History of the Rockpile

THE NAME ROCKPILE - The name Rockpile has been associated with this area since the 1850’s though it appears to be a translation of an ancient Pomo Indian name for their territory around Rockpile Peak, “kabe-chana” which means a place with many rocks. One of the earliest European settlers, Sonoma County Sheriff (1882) Tennessee Carter Bishop, was inspired by nearby Rockpile Peak to make a play on words. When he wasn’t chasing Black Bart or designing the new jail, his priority was a passable road from Healdsburg to his Rockpile ranch high above Dry Creek valley. Labor was scarce, so he used prisoners from the County jail to carve more than fifteen miles of road over the rugged mountainous terrain to his front door. When asked what he was doing with the men, he would answer, “they are working on the Rockpile.”

THE JESSE JAMES CONNECTION - Tennessee Bishop’s outlaw brother, Jackson Carriger Bishop, before hiding out at Rockpile Ranch, rode with Quantrill’s Raiders, with Jesse James, worked as an enforcer in mine disputes in Georgetown, Colorado and committed several murders while protecting disputed mine claims. While acquitted of the first murder, Jackson was never caught after the second and his out first in an old James Boys hideout in the Pecos country of Arizona where he received a letter from Jesse James in 1877. He next appeared at his brother’s Rockpile ranch and Yell Nobles recounted his father, Richard Yell Nobles, telling him of running across Jackson Bishop in an abandoned hunter’s cabin on the ranch. Tennessee finally gave Jackson a horse and sent him to Oregon where he changed his name. Then Tennessee ran for Sheriff of Sonoma County and was elected in 1882.

THE SHEEP RANCH YEARS - Perhaps the name, and the story of the road, would have faded into history, but in the early 1900’s a San Francisco lawyer Cap Ornbaun, who had grown up near Rockpile Peak, acquired the land. Over the years he developed it into one of the biggest (18,000 acres), most modern sheep ranches in Sonoma County. He called it Rockpile in deference to its history. After his son’s death the ranch passed through many owners.

THE BONANZA YEAR - The actors of the Bonanza television series purchased Rockpile Ranch in 1986 as recreational land only to lose it on a foreclosure a little over one year later.


The Rockpile Viticultural Area has been growing grapes for over 130 years. The earliest known reference to vineyards in Rockpile was a surveyor's note that referenced a vineyard, owned by Tennessee Bishop, at the western end of Rockpile. The reference, dated 1872 stated that several acres of vineyard existed on Tennessee Bishop’s ranch (site of the present Rockpile vineyard). Records show that in 1879 Bishop sold four tons of grapes to an unidentified winery. It appears that with the death of Bishop in 1888, the vineyard was allowed to go fallow.

A few years behind Bishop, S.P. Hallengren, in 1884 planted vineyards immediately adjacent to the southeastern end of the appellation. Hallengren, great grandfather to present Rockpile growers Thom and Chris Mauritson, planted grapes on what is now Liberty Glen campground. The grapes were delivered to the family winery in Dry Creek Valley. The area is now under Lake Sonoma.

Vineyards came back to Rockpile in 1992, with Rod and Cathy Park kicking off the modern era with their Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard at the northwest end of the appellation, followed by Gary Branham. Two years later, Jack Florence Jr. planted his Zinfandel vineyards at the southeastern end of the appellation. In a somewhat poignant coincidence, the Zinfandel used to bud Jack's vines came from a vineyard planted during the 1870's, making it a peer vineyard to Bishop's ancient planting. Planted by McElarney & Smith, this Cloverdale vineyard, now owned by the St. Peters' Church, is one of the oldest surviving vineyards in California today, and is the source for most of Rockpile's Zinfandel.

The rugged ten miles in between the Park's and Florence remains sparsely used although it once served for significant sheep grazing. Rockpile Grape Growers Gloeckner, Mauritson, Lumetta, Ramsey, Florence Sr., and Chiapellone have planted vineyards at the southeastern end of the appellation but in the middle, Rockpile remains undisturbed. Without electricity, the area is inhabited by just few determined families, an array of furry creatures, a thriving deer and pig population, and an occasional bob cat or mountain lion. The intrepid hiker, following his compass due west, could walk nearly 20 miles before reaching a paved road--California Coast Highway.