July Ackerman Smith moved to San Luis Obispo County from Honolulu, Hawaii with her new baby and her husband in January 1992. July had settled in Honolulu in September of 1987, working as an Account Executive for Pacific Business News, and later as the Executive Director for the Hawaii Restaurant Association.
July’s educational background is in communications and organizational development. She earned her B.A. at Cal State Fullerton in June 1986, before joining Harte-Hanks Communications as a Marketing Analyst in Southern California. She completed her M.A. in Organizational Development at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, in May 2005.
Paso Robles Grapegrowers Association’s First Executive Director
Shortly after moving to San Luis Obispo County, July was hired by the Paso Robles Grapegrowers Association to produce its monthly newsletter, and by the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce to coordinate the 10th Annual Wine Festival. Later that year, the decision was reached to establish the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association (PRVGA) as a regional wine trade organization, with July as its founding Executive Director.
The Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) had been approved in 1983, when there were fourteen wineries and 3,800 acres of vineyards planted within its boundaries. In that same year, the Chamber of Commerce and volunteers organized the inaugural Paso Robles Wine Festival in the downtown City Park, which eventually went on to bring thousands of visitors to the region each year to meet the local winemakers and taste their wines.
By the time July arrived in 1992, there were approximately two dozen wineries and 6,500 acres of grapevines planted in the AVA. With nearly $30,000 in net proceeds from that year’s Wine Festival, July interviewed winemakers, tasting room managers, and grape growers to find out how they wanted to spend the money. The consensus was clear: they wanted to form the PRVGA and pool their resources to establish Paso Robles’ reputation as a world-class wine region.
Pioneer Marketer of the Paso Robles Wine Region
Building on the tireless efforts of industry pioneers and founding board members, one of July’s first tasks was to organize tasting tours for several major wine and travel writers of the era. Within three years, stories were written and published by Patrick Fegan of the Chicago Tribune, David Lansing of Sunset Magazine, Christopher Reynolds and Dan Berger of the Los Angeles Times, and Gerald Asher of Gourmet Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Los Angeles Times story was picked up by several other Times Mirror Company newspapers throughout the country. Similarly, Patrick Fegan’s wine column in the Chicago Tribune was re-published in major metropolitan newspapers owned by the Tribune Publishing Company. Paso Robles was beginning to garner the attention its vintners and growers craved. Tasting room traffic rose to an all-time high, while newcomers began flocking to the area to start their own wine ventures.
As new vines were planted and new wineries built, living up to the area’s potential for world-class wine quality was imperative. Under July’s leadership, and with the help of many volunteers, the PRVGA invested in weather stations throughout the AVA and hired meteorologists to provide growers with forecasts customized to their vineyards’ micro-climates. Winemakers and growers met frequently to learn from one another, and eventually formed a Wine Quality Alliance under the umbrella of the PRVGA. These were important steps in bringing the industry together to focus on the quality of the wines bearing the Paso Robles appellation marque on their labels.
Developing a Model Program of Community Outreach
With continued growth in the industry, collaboration continued to be an essential component of July’s work. Vineyard owners were subjected to public scrutiny over noise-making devices that were used for bird-control purposes, and neighbors to wineries expressed concerns about increased tourist and trucking traffic in rural areas. July and a team of volunteer growers created bird control guidelines for growers and set up meetings to mediate conflicts between growers and their neighbors. This program later became a model for other California wine regions, after July shared Paso Robles’ success stories at the 2001 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium.
Further collaboration was necessary to facilitate the development of new tasting rooms and winemaking facilities located on agriculturally-zoned land in the county. A land use ordinance committee was formed to establish a set of rules that would allow for industry growth, with consideration to its impact on residential neighbors. The committee included a diverse group of representatives, including staff from the county agriculture and planning departments, south county wineries, compliance experts, and July, who represented the PRVGA membership.
As growth in the wine industry continued, it became evident that the western boundary of the AVA needed to change to include a handful of wineries that were planted outside its approved area. July organized a petition, signed by more than seventy PRVGA members, which would extend the boundary to the ridge of the Santa Lucia mountain range. Approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) came in 1996.
UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project
The economic impact of grape crops and wine production in San Luis Obispo County increased year by year, along with wine tourism and businesses that were supported by the wine industry. Members were interested in documenting their collective, direct, and indirect contributions to the local economy. The organization engaged academic and professional researchers to help accomplish this. The UCSB Economic Forecast Project and Gomberg Fredrikson & Associates were commissioned to conduct studies in 1994, 1996, and 1998, with July coordinating their efforts and publicizing the results.
July conducted several other industry surveys during her nine-year tenure at the PRVGA, including a tasting room salary survey in 1994. She oversaw the creation of promotional materials including the annual vineyard directory, the wine touring map, a press kit for wine writers, and the website pasowine.com.
July also served on the San Luis Obispo County Visitors and Conference Bureau as a board member in 1996 and 1997. She was the program chair for the Rotary Club of Paso Robles in 2000 and worked on the WineVision Strategic Planning Task Force from 2000 to 2002.
When July left the PRVGA, there were nearly 100 wineries in the AVA. She continued to work with and contribute to the wine industry of San Luis Obispo County. She started a consulting practice and was the wine business columnist for the San Luis Obispo Tribune from 2001 to 2002. Her stories focused on the hot topics of the times: label requirements, direct to consumer shipping, county regulations, federal licensing of new brands, the focus on wine quality by Paso Robles growers, the importance of a website for business promotion, and the economics of growing grapes in a challenging economy.
She made presentations as a guest lecturer to students at Cal Poly and to industry groups, including WineVision: American Wine in the 21st Century, the California CPA Education Foundation, and Central Coast Wine Insights. She reached out to wine marketing researchers at the University of South Australia and collaborated with them to study consumer choice patterns on wines made from sustainably grown grapes. This project was funded by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, a group that July has worked with since 1998.
Viticulture Higher Education at Cal Poly
In 2004, July joined forces with two of her colleagues to establish Upstairs Marketing Group, a wine marketing firm. In 2005, she was recruited by Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture as a Special Consultant to the newly established Wine and Viticulture (WVIT) major. The major was unique in that it was an interdisciplinary program requiring collaboration between faculty in the Agri-business, Horticulture and Crop Science, and Food Science and Nutrition departments. July interviewed faculty members, coordinated their meetings, and helped shape their shared vision for the major.
In 2006, July’s position at Cal Poly was expanded when she received a two-year appointment as the WVIT Director of Program Development. In this capacity, she helped to create an advisory council comprised of wine industry leaders, conducted an industry needs assessment for use in curriculum development, raised funds to establish a pilot winery on campus, organized an international recruiting campaign to hire the program’s first enology professor, and facilitated the creation of a new Cal Poly wine brand.
In addition to developing the program, July also worked with Cal Poly students. She taught WVIT 101, Orientation to Wine and Viticulture, WVIT 102, Grapes and Wines of the World, and WVIT 463, Issues, Trends and Careers in the Wine Industry. She coordinated student internships, served as an academic advisor, published an electronic newsletter, and organized the WVIT Student Fee Committee, a student group that formed to influence how their student fees were allocated.
Winery Management and Compliance Consultant
In 2009, July moved on from Cal Poly to join the private sector. She worked as Chief Operating Officer at Compli, Inc., a wine compliance firm, and went to work for the Dusi family, initially as a Project Manager for Michael Dusi Logistics, and then as General Manager for J Dusi Wines, a position she has held since 2013.
In addition to working for J Dusi Wines, July still consults for other businesses as time permits. Over the course of her career, her clients have included the Central Coast Vineyard Team, Eberle Winery, Fetzer Vineyards, Hearst Ranch, Meridian Vineyards, Paso Robles Wine Services, Vina Robles, and the City of Paso Robles, to name a few.
July’s contributions have significantly impacted the wine history of Paso Robles and of San Luis Obispo County, as well as the lives of those who live and work in the area. Her LEGEND continues to evolve.
July Ackerman has been instrumental in shaping the wine history of the Paso Robles AVA and the Wine and Viticulture Program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
She served as the first Executive Director of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association founded in 1992. July developed the first strategic plan for the growth and development of the organization, bringing the Paso Robles AVA into national focus by working with nationally known wine and travel writers. She raised the quality of wine by forming the Wine Quality Alliance, providing research and education for winemakers and growers. She collaborated with a professor at UC Santa Barbara to document the economic impact of the wine industry in SLO County and to raise awareness countywide of the emerging industry.
July served as the Director of Program Development for the Wine and Viticulture Program at Cal Poly, setting up administrative procedures, developing curriculum, enology department recruitment, planning and fundraising for a “pilot” winery on campus, creating the Cal Poly Brand and label, developing the intern program, designing a needs assessment and feasibility study for long-term planning, and developing an integrated timeline for faculty development and long-term capital campaigns.
She has worked in the community to foster community relations between the wine industry and neighbors who are impacted by the growth of the wineries, the vineyards and the tasting rooms in an Agricultural area. She served on the San Luis Obispo County Land Use Ordinance Committee to create a land use ordinance in the agricultural zone.
Her lectures, presentations, and consulting practice continue to provide valuable services to the wine industry and to the many individuals she has mentored. In addition, July serves as General Manager of J Dusi Winery.
Author’s note: The written Legends of the PRVGA, the Paso Robles AVA, and other San Luis Obispo County wine leaders are under construction. Signup for the Wine History Project’s newsletter to be notified when they are published.