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Realtor, wine pioneer Henry Mayo, 1934-2020

Henry Kiser Mayo, a longtime Sonoma County resident whose real estate company spanned three counties and in 1993 founded one of the Valley’s signature wine labels, died on Dec. 5 at his home outside of Glen Ellen, following a fall a just before Thanksgiving. He was 86.

“It was tragic timing, all his grandkids were coming up for an outdoor, socially-distanced holiday,” said Jeffrey Mayo, his second son and third of three children. Those progeny have led to five grandchildren, and such family gatherings were a source of great pleasure to the elder Mayo. There was no final family gathering, and Mayo died at home in the company of his wife of 62 years, Diane.

He was born on May 24, 1934, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the fifth and final child in the family. He attended local schools and at the age of 22 was drafted into the peacetime U.S. Navy, where he served as a radioman on the USS Taluga.

While in the Navy, he met Diane Johnson, a 1952 graduate of Sonoma Valley High School. She was eventually able to convince him to move to Sonoma – but not before several stops along the way that took the couple to U.C. Berkeley and Santa Rosa, where they arrived in 1960. Their daughter Meredith was born in 1959 followed by sons Henry in 1964 and Jeffrey in 1966.

Much of Mayo’s early career was spent in banking, but he soon moved into real estate, as a loan officer and appraiser, and by 1972 he and a friend, Robert Moratto, formed Sonoma Properties. “Henry Mayo came into Sonoma Valley’s Real Estate business community with the idea of making Sonoma Properties the biggest and most prestigious real estate company in the community,” said Bill Lynch, former editor and publisher of the Index-Tribune.

Their first business address was 391 Broadway, where a run-down Terrible Herbst gas station stood. They tore it down, built a new office building and looked at the landscape for opportunity.

“I remember Henry in those days as a high-energy, eternal optimist and terrific salesman, resulting in Sonoma Properties becoming the largest and most successful real estate company in the Valley in a matter of a few years,” said Lynch. “Henry was a good guy and a straight shooter. He kept his word and could always be counted on to support worthy community causes and nonprofits.”

The business grew to seven offices and 100 agents, from Santa Rosa to St. Helena, but it wasn’t until 1984 that Mayo, then 50, purchased a property on “the Glen Ellen side of Bennett Valley,” as Jeffrey Mayo described it. They built first a guest house then the main house, where they became increasingly involved with “Valley life.”

Despite Mayo’s energetic commitment to his business and new home, he and Diane continued with their wide-ranging travels, a pursuit they never really gave up even when their children were young. “When I was in high school they would be gone three or four months of the year,” said Jeffrey, adding that it wasn’t “all at once.” He described them as very avid travelers, who encouraged their children to become exchange students and hosted exchange students themselves.

“He believed you could learn a lot about life and the world not only by going to college but by traveling,” said his son. In 1976, he recalled, they took a trailer for two months to almost every state-across the southern route, up the eastern seaboard and back across the northern tier, even up the Alcan Highway to Alaska.

“He loved America, he river-rafted the Colorado, the Snake – he was the best father from that point, he just loved to give us experience.” Jeffrey said his father was “always supportive of whatever his children were interested in. “He came to all the games, he was the biggest cheerleader for me and my brother and sister.”

In 1990, Mayo planted a small vineyard of chardonnay, whose first harvest came three years later. Henry Mayo enjoyed working the vineyard and the winemaking, but the sales part of it not so much – ironically, given his success in real estate. So he turned to his younger son for help when the vineyards began producing a significant amount of grapes. “He called me up one day in 1994 and said, ‘I’m going to have 1,000 cases of chardonnay, do you want to help me sell it and work in the winery?”

Jeffrey said he’d sleep on it, and came back with a counter offer: He’d do it, but only if he could spend a year in France, learning about wines and spending some time in Paris. Supportive as always, Father Mayo said yes.

The younger Mayo helped lead the winery in the coming years – pinot noir was added to the main Laurel Hill vineyard, a vineyard on Sonoma Mountain now produces malbec, cabernet franc, pinot mineure and Riesling; and zinfandel, cabernet and petite sirah are sourced from Healdsburg. The 2020 harvest marked the 28th from Mayo Family Winery.

Henry Mayo retired as an active real estate agent in 2000, and the business was sold first to the Frank Howard Allen group, then Sotheby’s in 2013. The Broadway office was remodeled into a Peet’s Coffee in 2012.

Though the elder Mayo continued to enjoy working in the vineyards, in 2014 he suffered an accident in the vineyards when an ATV overturned, sending him to the hospital with several broken bones. There were complications, and mobility became an issue.

In the fall of 2017, the main house was lost in the Tubbs fire—with all of their travel mementos and photographs—and Henry and Diane moved into the guest house.

“He was a man who did what he wanted – he didn’t like being immobile, he was going to keep pushing it,” said Jeffrey. Henry Mayo eschewed a walker, preferring instead a cane until his Nov. 25 fall.

“He was 86, but if he hadn’t had fallen he could have lived a couple more years,” said his son.

When the pandemic is resolved, and social distancing is no longer required even of close relations, the Mayo clan will celebrate his memory.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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