Don Riley — Pioneer and Mentor

I spend my days talking, reading, and writing about wine, and occasionally selling it, because my brother, Donald, got me excited about wine in 1980 when I was in college. Don died last week at the age of 69. Far too young. But he’d been sick for a while and now I know his suffering has ended. Still…

If you read “Where I Come From” at the front of this blog, you’ll see that Don was decades ahead of the curve when it came to selling Northern Italian wines in California. Unfortunately, he was too early to the game now being played out all over America. Wines from Friuli are hot and growing in popularity. Don tried to tell people about these fantastic bottles 35 years ago, but California wine was rising and few people, shops, or restaurants had any real interest in these odd foreign varietals. Well, some people did. Me, for one. I can still recall a few exuberant merlots and one brilliant tocai friuliano from those early days. Eye openers all! And so I began my own sojourn into wine country. It’s a journey that has seen its share of fits and starts, but one I’ve never strayed from. I’m immersed in wine and I have my brother Don to thank.

Many of my friends, both real and virtual, never had the chance to meet him, so I thought I’d share my remarks from his funeral yesterday. If you think about it, at some point in the days ahead, raise a glass to Don Riley. He’d like that. So would I.

* * * * * * * *

January 22, 2014. Petaluma, California

There is no such thing as a sufficient eulogy, words with enough capacity to accurately and precisely measure a life.

If Donald Riley had been a famous statesman or artist, the biographers would be lining up at this very moment for their chance to capture his complex and colorful life. The great Irish writer Jonathan Swift must have had Don in mind when he wrote, “May you live all the days of your life.” Say what you will, the man lived.

Still, these chroniclers would find themselves, as we do today, faced with an Everest of a task. Don Riley was no simple, one-dimensional character. There were, in fact, times in his life when words like complicated, inscrutable, unknowable fell short as adequate descriptors. And, I think most of the time Don was okay with that. Getting to know the man inside was a lifelong pursuit, one that we all would have liked more time for.

Most people, all of us, really, are collections of conflicting emotions and capacities. Don Riley took that reality to impressive heights. He was brilliant and subtle, but could also be dogmatic and blunt. He was hospitable and warm, but at times unyielding with praise or sympathy. He never lost his youthful idealism for social justice, but was also openly cynical about the human capacity for goodness.

But the arc of his life was firmly, insistently, forcefully towards the good, and so to celebrate his life is a grace, a blessing for all of us, and one that I am confident will bring healing and peace. There are many, many things about Don that we will all take with us in the years ahead. Here are three that come to mind.

Don was generous. Often compulsively, unpredictably. He loved to share. He loved to share his ideas, his home, food and drink. If you knew him well you also know that he loved to share his opinions. If he had a contact you could use, it was yours. If there was a way for him to help you, he would. Most importantly, most effectively, he shared his passions. I myself would not be in the wine business had he not planted in me his own love, and then nurtured my growing interest over the years. How many of us have gone to, or want to go to, northern Italy, to Friuli and Udine and Cividale simply because of Don’s passion for that part of the world. He was eager and willing to share the things he loved.

Don had a brilliant mind. He was a true intellect. Our family is filled with strong minds, clear thinking being more the rule than the exception. The exceptions, of course, are doozies, sure, but, for the most part, we are a group of clear thinkers. Our father insisted we use our heads for something besides growing hair. But Don was in a class of his own. The man was voracious, he was a sponge. He devoured books, absorbed history, language, trivia; the more esoteric or arcane, the easier it came to him, the more facile his ability to put that information or knowledge to use. There were times he chose to use his gifts in potent ways, expecting those around him to be as sturdy and resilient as he was: he could sting, and often did. And, if you ever played Scrabble or other similar games, you know how he would bluff, gleefully, his way to victory. Still, there was never any doubt that his was an impressive, capacious, and powerful mind.

Don was blessed with a profound poetic spirit. Unfortunately, it is this last facet of Don that became clearly visible only in recent years. At the root of whatever pains he suffered in life, there was a deep sensitivity, a vulnerability to the lives and events around him. It was always there, shyly, and none of us ever got to see enough of it. In the all-too-few writings he leaves us, we see a keen and honest eye married to a powerful, romantic sensibility, one in love with, and in awe of, the natural world. For myself, as a student of literature who loves the great essays, both well known and obscure, I can say with a deep certainty that Don Riley had game. The man could write. He was as good or better than many who have made a name for themselves with the written word. I treasure the essays, the stories, the poems he gave to us, and I will never stop wanting more.

Whenever people ask me about my family, the first thing I tend to say is something like, “I’m the seventh of eight.”  Donald. Denis. Bruce. Brian. Mary. Monica. Tom. Brendan. “Yes, there are eight of us.” Today changes everything. And, yet, today changes nothing. My response remains the same. There are eight of us.

Thank you.

* * * * * * * *

A year or so ago, he gave me the majority of his many books on wine. Collected over the years they comprise the popular and the obscure of the last five decades. Today his wife gave me the remaining few. When I read from them I am certain, happily, that I will hear his voice reading along with me.


Some of Don’s writing from the past few years can be found on his blog,

11 thoughts on “Don Riley — Pioneer and Mentor

  1. David Dahl

    Tom, sorry we’ve not met, however, we probably did in passing at Don’s or Bruce’s wedding. Love this eulogy, well done, lad. On the wine front: I will never forget Don filling his barn with Friulian wines, trying to sell them, to no avail, thus… we drank it all! I met Don back in early 70s in Santa Barbara, was there when he met the lovely Sarah. He was a helluva man, to be sure. Too bad I didn’t see more of him (and his family, of course) in the last couple decades. Bruce and Brendan and I have kept in touch, altho not face to face in a long time. Take care, Tom. Cheers!

    1. Tom Riley

      David, thank you for the kind words, all around. We did meet once or twice; I think you named both occasions. Yes, Don was a helluva guy, and one who helped shape, along with our parents, the tenor and style of the family. Nothing any of his seven siblings ever did escaped his eye. He was a leader and example, for better or worse, up to the very end. I don’t think I’ve even begun to miss him, the loss is so acute. Again, thank you for the warm note. All the best to you and yours. Cheers, indeed!

  2. Samantha Dugan

    I feel profoundly grateful to have met him through this painfully beautiful tribute. My heart and thoughts are with you and those touched by such a man, there must be many. Thank you for sharing him with us.

  3. Samantha Dugan

    I am profoundly grateful to have met him through this painfully beautiful post. Thank you for sharing him with us. My heart and thoughts are with you and all that were touched by such a man…there must be many.

    1. Tom Riley

      Sam, thank you for these kind words. Yes, he touched many lives. His funeral yesterday was in a full church, as was the wake the night before. He leaves a brilliant, young, and accomplished family. Bodies die. People live on. And the great ones live on forever.

      1. Samantha Dugan

        sorry for the double comment…thought it ate the earlier one. Please feel free to delete one but I hope you will take a second to feel the hug in both. This was a lovely post, one that I am sure would have made him proud.

        1. Tom Riley

          I like that you posted twice. Such glitches are often more frustrating than anything, but this one is just the opposite. Thanks, I think he would’ve liked it. He was a force in our family, and I know I always think twice before I say or do something in his regard.

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