Oakland winemaker Don Henderson stands smiling behind a crate of grapes, holding up two bunches.
Oakland winemaker Don Henderson stands behind a crate of grapes. Credit: Henderson Harvest

Despite rubbing shoulders with celebrities of the highest wattage—Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Danny Glover, just to name a few—when he worked in the film business, Don Henderson says he had never been truly awestruck until he witnessed his first grape crush inside a French garage.  

“Suddenly, a lightbulb went on in my head,” said the founder and vintner of Hendersons’ Harvest Winery

The Oakland-based winemaker credits his wife, who is from France, and her family—an uncle and brother-in-law, specifically—for introducing him to the craft of winemaking at their home in Bordeaux, 15 years ago.

But Henderson had a long career in movies and TV before making the switch to wine. Born in Florida, his family settled in Palo Alto in the 1960s while he was still in diapers. He went to Palo Alto High School, then to the Silicon Valley town’s community college where he developed a passion for photography. His artistic bent led him into the film industry where he’s worked for 35 years, primarily in the Bay Area, as a key grip and dolly grip. (A key grip is in charge of camera equipment, like rigging, while a dolly grip is a technician trained to operate the camera dolly.) At the start of his career, he worked on movie sets for Mrs. Doubtfire, Flubber, and Angels in the Outfield—all of which take place in the Bay Area. Over the past decade, he transitioned from films to working on TV commercials. 

After falling under the winemaking spell on that fateful visit to France, Henderson returned to the Bay Area determined to learn all he could about wine: from sourcing grapes to harvesting times, and from fermentation to the intricate differences of varietals. All of this education was undertaken while raising a family with his wife, Dr. Catherine Metayer, an adjunct professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC  Berkeley. 

To gain first-hand experience, Henderson reached out to an old high-school chum, Derek Dumot, whose father just happened to own Calistoga’s Silver Rose Winery. 

“I called him and said, ‘I’d like to make some wine this year,’ and he said, ‘Come on up and take some grapes, as much as you want,’” said Henderson. Such generosity made sense—after all, Henderson affectionately refers to Dumot as “another brother” and Dumot’s mom like “a second mother.”

Henderson and his immediate family, which includes his daughter Lucile, and his son, Julien, headed to Napa and brought home roughly 450 pounds of grapes to kick off his budding hobby. As luck would have it, Henderson’s Oakland home boasts a full basement, something of a rarity in the Bay Area, so not only did he have plenty of space for sorting grapes, but also a controlled temperature ideal for fermentation. He crushed his first grapes in his backyard, fermented them in the basement, and then, his favorite part, the pressing. “For each press, we always have family and friends come over,” he said. “Those are always really special days.” 

Although he still uses his basement to make wines for friends and family, Henderson brings his Napa grapes to Healdsburg Custom Crush to ferment, press and bottle the bulk of his wines.

When asked to reveal his favorite wine he’s ever made, Henderson responded, “I still think that my first wine was maybe one of my best.”

Don Henderson with a bottle of his Khēmia label Cabernet Sauvignon. Credit: Henderson’s Harvest

A second coup was a chance encounter with one of Wine Country’s prominent figures, long-time vintner Vincent Arroyo, whom Henderson met through a friend. Arroyo told Henderson he’d be more than welcome to come to his farm and take as many grapes as he wanted—for free. 

Arroyo allowed Henderson to take any grapes left after his farm’s initial harvest, usually the grapes in the canopy left over from where the first grapes are pulled. “They’re smaller clusters, which are more labor intensive, so a lot of wineries just leave them,” said Henderson. “But I would drive up there, look them over, and think, wow, this is a bounty.” 

Henderson spent more than a decade making his own wine, initially offering his creations gratis to crewmembers, friends, and fellow wine enthusiasts, and eventually,  making his business official in 2019. Hendersons’ Harvest Winery offers a Cabernet Sauvignon ($42), and a Sangiovese rosé ($25), both made with grapes harvested from Napa Valley that are crushed, fermented, and bottled inside his Oakland home. Prices range from $25-$42. 

His business is definitely a family affair: His daughter, Lucile, not only created his website but also helped pick the official name for his label, Khēmia. “It’s the root word for ‘alchemy,’ but also once referred to the bountiful black soul of the Nile River,” he explains. His son, a senior at San Jose State University who studied computer animation, illustrates his minimalist labels. 

For now, all of Henderson’s advertising is word-of-mouth, or he might simply set up a table of his wines at his neighborhood block parties. He’s also hosted successful serving parties at ​​Bacchus Wine and Spirits in Millbrae. His bottles can be found at Paul Marcus Wines at Market Hall in Oakland, or, better yet, straight from the source at Henderson Harvest’s website.