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Former state Assemblyman prefers being on a tractor, making wine
Bill Berryhill has led a multi-faceted life
Bill Berryhill.jpg
Bill Berryhill of Ceres is well known in the Valley and is enjoying his new role as wine maker. The long time wine grape grower enjoys politics but prefers being in the seat of a tractor compared to being on the floor of the state Assembly. - photo by Jeff Benziger

If Ceres had its own “Who’s Who,”  Bill Berryhill would have a guaranteed entry for his multi-faceted accomplishments.

There’s the Bill Berryhill, son of legendary state Food and Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill; Bill Berryhill, the former California State Assemblyman; Bill Berryhill the long-time member of the Ceres Lions Club; Bill Berryhill the accomplished water color artist; Bill Berryhill the successful wine grape grower. And now Bill Berryhill of the Berryhill Family Vineyards wine in local stores.

Many passions define William Ronald “Bill” Berryhill, 61, and often they’ve run in seasons. Today his passion lies in promoting his new wine. As a fourth-generation grape grower, Berryhill said it was time to “take things to the next level” in a very competitive industry. In the past, about 90 percent of Berryhill’s grapes were going to the Woodbridge Winery started by Mondovi in Acampo. About 20 years ago Bill and wife Triana bought a ranch in Clements to grow grapes for others. They still do but recently they decided to keep their operation sustainable by creating their own label. Berryhill pulls some of his stock to be processed as wine at Bob Colarossi’s Estate Crush, a custom Lodi wine press while his first-ever batch of Chardonnay was processed at a Ukiah crush facility.

Using 2016 crops, the Berryhills bottled red wines for the first time this past summer – Merlots, Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons. They also produce a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay. The labels on Berryhill’s bottles feature artwork from family members – including watercolor ducks accomplished by Bill and flowers painted by his great aunt Edith – as well as a short tribute to his father, the late Clare Berryhill.

Triana and Bill Berryhill.jpg
Triana is one of Bill Berryhill’s secrets of success. The two met in Mexico and married and have three successful children. She helps manage the Ceres ranch and promotes their new wine.

He has been pleased with the reception in the world of wine. His chardonnay was rated a 90 by Wine Enthusiasts magazine and a 91 rating attached to its Sauvignon Blanc.

Right now the Berryhills are knocking on a lot of doors to get the label promoted.

“It’s not all that different than politics,” said Berryhill.

The wine is sold at about 40 venues, including Save Mart in Ceres, O’Brien’s Markets in Modesto and Riverbank and Village Fresh Market in Turlock. The wines are served at Centre Street Grill and Bistro 234 in Turlock.

For a season Bill’s life was all about politics. Born March 18, 1958 at Memorial Hospital Ceres to Clare and Maryellen Berryhill, Bill grew up fascinated by his father’s political involvement as he served in the California State Assembly and Senate before being appointed as secretary of the Department of Food and Agriculture. 

“I think it would be really hard for a kid if they didn’t enjoy politics. I enjoyed it and I enjoyed the time, particularly when he was in the Senate. I missed him as my baseball coach … when he was in the Assembly in the early years. I didn’t have the luxury of having my dad around when I was going through Little League where he coached my brother. But I did enjoy the political side.”

Bill was the youngest of five children. The oldest, Betsy Berryhill, a 1969 graduate of Ceres High School, did some stage acting and appeared uncredited in two films. Tom Berryhill, a 1972 CHS graduate who was in state politics and now a member of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, was second. Next came Lynn Berryhill Trio, a 1973 graduate of CHS who died of cancer in 2018. Janie Berryhill, the fourth, graduated CHS in 1974.

Because he was young and still at home when Clare was in state politics, Bill was “yanked” out of Ceres High School as his parents moved to Shingle Springs for a shorter commute to Sacramento. Bill attended Ponderosa High School in Cameron Park as a sophomore. He split his junior year between Ceres and Ponderosa high schools but spent his senior year at Ponderosa where he graduated in 1976.

“I did enjoy having my mom and dad all to myself with no brothers and sisters around. He came home every night – some nights mad and some nights not so mad and frustrated.”

Bill remembers his dad being very angry when a late night call from state Senator Ken Maddy tipped him off that Gov. Jerry Brown was creating the Ag Labor Relations Board. The Farm Bureau had undermined Clare in his negotiations of resolving labor problems with the United Farm Workers (UFW.) 

In 1978 Bill and Tom partnered to own and operate BB Vineyards. Bill was president of Berryhill Orchards. Determined to not always answer to Tom, Bill worked decided to take ag business courses at Butte College in Oroville in 1980. While there he got involved in student government and became politically interested. Bill became a page at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit which nominated Ronald Reagan for the presidency.

“I still get tingles when I think about it.”

He remembers one assignment sending him to CBS news anchorman Dan Rather to return his writing pen. Bill also rode an elevator with George Schultz, the future U.S. Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary. Bill also spoke to Paul Gann, the anti-tax crusader known for passing Prop. 13 as the Jarvis-Gann Initiative.

As a teenager Bill remembered another time when he had a rock star like encounter with former Gov. Ronald Reagan who in 1976 was trying to wrestle the GOP presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford. Reagan was at Lake Tahoe speaking to a California-Nevada joint conference on Lake Tahoe. Bill journeyed to the event with his parents where Reagan “gave a great speech.” Reagan summoned the Berryhills to “this little hotel room” where Reagan was privately meeting with Nevada U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt. Reagan wanted Clare’s support for president and his assistance in the state’s ag community.

“So it was the two of them and Mom and Dad and me. Reagan almost had an aura to him and maybe it was that I was young and kind of idolized him. And Paul Laxalt was the nicest, easy going guy. Looking back it just seems surreal.”

Bill served as the chairman of the Stanislaus County Young Republicans from 1984 to 1986.

Tom and Bill pressured their dad – who was in his 60’s at the time – into running for the 1989 special election to fill Tony Coelho’s unexpired Congressional term – an election lost to Gary Condit.

“He didn’t really want to do that at all but the party pressured him. Tom and me pressured him badly.”

Bill’s first run at elective office was for the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees in 1996. He served until 2007.

“It was my best years in politics.”

He said the School Board picked a wonderful superintendent in Walt Hanline who was a change agent who led the district into an ambitious campaign to build five new schools – Sinclair, La Rosa, Adkison, Patricia “Kay” Beaver elementary schools and Central Valley High School.

“Ceres needed a change,” said Berryhill. “At the time everyone thought we were doing fine and we really weren’t. We really stunk. We had some of the worst paid teachers. We had some of the worst scores and yet everyone had this perception that, no, it’s not that bad. So to be a part of that change that really put Ceres at the top was pretty rewarding. To actually be a part of getting the high school that your kids all managed to go to was very rewarding.”

Bill Berryhill represented the 26th district in the California State Assembly from Dec. 1, 2008 to Nov. 30, 2012. During the same time, Tom Berryhill had been serving in the neighboring 25th Assembly District since 2006. The Berryhills were the first brothers to serve concurrently in the California State Legislature in almost 60 years.

The Republican’s exit from the Legislature occurred when he sought the state Senate seat in 2012 and was defeated by Democrat Cathleen Galgiani in a 51 percent to 49 percent margin outcome. He feels the Democrats were manipulating ballots and suspected something was up with provisional ballots.

“First of all, there used to be not very many (provisional ballots). Now there’s 50,000, 60,000 turned in on Election Day. You’ve got to wonder but I don’t want to be lazy and make that the excuse. I think they’re doing a great job of ballot harvesting and Republicans ought to be doing it too and we’re not. We could be going to a lot of senior homes and helping them get their ballots in.”

Berryhill remains suspicious of vote rigging during that failed election based on what county clerks in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties told him.

“Both clerks said typically the provisionals run 5 percent – 10 at the most – one way or the other of Election Day (in-person) balloting and, given that history, ‘you should be fine.’ Well she got 80 percent of the provisional vote! The same thing happened to Denham this time. There were five congressional races we lost because of Election Day votes.”

As an outsider now and chairman of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, Berryhill is watchful of the continual onslaught of bills out of Sacramento which adversely affect his business of growing grapes and making wine.

“They set a new record this year for the number of bills that are proposed,” said Berryhill. “It’s some ridiculous amount. They’re absolutely nuts up there. I am so glad I don’t serve up there right now.”

He said often lawmakers will seek to squeeze money out of successful businesses. One bill proposed would make farms responsible for any sexual harassment cases of a contractor who works on that farm.

“That’s there mentality – always go after the grower. And the sad thing is they’re killing what makes California agriculture great and that’s the diversity of the crops we raise. Whether it’s their labor legislation, the wages, the meal and rest period – all these things are little notches that slowly make us uncompetitive in the world. The strawberry guys are getting hammered right now with labor issues. Asparagus is gone in the Delta; there used to be something like 30,000 acres us there, now there’s like 5,000. It’s labor issues.”

Minimum wage is putting a big chill on farming, he said.

He cited state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, as “doing the most damage to us.”

As a conservative in a liberal state, Bill is no stranger to political battles.

While in Sacramento Berryhill railed against AB 109, Gov. Jerry Brown’s release of prisoners after a judge said California could not keep overcrowded prisons. Berryhill insisted 20,000 prisoners be temporarily housed in other states’ jails until California could build more prisons.

He also fought the state’s assault on corporations and businesses which he called a “death by a thousand cuts in business … that drives business out of California and causes more job loss.”

He also fought far-reaching legislation that would limit freedoms, such as the time he opposed a bill that would ban bikers from operating loud motorcycles like Harleys.

He also was a vocal opponent on high-speed rail. He was a vocal proponent of more water storage projects to capture valuable runoff from the mountains. He said the Democrats’ aversion to building more dams has strangely made them anti-hydroelectric power, which is green energy which they so highly promote.

“There’s nothing cleaner. Nothing more renewable but they won’t do it because that would make dams look good. It’s stupid.

“If they believe in their global warming then they should believe in more dams to store more rain water because we’re not going to supposedly have as much snow.” 

Berryhill said his experience as a lawmaker was a great experience.

“As many as there are young naïve not-very-smart people, there are some really good people that are you there to do the right thing. I know lobbyists take a lot of heat but there are some really good lobbyists up there that are good folks and they do their job ethically and they work hard. But we elect so many young people who have never signed the back of a paycheck and they really don’t have a clue of economics.”

Berryhill said when he was young he thought term limits would be a good thing but now he feels it was a mistake. The constant changeover in Sacramento means that many bureaucratic staff members have all the experience and knowledge and power and “run the show.”

Like many Republicans, the Ceres vintner is pessimistic about the political future of California and thinks splitting the state up into three parts may be answer – but not one likely to occur.

“We could make like the Bay Area like our Rhode Island,” he said with a subdued chuckle.

While he is eligible to run for the state Senate, Berryhill says he has “no desire” to get back into elective politics.

“It’s not my cup of tea, personally. I’d rather be on a tractor. I enjoy the farm and enjoy being back home and enjoy Ceres.”

Part of Bill Berryhill’s success may be found in his wife, Triana. They met in Mexico while on one of his family’s vacations.

Bill Berryhill is also the proud dad of three children. William “Willie” Berryhill is an Air Force pilot and flight instructor and married to an Air Force pilot wife. Daughter Alexandra “Alex” Berryhill graduated UC Berkeley and has been teaching English in Colombia as she prepares to come back to the U.S. to go into business or immigration law. Gabriela “Gabby” just graduated from Cal Poly as a food science major and is now working for Gallo Winery in Paso Robles.

Berryhill is chairman of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers this year and holds membership in the Lodi Grape Growers Association and the Stanislaus and San Joaquin County Farm Bureaus. He also is a member of the Ceres Lions Club, Ceres Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Berryhill has been a board member on the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, 1992-97. Since 2005 he has served as a board member for the Allied Grape Growers.