Jimmy Leyden, June 1921-May 25, 2021

Owner, Courting Hill Vineyard

Today we lost a dear friend. Jimmy Leyden was the owner of Courting Hill Vineyard, one of the vineyards with whom we have a very long-standing relationship. Rob has been working with Jimmy since 1994 when he started as the winemaker at Erath Vineyards. When we started R. Stuart in 2001, Jimmy was one of the growers who happily came with us. Over the years we, but especially Rob, developed a warm and wonderful friendship. Jimmy was an incredible man who led a rich and fascinating life. One day, several years ago, in advance of an event we did where he was the featured grower, I sat down and asked him some questions about his life. We talked for hours. Here’s the abridged version – really just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t do Jimmy or his life justice, but it’s a start.  

Yesterday Rob and I drove up to Courting Hill Vineyard to have breakfast with Jimmy, the owner. The dining room, well every room, was full of photographs. You could tell it was a lifelong collection of the people he loves and the places he’s been. While Jimmy and Rob scrambled eggs and made bacon, I perused some of them. I came across one of Jimmy and Helen that I found particularly charming. It looked as though they were dancing but when I asked Jimmy about it he said “she was propositioning me”.

We’ve worked with Jimmy a long time. We first met he and Helen when Rob began making wine at Erath Vineyards in the mid 1990’s. Jimmy is sweet and gentle, with a twinkle in his eye. Helen was a hoot, an absolute spitfire of a woman. And they adored each other.

I asked Jimmy how they met and he told me it was in a thespian group at Penn State in 1941. She was in a vocal trio and got a part in the show. “They were pretty good,” Jimmy said “and she was cute.”

The more questions I asked the more Jimmy told me about their life – Jimmy was a year older than Helen and upon graduation he went off and trained fighter pilots for the navy, eventually landing in Corpus Christi, Texas. Always very musical, Jimmy played piano for fun in the Officer’s club (The O Club) and this turned out to be fortuitous because it ingratiated him to his superior and when he asked for leave to go get married he got just what he wanted.

The story of how Jimmy got back to New York for the wedding reminded me of the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” but he made it! And when the festivities were over, he and Helen took an equally circuitous route, via New Orleans, back to Texas. Which is where they stayed until Jimmy got orders to go to Japan. At this point Helen was pregnant with their first child so he took her back to stay with her family, again crisscrossing the country and turned right back around to get himself to Hawaii, by hook or by crook, from where he shipped out.

Fast forward a few years and Jimmy and Helen moved to New York City where Jimmy, courtesy of his great musical talents and his well-connected brother (Norman Leyden who eventually became the conductor of the Oregon Symphony Pops Orchestra), was offered a spot in the vocal group for Glenn Miller’s orchestra. For this gig he was on tour a lot. Jimmy says he made about $125 per week, and he could get by on the road for about $50 a week. He’d send the rest of the money home to Helen. Eventually Helen was pregnant again and it was time for Jimmy to go home.

It’s about this time that Jimmy started working in New York City. He got lots of jobs arranging music, writing jingles and singing for shows and in studios. He and his brother Norm worked together a lot. We’ve had the chance to listen to some recordings of Jimmy’s work – it’s so terrific!

Jimmy says that when the Beatles came to this country, music started to change. People were more interested in rock and roll and less in the jazz and big band sound. Gigs started to dry up. By now I think there were four children and Jimmy and Helen lived in suburban New York. After spending lots of time volunteering in the schools there, the principal came and asked Jimmy if he’d be the music director at the High School. He did that for several years, while continuing to go into the City for shows and gigs on nights and weekends. All the while, Jimmy and a friend were making wine at home in their basements.

In 1970 Jimmy’s brother moved out to Portland, Oregon to conduct the Portland Youth Symphony. Eventually he was discovered by the Oregon Symphony and offered a position with them. He called Jimmy and said “Hey, why don’t you come out here and take over this Youth Symphony for me.”

Helen and Jimmy got on a plane to come and check things out. They landed in Portland and it was pouring rain. They spent about five days here, touring around and it never once stopped raining. They came anyway. Before making this exploratory trip west, Jimmy did some research about what might be going on with wine scene in Oregon. He wrote to Charles CouryRichard Somers, and a few other of the pioneers. When he got out here he went looking for those men and their vineyards. He didn’t meet many on the first trip, but in time he got to know these grape growing pioneers.

After Jimmy, Helen and their family drove from New York to Oregon in a VW bus, and set up camp in the home of doctor Norman knew who was taking a one year sabbatical to Europe, Jimmy got started both making music and looking for vineyard land to buy. I’m not sure about this but I think Jimmy also started teaching music at Portland State, though I may be confusing that with Norman’s story.

After searching for some time for the right piece of property, with the help of a couple of “realtor fellows”. They were starting to get a bit discouraged. Finally one of the realtors said he knew of something and he’d “go talk to Mary”. Mary was an elderly widow who was living on this farm in Banks – good proximity to Portland it seemed – and she agreed to sell part of her property to Jimmy and Helen. It was 1981 when they first planted grapes. Jimmy shakes his head and says “If we’d only known….”I said, “Yeah, you were taking a big risk, weren’t you? Why’d you do it?” He shrugs his shoulders and holds his hands up, palms toward the ceiling “Eh, we were young then, what did we know?”

Jimmy and Helen were trendsetters I guess. Not only in the grape growing trend, but also in the “60 is the new 40” trend.

Godspeed Jimmy. With much love from the whole R. Stuart family.