Winemaker Stephen Ross Dooley’s relationship with growers and winemakers has shaped the wine history in southern San Luis Obispo County for the past 35 years. In 1987, Edna Valley Vineyards hired Dooley to produce a barrel-fermented Chardonnay that was clear and clean with a fruit flavor highlighting the premium grapes grown in the Paragon Vineyards. His efforts were rewarded with 91 points from Wine Spectator. He founded his own Stephen Ross Wine Cellars in 1994 and after researching Pinot Noir grapes grown in a variety of Central Coasts vineyards, determined that three Dijon clones and one Wadenswil clone produce Edna Valley grapes for world-class Pinot Noir. His role as a mentor and wine consultant has helped local winemakers and wineries produce award-winning wines in both the Edna and Arroyo Grande Valleys.
Impact on the Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
- Brought a focus on science in winemaking as a graduate in Enology from the University of California at Davis.
- Brought an emphasis on high-quality fruit as the key to fine winemaking; the importance of sourcing each grape variety from the finest local vineyard.
- Brought the experience of working as consulting winemaker to produce the first vintage of barrel-fermented Chardonnay at Backsberg Estate in South Africa in 1985 and with Chittering Estate Wine in Western Australia in 1987.
- Hired as winemaker at Edna Valley Vineyard in 1987 to produce Chardonnay under the direction of Richard Graff of the Chalone Group. Stephen created clean wine with his knowledge of barrel fermentation and winemaking skills honed as assistant winemaker at Louis M. Martini Winery.
- Produced wine at Edna Valley Vineyard under private labels for wine shops like the Duke of Bourbon of Canoga Park and restaurants throughout California.
- Brought the experience in growing Pinot Noir clones and his winemaking skills to produce Pinot Noir to the Edna Valley.
- Research on Pinot Noir clones to determine the best clone to be grown successfully in the Edna Valley.
- Demonstrated the impact of terroir on Pinot Noir grapes sourced from multiple vineyards by showcasing wine produced from each designated vineyard.
- Brought a new approach to marketing grapes by growers: produced specific wines from grape varieties grown by the Miller Family Vineyards, who are owners of the French Camp Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County, for the purpose of showcasing the premium grapes in this vineyard. These wines were not sold commercially but used for tastings for grape buyers and winemakers.
- Chardonnay winemaker for the Morro Bay Wines label, a collaboration between Chalone Group and Pasternak Distributors.
- Cofounder of the Vintners Association in southern San Luis Obispo County, now known as the San Luis Obispo Coast Wine Collective, in 1990.
- Initiated the Harvest Celebration in southern San Luis Obispo County to raise funds and promote local wines in 1991. This has been an annual event for 30 years.
- Founded the Stephen Ross Wine Cellars Label in 1994 with three varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Stephen Ross Wine Cellars produced Zinfandel in 1997 as one of only three producers of Zinfandel in the south San Luis Obispo County region – Stephen Ross, Saucelito Canyon, and Piedra Creek.
- Designed and supervised the building of the Crush Facility, Courtside Cellars, for Bob Schieblehut starting in 1997. The project was completed in 1998. The production facility is now known as Phase II and the winery is named Tolosa.
- Established the Flying Cloud Label in 2003.
- Partnership with Brian Talley in developing the Stone Corral Vineyard and planting the Pinot Noir Dijon Clone 115 with 667 rows spaced 8 X 5, resulting in 1089 vines per acre. Each family manages their section of the vineyard, controlling planting, pruning and harvesting.
- Dooley produces five different Pinot Noir wines from The Stone Corral Vineyard. All the grapes are used in production, none are sold to other winemakers.
- Founded Black Label Stephen Ross Blanc de Noir, a Stone Corral Pinot Noir known as Arête.
- Influenced local wine producers: Filipponi Ranch, Piedra Creek, Jack Hammer, Cutruzzola, and Peloton Cellars.
- Joint production in 2019 of the first sparkling wine, Estate Rose, with Cutruzzola with grapes designated from Stone Corral Vineyard.
- Supporter and Board Member, World of Pinot Noir, founded in 2001.
- Board Member of SLO Wine Collective. Served as past President and Treasurer.
Stephen Dooley in the Dusi Vineyard.
Each winemaker and grower has a particular memory of the moment when the passion and the connection with wine or the vine was forever linked – often noted as the “Aha” moment.
Born in Michigan, Raised in Minnesota, Winemaker at 15
Stephen Ross Dooley grew up in a home located in Minnesota with parents who were academics. His father, William E. Dooley was a professor of geography. His mother Mary, raised on a dairy farm, was the first woman to earn her Ph.D. in geography at Michigan State University at East Lansing. She enjoyed researching and reading books about a variety of subjects, sharing her studies with her three children. The Dooley family lived in this university town.
After the Dooleys divorced, Mary Dooley taught at Mankato State, later renamed Minnesota State University, becoming a full Professor and Dean. Her children were often on that campus with her during the school year. But in the summer there were other exciting experiences to share that piqued Stephen’s interests in agriculture, farming, and science. Stephen and his two siblings spent many summers at a 160-acre farm in Michigan among apple orchards and a herd of thirty-five cows.
During his high school years, Stephen remembers asking questions of his mother about how wine is made and specifically about wines produced in Minnesota. He started learning about the fermentation process when he was 15 years old. Mary always had answers but she encouraged Stephen to learn more about the winemaking process on his own. He contacted the local winemaking supply shop and soon purchased his first official book on winemaking, published by the University of Pennsylvania. Stephen set up his winemaking operation in the family basement and was soon making batches of unusual wines including rhubarb, banana, raisin, and apple.
Stephen became more interested in biology and started his freshman year at Mankato State University taking science classes in 1972.
The 1972 Time Magazine Article American Wine – There’s Gold in Them Thar Grapes
At the age of 18, Stephen had his defining “Aha” moment when he picked up the November 27th issue of Time Magazine with the headline, “American Wine – There’s Gold in Them Thar Grapes.” Winemaking was touted as a modern, fast-growing and competitive industry. The article covers the American wine industry in-depth with unforgettable photographs taken in the early 1970s. The aerial photo of rows of storage tanks and buildings at the E & J Gallo Winery in Modesto, located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, covered an area of over six city blocks and looked vaguely like an oil refinery.
Wine was described as, “the beverage that was prescribed as a medicine by Hippocrates and celebrated in poem or aphorism by Euripides, Shakespeare, and Thomas Jefferson.”
In the early 1970s wine consumption was rising rapidly in the United States; Americans spent 2 billion dollars on wine in 1972, double what they had spent in 1968. The quantity of wine consumed translated to 2.4 gallons of wine per American adult which was minimal compared to 29 gallons per year in France and 30 gallons in Italy per adult. This indicated that the American Wine Industry was poised for dramatic growth. Stephen learned that “wine clubs and college wine courses were multiplying as fast as yeast on freshly crushed grapes.” The American public’s growing interest in wine was trending toward white wines as well as reds.
We look back on these years as the beginning of “The California Wine Revolution.” In reviewing just the number of books on wine published in 1972, everyone had a choice of purchasing any one of over 50 wine books at their local bookstore. The prevailing attitude was “Wine needs no apology. It is one of the good things of life.”
According to this Time Magazine article, the United States was the sixth-largest producer of wine in the world in 1972. It is interesting to note that among the countries listed by order of wine produced starting with Italy, France, the Soviet Union, and Spain; Argentina was in fifth position ahead of the United States.
Each photo in the Time Magazine article brings California wine history alive. One page contains a collage of photos of California winemakers tasting Cabernet Sauvignon at Buena Vista vineyards in Sonoma. Among them, unknown to Stephen at the time, was Louis Martini, the general manager of Louis M. Martini Winery. He would become Stephen’s future employer. There was also a photo of a man harvesting Pinot Noir grapes for a wine made by only a few California wineries, notably Christian Brothers and Louis M. Martini, at the time. This grape would make Stephen famous.
The article also discussed educational opportunities at the University of California (UC) at Davis including enology and viticulture. These three news items: the Louis M. Martini Winery, the Pinot Noir grape variety and the Enology Department at UC Davis became major forces in shaping Stephen’s career and success.
Stephen’s brother attended Cal Poly and in 1974, Stephen visited him in San Luis Obispo. He remembers seeing the film, The Exorcist, at the Fremont Theater while he was in town. He also had the good fortune to visit HMR, the new winery established by Stanley Hoffman with the advice and consultation of André Tchelistcheff often referred to as the “Godfather of American Wine.” The winery and vineyards were located in the Adelaida Region west of Paso Robles. This was the first modern winemaking facility in San Luis Obispo County built since Prohibition. Stephen also met with Michael Hoffman, the winemaker. HMR Chardonnay was the first in San Luis Obispo County to win an International Award in London in 1979.
Stephen also visited UC Davis and decided to apply. He visited a few California wineries. He tried the Chalone Group but the gate was locked. He remembers visiting the Joseph Heitz Tasting Room and enjoying their wines.
UC Davis, Here I Come, A Long Way From Where I Started From
Stephen applied to transfer to UC Davis and majored in enology, starting in the fall of 1975 as a junior. Among his new classmates were Dominic (Nick) Martin, Tom Myers, and Victor Hugo Roberts; all three men became legendary winemakers in San Luis Obispo County. Stephen also studied viticulture with legendary professors such as Dr. Harold Olmo, the man who had studied our local soils and made historic recommendations on the grape varieties and geographical locations to plant vineyards that would thrive in San Luis Obispo County.
After graduating from UC Davis with a Bachelor of Science in Enology, Stephen contacted a fellow student, the son of winery owner Louis M. Martini, whom he had met at UC Davis to ask him if his father had any job openings for a new graduate. Stephen was offered a seasonal job working in the wine cellar shoveling pomace. He accepted at once.
Louis M. Martini was the founder of one of the most famous wineries in the Napa Valley. He immigrated to San Francisco with his family in 1900 but returned to Italy to study enology in Alba, Italy in 1906. He worked in a number of California wineries before Prohibition and then decided to produce his own first-class table wine in 1932 at the end of Prohibition. He built his own winery just south of St. Helena and acquired a 240-acre vineyard in the hills of Sonoma, known as Monte Rosso. He sourced grapes for his most famous wines from his own vineyard and provided access to the first clone of Pinot Noir, Clone 13, that was planted in the Edna Valley in 1973.
Stephen’s First Harvest at Louis M. Martini Winery
On September 20, 1977, Stephen participated in his first harvest season. In his usual humorous style, Stephen, standing tall at over six feet in height, describes the moment he knew he was truly part of the wine industry – his first successful climb into a fermentation tank. He describes his first day of topping off large barrels of port and sherry and noted that you can actually drink while you work. By the end of February when Stephen’s first seasonal job ended, he was passionate about becoming a winemaker. Stephen returned home to Minnesota but shortly after arriving home, he sent a letter to Louis M. Martini, applying for a full-time job in his cellar.
Stephen was hired, returned to California, and began learning about winemaking, working with the centrifuge and lees filters and racking. By 1979 he was promoted to Assistant Winemaker. His desk was in the lab area; he performed scientific lab work while overseeing the white winemaking and the bottling line. He worked at the Louis M. Martini Winery as Assistant Winemaker for nearly eight years.
Wanderlust – Working in South Africa and Western Australia
In 1985 Stephen attended the meeting of the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group at a restaurant in Calistoga which included wine-tasting and a technical presentation by the winemaker at Joseph Phelps Vineyards. The topic was the technique of barrel fermentation. This was another life-changing moment for Stephen. He was intrigued with the technique of barrel fermentation and learned that there was an opportunity to study at the Backsberg Wine Estate in Paarl, South Africa. 1985 was the year the winemaker at Backsberg Wine Estate, producing Chardonnay, transitioned from stainless steel tank to barrel fermentation.
Steve negotiated a nine-week sabbatical with Louis M. Martini and flew to South Africa to join the winemaker at Backsberg Wine Estate. This winemaking experience was an important influence on Steve’s evolution as a winemaker.
In January 1987 Stephen started his next chapter of winemaking abroad. He resigned from Louis M. Martini and flew to Western Australia to work the harvest at a new winery, Chittering Estate Wines just outside of Perth. He helped complete the final building phase of the winery and worked the first harvests of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. From there he traveled to Cloudy Bay to visit Harold Osborne in New Zealand.
Dick Graff, The Judgement of Paris, and the Edna Valley Vineyard
When Stephen returned to California he began to look for a full-time job as a winemaker while consulting at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery in Rutherford. Ric Forman, the founder of Forman Vineyard located on Howell Mountain above the town of St. Helena, introduced Stephen to winemaker Dick Graff of Chalone Vineyard.
A bit of California wine history is necessary to showcase these two important pioneers in the industry. Both Dick Graff and Ric Forman are known for introducing barrel fermentation of white wines to California winemaking. Ric Forman, winemaker, vineyard manager, and consultant, is an expert in non-malolactic Chardonnay. He contributed significantly to the rise of Napa Valley as one of the premier winemaking regions of the United States and the world.
Dick Graff, was a partner in the Edna Valley Vineyard with the Jack and Catharine Niven family, owners of Paragon Vineyard Co. Dick was a Californian who pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Music at Harvard University. His passion for music led him to a daunting restoration project – he restored the entire old theater organ at a local Boston theater. The project required great patience and attention to detail. These skills would contribute greatly to his success in the wine industry. He became known for his Burgundian style of winemaking.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Dick and his family purchased the Chalone Vineyard in 1965, the oldest producing vineyard in Monterey County. His considerable talents and skills both impacted and contributed to California wine history.
Dick Graff introduced the technique of barrel fermentation and aging, as well as the practice of malolactic fermentation to California white winemaking. He explains: “I insist upon traditional techniques for raising wine which entails minimal handlings, so that what comes through from the vineyard is carried intact through fermentation and aging, clarification and bottling, into the wine glass.” Graff produced his first commercial vintage in 1966 under the Chalone Vineyard label. He was joined by Phil Woodward in 1971 who brought his accounting background to run the business and develop the marketing plan for Chalone wines. Together they established the Chalone Wine Group.
The watershed moment in California wine history is the astonishing result announced in the blind tastings at the 1976 Judgement of Paris wine competition between California wineries and French wineries. The 1974 Chardonnay, produced by the Chalone Wine Group, placed third with a grade of 121 in the competition between California and Burgundy Chardonnays. This marked the transition of California wines with 200 years of history producing port-style rich red wines to a wide variety of new wines that are competitive in the world market, the California Wine Revolution as it is often referred to.
Stephen Ross Dooley – The New Winemaker in the Edna Valley
Stephen’s winemaking experiences at the Louis M. Martini Winery, in South Africa and Western Australia, prepared him for this next step in his career. He was hired as a winemaker at the Edna Valley Vineyard in 1987.
A brief history of the background of the partners of Edna Valley Vineyard Partnership: The Chalone Vineyard is located at 2,000-foot elevation in the Gabilan Mountains above the Salinas Valley east of Soledad near the Pinnacles Monument in Monterey County. Grapes were first planted at this location around 1900. The vineyard was subsequently purchased by F.W. Silvear who made small quantities of quality wine until his death in 1957. After a series of complex business transactions, Dick Graff, his family and his associates acquired the property and released their first quality vintage in 1969.
The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines were immediately successful. After the 1974 Chardonnay placed third in the Judgement of Paris, Chalone needed additional Chardonnay grapes to produce their wine. They purchased Chardonnay grapes grown in the Edna Valley from Jack and Catharine Niven, owners of Paragon Vineyard Co. The Nivens were the second family to plant Chardonnay in 1973 in the Edna Valley. They planted 542 acres with over half in white varieties including Chardonnay, White Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. One hundred sixty acres were planted with red varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Gamay, and Merlot. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrived; their quality was noted by winemakers in northern California whose wines received acclaim. At the time there was no production facility in the Edna Valley and Paragon Vineyard had to develop its own customers.
As mentioned above, Dick Graff’s winemaking was done in the traditional Burgundian style which relied on top-quality fruit so he continued to purchase grapes from Paragon Vineyard Co.
In 1977 Paragon and Chalone formed a partnership with the plan to produce Chardonnay under a new label, Edna Valley Vineyard. The partnership agreed that the Niven Family (Paragon Vineyard Co.), would continue to provide the Chardonnay grapes for the Edna Valley Vineyard label and would also build a new winery facility to produce both Edna Valley Vineyard and private label wines for special customers. The Chalone Wine Group would manage the winemaking, production, and distribution of the wines.
By 1979 the Paragon Vineyard Co. had 650 acres in vines, primarily planted to Chardonnay and white varieties with limited acreage designated for Pinot Noir. The first vintage of Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay was made at the first production facility built in the Edna Valley, then named Corbett Canyon, also built in 1979 and in 1980.
In 1981, the winery designed by Dick Graff was completed by Paragon Vineyard Co. The partnership continued to be very successful. The Nivens provided the grapes, the land and the new winery equipped with the finest wine-making tools for production and bottling. Chalone partners Dick Graff and Phil Woodward oversaw the winemaking, marketed the wines, and managed the business. The first winemaker selected by Dick Graff was Gary Mosby who had been working for the Chalone Wine Group.
Within a few years Dick Graff began searching for a new winemaker who had experience in working with Chardonnay and barrel fermentation. Stephen was interviewed and hired by Dick Graff to work as the second winemaker at the Edna Valley Vineyard, replacing Gary Mosby.
Stephen Produces a Bright and Clear Chardonnay
Stephen was hired by Dick Graff on August 24, 1987, to produce a bright and clear Chardonnay wine. The Edna Valley had the perfect climate to grow Chardonnay grapes but the dampness from the fog often resulted in mildew forming on the vines. The treatment involved dusting sulfur on the vines which later was reflected in the taste of the wine. Stephen was able to produce a relatively clear Chardonnay juice prior to fermentation. He was able to lower the solids prior to fermentation which produced a much fruiter wine without the sulfides. He did this by modifying the traditional Burgundian model that Dick Graff introduced. The Burgundian model uses whole grape clusters but Stephen broke with tradition by using only fifty percent of the grape clusters among the grapes in the first year, followed by eliminating all the clusters in the following year. Stephen created an award-winning fruitier clean wine without sulfides. Wine Spectator awarded his wine with 91 points.
In addition to transforming the winemaking process, Stephen built a successful team at Edna Valley Vineyard. Stephen and his new crew describe their winemaking experience as a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Bryce Bagnol was the enologist, Frank Focha worked in the cellar and artist Tim Lloyd worked in maintenance while also creating sculptures in his own studio. Phil Woodward was the manager in charge.
The Edna Valley Vineyard Production 1987 to 1994
The production reached 35,000 cases with 25,000 cases of Edna Valley Chardonnay sold throughout the United States and 10,000 cases produced for private labels including the Chaparral label for David Breitstein, owner of the Duke of Bourbon Wine Shop in Canoga Park, wine sellers at the Red Carpet in Glendale, Le Central Restaurant in San Francisco, and the label first established by Catharine Niven, known as Tiffany Hill.
By 1994, the production had reached 65,000 cases at Edna Valley Vineyards. This partnership was unique in San Luis Obispo County.
A Personal Partnership for Life
Stephen left Edna Valley Vineyard on June 30, 1994, to pursue the next chapter in his career, establishing his own label and winery. He had found his own partner in business and in love. In 1989 he met Paula Donnelly who was employed by American Eagle Airlines. They were introduced by Lucia Cleveland, founder of the Spice Hunter. They dated for six months before deciding to start a wine business together, Stephen Ross Wines. Stephen began to produce their own wines and Paula has worked on the management of the business from 1995 to the present.
They married in 1995 at the historic Dana Power Home in Nipomo. Paula continued to work as the Vice President of Business Process and Communications for American Eagle Airlines in their San Luis Obispo office. Their first child, Liam, was born in 1998.
The Year 1994 – Making Wine for Three Wine Labels from Santa Maria to San Miguel
Morro Bay Vineyards – A New Private Label
Stephen was asked if he would be interested in producing the Chardonnay for Morro Bay Vineyards, a label established in 1993 under the Chalone Wine Group by Phil Woodward. Pasternak Wine Imports, a company located in Connecticut, was looking for an opportunity to produce Chardonnay under their own label. They wanted to source the grapes from the Paragon Vineyard Co. which was harvesting more Chardonnay grapes that were needed for the Chalone production at Edna Valley Vineyard. Phil Woodward made the connections to establish the label for the Connecticut-based company and to hire the winemaker.
Stephen was hired as the winemaker to produce Chardonnay for the investors under the Morro Bay Vineyard label, with the goal of producing 100,000 cases annually. He had to find a new production facility for Morro Bay Vineyards Chardonnay. The 1994 Vintage was produced at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria. Production was moved to Castoro Cellars in San Miguel in 1995. Stephen worked with winemaker Tom Myers to produce the 1996 and 1997 Chardonnay for Morro Bay Vineyards. In 1998, he moved the production to a new custom crush facility that he helped design and build in the Edna Valley, Courtside Cellars. Stephen continued as winemaker for the Morro Bay Vineyards label until 2005. Stephen resigned as winemaker for Morro Bay Vineyards to focus on building his own brands.
Miller Family Wine Company
The late Bob Miller, a partner in the Miller Family Wine Company, was a premium grape grower with vineyards in two adjacent counties. The most famous vineyards are the Bien Nacido Vineyard which became well-known for their Pinot Noir grapes grown in Santa Barbara Canyon and the French Camp Vineyard located east of Paso Robles near Shandon in northeastern San Luis Obispo County.
In 1973 the Miller family developed the 1,400-acre vineyard, French Camp, in the Paso Robles highlands. This area was the first in San Luis Obispo County to be planted with large commercial vineyards with irrigation. The Millers selected the location because the terroir included mineral-rich soils, the highest elevation in the region and the largest temperature swings between day and night. The name, French Camp, honors the Basque sheepherders who gazed their sheep throughout the Templeton and Paso Robles areas, receiving a paycheck, cheese, bread, and a jug of Zinfandel wine weekly for their service. The Millers planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc with extraordinary results, producing premium grapes at French Camp.
Bob Miller developed a new marketing strategy for selling the grapes grown in this large vineyard. He wanted to produce a vintage of wines that showcased the grapes grown in the French Camp Vineyard. He offered the job to Stephen to make those stellar wines from his grapes. Bob did not plan to sell wine commercially but to hold wine tastings with prospective buyers so they would pay the price for his premium grapes. If he accepted the job, Stephen would be making wine at the Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, a custom crush operation owned by the Miller Family. Stephen would also be allowed to make his own wine under his new label at the same facility. Central Coast Wine Services was located in a building that stood on the current location where you will find Costco in Santa Maria. The building had been home to Columbia Records as their production center prior to the Millers converting it to a custom crush facility.
Stephen signed on to make the wines that Bob Miller needed for his marketing campaign as well as making the four wines that best represented the grapes of French Camp. He was able to use Central Coast Wine Services to produce his own wine under the Stephen Ross label and for Morro Bay Vineyards. It was a unique opportunity that provided both the capital and the opportunity to broaden Stephen’s winemaking skills and reputation in the wine industry.
Central Coast Wine Services – Making Wine for Bob Miller
Grower Bob Miller was born in Louisiana on October 28, 1945. He was the fourth generation of the William Richard Broome family. The Miller family’s legacy in farming and ranching reaches back to 1871 when William and Francis Broome immigrated from England to Southern California, settling in southern Ventura County to farm. Willam Broome acquired the Spanish land grant known as Rancho Guadalasca which was located in what is now known as Ventura County. Robert Miller married William Broome’s granddaughter Elizabeth in 1942. The two of them expanded the farming legacy and incorporated vineyards into the agricultural enterprises.
After graduating from John Hopkins University Bob Miller moved to California to join his family in their ranching operations. He became a highly respected pioneer in the grape growing industry. He was the co-founder of two iconic vineyards: Bien Nacido in Santa Barbara County and French Camp in San Luis Obispo County. He later co-founded the Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria and the Paso Robles Wine Services.
Stephen signed on to the project in 1994 and created the wines for Bob Miller. It was a successful collaboration. The relationship with the Miller family continues to the present day. Stephen purchases Pinot Noir grapes from the Bien Nacido Vineyard.
Stephen Ross Wines
There were important principles that Stephen had learned and wanted to incorporate into his own winemaking. He wanted to focus on Chardonnay, Sauvignon, and the most difficult, Pinot Noir.
Stephen values his “Aha moments” at Louis Martini and at Edna Valley Vineyards. His goal is to have the highest quality grapes possible for his wine production. Most growers are focused on production and yield rather than the highest quality. He has enjoyed working closely with certain growers who are focusing on producing higher quality fruit related to lower yields. The late Jim Clendenen and Mike Dusi are two such growers.
To produce the best Pinot Noir, Stephen knows he wants to have control over the grower and the time of harvest. He wants to call the exact time of the harvest for each grape variety.
A memorable “Aha” moment on growing quality Chardonnay, was shared with viticulturist Jim Efird when he realized that more sunlight and air around the grape cluster produced a much better wine. That had not been considered in the past. This extended to the method of trellising the vines. The almost vertical shoot position (VSP) instead of the California spread on a wire method produced a higher quality grape. In the past there was not enough attention paid to the amount of sun exposure and circulation of air around each grape cluster.
The first vintage (1994) of Stephen Ross Wines was produced alongside Morro Bay Vineyards as part of Stephen’s agreement to make their wines at the Central Coast Wine Services. Stephen produced 250 cases under his new label. He sourced his Pinot Noir grapes from the Edna Ranch to produce six barrels of Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay grapes were sourced at Edna Valley Vineyard to produce three barrels. Sauvignon Blanc grapes were sourced from the French Camp Vineyard to produce four barrels of Sauvignon Blanc wine.
The 1995, 1996, and 1997 vintages were produced at Talley Vineyards in their new wine facility. Steve Rassmussen was the winemaker at Talley Vineyards during this time. Stephen worked as the winemaking advisor for his own brand at Talley during this period.
Stephen moved his production to the new facility where he designed and supervised the building process of Courtside Cellars in the Edna Valley.
Stephen was able to finance his label with the salary earned as winemaker at Morro Bay Vineyards. His relationship with Bob Miller provided him with access to the production facility he needed for his first vintage.
Heat Spell Causes Grapes to Ripen Early in the Edna Valley
The unexpected warm weather persisted in the summer of 1997 and forced an early harvest causing havoc for growers and winemakers. The Chardonnay vines produced an unusually large amount of grapes. Local winemakers could not absorb the early harvest fast enough and fruit was left on the vines at the Edna Ranch where Stephen and Paula were sourcing their Chardonnay grapes. Grower Bob Schiebulhut considered crushing the grapes in the field and holding the juice for the wineries until they were ready for delivery. However, crushing in the field was not feasible. Schiebulhut realized that a new production facility was desperately needed in the Edna Valley.
He met with the San Luis Obispo County officials to discuss his process of obtaining a building permit to build his own custom crush pad to handle the excess production of grapes in the future. The County Planning Department understood the need but wanted him to build his own winery which could also accommodate the custom crush business.
Schiebulhut approached Stephen to discuss the plan for the crush pad and asked him to design the facility. Stephen worked on the design and project management for the construction of the facility, designed for custom crush facilities, and wine production. It was built in record time, completed by August 31, 1998. This feat is impossible to imagine happening in San Luis Obispo County today. But somehow the stars were aligned.
The name of the new facility was Courtside Cellars. Dave McHenry became the general manager in January 1998. The new label was Tolosa. Robin Baggett and Bob Schiebulhut were the founding partners, later joined by Jim Efird.
There was great demand for custom crush services south of the Cuesta Grade. Among the first customers was the Mondavi Vineyard near Santa Margarita. Stephen was anxious to consolidate his winery operations closer to home. He moved both Stephen Ross Wines and Morro Bay Vineyards labels to the Courtside Cellars where he made the wines for both entities through 2004.
Stephen Ross Wines – A Second Label and New Home
Stephen founded his second label, Flying Cloud, to sell high-quality wines at lower prices in 2003. The Flying Cloud label pays homage to Stephen’s Minnesota roots. He named it after a small local airport in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
In 2005 Stephen, after he resigned from Morro Bay Vineyards to concentrate on his own brands, moved his production to Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, renting space in the building for his winery and purchasing his own equipment, always operating independently. He hired Cal Poly graduate Ryan Devolet as his assistant winemaker.
During the next three years he developed his own business plan and looked for space closer to his home. Stephen found a new facility under construction on Suburban Road in San Luis Obispo. He worked with owner Rick Paul to design a tasting room and the space for his wine production. He would be able to sell wine directly to the public and provide custom crush services for other wineries in the new facility. Stephen had been selling his wines through a distributor to clients in the San Francisco Bay area, the Central Coast, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties.
Stephen Ross Wines moved their equipment and offices into the new facility in 2008.
Stephen has arranged internships for Cal Poly students to provide them with learning experiences in viticulture and enology since 2008. He has also provided custom crush services and wine consulting services to smaller wineries including Filipponi Ranch, Piedra Creek, Jack Hammer, Cutruzzola, and Peloton Cellars. He is always available to mentor others. Mike Sinor and TJ de Jony have become successful winemakers in their own right.
Sourcing The Grapes for Stephen Ross Wines
Over the years Stephen has sourced grapes from the following vineyards:
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir: the Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands (Jim Clendenen) of Santa Barbara Canyon. For years Steve bought 4 to 5 tons of Chardonnay and 2 tons of Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido which is considered a California “Grand Cru” vineyard; its fruit is allotted to some of the greatest winemakers in the USA.
Zinfandel: Dante Dusi Vineyard was planted in 1946, and it is currently owned and managed by grower Michael Dusi and his family. Stephen started producing Zinfandel wines in 1997.
Zinfandel: Monte Rosso Vineyard was founded by Louis M. Martini, known for its 100-year-old vines. Grapes were purchased from 1997 through 2001.
Pinot Noir: Oliver’s Vineyard owned and managed by Brain Talley
Chardonnay: the Wolff Vineyard, a vineyard originally planted by Andy McGregor in 1974.
Growing Pinot Noir with Partner Brian Talley
In 2001 Brian Talley discussed the possibility of developing a new vineyard in partnership with Stephen. Stephen had always wanted to have his own vineyard and the dream was about to become a reality.
In 1987 when Stephen join Edna Valley Vineyard there was only one clone of Pinot Noir planted in the Edna Valley – The Martini Clone, #13 at Paragon Vineyard Co. In 1990 new clones were introduced to growers – the Swiss Clone 2A and three Dijon Clones. The first plantings of the Dijon clones of Pinot Noir in the Edna Valley were on the Edna Ranch.
Over the years Stephen had learned which clones made the quality wine he wanted to produce by sourcing his grapes from a variety of vineyards to compare the results. In 1995 he sourced grapes from Bien Nacido Vineyard, Edna Ranch, and the CalPoly University vineyard managed by Austin Hope who was then a viticulture student. The vineyard had no official name but became known as the Trestle Vineyard, identified by the Trestle structure nearby.
By the year 2000 Stephen had made wine from grapes sourced from Kick-On Ranch Vineyard located in the northwest of Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, the Aubaine Vineyard located off Highway 101 between the towns of Arroyo Grande and Nipomo, the Olson Ranch Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the Chorro Vineyard planted by E & J Gallo on the CalPoly University campus.
The Stone Corral Vineyard site, owned by the Talley family, was 20 acres and Pinot Noir would be the only variety planted on this site. Brian and Stephen worked together selecting the clones, Swiss Clone 2A, and three Dijon Clones 115, 667, and 777. The spacing would be 8 x 5 rows with 1089 vines planted per acre.
The Talley family provided a multi-decade lease with vineyard management services. But each family has full control over the pruning and planning of his own section of the vineyard. Stephen’s nine acres are planted to the Dijon and Wadenswil clones. Five wines are produced from this vineyard. Stephen has his own nine-acre vineyard – a dream come true.
Promoting Pinot Noir
Stephen is known for his award-winning Pinot Noir. All of the other wines he produces are also acclaimed for their quality. He is devoted to educating the public and promoting Pinot Noir.
In 1990 he became a co-founder of the Edna Valley Vintners Association which promoted the wines produced in the Edna Valley. In the same year he traveled to Cote Du Beaune with Jim Efird to attend the annual wine auction hosted by Hospice Du Beaune to raise funds and to attract wine lovers to the area. In 1991 Stephen was elected President of the Edna Valley Vintners Association. Inspired by the trip to Cote Du Beaune, he worked with Board Members to establish an annual event unique to Edna Valley – the Harvest Celebration. It continues to the present day under the name of Roll out the Barrels.
Ten years later, Stephen worked with Brian Talley and Archie McLaren to establish the World of Pinot as an annual event to educate members of the wine trade, the media, and consumers about the high-quality wines being produced on the Central Coast. The event continues to the present day.
Steve is well known for mentoring young winemakers including the following: Jill De La Riva, Daniel Krichevsky, Ryan Devolet, and Wynne Solomon. He has been a member of the Napa Valley Technical Group, SWITS (Small Winery Technical Seminar, WOPN (The World of Pinot Noir), and the Central Coast Wine Society.
Stephen continues to serve on the Board of the San Luis Obispo Coast Wine Collective (formerly the Edna Valley Vintners and Growers Association) and to make award-winning wines.
His first sparkling wine, Stephen Ross Blanc de Noir, from the Stone Corral Vineyard, produced in collaboration with the Cutruzzola, will be released in 2021 with a Black Label, Arête.
1954: September 12 in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Mary and William E. Dooley.
1963: Mary and William E. Dooley divorce.
1966: Mary is the first woman to get her Ph.D. at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Mary and her three children move to Mankato, Minnesota. Mary is hired at Mankato State University (renamed Minnesota State University) where she becomes a Professor and later serves as Dean. William E. Dooley becomes a Professor of Geography at Oswego State University in New York, Ohio University, and East Texas State University.
1969: Stephen begins his career as an amateur winemaker, purchasing a winemaking book published by the University of Pennsylvania from the local wine-making store, and making unusual wines in the family basement, including rhubarb, apple, and banana.
1972: Stephen enrolls as a freshman at Mankato State University taking science classes with a focus on biology.
1972: Time Magazine Issue: dated 11/27 has a headline, American Wine There’s Gold in Them That Grapes. The article focuses on the California Wine Industry and mentions the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) as the best school for studying viticulture and enology. Stephen reads the article, is intrigued, and researches courses at UC Davis.
1975: Stephen applies to and is accepted as a junior at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) to major in enology in September. He transfers from Mankato State University, meeting the science requirements.
1976: Stephen meets fellow students Mike Martini, John Kongsgaard, Robert Foley, Michael Poley, Carol Shelton, Jack Stuart, and Jill Davis all of whom became well-known in the wine or brewing industries. He takes a viticulture class from Dr. Harold Olmo, the pioneering viticulturist who was known as a grape breeder and a geneticist.
1977: Stephen graduates with a Bachelor of Science from UC Davis in enology in June.
1977: Stephen is hired as a seasonal worker at the Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa to work in the cellar, shoveling pomace, and working the harvest.
1978: Stephen’s seasonal job ends. Steve returns to Minnesota where he applies for a full-time job at Louis M. Martini Winery. He is hired and returns to Napa.
1979: Stephen is promoted to Assistant Winemaker at Louis M. Martini Winery, producing the white wines.
1980: The first vintage of Chardonnay is produced at the new Edna Valley winery known as Edna Valley Vineyard, a partnership between Paragon Vineyard Co. and Chalone Wine Group, by winemaker Gary Mosby who held the position from 1980 to 1987.
1985: Stephen attends a meeting of the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group as an employee of Louis M. Martini Winery. Craig Williams, the winemaker at Joseph Phelps Winery, announces that the Backsberg Estate in South Africa is looking for technical help in making barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Steve applies, is hired, and requests a nine-week sabbatical from Louis M. Martini. It is granted and he travels to South Africa.
1985: Stephen returns to Louis M. Martini as assistant winemaker in March.
1987: Stephen resigns from Louis M. Martini and travels to Western Australia to work for Chittering Estate Wine, a new small winery. He works on the final construction of the winery, the first harvest of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Sauvignon. He travels to New Zealand to visit winemaker Harold Osborne at Cloudy Bay, one of the first five wineries established in Marlborough, New Zealand.
1987: Stephen returns to the Napa Valley and consults at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery in Rutherford while looking for a new position as a winemaker. Sterling Vineyards winemaker Ric Forman introduces Steve to Richard Graff, a partner in the Chalone Wine Group, who is looking to hire a Chardonnay winemaker at the Edna Valley Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County.
1987: Stephen is hired at Edna Valley Vineyards on August 24 as the winemaker of Chardonnay, replacing Gary Mosby. His mission is to produce a Chardonnay juice that is relatively clear prior to fermentation. (Mildew often forms in Edna Valley vineyards; it is treated with sulfur which is reflected in the taste of the wine.) Steve lowered the solids, and created an award-winning fruitier clean wine without sulfides.) Wine Spectator gave it 91 points.
1987: The first Pinot Noir clone #13, sourced from Louis M. Martini, is grown in the Edna Valley at Paragon Vineyard Co.
1987: The Pinot Noir winemaking style, selected by Richard (Dick) Graff of Chalone Winery, is the classic Burgundian style with whole cluster fermentation. This style was not successful with Pinot Noir Clone #13. Stephen reduces the number of clusters by 50% in the first year to increase the quality of the wine.
1988: Production at Edna Valley Vineyard is 35,000 cases, 25,000 of Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay and 10,000 as Private Label Chardonnay for customers including The Duke of Bourbon, Red Carpet, Tiffany Hill Label owned by Catharine Niven, and Le Central, a French restaurant in San Francisco.
1989: Stephen meets Paula Donnelly who is working for American Eagle Airlines in the department of Accounting and Finance in San Luis Obispo through a friend, Lucia Cleveland, founder of Spice Hunter.
1990: Stephen is co-founder of the Edna Valley Vintners Association.
1990: Stephen travels to Cote Du Beaune with Jim Efird to attend the Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction which began in 1859 and is the main event in the November celebrations in Burgundy.
1991: Stephen is elected President of the Edna Valley Vintners Association. The Hospice Du Beaune event inspires Steve to establish the Harvest Celebration as the annual fundraiser for the Edna Valley Vintners Association.
1993: As winemaker at Edna Valley Vineyard, Stephen produces 65,000 cases. 75% are Edna Valley Chardonnay and 25% are Private Label Chardonnay.
1993: Morro Bay Vineyards label is established as a collaboration between Chalone Wine Group and Connecticut-based Pasternak Distribution Company to produce Chardonnay wine with grapes sourced from Edna Valley Vineyard.
1994: Stephen resigns from Edna Valley Vineyard and becomes the winemaker for Morro Bay Vineyards with a goal of producing 100,000 cases annually.
1994: Vineyardist Bob Miller of the Miller Family Wine Company hires Stephen to make stellar wines with grapes sourced from their French Camp Vineyard located in San Luis Obispo County. He produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc from premium grapes grown in French Camp for marketing purposes to provide potential grape customers a sample of wine produced from these grapes. The wine is produced at Central Coast Wine Services, owned by the Millers, in Santa Maria.
1994: Stephen founds his own label, Stephen Ross Wine Cellars. Stephen produces Pinot Noir starting with small-scale production. He determined there was a market for his Pinot Noir with the potential of charging a premium.
1994: Stephen produces the following wines under the Stephen Ross Wine Cellars at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria:
Wine Produced: Pinot Noir (six barrels), Source of Grapes: Edna Ranch, Vintage: 1994 Label: Stephen Ross
Wine Produced: Chardonnay (three barrels), Source of Grapes: Edna Valley, Vintage: 1994, Label: Stephen Ross
Wine Produced: Sauvignon Blanc (four barrels), Source of Grapes: French Camp, Vintage:1994, Label: Stephen Ross
1995: Stephen marries Paula at the Dana Power House in Nipomo. Paula continues working at American Eagle but takes an active role in the management of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars from 1995 to the present.
1995: The second vintage of Stephen Ross Wines produced at Talley Winery. (Note the Talley winemaker was Steve Rassmussen. Stephen Dooley is the winemaking advisor for his brand only at Talley Vineyards.)
1995: The second vintage of Morro Bay Vineyard Wines is produced at Castoro Cellars Winery with winemaker Tom Myers. Stephen Dooley is the winemaking advisor at Castoro Cellars.
1996: The third vintage of Stephen Ross Wines produced at Talley Vineyards by Stephen Dooley.
1996: The third vintage of Morro Bay Vineyard Wines produced at Castoro Cellars by Stephen Dooley.
1997: Stephen designs a custom crush pad facility known as Courtside Cellars built by Bob Schiebulhut at a location now known under the label Tolosa.
1997: The fourth vintage of Stephen Ross Wines produced at Talley Vineyards.
1998: Courtside Cellars production facility is completed with Stephen’s design and project management by August 31 in time for the fall harvest in the Edna Valley.
1998: The fifth through eleventh vintages of Stephen Ross wines are produced at Courtside Cellars from 1998 to 2004. Wines were sold in the San Francisco Bay area, on the Central Coast, Los Angeles, and in Orange County through a distributor.
1998: Son, Liam Dooley, is born to Stephen and Paula.
2000: Stephen works with Brian Talley to establish the World of Pinot Noir (WOPN), inspired by the IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration).
2001: Stephen is elected to the board of the World of Pinot Noir and works on programming and worldwide outreach.
2001: Stephen leases nine acres of land from the Talley family and plants Pinot Noir Dijon Clones. Brian Talley and Stephen Dooley develop a partnership to plant and manage Stone Corral Vineyard.
2003: Stephen founds his second label, Flying Cloud, to sell high-quality wines at lower prices. Flying Cloud pays homage to Stephen’s Minnesota roots and is named after a small airport in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
2004: This is the final year of Stephen Ross wine production at Courtside Winery.
2005: Stephen resigns as winemaker for Morro Bay Vineyards to focus on building his own brand.
2005: Stephen Ross wine production moves to Central Coast Wine Services, renting space in the building for winemaking, purchasing equipment, and operating independently. Hires Ryan Devolet as assistant winemaker.
2008: Steve moves his winery to a new facility on Suburban Road in San Luis Obispo with space for production and a tasting room, selling wines directly to the public.
2008 to the present: Stephen Ross Wine Cellars provides consulting and custom crush services for Filipponi Ranch, Piedra Creek, Jack Hammer, Cutruzzola, and Peloton Cellars.
2008: Steve provides students at Cal Poly University with learning experiences in viticulture and enology through internships at Stephen Ross Wine Cellars.
2019: The sparkling wine project is formed with Cutruzzola. Stephen sourced 50% of the Pinot Noir grapes from Stone Corral Vineyard and the remaining grapes from the Cutruzzola Vineyard. The wine will be released in 2021 on the Black Label.
2021: Drunken Cyclist awards Stephen Ross Rosé of Pinot Noir 93 points in June. The 2017 Pinot Noir, Stone Corral Vineyard – Estate earned 95 points in April. The 2017 Pinot Noir, Edna Valley – Estate earned 93 points in April. It is a blend of Black Label Arête and Stone Corral Vineyard.
2021: Wine & Spirit awards 91 points to Stephen Ross 2018 Stone Corral Vineyard Pinot Noir and places it on the list of Year’s Best US Pinot Noirs.