Our Story

Morning at Highland Vineyard

Dawn at Highland Vineyard arrives slowly. A soft ocean fog blankets the earth. Majestic redwoods stand as sentinels for the vines, shrouded in the cool gray mist. The air is filled with the scent of pine trees and soft wet earth. A lone wrangler moves slowly down the rows, pruning shears in hand. He tends to the 20-year-old Pinot Noir vines and whispers to their leaves, coaxing them to behave. Only a vine whisperer can cajole these temperamental Pinot Noir vines into growing world class wine. It is here in Sonoma County’s world-famous Russian River Valley, where Vine Wrangler’s proprietor, Mark Strombotne has returned to his ag roots.


The path of life is seldom a straight line. You might start out as a cowboy, then become a successful trial lawyer and end up a vine wrangler of world class wine. Mark did all the above. Here is his story.


I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, the great farming region in central California.  I started riding horses when I was 3 years old, riding double with my dad while we worked the cattle.   

That is me riding “Shotgun” along with my dad on his favorite cow horse “Cocoa Malt”.    He trained Cocoa Malt from a colt and turned him into the best open range cutting horse I ever saw. From time to time, Cocoa Malt liked to buck on those cold tule-fog mornings when that wet saddle blanket went on his back and the cinch was tightened.  My Dad and his horse would have a pretty good bucking bronco contest. I’d say it ended in a draw most of the time.  After all the excitement, we just went on with the day’s work.


It wasn’t long before I learned to be a real buckaroo, gathering and moving cattle, branding, roping, and riding the range.

This was my favorite horse, Bullet. His name describes how fast he was.  That wasn’t any critter that could outrun us.  We caught em all.   


By the time I was ready for college, of course I went to U.C. Davis where everyone is an “Aggie”.   I was into rodeo, where I rode bareback broncs and saddle broncs in the rough stock events.  My friends and I started the first UC Davis rodeo team and built our own rodeo arena on the UCD campus next to the polo fields.  I won a silver buckle for first place in the bareback bronc riding at the 1974 UCD Picnic Day Rodeo. 

Then I was off to summer jobs cowboying on the 30,000-acre Matador Cattle Co. in Wyoming and the following summer at the John Scott Cattle Co. in Montana which at one time had 280,000 acres and employed 25 cowboys to tend 10,000 head of cattle. 

But I realized I wanted more of a mental challenge than pushing cows around. I also realized there was no future in rodeo. So, I decided to go to law school and become a lawyer.  I was accepted and attended law classes where we engaged in the Socratic method of legal education.  I spent long hours reading legal cases in the law library.  After three hard years I graduated law school and passed the CA Bar exam. 


I was hired as a litigation attorney at a large law firm in San Jose.   I took depositions, wrote legal briefs and argued cases in court.  I litigated jury trials, arbitrations and appellate cases representing clients in both State and Federal Court.  


There was one big case I handled representing the City of Gilroy involving the 1st Amendment right to free speech at the Gilroy Garlic Festival where a motorcycle gang was kicked out of the festival for wearing “gang colors”.  I wrote the briefs and argued the case for my client and won at the Federal District Court level.  When the other side appealed, I appeared and argued the case before an en banc panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals presided over by the famous Chief Judge Kozinsky.  I won the appeal, and the decision was published making new federal law. 


I was recruited to join Petit & Martin, a national law firm in San Francisco with more than 250 lawyers.  I was a partner there for several years, but the Pettit & Martin office in San Francisco is where the 101 California shooting occurred in 1993.  This tragic event started the unraveling of the firm that eventually lead to its dissolution.  So, I started my own law firm. Through adversity I created opportunity.  My new law firm flourished.  


My law practice focused on real estate law.  I became general counsel to Sereno Group, one of the largest independent real estate brokerages in the SF Bay Area. 


After four decades of practicing law, my wife and  I moved to the Sonoma County wine country where we bought Highland Vineyard and began farming Pinot Noir wine grapes.  For years our grapes were sold to high-end wineries for their expensive bottles of Pinot Noir.  But I found no satisfaction in working so hard in the vineyard all season long only for harvest day to come, when the grapes were harvested, delivered, and gone.  


Then along came 2020.  The multiple wildfires that ravaged Sonoma County were a long way from Highland Vineyard, but their blanketing smoke settled in on our vineyard.  The smoke taint that year meant that our grapes could not be harvested.  The crop was a complete loss.     


The 2020 fire was one more disaster that motivated me to choose a new path. So, we decided to start our own wine business and create a new wine label for our Highland Vineyard Pinot Noir.  I figured out how to get a Type 02 winery license, hired a professional wine maker (Ashley Herzberg), found a custom crush winery (Elevation Winery in Healdsburg), and created the Vine Wrangler label, with the help of brand expert Lisa Ehrlich. Vine Wrangler was born.

Highland Vineyard

The Russian River Valley is a preeminent Pinot Noir growing region.  The Pacific Coast’s marine climate and the Goldridge Fine Sandy Loam soil at Highland Vineyard, provide growing conditions that are perfect for producing the finest Pinot Noir in the world, with great depth of character and complexity of flavors.   Wine growers here have elevated their wines to cult status with grapes of exceptional quality.  


We welcome you to share the Vine Wrangler experience with us.