Robert Todd “Dr. Toad” Williams

Robert Todd “Dr. Toad” Williams

Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, USA
Death 14 Aug 2007 (aged 69)
Santa Rosa, Sonoma County, California, USA
Burial Unknown
Memorial ID 34490155 · View Source
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Robert Todd Williams was always the showman, a thundering presence whether tending bar in a neighborhood joint or pouring a fine pinot noir at a fancy winemaker dinner.

Mr. Williams, who was known as "Dr. Toad" for his Toad Hollow Vineyards, died Tuesday at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital of complications from heart surgery. He was 69.

He crisscrossed the country over the past 14 years using his copious charm and marketing savvy to build Russian River-based Toad Hollow from a tiny boutique winery into a 120,000-case operation offering dependably good wines at working man's prices.

Whatever and wherever the venue, the bearded and barrel-chested Mr. Williams treated life as a stage, assuming the starring role in his own production. As one longtime friend said of the Healdsburg vintner, Mr. Williams' larger-than-life personality could be counted on to fill a room, occasionally even eclipsing that of his famous younger brother, actor Robin Williams.

"He was huge. He was everywhere. I'd be at some place in a little town somewhere and they would go, 'Hey, you're Toad's brother,' " Robin Williams said in a phone interview. "In a lot of places around America, I'm just Toad's brother. That's so cool."

The actor described his brother, who at times was a hell-raiser but never lost the hard-work ethic and Southern manners he learned growing up in rural Versailles, Ky., as an "extraordinary man . . . kind but outgoing and very much a people person."

"It was his storytelling and the ability to draw to him unusual people. They would find a kind of sanctuary with him."

Robin Williams recalled the disparate characters who frequented a bar his brother once ran in San Francisco as a sort of "1980s version of a William Saroyan novel," from bikers to lawyers to a "guy named Beefy who wore a pillbox hat." When he needed a bartender for a scene in "Mrs. Doubtfire," Robin Williams recruited his experienced older brother.

"People just loved to come and sit with him and tell stories and shake dice," said Frankie Williams, his wife of 29 years.

Mr. Williams' gritty years mixing drinks at 17 different saloons, taverns, nightclubs and restaurants from Oklahoma to Chicago to Kingston, Jamaica, gave him a no-airs approach to wine consumption.

His mission, said longtime friend Susie Selby, a winemaker and fellow winery owner, was to strip away the mystique and make wine inclusive. "He discounted any snobbery around wine, and he made it clever and interesting."

His wines bear labels that feature a cast of dapper or dancing toads and frogs, and they have irreverent names such as Cacophony, Eye of the Toad featuring a red-eyed, drunken toad, and the crooked-labeled Askew.

Erich Russell of Rabbit Ridge winery in Paso Robles went to many a winemaker dinner with Mr. Williams, whose dress uniform was a Hawaiian shirt, jeans and a jacket. He would loosen up a group of sometime stuffy guests declaring, "I'm going to guarantee you're not going to learn chemistry. But you're going to have a hell of a good time."

Mr. Williams found his way to the wine world after the Whiskey River Inn, a restaurant he and his wife ran in the Sierra foothill town of Arnold, failed.

He learned wine through a series of jobs, first doing sales for Whitehall Lane and later working with Wine Distributors in San Francisco selling to upscale restaurants. But it was while working as national sales manager for Shafer Vineyards that he mastered the art of "guerrilla marketing," making sure everyone he came in contact with remembered his name and product.

In the 1980s, Mr. Williams put together a marketing company, Hillside Estates, to bring that same national exposure to small, specialty wineries such as Hanzell in Sonoma.

But Mr. Williams really came into his own after partnering with Rodney Strong in 1993 to create his own winery, Toad Hollow.

"He touched a lot of people in the winery business," Robin Williams remembered. "He was just an honorable man, and in times when that's really needed. He was a man who lived a great life. He leaves a big footprint – a big footprint, with a cork."

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