Ben Pearson was the go-to person for wine in Sonoma County as the wine buyer at Bottle Barn, where for more than 20 years he served customers ranging from the novice looking for a $5 bargain to the vintner searching for the once-in-the-lifetime $3,000 bottle.
A ubiquitous presence within the local wine industry whether on the business side, with media promotion, at wine judging competitions and through a weekly radio show, Pearson’s influence extended beyond Sonoma County’s borders with his education and guidance of thousands of wine consumers.
He died over the weekend while on vacation with his wife in Mendocino County. Pearson was 56.
His body was discovered Saturday on a trail by Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Volunteer Search and Rescue Team at 9:25 a.m., according to Lt. Greg Stefani.
Pearson and his wife, Laurie Cederberg, were staying at a vacation rental. On Friday, he went for a walk on the trails along the north side of Little Lake Road with the intention of returning within the hour.
By 8:30 p.m., Pearson had not returned and Cederberg checked the area to look for him, police said. She was unable to locate him and called the sheriff’s office. Deputies searched the area until 3 a.m. but were unable to locate him.
Foul play is not suspected and an autopsy has been scheduled to determine the cause of death, Stefani said.
Pearson was a professional wine judge for more than 15 years at competitions including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Sonoma County Harvest Fair, West Coast Wine Competition ande North of the Gate Wine Competition.
“I am one of his many fans that went in those early days to learn from Ben what was meant by fine wine,” Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director for the Sonoma County Vintners, wrote in an email. “He has been as relevant to this conversation from that time to the present. His legacy certainly lives on in so many of us in Sonoma County that studied and tasted fine wine virtually at his knee.”
And in a business that has its share of outsized personalities and elitism, Pearson was the exact of the opposite of a wine snob, friends and colleagues said.
“There’s a lot egos and there’s a lot of hubris in this business...he was always down to earth,” said Perry Croft of Springboard Wine Co. in Novato, who stopped into Bottle Barn Monday along with other sales representatives to pay their respects. At Pearson’s overcrowded desk with documents, papers and wine bottles, two flower bouquets rested in his chair.
Croft noted Pearson carried a lot of power as buyer for a store stocking up to 7,000 bottles of wine, but he never played favorites and maintained an open mind. A store of the size of Bottle Barn, Croft noted, would typically have four different wine buyers, but Pearson had knowledge of all different regions and styles to do the job by himself.
Rene Byck, co-owner of Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, said he appreciated Pearson’s honesty as well. Pearson was helpful with pricing when the winery opened in 1994.
“He was a pretty straight shooter. If he didn’t like your wine he would tell you that,” Byck said. “He always had nice things to say about our wine, and I believed him.”
Pearson served on many panels for wine judging competitions, requiring him to taste up to 160 wines a day. He would typically taste about 100 wines a week for Bottle Barn.
“There’s a lot of different personalities as a chief judge you have to put up with,” said Daryl Groom of Groom Wines and chief judge for the North Coast Wine Challenge, sponsored by The Press Democrat. “I could put him on any panel with any person and he would make it work.”
He also had an ability to make wine understandable for the masses. Pearson appeared for six years on “The Drive with Steve Jaxon” on KSRO radio for a segment every Wednesday. When a vintner was getting too technical, Jaxon would call out “geek alert” and Pearson would explain it in layman’s terms.
“He was able to demystify it to the listeners,” Jaxon said. “I had a catch phrase: ‘Ben tell me why I like this so much?’”
Born in Petaluma, Pearson majored in English at UCLA. He started first at the Wine Merchant in Beverly Hills, selling to celebrities such as Julio Iglesias and John Huston. But Sonoma County ultimately beckoned him back.
He was a big fan of the San Francisco Giants, with team memorabilia around his desk at work, as well as huge admirer of bluegrass music and artists such as Alison Krauss and Bill Monroe, although he was known to twang a George Jones’ lyric at times to Jason Schneider, general manager of Bottle Barn.
“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of both music and sports,” Schneider said.
In addition to his wife, Pearson is survived by a daughter, Emma, and a son, Ben. No funeral services have been announced.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or email@example.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of KSRO.