969.”
Jill had grown up cutting her friends’ hair and she thought she might want to do it professionally. Therefore, during her final two years of high school, she had attended Alameda Beauty College at weekends, sometimes after school, and also during the summers. As a result, when she graduated high school she had more experience than many others. However, it was also while at school that she had taken on a part-time job for a shoe company that leased out the shoe department at the Mervyn’s Store. This job was good money whereas the beauty school was just for tips so when the shoe company offered her a full-time position after leaving school she accepted.
“I was ready to move out of home as soon as turned 18 in May 1969 and was in my own place before I graduated. My mother nearly had a heart attack when I told her not only I wasn’t going to beauty school, but that I was moving out of home and starting a job for the shoe company in Oakland. I ended up being in that job for twelve years and the shoe departments we had in Mervyn’s went from four to sixty-five in that time. My job was mainly involved with buying the sports shoes, an area of shoe wear that was taking off at that time with the introduction and early days of Nike, Adidas, etc. I was in the right job at the right time.”
Jill married at 19 and that lasted six months. She married again at 23. “He was a great guy and I still talk ton his Mom. However, about a month before the marriage my mother was in an accident that left her in a vegetative state. My father was had turned to alcohol and I felt responsible for the welfare of my three younger siblings. We were a very young couple dealing withy a lot and we split up. Then in 1974 I met and married Warren Malnick who was to become the father of my two children, Julianne and Jeffrey. We were together for nearly 20 years and I was the token shiksa (non-Jewish) in the Jewish family that owned the well-known women’s clothes stores, ‘J. Melnick’s’ in Oakland. I ran the shoe departments there and that’s how I met Warren.”
During those years Jill, who had grown up around dogs and who had always had dogs, started to help friends train their dogs. “I decided to start a little business on the side, part-time, but it grew very quickly. Originally I trained the dogs for free but realized I could do this really well and so I asked people for their comments and built up a portfolio. I also studied some books but most of what I know comes from simply growing up with dogs. I trained all different breeds with all kinds of problems. At one point I was also writing a pet advice column for the Alameda Journal called ‘Dog Training with Jill’... For a time I would take on large groups of fifteen dogs or more and work at the Harbor Bay Club but I found that the owners wouldn’t listen or concentrate so I went back to small groups of five and lots of individual sessions at people’s homes.”
In 1979, when she first became pregnant, Jill quit working in the shoe business and for several years concentrated on raising a family whilst still doing her dog training part-time. Then in 1989, a pet store in Lafayette in the East Bay went up for sale. Jill was offered part-time work there to see if she would like it. “I loved it of course and bought the store, ‘The Pet Grocery’, in January 1990. It was mainly food and supplies and I did some dog training out of there although by that time most of my other training work was cut back.” She and Warren split up in 1991 and then the shop next door to hers became available so she bought that too — an exotic bird store. “I had always been interested in birds and over the next few years I had an awesome time, and the business was financially successful too.”
During those years she met Drew Crane, who was a consultant to pet stores. “We fell madly in love and used to come up this way for romantic getaway weekends. We’d drive through Anderson Valley on our way to the coast and loved coming through here although we rarely stopped. Then in December 1997, New Year’s Eve in fact, we stayed at The Griffin House in Elk and the next day we both couldn’t stop thinking how we could live up here. We had no idea what we could do but had discussed the possibility of running a bed and breakfast. My grandfather Paul Kepple, who had been the Butte County Supervisor, had owned a hotel but I have no real memories of that. Anyway, we checked out the realty situation and saw that The Philo Pottery Inn in Anderson Valley was for sale so we stopped by there on our way back through town and met with the owners. Then on the way home to the Bay Area we fantasized about the possibilities. Shortly afterwards, in February 1998, we made the owners, Sue and Barry Chiverton, an offer and in May we took it over. My friends in the City used to ask me what I did up here and wondered whether I got bored. I told them there always seemed so many things going on with one group of people or another — it is such a vibrant community.”
Jill kept the stores in Lafayette and initially she and Drew would come up to the Valley on Thursday evenings and stay until Monday morning but it wasn’t long before Drew moved up to here full-time and he soon got to know quite a few people, even joining the Chamber of Commerce. “We loved it here and had moved for the lifestyle, not for any money-making ideas. After a year or so I finally sold the stores and moved here full-time in September 1999. Then in March of the next year, Drew got very sick. He was diagnosed with colon cancer that was in its advanced stages and he died just a few weeks later on April 27th, 2000.”
It was a very tough time but Jill said to herself, “I can do this, but I do need someone to help with some of it.” Manuel Soto came and helped with all the yard work and handyman chores while Sheena Walker, a high school student at the time, would come to help with the turnover of rooms on Sundays. Jill also cut back from the full breakfast to a small continental style meal. She became close friends with Leslie Hummel of the Boonville store, ‘All that Good Stuff’, “Leslie offered to help me whenever she could and basically ‘took care’ of me in those days, always being there for dinner or a game of cribbage.”
After a year or so it became too much to handle and in June 2001 Jill sold the business to Monica and Beverley who still own the property today, although the Inn has now closed as an Inn. Jill’s sister lived in Cottonwood and Jill bought a house in Redding, not far away. “I hated leaving and once again was very tearful. I had enjoyed my time here and had made several friends. I was with one of them, Tom Cronquist, on Hwy 128 near to Boont Berry Store — he and I used to walk together — when he introduced me to Steve Derwinski who was passing. We had met before and I said, ‘we have met before but you won’t remember me.’ He replied, ‘Oh, I do, it’s Jill.’ He was nice but I wasn’t interested in meeting a man. I was having a tough time, my life had been so hectic over the past few years — the new B & B, the long commute from Lafayette a couple of times a week, and then of course Drew’s passing, and my struggle to keep the Inn going. Anyway, Steve offered to help me move by packing my van and then when he turned up and found three other guys helping I think he was put off. Some time later during my move I went to his house for lunch which we had sitting on his boat that was in the driveway. On that occasion he showed me his steel drum and I expressed an interest in learning how to play so we started to communicate about this after I had moved and he arranged for a friend of his to make me a steel drum.”
Jill used to visit the Valley quite frequently over the next few months and usually stayed at the Anderson Creek Inn. “On one occasion Steve showed up there with the drum his friend had made and announced that he was going to ‘Burning Man’ in the Nevada desert and would be coming back to Anderson Valley via Hayfork, not far from where I lived. I said he could stay for a night at my house if he wished. Well, he showed up a day early and a week later we were both in tears as he was leaving to return here to the Valley. We had a great time together. Boom! He asked me to marry him a few weeks later and I moved back here in December 2001. We were married in January 2002 at his house off Anderson Valley Way, had a big party in town at Lauren’s Restaurant three weeks after that, and we’ve been together ever since.”
During the quiet times at the Inn, Jill had picked up some part-time work on weekdays at Brutacao Cellars winery on Hwy 128. Soon after her return to the Valley and resuming her job there, she was made manager and still is.
Since her return, she occasionally will do some dog training for friends in the Valley and Steve has taught her to play the steel drum, performing with Steve and Fred Wooley as The Trio Stevo. She has also done yoga with Melissa, been in a women’s manifestation group with Audrey, and these days is really into the rowing boat Steve made her for their anniversary. “His called his boat ‘Jilly D’ so I got to name mine FUP, after a duck character in a favorite book of Steve’s that we read together... I love living here — the people are a big reason why. At Drew’s memorial that we held at the Inn I could not believe how many people showed up. We were relative newcomers but the support I received was incredible. It is shown time after time here, people coming together to help each other... I do like to visit Hawaii every year and go with Leslie — I could live there part-time but I have no desire to travel that much and certainly have no plans to ever live there permanently. We are quite social and love to go to parties in the Valley and have our own big event for many friends on New Year’s Day here at home. The scenery is spectacular too. It’s a little piece of heaven and we are so fortunate to live here.”
I asked Jill about the various Valley issues.
The wineries? “Well that’s a question kind of hard to answer. The wineries provide a whole lot of jobs in an economy where there are not a lot and they certainly make the Valley look very pretty. I know a big peeve amongst folks is the amount of water used but wouldn’t this still be a problem if other things were planted here instead? Actually it is more than a peeve of course — water is going to be the next oil.”
The AVA? “I don’t read it that often but maybe I should!”
KZYX radio? “Since Steve quit his show I don’t really listen that much. I appreciate public broadcasting but find myself listening more to KGO.”
Changes in the Valley? “I like most of them and we are never going to be a Napa as some people suggest. We are too isolated and the drive on Hwy 128 puts many people off - that is fine with me.”
The school system? “I don’t have first hand experience with this but hearsay suggests that there is too much ‘white flight’ in recent times and my concern would be in keeping the kids of those families here in the Valley. Are the standards being maintained at our school? Why are people leaving and putting their kids in other schools? Having said that it is ultimately up to the parents to push their kids through and parents and teachers should talk this through and come up with the best option for each kid. I do see parents being afraid to say ‘No’ to their kids; they want to be their child’s friend. In some ways it is just like training dogs. You need to have boundaries and be consistent in maintaining them.”
I posed a few questions from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”
Favorite word or phrase? “That would probably be ‘Hi, sweetie.’ I use that phrase a lot.”
Least favorite word or phrase? “Maybe ‘I don’t like him, or her.’ Any sort of complaining.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “These days it’s rowing my boat. I also love to walk early in the morning or to be hiking in the woods.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Politicians talking nonsense. People not using plain old common sense.”
Sound or noise you love? “The sound of the river or birds singing.”
Sound or noise do you hate? “Cell phones ringing. I don’t have one.”
What is your favorite curse word? Don’t write this but it’s ‘F***.’ Isn’t it everybody’s?”
Film/song/book that has greatly influenced you? “My favorite and one that made such an impression is ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and from that is my favorite song, ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I just love that cheesy song. The book ‘Les Miserables’ also made a big impact on me. There is everything in that book, all manner of the human experience.”
Favorite hobby? “These days my job is my hobby. I also love to knit and to read — novels and autobiographies mainly.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “A veterinarian was a dream of mine but I never thought I was smart enough but may be I was. My mother told me I had to be better at math because to be a vet you had to know lots of math. I never doubted her at the time and never tried to become one as a result. She meant well.
Profession you’d not like to do? “A roto-rooter person or a plumber.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “The days my kids were born.”
The saddest? “When Drew died.”
Favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “I am a loyal friend — kind of like a dog, you know. I like and accept all sorts of people and personalities.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “That would be something like, ‘All your friends are here, the German Shepherds are out back, and all the wild animals in the woods are your friends’.”
(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Valley lawyer and much more: Andrea La Campagne.)