What are the wine industry consultants saying about SLO County grapes and wine? Louis Gomberg, a widely recognized consultant, notes “The California Coast, though not proven, promises to be one of the state’s great and distinguished wine-growing regions.” The list of buyers, that is major wineries buying SLO County grapes, reads like a “Who’s Who” of the premium California wine industry. Most of the grapes are for blending purposes, but some Napa Wine Makers admit they are experimenting and making wines from grapes grown on the Central Coast.
There are a small number of historic wineries in SLO County including the York Mountain Winery owned by Max Goldman, HMR owned by cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, Rotta Winery famous for its jug wines, Pesenti owned by the Nerelli and Pesenti families, and Estrella owned by Gary Eberle and his brothers. The big change on the Central Coast is that there are new wineries opening each month and new vineyards being planted. The new owners often come to the Central Coast with passion but little experience. Building a profitable business bolstered by the increasing price of grapes is one attraction, but the lure of handcrafting one’s own wine is also very powerful.
The major challenge for the Central Coast is its identity as a wine district. Only a small number of wineries on the Central Coast identify their grapes as grown in SLO or Santa Barbara Counties. There is no movement to establish a regional identity at this time.
Another challenge for the Central Coast is the presence of a large number of novice winemakers lacking the training and experience to make premium wine. Many of them come from the home winemaking tradition in Southern California and have purchased their grapes in the Paso Robles area over the last seven years. There are also a variety of new grape growers and winemakers with unusual backgrounds including a young Harvard magna cum laude in English Literature, a world-recognized cardiologist and a young viticulturist with a Masters’ Degree in Chemistry. There are also actors from Hollywood, a grandson of the Comstock Lode’s “bonanza king,” the scion of the Firestone Tire family and his wife, a former ballerina.
The earliest celebrity who brought attention to the area as a grape producer is Ignace Paderewski, a world-renowned statesman in his own right, world-famous pianist and composer. Paderewski was Poland’s first prime minister and minister for foreign affairs after World War I. He worked with President Woodrow Wilson and humanitarian Herbert Hoover to lobby for Poland’s independence in 1919. Ignace planted 35,000 Zinfandel vines in 1922 on the Ranchos he purchased between 1914 and 1916 west of Paso Robles. He crushed his grapes and made his wine at York Brothers Winery in the 1930s and won gold medals for his Zinfandel Wine at the California State Fair in 1934. Paderewski died in 1941, and his vineyards wasted away with his property tied up in litigation for almost a decade. The property was sold to Albert Sauret who returned the land to pasture in the 1950s.
On Highway 46 east, a group called Continental Vintners purchased over 500 acres in 1968. The group of investors included Hollywood actors Wayne Rogers, James Caan, Jack Webb, and Peter Falk. Wayne Rogers states “soil and climate tests plus the high price of grapes in 1972 dictated that they would plant grapes.” He says “besides, it is a great business — the only one that is not dominated by majors in it. There is still room for newcomers. You can control the whole thing, from the rootstock to the consumer and that pleases me.” Continental sells their grapes but now has a permit to build a 40,000-case winery. “We just haven’t figured out the best way to go yet,” says Rogers. “This is a capital-intensive business and to amortize the big debt for a winery would not be too easy. We’ll study all the angles before we make a move.”
Tom Sinton, a member of the Sinsheimer family – early pioneers in San Luis Obispo, planted vineyards in the Shandon area. Sinton graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in English Literature and then went to Vienna on a Fulbright Scholarship for a year. He is experimenting with objective tests of grape quality.
Louis Lucas, son of an old Central Valley table grape growing family, is managing the largest single holding on the Central Coast. Tepusquet Vineyards comprise 1745 acres. They have hired Lee Stewart, veteran California winemaker who founded Souverain Winery in Napa Valley and then sold it to Pillsbury. Lucas has announced he is planning to build a 100,000-case winery in San Luis Obispo. He voices another idea “It might be better for all of us if a major North Coast winery would establish a branch, say around Santa Maria, and take all of our grapes. I think it would make sense from their standpoint. We sell to some of the most prestigious wineries in the state, so it would assure quality. They certainly can’t afford to keep running these grapes up there. The expense is ridiculous.” Some Napa Valley winemakers say the idea is not without merit. One has suggested that if the area wine growers approached him with some cooperative venture, he would be willing to listen and discuss the possibility.
James Flood, one of the notable names in California history, owns a 37,000-acre cattle ranch and farm, purchased in 1952 in the Sisquoc River Valley, 14 miles east of Santa Maria. James Flood decided to plant grapes because the soil and climate of the north Santa Barbara County area compare favorably with those in Napa and Sonoma counties. He initially planted nine acres of Johannesberg Riesling and 40 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1960s. The first wines were produced in 1972 under ranch manager Harold Pfeiffer. The demand for grapes from the Rancho Sisquoc vineyards increased and 181 additional acres were planted in 1974. (Flood recently was honored when Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma County produced a special “Santa Maria” Cabernet Sauvignon made from his grapes.) In 1977 Ranch Sisquoc became a bonded winery and a tasting room was built. They will only produce 1,000 cases a year to sell to clubs and restaurants in San Francisco. (His grandfather, James L. Flood, was one of California’s “big four financiers” in the 19th century along with Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and James Fair. The Flood Building at the end of the cable car line at Powell and Market is named for him. His grandfather came to be known as the “bonanza king” after striking it rich in the Comstock Lode. He bought a Nevada Bank which later merged with Wells Fargo Bank. Across the river from the Flood Ranch is the vineyard owned of R.A. Rowen Company. Robert Rowen is one of the founders of the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art and still a member of the Board under Norton Simon.)
Louis Ream, a former executive vice president of Atlantic Richfield, and his wife purchased Zaca Mesa Vineyards in the early 1970s. The property, 1800 acres of pasture, vineyards, and field crops, is located in the San Raphael Mountain range.
South of Zaca Mesa in Santa Barbara County is the anchor winery of the two-county area, that of Brooks Firestone, heir to the Akron Ohio Firestone Tires. The property, founded in 1972, is run by Brooks and his wife Kate, a former ballerina with the Sadler Wells Ballet Company. Brooks owns the property with his father Leonard Firestone, former ambassador to Belgium, and Suntory, the Japanese whiskey firm. The vineyards are planted on 300 acres of land. The Firestones have plans to produce 75,000 cases at the winery’s peak.