While Portland, Seattle and San Francisco all have local meals on wheels (food trucks), traditionally Clovis/Fresno has been served mostly by taco truck vendors. However, in the last three years, street food mania is roaming across the Central Valley, boasting mobile dinners that have diners returning to curbside cash and carry.
After the success of Taco Truck Throwdown 2 at Chukchansi Park at the end of August 2012, four trucks continue to make a name for themselves beyond downtown Fresno. While tacos make up the daily menu, each are creating a niche that has patrons standing in line. The Bella Frutta property hosts four food trucks each Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and often on Sundays on the corner of Willow and Shepherd.
Vincent Ricchiuti, Director of Operations at P-R Farms, Inc. , says Bella Frutta’s family fresh produce store is teaming up with four Valley food trucks to create the best weekend urban dining option in the two cities.
“After seeing the success of urban dining during trips this past year to San Francisco, Seattle and Portland,” Ricchiuti said, “I thought why can’t the Central Valley create a hub and food port? The area grows almost all the ingredients that make up great food, so why not make it happen here?”
And as it happened, it seems creative minds were working independently of Ricchiuti three years ago. All four food trucks who line the parking lot of Bella Frutta began independently creating delicious meals ala San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
TRUCK NO. 1: DUSTY BUNS
Dustin and Kristen Stewart, graduates of San Francisco’s Le Cordon Bleu, wanted to open a food truck in the Big City that specialized in local and organic ingredients. But combined with the need to purchase a truck and the $10,000 start-up fees, opening a food service on wheels proved impossible. So they decided to move to the Central Valley where most of San Francisco’s food trucks’ “local ingredients” came from.
Kristen, born and raised in Dinuba, California, convinced Dustin the San Joaquin Valley would be a natural place to begin. So the couple began to search for, buy and refurbish a taco truck they found in Selma. They dubbed it . . . “Dusty Buns.”
“We found our food truck working the farm fields selling tacos,” Kristen said. “It was bright pink and we repainted it bright green and gold. While the colors weren’t exactly what we wanted, it works; the citrus and California color scheme are a perfect match for who were are. While we never sold to field workers, we did meet some of the farmers. Later we began our business selling on the streets of downtown Fresno … after we got our zoning clearance. Wishon downtown was our first beat.”
Dusty Buns is a kitchen on wheels. And, according to husband Dustin, the married couple of three years makes everything they sell from scratch. Their EggMan sandwich has a freshly baked bun, a slice of Niman Ranch ham, aged white Cabot cheddar cheese and a local fried egg from Page River Bottom Farm. Downright delicious and unique.
“We have someone come into our Dusty Buns Bistro near Fresno High and make all our buns in-house,” Dustin said. “We make all our own sauces for the sandwiches and coleslaw, grind maize for our tacos; we even make our own ketchup for the side of potatoes. And whatever we don’t make, we buy from local farmers or businesses who also only use the finest local ingredients. We promote local farmers who pursue organic and/or bio-dynamic practices.”
Kristen said the truck and bistro only use vegetables and ingredients that are in season or can get them locally through Balakian Farms. Their Dusty Bun sandwich uses Mary’s Organic Chicken slow-roasted in their homemade Chipolte sauce. Currently their dicon sesame cabbage slaw uses purple cabbage, purple onion and a specially prepared herbed aioli mayonnaise. Most sandwiches are $5. Side orders of bistro fries, soup du jour and market salads add $4 each. In the days to come, they will also offer a boxed lunch for offices. Any sandwich + any side + any sweet OR fruit juice for $10 (miniumum order in $20).
The Dusty Buns Bistro is just north of The Tower District at 608 E Weldon Ave., Fresno, CA 93704. You might catch their Bistro bus driving to Cru Wine Company in Madera selling lunch boxes or look for them in Fresno’s Tower District during the Mardi Gras Parade! Their menus and photos are posted daily on the Dusty Buns Facebook page and change with the seasons. Call (559) 486.2867 now to book a weekly office delivery or special event!
TRUCK NO. 2: BENADDICTION
James Caples owns what he calls a “brunch truck” since November 2012. The former corporate restaurant manager chose to alter his career path last year after his daughter died. Caples said his Benaddiction food truck focuses on eggs and breakfast-style sandwiches. Everything on the truck is named after a song in some form or another. Some after classic rock, some from more modern songs. That is why their logo is the egg and bacon guitar.
“Benaddiction has two primary segments,” Caples said. “We focus on breakfast and our specialty is an eggs benedict breakfast sandwich served on an English muffin. It has a fried egg with hollandaise sauce. We can do this six different ways with different proteins and vegetables. My favorite is called ‘The Weight.’ It has pulled pork, bacon and BBQ sauce along with a fried egg and hollandaise sauce.”
Caples gave much of the credit for his truck being at Bella Frutta to Vincent calling him out to be a part of the truck event.
“I appreciate Vincent because he called me and invited me out,” Caples said. “This is unheard of in Fresno because we usually have to fight for our locations. Vincent and Bella Frutta have been so great to invite these trucks out, making sure we have a place to sell.”
Benaddiction sandwiches or entrées cost $5 to $9 and they will occasionally create a special sandwich that costs up to $10. Caples and his wife Natalie own the truck and have hired a classically trained French chef, Jason Valencia, to create unique sandwiches.
“Our most popular specialty is a grilled cheese sandwich with pulled pork bacon and ham,” Caples said, “and includes a fried egg with BBQ and hollandaise sauce. While we do not offer any sides with the sandwiches yet, that is in the plans. Wanted to create a strong sandwich foundation first and then grow from there. We make the best egg sandwich in Fresno.”
The full Benaddiction breakfast and lunch menus are online on their web site. Additional photos and menu ideas are on the Benaddiction Truck Facebook page. For more information or to reserve a special event, call (559) 269.1968.
TRUCK NO. 3: TAKO BBQ
Not to be outdone by the two trucks on either side of them, Tako BBQ Fusion creates Korean fusion meals which barbecues meats and fuse them with other international food items. Originally from New Jersey, owner Tony Mullings and his Korean culinary-trained wife, Eun Joo Mullings, saw what was happening in L.A. with Kogi BBQ and believed they could replicate that success. So in April 2012, they started Tako BBQ.
“While I was in marketing as a retail employee,” Tony said, “I wasn’t satisfied working for someone else. My wife, Eun, had been to culinary school in Korea and had worked for restaurants but also wanted to try something different. We read what others were doing in the food truck business in L.A. and the Bay Area and decided to strike out on our own.”
Their Kalbi (short rib) taco ($2) is ricco size with two small corn tortillas, seasoned ribeye meat topped with a sesame seed oil sauce and Korean spices, has become a staple for many of their customers. The spices give the taco depth and the meat is seasoned all the way through. This is a wonderful way to introduce a new twist on a local favorite. The Bulgogi and spicy pork tacos are also a great option. The Gogi burger is marinaded ground beef with jack cheese and a Korean spices seasoned salad in between the buns.
Tony said the favorite items off the truck are the chicken burritos ($6), the Gogi burger ($6) and the Korean cheesesteak: a Korean Philly ($7). Each has Korean spices, salad with a tangy vinaigrette dressing.
“We have been having a lot of positive comments about being out at Bella Frutta,” Tony said. “I like being on this corner because there is a lot of traffic and folks stopping to purchase items at Bella Frutta. So while the customers are here, they also come up to the trucks and add some food to go.”
The Tako BBQ web site is still under construction at the time of publication, but return to it in the weeks to come for more information and menu options. There are lots of photos of their food and menu on the Tako BBQ Truck Facebook page . However, please call (559) 473.3961 to book a party or reserve the truck for a special occasion.
TRUCK NO. 4: CRUMB SNATCHER GOODIES
While folks are eating their lunch or early dinner at the other three food trucks, the line builds for dessert or picnic favorites at the Crumb Snatcher Goodies food trailer. Owners Bob and Terri Brookshire create award-winning chocolate chip cookies, carrot cake and her Grandma Dot’s spice cake all in the mobile trailer.
Like the other food trucks parked with them, the Brookshires are still new to the mobile food gig–two years. Both Bob and Terri called each other their best friends and it was easy to see. However, their story of sweet breads, cookies and goodies is only a small part of their four-year married tale.
Fresno Bee writer Bethany Clough wrote in a June 7, 2012, article, “Eating out: Baking helps widow heal, thrive,” Terri is alive because of divine providence and an angel of a man who did not know her 4 1/2 years ago.
After a horrific car accident killed her first husband, Brad Issac, in May 2007, Terri was left with ankles that were mangled and wheelchair bound for months. And as Clough describes in the article, Terri believes God gifted her a second life with a man of faith and a second career: baking.
While Terri was recovering from her injuries, she baked to while away the hours.
“Baking was my therapy,” Terri said. “It helped me get through the hours of being alone. But I prayed God would send someone to help me.”
Months later, Terri needed a ride home from the hospital and her best friend asked her dad to pick up Terri and bring her home. In the days, weeks and months that followed, they fell in love and started Crumb Snatchers. Their chocolate cookies, carrot cake banana and pumpkin breads have all done first place honors at the Big Fresno Fair.
However, don’t be fooled by a trailer that has been only operated for two years. Terri has been baking since childhood, baking apple pies to earn extra money during the lean times of the last decade. Her months in rehab. gave her time to hone her skills.
“I love working the weekends out of the trailer with Bob,” Terri said. “We bake everything right here and sell it hot and fresh. We’re serving brownies, cookies and cakes and give out fresh coffee with any baked goods. In fact, while the chocolate chip cookies are our specialty, the snickerdoodles seem to go off the shelves really fast.”
Today, Terri still works 32 hours a week as a labor and delivery nurse at Kaiser Permanente. However, Terri and Bob make time to be involved with CartHop Fresno food trucks that meet up two or three times a week. Terri said they meet with other trucks near Applebees at Friant and Fresno streets on Tuesdays and Fridays on the Fulton Mall.
“While CartHop is a good gig for us to be involved with, our time spent at Bella Frutta is much different,” Terri said. “When Vincent met us at the River Park Farmer’s Market, he asked to taste our cookies. He was so encouraging and doesn’t expect anything out of us except that we have insurance. Vincent and the Bella Frutta staff are great people to work with. So expect us here on the corner of Willow and Shepherd every Saturday and some Sundays at 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
Terri and Bob Brookshire can be contacted through their personal Facebook page beside the Crumb Snatcher Goodies Facebook page. For more information on The Crumb Snatcher Goodies trailer, contact Terri or Bob at (559) 297.0178 or (559) 360.7630.
BELLA FRUTTA ANCHORS FOOD PORT
Bella Frutta continues to sell its own freshly harvested vegetables, nuts, and fruit that are locally grown on the family farm since 1946. Today Patrick V. Ricchiuti and his son Vincent represent the third and fourth generation of agriculturalists who continue that tradition in Clovis.
“While we grow most of our own produce at Bella Frutta,” Vincent said, “we partner with area farmers to sell produce and merchandise. We grow heirloom tomatoes, squash, peppers in our own garden behind the store. Right now we are selling citrus and apples grown by our farms and soon we will be offering artichokes and strawberries from the coast.”
The Ricchiuti family also partners with Fresno State’s Rue and Gwen Gibson Farm Market , selling their ice-cream, milk and sweet corn when in season. The newest addition to the store is their Enzo Olive Oil Co.. The olives are all estate grown and Vincent is the miller. He presses the olive oil and is certified. You can also visit them on their Enzo Organic Facebook page or watch ABC30′s AgWatch Video, “New, locally produced olive oil earns award” (August 15, 2012).
However, it is the partnership with the four food trucks that has Vincent excited.
“I love having the food trucks here each weekend,” Vincent said. “When I travel out of state and see the other truck food ports are doing, I know we have something similar here. I reached out to our local food trucks via Twitter. I believe we now have the best collection of food trucks in the Central Valley.
“I don’t charge them because it’s a win-win for all of us. There is an urban dining option in north Fresno/Clovis. I was looking for cross-pollination of customers to bring in more business and now we have created a food destination. We all not feel the competition is good. I think the customers appreciate the variety and, with more options available, more people are coming to our ‘experiment.’”
For more information on Bella Frutta Bella Frutta , contact Vincent Ricchiuti at (559) 298.8290 or drive out to Bella Frutta : 1959 N. Willow Ave., Clovis, CA 93619. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
READERS: Have you tried the meals on wheels trucks or been to Bella Frutta? Leave a comment at the bottom of the article.
For more TalesoftheCork stories, scroll to the top of the menu bar or read The Grape Tray reopens in Fresno’s Opus I Center .
According to Super Bowl XLVII By The Numbers (via @digtriad), “Americans will consume an estimated 50 million cases of beer on Super Bowl Sunday. For those counting at home, that’s 1.2 billion beers.” So with over 325,000,000 gallons of beer washing down tons of junk food, BBQ wings, chili and pizza, are any of you willing to stand up against a sea of hop lovers to pour, swirl and sip from the vine?
Food and Wine editor Ray Isle (@islewine) quipped this morning on Twitter, “…it takes a brave soul to open some wine.”
Cultural traditions create closeness and the NFL’s Super Sunday has become a national holiday, heck an icon, for Americans, galvanizing communities regardless of race, age, political preferences or religion. For one Sunday a year, most can put aside bias and prejudices to gather in a sometimes unlikely consortium to cheer and debate over the pride and bragging rights of two cities.
Then, for the sake of the underdogs amongst you, be strong and courageous. The fruit of the vine has every right to be in that living or family room, den, community center and converted garage. While Anheuser-Busch, Budwieser, and the MillerCoors family of beers and/or a plethora of micro beers are most likely to fill the coolers, a glass of wine most certainly fits well with Super snacks.
On Feb. 1, 2013, Isle posted his Best wines for Super Bowl snacks as part of CNN’s Eatocracy page. And to take this just a bit further, I want to add my suggestions for those looking to serve BBQ wings, chili and nachos. The following choices should be easily purchased even today at your local grocer or may even be buried in your wine closets.
The following are easy drinking, inexpensive wines meant to wash down party foods. For goodness sake, save your best occasion vino for $100 meals at destination restaurants. However, even a wine connoisseur can enjoy simple wines. Be sure to open the bottles a couple of hours before serving at room temperature.
2009 Clayhouse Adobe Red Zinfandel-based blend: The 2009 Clayhouse Adobe Red is a flavor fusion of 32% Zinfandel, 25% Petite Syrah, 13% Malbec, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah and 9% Petit Verdot. The blend has overtones of cherry and blackberry which dominate the palate. Spices and pepper linger with hints of branbles and plum. The finish is balanced with vanilla and oak characteristics.
2009 Phantom by Bogle Vineyards: This California blend of 52% Zinfandel, 46% Petite Sirah and 2% Mourvèdre, has some spice to it along with rich black raspberries and briary boysenberries in a full-bodied wine with hints of cedar and juniper.
The 2010 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel is a classic bottle from Sonoma County. The spicy, lush black fruit of Alexander Valley offers up briary and raspberry flavors, along with structure, of cooler Dry Creek Valley. Take the time to enjoy the mocha, tobacco, leather and exotic spices in this fabulous 100% Zinfandel wine.
Earning “Steal of the Year” honors in Sunset Magazine, 93 points in Wine Spectator and a San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Wine of The Year, the 2010 Ancient Peaks Zinfandel is rooted in their estate Margarita Vineyard. This Ancient Peaks offering is 100% Zinfandel offers vibrant aromas of crushed raspberry and blueberry with a dash of sweet oak. Bright, juicy flavors of raspberry, boysenberry and black cherry anticipate notes of cola and spice. A smoky vanilla note joins luscious acidity on a rich, jammy finish.
2009 Tres Sabores ‘Por Que No’ Zinfandel blend: This Napa red is from St. Helena and is a bistro and BBQ favorite. If you have yet to try this blend of 53% Zinfandel, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petite Sirah, & 1% Petit Verdot, I say Why Not! enjoy its dark red blend. The juicy, mild raspberry and blueberries flavors and has hints of black pepper give Por Que No its party favorite label. This bottle needs to be on your ‘go to’ list.
Orin Swift’s The Prisoner 2010 Napa Valley Red wine is reminiscent of wines first made by Italian immigrants who originally settled the Napa Valley. The wine has a dense red and black hue that is framed in vibrant crimson. Look for black currant, dark blackberry, cherry, and cassis rounded out by subtle hints of seasoned French and American oak. The finish is long, lingering and filled with soft velvety tannins lasting for nearly thirty seconds. The blend is 44% Zinfandel, the 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Syrah, 9% Petite Sirah, 2% Charbono and 1% Grenache; this gives the wine soft, integrated tannins which allow it to be approachable now and with a pleasant finish. Wine Spectator consistently gives The Prisoner between 90-93 points since 2003 and has been a Top 100 wine fixture since 2007.
Now I want to go on record to say a good bottle of beer like a Russian River Brewing Company’s double IPA Pliny The Elder can add so much to tasty eats. And there is nothing wrong with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Firestone Walker Pivo Pils, Red Stripe Jamaican Lager, Dos Equis Dark Lager or a Waldhaus Spezial Gold lager from Germany.
However, there are so many great wines available today for backyard BBQs and informal parties. Don’t be intimidated by those only tipping the smaller bottles. I know you have a favorite beer too but don’t be afraid to uncork a bottle of wine at a casual event. The party is a food event and that is exactly what wine is meant to enhance.
For those who only watch the game for the commercials, here are the 18 best Super Bowl beer commercials (VIDEO) as reposed by FoxNews.com.
If I haven’t convinced you to add wines to your beverage list, there are other options besides the classic Super Bowl beer list from the top two providers. You might check out BeerAdvocate’s Top 250 list. They list many of the most popular, thirst stopping and taste-bud numbing beers, including web sites and availability. Let me know which is on your list.
Read the Jan. 26, 2013, The Grape Tray reopens in Fresno’s Opus I Center to check out the latest post. For other blog entries, use the top menu bar to scroll through more Talesofthecork.com stories. Or start with one the past articles like Caliza Winery: Bowker turns horticultural focus into viticulture dream.
With 21 years of wine buying, retail sales and the development of a large, loyal customer following, Stan Kato and The Grape Tray have relocated to The Opus I Shopping Center just north of Fresno’s Fig Garden and Bullard High areas, Jan. 4, 2013.
While those who shop for wines at local grocery stores may not have the interest or take the time to seek out unique wine offerings, many vino aficionados appreciate Kato and his staff’s wine scholarship along with The Grape Tray’s long-time focus on customer service.
The former Los Angeles finance manager relocated to Fresno to be closer to family and has built The Grape Tray’s retail reputation to include award-winning, popular top 100 rated wines and hard to find boutique choices for sophisticated palates. Kato’s emphasis is on old-school business practices and a no-nonsense value per bottle sold is what makes his 4,700 customers keep coming back.
“While our new store is four miles from the old location, it is actually closer to most of our current customers,” Kato said. “People will follow me out to the new location if they feel we offer something of value. I believe driving an extra two to four miles will not stop my customers from visiting us, especially those who know what we do. We have a good product at a fair price. If we continue to do that, people will come.”
All of the businesses are small and compact–no chain stores here–offering local storefronts. Each has 1,500 square feet or less and are all independently owned. And as a result they all have their own clientele, which often produces crossover business. Customers shop for their vitamins at Ounce of Prevention, restring a tennis racket at The Stringer, take their dog to the Central Bark groomer or pick up their watch or ring settings from Mitch’s House of Jewels. There is definitely synergy in this center.
The customers who shop at The Grape Tray know that Stan provides an alternative to the standard wine set; many appreciate the selection and have not had an issue with the move to a smaller store.
“I have been buying wine from Stan for over 10 years,” Johanna (last name withheld) said. “While I have purchased wine from other shops, I return to The Grape Tray because Stan gives excellence advice, great customer service, his selection is wonderful and really takes care of his clients. He spends time talking with me and even makes time to find wines when I have a special request. I often recommend him to my friends and acquaintances and I tell them I would buy wine from him no matter where I live in the city.”
Kato says he left the Shaw and Fresno location because he wanted to be closer his customer base and provide easier access, moving into the space vacated by a pilates studio.
“I wanted a smaller location (1,000 square feet), did not want to offer food anymore, wine only,” Kato said. “The new spot had to be in a decent location. So my real estate broker told me about Opus I and while we looked into a couple of other places, our new spot seemed perfect.
“The owners of the complex liked the idea of having The Grape Tray,” Kato said. “I know they checked us out, talking to a lot of people in this center. They spoke to other businesses and came to the realization that we would be a good fit here. Opus I now has a wine shop, jeweler, a place to get high end vitamins, and a book store…. This bookstore, Petunia’s Place is a dynamite, rockin’ kid’s store. They are good, no great, at what they do. You have a yoga place Fig Garden Yoga Studio a Catholic bookstore (The Holy Child) and D Hou Chinese Restaurant.”
While not all Grape Tray customers who walk in the shop or make inquires via the phone or Internet want to discuss their wine purchases, Kato and his staff are committed to continuing their decades-long tradition of building relationships, finding them the right bottle for the table or event.
“An important part of my business is listening to my customers,” Kato said. “I have customers everywhere, whether they be local or out of State. Many offer tips and heads up. We get information and inquires and we look into those. And of course, I am always reading online, reading the industry (wine) publications.”
Kato related story after story of how he managed local, phone or Internet customers narrow their wine choices. His focus is educating customers on wine choices.
“A couple contacted me recently after I hadn’t seen them for over 10 years,” Kato recalled. “I had met them at one of my tastings a decade ago. Then out of the blue, the couple come into the shop. I was shocked. So we started to dialogue about an event they were going to have and they asked me about wine choices and if I could provide them with $40-$50 Cabs. So we talked about pricing, the competition and a value choice rather than just a name brand with a high score. While they preferred a high-priced brand name Cab, I sensed this was not their first choice. So I steered them to a lesser-known but high quality wine. It took a little education but after I offered to give them a tasting, they ultimately chose the lesser-known over the high-end cab.”
That story seemed to be at the heart of Stan Kato. He said he didn’t know why the couple decided to come back into his shop after a decade, but they ended up buying a large amount of value wine. Stan said he is happy to sell Camus and Veuve Clicquot or more expensive bottles but will not just hand someone an expensive label when a customer asks for it.
“I want to know whether a high-priced, well-known label is the best option for a dinner party or large event,” Kato said. “In this case, we sold them lesser-known and well-respected wine label whose vintage we recommended as exceptional. The customer did not have to buy a bottle that they really didn’t need or want. It fit what they said they were looking for: elegance, not over-the-top ripe and in a price range they could afford. And in the end, the customer was tickled pink, happy. We got wonderful feedback. It was a win-win situation.”
This kind of sales requires a lot of tasting and familiarity with wines and to try and a wine merchant must anticipate what their guests and customers will like. For instance, Stan says he often ask the ages of the wine drinkers. A 22-year-old probably will like something different than a 55 or 60-year-old and the buyer should be aware of varying preferences at the same event.
“We do business the old fashion way: its fair and its honest,” Kato said. “There’s no gimics, no smoke and mirrors here. There’s no inflated retail and then we take off a big discount. It’s straight up fair. The inventory is current, and we carry products that people want to buy whether because they are chasing the points or its because the wines are hard to find or because they are popular. We are compeitive, fair and being price driven plays an important part of it.”
The Grape Tray’s new address is The Grape Tray, 6023 N Palm Ave, Fresno, CA 93704. Their phone number remains 559.226.6828 and can be reached via email: email@example.com.
For past articles and stories, please check the menu bar at the top of the page or read Rangeland Wines and Angus beef: Get to know Laird Foshay.
After moving from San Francisco and retiring from the trade show business, Carl and Pam Bowker had settled in the windy Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles on the Central California coast. The couple’s newly purchased vineyard was producing a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Carl was not convinced his vineyards would develop world class wines at Caliza Winery.
For Part I on the Caliza Winery story, please read the Nov. 12, 2012, post, Caliza Winery: Bowker turns horticultural focus into viticulture dream. In Part II of the Caliza Winery story, Carl shares how his 2004 trip to the Rhône Valley convinced him to make the hardest decision he’s ever had to make in his life.
Carl and Pam Bowker had traveled to Italy in 2001 and their eyes were opened to utilizing old world wines in a new world venue. They farmed the vineyards on both of the Caliza Winery properties, but Carl longed for a stronger connection to the limestone soils he named his winery after. He began spending more and more time with winemakers in Paso Robles and became more familiar with the emerging interest in Syrah and other Rhône varietals. During a party for a real estate agent, Bowker met winemakers Erich and Joanne Russell of Rabbit Ridge Winery and Russell Family .
“I had been making wine for over 20 years,” Erich said, “and Carl seemed genuinely interested in being a winemaker. He first came around while I was building my winery in 2001 and decided to join us for crush in 2002. We got together often to talk about wine and in the process he learned to put on a wine clip and join two hoses together. At first it was obvious he was new to the process and I offered to do his jobs I gave him to do. It would go faster if I did it. But he learned how to use hoses, clamps and steel fittings from our time together in the early days at Rabbit Ridge.”
While Bowker was a green horn in 2002, it didn’t take him long to become an integral part of the harvest for Rabbit Ridge and Russell Family wines in 2004.
“While we were mostly too tired to have fun even though we worked together, I could see Carl was going to be good at winemaking,” Russell said. “Carl was not like many of the other new winemakers. He was neat, clean, hard working, anal about the process. The man wouldn’t leave each night until everything was just right in the winery.”
But it was during their time together that the Bowkers and Russells became friends. They shared dinners together and began talking about an ever-growing excitement for Syrah and especially Rhône varietals. Both couples signed up for a trip to France led by a small group of wine writers.
“We had enjoyed them [Rhône varietals] in restaurants and felt we needed to see for ourselves what the French were doing,” Bowker said. “So the Rhône Valley trip was a great next step for us. We learned a lot on that trip. I got to taste first-hand the distinctly difference wine-style in the North Rhône, which is all Syrah. And I love the robust, rich and powerful wines from the North such as the Hermitage, Saint Joseph and Cronas areas. I also learned so much more about the blended wines in the South, where they incorporate Grenache, Mourvedre and numerous other varieties, and picked up the tools of blending their depth and character. I was inspired to make a California version of these Châteauneuf du Pape or Côte du Rhône style blends.”
Russell fondly remembers the Rhône trip with Bowker as it not only solidified their friendship but also helped keep him focused on Rabbit Ridge value-based wines.
“Carl, our wives and I have similar interests and personalities,” Russell said. “While we enjoy creating or eating fancy dinners out, we decided to do dinner like the locals. We had free night to get dinner on our own one night. Instead of paying for another expensive dinner in Avignon, in southern France, all four of us decided to buy cheap Rhone wine from a local wine store and get some cheese and salami from a market. After following a couple people carrying baguettes, we eventually found a bakery, bought a fresh baguette of our own. Our dinner that night was as good as any gourmet dinners on the trip. And we loved and drank inexpensive local Rhône wines.”
Not only did Bowker tour and taste while in France but he asked numerous questions about the vineyard planting methods, irrigation, soil-types, root stock varieties and clones, so that he could use this knowledge in his new Paso Robles vineyard. Together, with the two-year Napa Valley College viticulture and enology program, Bowker had the confidence to forge forward.
Bowker says that the 2004 French tour inspired him to make a “killer Syrah” and believes he “is now making that quality Syrah from fruit off his Anderson Road vineyard. The trip cemented the style of my Rhône varieties.”
His new-found inspiration morphed into a determination to join the growing movement of Paso Robles wineries planting Rhône varietals, creating for the Central Coast a Syrah-based regional identity parallel to Napa’s Cabernet focus. The trip to France solidified his Rhône focus. He then chose to have his soil tested by a soil scientist, hiring consultants by the end of the year.
Wine Spectator’s James Laube believes the Paso Robles area focus on Syrah and Grenache has strengthened the region. The epicenter of this blending has created a term used by California winemakers with many referring to the winemakers as Rhône Rangers.
After harvest in 2004, Bowker made a critical decision that would alter the direction of Caliza Winery for the following year.
“I made an incredibly hard financial decision, and in the spring of 2005,” Carl said, “we decided to remove the existing vineyard. The vines were ripped out, the land was tilled and a brand new irrigation system was installed. It was a hard decision because we spent most of our retirement funds, but we knew it was the right thing to do. We replanted Syrah and many other Rhône varieties, changed the location of the vines, installed the most current soil monitoring equipment, state of the art irrigation system, and incorporated sustainability farming practices.”
While other vineyard owners were beginning to consider changing out their vineyards in the Paso Robles region, Bowker’s decision was not without risk.
“I believe Carl works 10 times harder than he ever thought he’d have to work,” Russell said; “everyone has to in this business. He took a huge gamble in 2005 to tear out the vineyards. He had to go to a lot of extra work and remove the vines and irrigation. I’ll bet there were times he wished he was on the beaches of Maui.”
Hawley is a California State University, Fresno, with a degree in viticulture and enology. The Bowkers met him in Paso Robles on several occasions while he was a winemaker at Summerwood Winery and became huge fans of his winemaking style and ability.
“In one encounter we talked to him about helping guide us as we developed the Caliza brand,” Bowker said. “We were one of the first to sign him as a consultant. He worked with us for three years, helping with numerous important decisions: harvest timing, fermentation protocol and all aspects of the wine production. All the way, Scott was more of a trainer and mentor doing all that was necessary to help me completely understand the process than a paid consultant. In the end, he kind of worked himself out of a job as he mentored me so well.”
A very successful winemaker in his own right, Scott Hawley, now of Torrin Vineyard, became Bowker’s mentor and consultant in the early days of winemaking for the new Caliza brand. The first Caliza wines were made in 2006 from mostly purchased fruit as Bowker’s new vineyard was not yet producing. Grapes from that first vintage were sourced from neighboring Torrin Vineyard as well as the Russell Family Vineyard, just a short distance away. Bowker became confident Caliza Winery was going to be a major part of the Rhône movement like his Anderson Road area neighbors such as Booker Vineyard, Brian Benson Cellars, L’Aventure Winery and Torrin Vineyard.
“I was first introduced to Carl through a vineyard manager when he was buying his property,” Hawley said. “When I was in my consulting phase, I would look at property rather than being concerned with the people side of the business. I became familiar with the now Caliza property through someone else at first. I knew I wanted to work with that property and could see its potential.”
Shortly after meeting Bowker, Hawley said he knew this winemaking greenhorn was different than most Paso wine folks he had come into contact with.
“Carl was mild-mannered and super easy to get along with,” Hawley said. “He knew exactly what he wanted to achieve but was honest in that he didn’t know how to get there.”
While Bowker was inexperienced, without a track record in the wine business, Hawley said the newest Templeton Gap resident had the motivation, ambition, and focus to create something special.
“I could tell right away Carl was different,” Hawley said. “As soon as I agreed to work with him, he became absorbed in winemaking. Carl was, and still is, a sponge. He incorporated and assimilated everything I could show or teach him. He was meticulous, writing down and taking in everything I said. In fact, I had to watch my steps with Carl. He would go back to his notes and more than once I needed to be careful with what I did or said. I had to watch my Ps and Qs.”
As far as Hawley could remember, Bowker had a penchant for details. Carl was so focused on the process, he took everything literal and often became the punchline of winemakers’ jokes.
“I wanted to be sure Carl understood a little about the importance of a clean environment in the winery,” Hawley said while chuckling. “But when I returned later, I found Carl, in classic fashion, decked out in a tie-back blue suit like he was working in a sterile lab complete with goggles on. I guess he was under the impression he needed zero contamination. But to his credit, he took the learning curve seriously and his attention to detail has paid off.”
The major strength of the Caliza Winery is that it’s almost completely self created. Most of Bowker’s wines are estate grown; he planted the vines himself and each year he helps pick, crush, create and bottles the wine. He is the whole picture. He knows what he wants when the year starts and is focused on gaining the unique characteristics of the vineyards.
Carl’s winery has a fine collection of six different Rhône-style clones, allowing him to handcraft his estate wines. Many are award-winning, including the 100 percent Rhône-style 2010 Syrah as well as the 2010 Azimuth which blends 40 percent Mourvedre, 30 percent Syrah and 30 percent Grenache.
“Carl is successful today–his wine sells,” Russell said. “He doesn’t need to pay a distributor to sell his wines; word of mouth shows how good Carl is.”
Caliza’s Syrahs and Rhône-style blends are award-wining, unique, big and intense. Bowker knows and experiences and lives out the whole picture, block, vineyard, and year with the final product. He is hands-on from beginning to end and there is a story behind each bottle of wine.
“Wine is made from the ground up,” Bowker says, “hand in hand, put together, made beautiful.”
Bowker and his wife, Pam, are members of the Paso Robles Rhône Rangers regional chapter: a term used to describe those who produce Rhône-style wines in the United States. They also belong to the national Rhône Rangers: America’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhône varietal wines. Caliza is a very active participant in the organization, both nationally and in the local Paso Robles chapter. In fact Pam will lead the Paso Robles chapter in 2013 as president.
Carl has been on the Rhône Ranger panel for several seminars discussing Rhône wines at the national event held each year in San Francisco. Be sure to check out the 16th Annual Rhône Rangers San Francisco Tasting, March 22-23, 2013, at Fort Mason. Over 500 of the best American Rhône wines from more than 100 Rhône Rangers member wineries will be poured.
The Paso Robles regional chapter of the Rhône Rangers will next host the 2013 Paso Robles Rhône Rangers Experience at the Broken Earth Winery, Feb. 17, 2013. Over 40 wineries will explore with the public what makes Paso Robles so ideal for Rhône varietals. Tickets for the seminar and lunch are $85.
For more information on the Rhône Rangers, read the March 31, 2011, Wine Spectator article, “Talent Show”; it briefly outlines the Paso Robles’ new wave of wines from this growing network of California Rhône go-getters.
Be sure to read past winemaker’s stories, including Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor .
Carl Bowker passionately pursued entrepreneurial opportunities in the trade show and convention business for 26 years while living and working in the San Francisco area. But in 2001, a Wine Spectator/Mondavi-sponsored, tour of Tuscany, convinced him to transform his horticultural focus into a viticulture dream. Who knew nine years later the same magazine would honor the rookie winemaker with their Pick of the Month.
Just before the 2012 harvest, I visited with Carl for nearly three hours on the outdoor patio at Caliza Winery. We sat underneath a couple of umbrellas, overlooking the Syrah vineyards, while he shared his journey with me.
Bowker was born and raised in Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii, and began his farming experiences tagging along with his father, an irrigation specialist on the Island. According to the Caliza web site, the time spent time on Island farms, working the soils beside his father, shaped young Carl’s career aspirations.
After graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1980, Bowker left the islands at 23. He landed in California, and put his business degree into practice, working in the convention services industry.
The former Hawaii resident then decided he was willing to strike out on his own after three years. He literally decided to grow his own plant rental trade show business.
“I began my business renting plants and flowers for each convention, coordinating the setup and removal of decorations only to repeat the process time after time,” Bowker said. “I loved the process of creating memorable esthetics. However, it didn’t take long before I realized that there really wasn’t someone who was dedicated to trade shows. So I created my own business: Exhibit Plant and Floral. Instead of renting plants and flowers, I provided my own plants and flowers for conventions across the country.”
Bowker traversed the country for 23 years, moving freight as he coordinated the installation of plant and food decorations for trade shows. After each convention and post show clean up, he moved his gear to another destination. This endeavor later became ‘top shelf.’ He ensured a first-rate presentation by owning all the live green and cut floral arrangements in the displays.
“I loved the creative part of the business,” Bowker said. “It was fun. My wife, Pam, and I met a lot of great people and we loved to travel. We liked to put things together so our business thrived. We had horticultural green houses and plants all around the U.S. so it kept us pretty busy.”
Despite the success, Bowker was not convinced he would retire as a trade show businessman. While the couple loved to cook, Pam and Carl had been introduced to wine and food pairings on dinner trips to wine country. Conveniently for them, the Bowker’s business was headquartered just outside of San Francisco, So the couple made frequent trips to Napa and Sonoma for weekends to wine and dine.
“While we hadn’t previously been interested in wine and foodies,” Bowker said, “Pam and I loved to entertain and cook. And we found there were great restaurants in the Napa/Sonoma area, so we made time to get over there, even if it was just for dinner.”
However, the event which changed the course of his life was the 2001 trip to Italy’s Tuscany region.
It was during a Italian wine tour that the couple expanded their appreciation for world class wines and for what the land could produce. While in Tuscany, Carl and Pam spent time with many of the region’s finest wine-producing families. The couple attentively listened to the details of wine production and noticed the special connection the families had with their land. From this experience, Carl vowed that he would make this the way of life for himself and his family. He wanted to become a part of the groundswell of excitement of Central Coast winemaking.
“We almost did not get to go on the Tuscany trip,” Bowker said. “After the 9/11 attack, the trip was moved back two weeks. We decided to go but with a lot of concern. Now it is amazing to think how one event provided direction and changed the course of our lives.”
Even as he was interested in moving to a wine region like Paso Robles, it didn’t take long before Carl knew he needed to go back to school. He knew his horticultural focus in the trade show and convention business would not help him create acclaimed wines. After he returned from Italy in the fall of 2001, he began attending Napa Valley College to learn about viticulture and enology, completing an associate program in 2004. He believed these went hand in hand; grapes and wine are created from the ground up.
“I loved what I was doing with the plant business and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be neat to do this with the wine business?’” Carl mused. “I already had a green thumb so why not get the education I needed work to with grapes? So I took wine science and the chemistry of wine classes.”
Our time was briefly interrupted by Lowell Zelinski of Precision Ag Consulting who has been working with Caliza Winery since 2008. They briefly spoke about the irrigation plans for the day. Zelinski often checks in with Carl and provides vineyard management and technical services to Caliza and many other wineries in the Paso area.
Later I caught up with Zelinski who enthusiastically endorsed Bowker as someone who was quick to offer winemaking suggestions to all who asked in the region. In fact, Zelinski shared that Carl had often been a resource for his own small winery: First Crush Cellars.
“Carl is the real deal,” Zelinski said. “He is generous and generally interested in my recommendations concerning the Caliza vineyards and he is a hands-on guy. He is a consummate professional who seems to care and is passionate about winemaking.”
While their interchange lasted less than five minutes, Carl and Lowell’s banter was upbeat, to the point and ended with a chuckle.
Already on a quest to start a new life in fall of 2001, the Bowkers decided to travel to San Diego County where his mother and father lived. They drove down California Highway 101 and initially planned to stop in the Carmel Valley, near San Luis Obispo. It was a late November night and the drive was cut short by fog.
“As the weather was deteriorating, we hoped to go as far as San Miguel,” Carl said. “In fact, as we drove near the town any further travel proved to be unsafe. Once we decided to stop, we hoped the town would have a motel. In fact, it was the first glow we saw–the only motel in town. It was a simple place and gladly stayed there that night–the evening before Thanksgiving.”
Early the next morning, the couple left, looking for great cup of coffee. They took the first exit: Paso Robles.
“We got off the Highway 101, looking for Starbucks, but Paso didn’t have one at the time,” Carl said. “We drove down Spring Street to the Paso Robles Inn. We had breakfast at the counter but no espresso. I remember Pam saying, ‘this is a cute little town–a little like downtown Sonoma. A cool town.’ We liked it so much and felt it was a wine town and deserved an extra night.”
After Thanksgiving, the Bowkers stopped in Paso Robles on way back to San Francisco and stayed another night. Ingtrigued by the country and the people, the couple made frequent trips to the area, checking around Templeton and eating at McPhee’s Grill.
“Next door to McPhee’s is a real estate office where we would check the listings,” Carl said. “Pam saw our winery property listed in the office and it got us interested. But at the time we both agreed to look at something else. In fact, I began spending a lot of my time–a week at a time–looking at property in the Paso Robles area. It became my … it became our focus. And it took us about a year to settle on our property here in the Templeton Gap. I love the country feel of Paso.”
Carl actually found the first property without Pam. He made an offer on the 50-acre Peachy Canyon site in late 2002. The Bowkers bought the first parcel and continued farming its 23 rows of Cabernet and bottling a Cabernet/Syrah blend called Companion.
“Pam had faith in me,” Carl said. “I originally came to look at the Peachy Canyon site on my own.” Later Pam came down and it didn’t take long and she charmed the sellers, sealing the deal. “We were city people, out of the area and the previous owner was a little nervous about selling to outsiders. But we approached this opportunity as our land, our home. It was after Pam arrived and we all talked that the deal was completed. Pam helped the previous owner be comfortable with us taking over.”
Her faith in her husband’s ability continues to pay off and, while Caliza Winery is not necessarily known for Companion, the 2006 vintage received a 90+ points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (June 2008) in Issue #177: California’s Rhone Rangers.
Carl says he feels fortunate to have “discovered” Paso Robles, and at the time, believed it to be a new frontier in winemaking. They kept looking for superior vineyard property and added a second land purchase on Anderson Road in 2003. This 60-acre piece of land had an old declining 25-acre vineyard planted mostly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the Bowkers felt strongly that this land could become the cornerstone of the new Caliza Winery and vineyards with some major modifications.
“We bought for location as we wanted to be in the Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles,” Carl said. “We chose this location to be a part of this amazing land, region and culture. We also wanted to be a part of the Paso wine movement and its huge upside. However, I knew I needed a special place to grow Rhone varieties and there is no better place than here.”
While their newly purchased Templeton Gap winery was producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Carl Bowker was not convinced his vineyards would develop world class wines. A fall 2004 trip to the Rhône Valley convinced Carl to make the hardest decision he’s ever had to make in his life. Please return in a couple of weeks to TalesoftheCork for “Caliza Winery: Templeton Gap nets a Rhone Ranger” and Carl Bowker’s tale of “making wine that will grab your attention!”
For other stories from TalesoftheCork, read the October 12, 2012, blog post, Guinness confirms Napa Valley owns wine relay record (VIDEO).
Something was not right and Napa Valley residents take a stand at Charles Krug Winery, Oct. 7, 2012.
Located in one of the premier wine growing regions of the world, Napa residents, winemakers, growers and businesses believe the rightful place for the longest relay wine toast record belongs in St. Helena, California.
The problem: A group of Chinese located in Guangzhou, China, set a new record of 321 participants in November 2011. Knowing this was going to happen, seemed to rub St. Helena resident Lowell Smith the wrong way and he, with support from the St. Helena Kiwanis Club, birthed the idea of the Napa Valley Wine Wave and decided to raise scholarship money for local schools in the process.
“We actually applied for a Guinness World Record and the Wine Wave about a year and a half ago,” Smith said. “We then got the approval to apply for this record and have been planning this event ever since.”
Smith said Guinness World Records get 50,000 requests a year for setting records. Out of those, Guinness approves about 2,000 and most get accomplished.
Johanna Hessling, an official Guinness World Book of Records adjudicator (a judge) from New York City, was invited to the event because the St. Helena and Napa Valley area community planned a record attempt for the longest wine toast relay.
“I actually walk down the line as the attempt is happening and will be counting with my clicker to make sure that everyone who participates does it correctly,” Hessling said. “What this group needs to do in order to break, or achieve, that record today is to have a minimum of 322 participants take part in the toast, according to the guidelines that are established by Guinness.”
Jay Lewis, a member of St. Helena Kiwanis Wine Wave Committee and retired professor from Pacific Union College in Angwin, Calif., volunteered to be a line captain to make sure his charges did everything right.
“I’m excited because so many people are coming together to participate in a World Record,” Lewis said. “The Chinese hold the record with over 300 plus and we are hoping to get 500. This is a great event to hold in the Napa Valley, the center of the wine industry, but the Chinese currently hold the record. Oh, come on!”
Set on the tree-lined grounds of the first commercial winery in California, Charles Krug Winery is a natural place to host over 500 people to participate or watch the Napa Valley Wine Wave.
Kara Chamberlain, a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena, heard about the Wine Wave and record attempt from her professor.
“We were sent out an email asking for volunteers or participants because this is for a scholarship fund that actually benefits our school,” Chamberlain said. “A few of my friends from school came here to promote something that we love. This has been so good for me to talk to the many winemakers of the St. Helena area and taste their many different wines. I appreciate that because that is what we are studying. I am hoping to become a wine writer. I am talking to the winemakers as much as possible and networking as well.”
In fact these and other students, along with local businesses, including French Blue, Sorensen Catering and Armadillos Restaurant, served appetizers while the wine relay participants toasted and clinked their way into the record book.
Charles Krug Winery is unique in the Napa Valley as it is still 100 percent family owned and now moving into the fourth generation. Pete Jr., the youngest son of Peter Mondavi, Sr., believes Napa is the rightful place for a record like the Wine Wave.
“St. Helena is where the industry started and Charles Krug Winery is as good as any in Napa Valley,” Mondavi said. “The winery opened in 1861 … 151 years ago. But first and foremost, this is about Kiwanis. We have been involved with St. Helena Kiwanis Club as a venue for fundraising events for many years. They came over with this idea and what better place to host this event? We have beautiful grounds that can hold over 500 people. Come to see where Napa all started.”
The “wave” of toasters kept Hessling busy from 1:30-2:30 p.m. She watches as each takes turns clinking glasses and sipping wine. After toasting, each participant turns to the person next to them and the process follows from one to two, two to three and so on. The longest relay wine toast is a sequential toast where participants clink glasses in order, from start to finish, rather than the more common toast where everyone clinks glasses simultaneously. Hessling kept pace and smiles each time a red flag raises, denoting when a 100th participant completes the toast.
As each one took turns, a “cheers,” “salut” or other proclamations sounded as individuals look into a partner’s eyes while sipping 2009 Charles Krug Zinfandel. A distinct ‘clink’ and the ringing sound of glasses chime as the dings or pings mix with laughter and chatter.
A 65-foot red and yellow hot air balloon from Napa Valley Balloons provided an impressive backdrop and participants danced to Ancestree, a Santa Cruz roots reggae band. The group grooved and mixed three-part harmonies into an impressive reggae/rock mix from 10:30-1:30 p.m.
St. Helena resident Sue Collins came with her husband Peter to enjoy the unusual afternoon festivities. Peter said they have had many memorable events at the winery and Charles Krug continues to be community-oriented, hosting great events on the property.
“We are here to support Kiwanis and support the wine industry,” Sue said. “We hope to have a little fun, get together with some good music and friends and enjoy a glass of wine in a beautiful location. Oh, and of course, there’s that Guinness thing, too.”
Ira C. Smith, Sports Director at KVON/KVYN, proclaims to the 487 participants, they broke the Guiness World Record. Johanna Hessling then awards Pam Simpson (CEO/President of St. Helena Chamber of Commerce) a framed certificate honoring the Napa Valley Wine Wave record, while Lowell Smith thanks Hessling with a commemorative bungstarter.
While hundreds gathered on the Charles Krug grounds, including the 487 people who took turns to ‘clink, sip and clink,’ there were dozens of others who watched as spectators; students and volunteers served and the Saint Helena Community Band played instrumental numbers until most revelers left.
“We brought our community together and we set a Guinness World Record,” St. Helena Mayor, Del Britton, said. “This unique world record now resides in the Napa Valley, the heart of the wine experience.”
Upon completion of the record, Hessling, along with Master of Ceremony, Ira Smith, announces that the new world record of 487 now belongs to the Napa Valley Wine Wave of St. Helena, California. Each participant also received a world record medallion to commemorate the event.
Local food trucks, Marks The Spot and Awful Falafel, served gourmet pulled pork and chicken sliders and Middle-Eastern food. These where paired with wines from Appellation St. Helena, including Ballentine Vineyards, Charnu Winery, Chase Family Cellars, J. Lohr & Wines, Raymond Vineyards, Robert Biale Vineyards, Rutherford Grove, Salvestrin Winery, Trinchero Napa Valley, Tudal Winery, and V. Sattui Winery.
The Napa Valley Wine Wave was created by the St. Helena Kiwanis Club, in partnership with the wineries of Appellation St. Helena, St Helena and St. Helena Chamber, CHEERS! St. Helena, as a way to raise money for scholarships. Proceeds raised from the event go towards scholarships in the agriculture, viticulture, winemaking, business and hospitality industries. For more information and opportunities to purchase commemorative merchandise and donations for scholarships, visit the Napa Valley Wine Wave or on Twitter at @NVWineWave.
For more information on the Napa Valley Wine Wave, visit the award-winning channel Wine Oh TV and watch Monique Soltani’s VIDEO.
After opening a 1,500 square foot wine bar in Fresno on the NE corner of Cedar and Shepherd, owners Chuck and Jen Van Fleet built quite a lunch and after-work following in 2006. They gathered with friends, tasted, toasted and favored bottles of wine together. By 2011, the couple believed their regulars were ready for an expanded food and wine experience.
This summer Vino & Friends Wine Store & Bistro celebrated it’s first anniversary and expansion in the new tasting room, August 4, 2012. The new digs are four doors down in the Via Montana Shopping Center. With chef Katie Parker creating the menu, and a 750 ft. private party room for big groups, food service is now carefully paired, using over 40 wines by the glass or a 300+ bottle line-up. The energy in the air vibrates as people come to meet and hang out.
I arrived at Vino & Friends for a visit with Van Fleet and Steve Lister of JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery to talk about JUSTIN’s award-winning wines, Sept. 22.
Van Fleet, a former Miller Brewing Co. rep. and General Manager for Auto Trader, was hosting Lister, JUSTIN’s wholesale sales manager. The bistro was abuzz. Lister was pouring and sharing tasting notes, so I spent my first 30 minutes with the Vino & Friends owner.
Chuck and Jen’s vision for a wine bar had its roots while they lived in Sacramento. The couple often traveled to Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Napa Valley, visiting favorite restaurants and wine-tasting before deciding to become entrepenuers.
“I wanted to own my own business,” Chuck said, “and after managing the Northern California Online Auto Trader for years, constantly traveling, I was ready to settle down. I wanted to do something I was passionate about. I looked at coffee shops and tanning businesses, but we both loved wine. Vino & Friends has become our passion.”
The bistro’s table and bar were filled to near capacity as Chuck and I spoke. I marveled how the staff energetically interacted with the patrons, serving food throughout my three-hour (2-5 p.m.) visit. The atmosphere was relaxed, comfortable and easy. I saw plates of butternut squash ravioli and specialty burgers go out all afternoon. This is not just a wine bar.
“We had a strong wine club membership at the first location and I was confident it would grow as we expanded,” Van Fleet said. “All they have to do is park in a new spot. And while the new store looked like it might be too big for us, the increased business has created a menu for success.”
The original Vino & Friends only staffed four employees and now Chuck has 26 folks on the payroll. When new hires begin, Chuck trains all of them in tastings and flavor characteristics in food, beer and wine. They all know how to pair the food on the menu with the wine in the shop Chuck said. Chuck believes this has gone a long way to guarantee a successful bistro experience.
“Opening a wine bar and then moving to a larger store didn’t seem risky at either time,” Van Fleet said, “because our growing wine club membership and five years of learning the business put us into a place that created a successful business. At the time we opened in 2006, there wasn’t a lot of competition or wine bars around, so we flourished. We are an independent wine bar and bistro without a corporate ladder to answer to. We listen to our customers and are not afraid to make changes to improve our service or selection.”
Today, Vino & Friends boasts over a 700 wine club membership that is growing each month and a wine list that has far exceeded the original offering.
Van Fleet was careful to point out that Vino & Friends is not trying to compete with the Sequoia Brewing Co. when it comes to beer sales.
“I have a great relationship with the owner, Jeff (Jeff Wolpert of Sequoia),” Chuck said. “We refer and share customers back and forth. In fact, I also enjoy going to Campagnia and appreciate what Tony is doing over there (both establishments near Champlain and Perrin). In fact, Jen and I had a glass of wine at Campagnia to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.”
When Chuck is not taste testing one of his 300+ bottles of wine for his inventory, he enjoys a glass of Heitz Cellars or Buehler Cabernet for dinner. In summer he enjoys a glass of Rosé or Pinot Blanc.
Vino & Friends continued to buzz as Chuck was called to the back for a phone call. The demographics this afternoon were over 75% women, chatting over a glass of JUSTIN wine and appetizers. As the Clovis High’s 30th anniversary reunion leadership group began to arrive with flowers and decorations for their private party, Steve Lister shook Chuck’s hand sat down at my table.
Lister immediately engaged with me, sharing how the Fresno wine market keeps him coming back three to four times a year. On this trip, Flemings Steakhouse was sponsoring a wine dinner and Chuck asked him to lead a JUSTIN wine tasting earlier in the day. Lister was quick to agree and was easily the star attraction this afternoon. He praised Chuck as a wine connoisseur and passionate about the wine business.
“I really identify with the local wine merchants and owners,” Lister said. “I’ve become friends with Chuck and Jen over the years and enjoy promoting wine with them. They are very knowledgeable about California wines, especially from the Paso region. We get together when I am in town and often share a meal as well.”
A Wine and Spirits national salesman, Lister met his wife, Beth, five years ago while she worked at Napa’s Trefethen Family Vineyards. They both happened to be at a wine shop in Los Angeles, hanging out at The Wine House.
Normally quiet and shy away from the wine business, Steve is riding the wave of success at JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery, despite the corporate purchase of the winery from Justin Baldwin. Baldwin, who originally purchased 160 acres in 1981, planted Bordeaux-style blends from estate vineyards in the hills just west of Paso Robles. Today Lister has the enviable job of promoting award-winning wines that came from No. 1 wine region in the world (Wine Spectator 2010).
But it wasn’t always that easy to sell JUSTIN wines.
“When I first started years ago, I used to have to try and convince people to check out what was going on with Paso wines,” Lister said. “Very few folks gave Paso Robles a second look but owner Justin Baldwin was a genius and purchased land that was perfect for the Cabernet Bordeaux-style blends he has made famous. Now people call me and ask what is going on in Paso.”
Lister has been around JUSTIN Winery for over ten years, watching the winery bottle 20,000 cases to 105,000 cases of wine last year. He started when the sales force numbered three folks to over a 100 this year, two years after the winery was sold to Fiji Water.
“My biggest adjustment is learning how to utilize the new tools, people and personnel and recognizing all the additional resources,” Lister said. “The new owners and management have been incredible. We no longer just try to maximize our share of the California market, but are still a small winery going after a national market share. I have found Justin Winery to still be focused on customer service. My passion for wine and people have not changed since Justin Baldwin sold the winery.
The winery came together as a result of Baldwin purchasing land west of Paso Robles when few wanted it. Lister said Baldwin always focused on quality and insisted on buying from partners in the area who had the best Cabernet Sauvignon grapes blended them to express a Bordeaux-style for the ISOSCELES and Justification labels.
Their iconic bottle is the ISOSCELES Reserve. Sourced entirely from the home estate vineyard planted in 1981, this wine reflects the pinnacle of Baldwin’s efforts. Vines planted on native root stock, in nutrient depleted soils, are dry farmed and hand harvested. This label can only be purchased via the JUSTIN Wine Society.
Today that quality and patience in building a world-class winery is still a focus as the new corporate ownership has put in new acreage and is introducing a new line of wine called Right Angle: a blend with 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Petite Sirah, 12% Malbec and 7% Petite Verdot. The 2010 is now available for a short time for $30.
“I still believe in the winery and I still champion JUSTIN wine,” Lister said. “I think the sale of the winery was a perfect storm for all of us. We are thriving and have had our best years in consecutive order as the wines of 2008-2010 have been bottled and sold. And I agree with Justin Baldwin when he says, ‘I’m making wines, not trophies.’ Our wines are meant for consumers to consume at a reasonable price.”
After my hour with Lister, my wife, Geena, and I settled down for a tasting of the just released JUSTIN 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. The bottle ($25) had been opened for less than an hour and was delicious. The nose was of black fruit and its velvety texture was ready to drink without food. However, we paired a Trio of Bruschetta ($10.95) to go with it and experienced Vino & Friends from the sidelines for the next hour.
Today JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery is a 740-acre ranch, including 200 new acres of vines at the JUSTIN Estate Vineyard, DeBro Vineyard, the Adelaida Hills Vineyard and the newest addition: Templeton Hills. JUSTIN Winery is located at 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles, CA 93446 USA. Be sure to inquire for upcoming events, including the JUSTIN Wine Harvest Weekend: Friday, October 19 – Sunday, October 21. Be sure to make reservations! They can be reached at 805.238.6932 or 800.726.0049.
Vino & Friends Wine Store & Bistro is located at 1560 E. Champlain Dr., Fresno, CA 93720. Chuck Van Fleet brings in a new winery each Saturday for a tasting. The October 2012 line-up includes Jeff Runquist (Oct. 6), Rombauer Vineyards (Oct. 13) and Sextant Wines (Oct. 20) and Frank Family Vineyards (Oct. 27).
Van Fleet is also planning a Brown Bag, blind tasting wine dinner for the first 22 people who show up at Vino & Friends, Nov. 7. The men are to bring a Cabernet and women a Chardonnay. The group will vote and the winners receive a free dinner. The cost is yet to be determined. A Nov. 14 beer dinner is also planned so please check their web site for more information. Vino & Friends can be reached at 559.434.1771.
For more information on Vino & Friends, check out TasteFresno and their 2011 VIDEO interview of Chuck Van Fleet.
Read the Aug. 5, 2012, Part I of Rangeland Wines and Angus beef: Get to know Laird Foshay. After two decades living in the Silicon Valley, media entrepreneur Laird Foshay ignored the nay-sayers and criticism and moved his three children to the hills west of Paso Robles in 2000. In a bold career shift, he transferred from cutting edge Internet-based businesses to farming.
“I was starved for a natural life–a connection with the physical world,” Paso Robles rancher Laird Foshay said. “I had put in 20 years in the business world with all its perks, and I thought I was involved in changing the world through software. However I was starved for things I didn’t understand but recognized.”
After ten years in computer magazine publishing and ten years as the founder of an investment news service, Laird Foshay needed a change. So in the late ’90s, Laird and his wife, Lisa, started doing something to create a new vision for their family. But curiously, the change didn’t seem to be that difficult for him to make.
“Lisa and I drove through Paso ‘window shopping’ rural properties for a destination, looking at working ranches,” Foshay said. The land near the old Dodd Ranch and adjacent to the historic Klau and Buena Vista Mines was available. This place was the commercial hub of the area as early as 1870. The ranch was a part of the old frontier. So we bought it and now are a part of that history.”
Foshay was careful to emphasize he would never put himself in the same rancher category like a Doug Filipponi (Santa Margarita Ranch and Ancient Peaks fame); yet he wanted to get back to nature and ranching just the same. So when the Adelaida Springs Ranch was for sale, the Foshays, jumped at the chance and became hands-on ranchers, despite their initial tag as “raw beginners.”
The Adelaida Springs Ranch (ASR) needed a lot of updating and Foshay had the time to drive in posts and redo the water lines. He built his “dream house”: a sprawling two-story ranch house complete with outbuildings and pool nestled into the hillside 12 miles west of Paso Robles, overlooking the Santa Lucia Range (VIDEO). And he planted most of his vineyard stock by 2002: a 40-acre ASR estate vineyard. It is surrounded by over 1,500 acres of oak woodlands on a pristine mountain valley.
“Now, this wasn’t without sleepless nights,” Foshay said, “but then marriage, business, career and children aren’t without them either. But these are all worth while.”
The winemaking community made fun of them early on, but Foshay and Lisa did almost all of the work themselves. They investigated the process, read, asked a lot of questions plus worked for others in the industry. The made mistakes along the way but gained valuable experience. In fact, the ranch “became the center of his life.” Instead of socializing with the business crowd of the Bay Area, Foshay and Lisa became involved with Paso Robles social events, including the Farm Bureau, meeting area growers, farmers and ranchers.
With his Polo shirts retired to the closet, Foshay now often wears a plaid shirt, fleece or down vest and a straw cowboy hat. The risk-taker can be found in the vineyards, fixing fences, splitting wood or in the grasslands, riding horses and moving cattle with Silver, his crossbred 10-year-old Australian cattle dog. Silver whines when not working and helps keeps Foshay’s herd in check. Foshay will drink a Coors or Sam Adams beer because, when cold, are refreshing and consistent. He favors L’Aventure Estate Cuvee when he wants another wine on his table.
Foshay hired Shaver Lake, California-born, Shannon Gustafson as his Rangeland winemaker in 2009. She graduated from Fresno State and received her Enology degree in 2003. Gustafson studied in Bordeaux, France, in 2001 for four months at Château du Grand Mouëys and made a trip to Burgundy, France, to study in 2007. She formally worked at Zoller Wine Styling (2008-09) and Talley Vineyards (2006-08). Together, they guide the fruit from the ground up: planting, irrigating, training vines, fruit drop to harvest. They make fine wines in the vineyard as a team. They do not add enzymes or acid and only allow native yeast fermentation. Rangeland Wines are unique, soft with more acidity from the limestone soils. These are sound, refined wines, European in style but not over-the-top. They are approachable that have longevity and do not fall apart in the glass.
Personally I tasted 11 different Rangeland Wines. I loved the 2010 Mistletoe Blend. This is a non-traditional blend of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot grown in vineyards at the 1,700 ft. level. The wine already had a softness about it that surprised me. While it will be better in a year or two, the Mistletoe is a great pizza wine or it can be drunk by itself. It is easy going but hedonistic, rustic and has earthy notes. The Cab Franc gave off a subtle ‘green’ hint of coffee and dark cherry.
Yet my favorite was the 2009 Rangeland Limestone Reserve. This Cabernet is age-worthy and wowed me with its floral aromatics, immediately upon opening. With two years in 75% new oak barrels, this fruit-forward mountain Cab is not racked until blending. It’s tart acidity and stiff tannins were nicely hid amongst the black cherry. And while the wine was not chewy, the Limestone Reserve had a lovely finish. This is a good food pairing wine than should age well.
These two, and all of Rangeland Wines, can be purchased through their website and club list. Additionally, the wines can be tasted at the ranch by appointment or purchased through a select few local retail outlets.
However, Foshay wanted to create more than just critically acclaimed fine estate wines; over time his vision morphed to include the natural meat business.
“While we weren’t initially interested in taking on cattle, our family seasonally raised heifers for our kids who became involved in the local 4H program,” Foshay said. “In fact, we would buy them back at auction and they became the seed stock of our land.”
Foshay’s ranch experience came through the local 4-H program, but also included helping neighbors with branding and working with the vet, administering medicines to animals. He also has a strong opinion of overcoming modern practices of grain-fed beef and has built a USDA approved natural and sustainable pasture-feed beef program. His rangeland consists of high-mineral soils of limestone and calcium that are perfect for his 80 head of Angus beef. Foshay regularly rotates his animals through standing thick yellow grasslands and forbs, like wild rye, clover, vetch and filaree. These conditions fatten up the beef to be smaller, but healthier and more muscular than their grain-feed counterparts. The beef are not feed supplements that are the staple of commercial feedlots, never receiving hormone supplements or antibiotics.
“I am in the meat and wine business and have complete control of both,” Foshay said. “I learned a lot about estate branding and the food business from Art Mondavi, relying on common sense in the vineyard and in the pasture and do not rely on chemicals.” He went on to say Rangelands Wines and the Adelaida Springs Ranch’s reputation are built on sustainable farming that are natural and healthy for the environment and human consumption.
“I have hands-on boutique control of Rangeland Wines and the animals from birth to your meat counter,” Foshay said. “The products I manage are unique where they are grown and all express their environment. I am happy with the curve of our development. The beef and the wines are authentic, natural and simple. I like our progress but not yet satisfied. I continue to talk to the consumer directly and react to their feedback and improvement ideas.”
I found it difficult to complete my TalesoftheCork assignments during August. In the weeks leading up to dropping off my youngest daughter at Arizona State University, family memories flood my thoughts. And so, before I continue, I offer this and occasional personal tales to my readership. My hope is to release them before I cling too tightly to their memory, stifling my desire to move forward. The first installment is to celebrate my daughter Brianna’s first wedding anniversary.
Her Mother and I
I walked my firstborn down the aisle last week.
The first time I thought about this event was during a conversation I had with a nurse in Fresno Community Hospital’s nursery–23 years ago. She placed my daughter, Brianna, in a checkbook-sized diaper, swaddled her in pink and asked, “So what do you think about your daughter?”
Her words initially stunned me. The wonder of creation had just exhilarated and captivated me a few minutes earlier. But I recovered, shook my head from side to side and blurted out, “Amazing!” I remember smiling so much my cheeks hurt.
Yet after a moment watching my baby’s dark eyes and tiny hands waft back and forth, my mind drifted to a future event.
“Well, I don’t know much about caring for a baby yet,” I mused, “but I do know I’ll have to pay for a wedding someday.”
Today, I reflect back on a whirlwind three-day weekend: A blur of decorating a friend’s backyard, the rehearsal and dinner, the ceremony and party afterwards and, finally, eight hours of clean-up.
After a traditional church wedding 25 years earlier, Geena was determined to create a cottage atmosphere for our oldest daughter’s ceremony. With a “Go for it, mom,” from Brianna, Geena transformed a beautifully restored 1920s Tower District manor into a French country garden estate for Brianna’s wedding. Casual. Relaxed. Intimate. Utilizing an army of friends’ help, the ‘venue’ beheld floral accents, benches topped with pillows, a fountain and pond, candles, designer lighting, music and more gourmet food and drink than guests could consume.
My part? I joined the groom and a buddy and did what we were told–lighting. Yup. That’s it mostly. Sure we helped set up, buy more stuff and move things, take down and clean up. But this was really a day for my wife and daughter. Just like 23 years ago, Geena knew what to expect with the first kid: Long hours and attention to details, a commitment to selflessness, tired feet, and a whole lot preparation and sacrifice that I hadn’t a clue one of. So this time, I followed Geena’s and the bride’s instructions precisely, right down to a garden path that lead to an alter.
Well, not exactly an alter: A spot under three 18-foot purple-flowering crepe myrtle trees in front of a pond to be exact, just before sunset.
When Brianna curled her arm under mine, she smiled and whispered, “It’s time Daddy.” My heart seemed to leap into my throat. A tear suddenly rolled out of my already misty eyes. I pulled her close and starred at a radiant angelic expression that can only be created on such a day.
At that instant, moments of previous disappointments, hardships, hurts, cost overruns, misunderstandings, failures (mostly on my part) and sorrows all dissolved. My thoughts drifted to the first weeks after bringing Brianna home. I stroked her tiny soft blond curls as she slept. The cooing melted me as she nestled in my arms.
Then suddenly, Brianna squeezed my arm to her side, pulled me forward and squealed, “This is it! I’m ready!” Tiffany blue satin heels shifted side to side. The gleam in her eyes, her luminous smile overwhelmed me.
Jubilance. … That is the only way to describe our next few steps together. Or maybe the feeling was euphoric or a seventh heaven experience. All I know is that we stepped out beyond the double French doors and into the garden arm in arm.
Over a hundred and sixty seated friends and relatives welcomed our entrance smiles aglow. I straightened up, breathed deep. Brianna’s grasp tightened; she giggled as the first guests gasped, catching a glimpse of her. I felt on top of the world. She was dazzling. My daughter seemed to float across the grass in her strapless white silk dress.
I fiddled with my white cuffs and tugged down on the edge of my black tux coat. This was to be a rapturous moment. But our walk along a flower-strewn path was too short. I just had time to call her my princess, twirl her like Cinderella as we crossed the bridge over the pond, adjust her train, pause to take in the scene and smile to Geena before we stopped to face the waiting groom.
The next few minutes were special, most personal. The pastor explained to the guests Brianna wore a purity ring, which symbolized an intimate covenant she made to her dad. Our hours spent in conversation and almost a decade living out a life in honor and respect for self and family became her testimony. She promised she would save her heart and body for the man she would marry. And while she admitted keeping a pledge was not easy, she was now ready to make a lifetime vow.
We both stood tall, confident in our relationship, past and present.
But before I could shake Stan’s hand, give her away, and say “her mother and I,” my daughter motioned me to lean close.
“Daddy, I have something to give you.” And as I turned to face Brianna, she delicately removed a tiny rose-embossed gold promise ring she had worn since her fourteenth birthday. “You can have this back now.” She took my hand and placed the ring in it.
Her hazel eyes sparkled, glistened, and danced; I didn’t want the moment to end. And before I knew it, she cupped my fingers over the little ring. I could barely breathe.
I tried to smile in spite of a gush of emotion. I hugged, squeezing her close and tried to whisper, “thanks” but nothing came out, only tears.
“Thanks Daddy,” Brianna said beaming. “I love you so much!”
With that I walked behind her to my waiting wife. Geena and I intertwined our hands, smiled at Brianna’s sisters standing next to her, and stood together ready to watch our daughter marry the man of her dreams.
All wedding photos by Mullins Wedding & Portrait Photography in Fresno, CA.
For a previous TalesoftheCork story, check out A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II. UPDATE: I also ask your patience as I am still working on Part II of Rangeland Wines and Angus beef: Get to know Laird Foshay.
This blog continues to follow Mike Sinor’s transformation from Assistant winemaker to Byron and Domaine Alfred wineries in California’s Central Coast, to the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery. Please look for the first post in the series: Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor
“It was the lowest point in my life,” winemaker Mike Sinor said, after dealing with the deaths of family members in January 2006. “My head was all messed up. Yet even before my loss, I had already begun contemplating a change in work for both me and my family. I knew six months before [family deaths] a new challenge was needed. I believed my time with Terry Speizer [Domaine Alfred] was coming to an end, I just didn’t know it would happen so soon after my parents died. But despite what we were going through, I now knew it was time for me to explore another level of winemaking.”
Little did Sinor know at the time, but the 2012 Central Coast winemaker of the year, would have a 2006 spring to remember, even while mourning the loss of his father, Bernie Sinor and stepmother, Betty Ann.
“I needed to change positions because I could see Domaine Alfred was growing as we became successful, much the same way Byron Wines grew,” Sinor said. “Even before the 96-point score Wine Spectator gave the 2004 Domaine Alfred Pinot Noir [Califa Chamisal Vineyard], I needed a business opportunity. I was saying ‘no’ to a lot of jobs and wanted to do something right for my family. Yeah, it was crushing when my parents were killed and we endured a high level of personal pain. So Wine Spectator’s honor came at the lowest point in my life but I already had decided to leave. I knew there would never be a perfect time to change. And I know growth often comes through uncomfortableness. Terry understood I needed to leave. He’s a good friend and an entrepreneur himself.”
During the spring of 2006, when local proprietors and long-time wine growing families of Rob Rossi, Doug Filipponi and Karl Wittstrom approached Mike with a opportunity to be the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery, Sinor jumped at the chance to join them in May.
“I had never met these guys from the Santa Margarita Ranch, but from the start, it was a convergence of energies and focus,” Sinor said. “They had been reorganizing the operation at Santa Margarita starting in 2005 and it seemed a good fit. We became business partners rather than an employer/employee relationship. I wanted to have control over the winemaking process and they were comfortable with that. So, I said, ‘let’s start dating’ and we’ve been together ever since.”
Santa Margarita Ranch July 2012
Mike Sinor and I spent the day together at the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, just minutes north of San Luis Obispo, July 26. I wanted to find out why he had left promising positions at Domaine Alfred and Byron Wineries. The man who thrived on creating lasting relationships through his infectious attitude and positive, passionate energy, left sure-fire success for a restart winery. I wanted to find out why he had stayed on at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.
While we met briefly at the Ancient Peaks’ tasting room, Mike pulled out a large coffee table book, offering a pictorial and historical background of the ranch and Santa Margarita. I was moved by his attention to names, places, land formations and background of the region. His perspective was so impassioned, it was as if he had been born there. Mike then offered to take me up to the working winery and vineyards. I agreed and looked forward to the 17-mile drive up into the heart of the Santa Margarita Ranch, through pastures of Slender Wheatgrass, Purple Needlegrass and Danthonia Oatgrass.
Mike’s 20-minute version of Ancient Peaks Winery and its history included how Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery leased a section of the ranch in 1999 for six years. They developed and planted what has become known as Margarita Vineyard. Remarkably, it was the Mondavi family who saw immense potential in the land, and accurately predicted that its diverse soils and marine-influenced climate would deliver remarkable wines.
Our conversation digressed to include how the Franciscan missionaries planted grapes on the ranch as early as 1780. In fact the ranch became part of Father Junipero Serra’s famed Mission Trail, culminating with the establishment of Santa Margarita de Cortona, a sub-mission of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, in 1787. This historic structure, known as the Asistencia, was converted to a barn but remains a centerpiece of the ranch.
Santa Margarita Ranch has survived since the 1840s; however, in 1889, then owner Patrick Murphy sold much of the town’s land to Southern Pacific Railroad in hopes of getting a rail stop. He hoped to move cattle from this sprawling ranch that surrounded Santa Margarita.
Mike Sinor: Super charged, relational winemaker
Mike started humming the tune to Smokey and the Bandit as we neared the winery, located near Creston. When I asked why, he smiled and said this project is just like the song indicated. “We are just old-time entrepreneurs working on a project by the seat of our pants.” I didn’t ask him if he fit the Burt Reynolds persona or Jerry Reed’s truck driver character. But I did get the gist of the metaphor: Sinor delivers–no, Sinor over delivers wine quality for the price point. I can still see the gleam in his eyes as he gripped the steering wheel and sang, “We gonna do what they say can’t be done.”
However, while we walked around the Ancient Peaks Winery, I remembered what Ken “Byron” Brown told me about Sinor: Mike was a good-humored, energetic, young winemaker while he worked at Byron Winery years earlier.
“Mike Sinor stands out as a super-charged, friend of all; every one likes him,” Brown said. “He takes time for relationships but not at the expense of his work. Mike is extra double energy. He brought excitement to the team and ignited everyone at Byron each day.”
As we walked by the 2011-filled barrels safely tucked away in the aging room, we got to talking about wine, Mike’s preferences and who he enjoys working with besides his partners at Ancients Peaks.
“Actually, I don’t drink a lot of Ancient Peaks wine at home,” Sinor said. “It’s a little like only eating your mom’s spaghetti. If I drink the wines I help create everyday, I won’t get better. Like Burgundy’s winemakers, I want to make wines as good as their grandparents. We don’t have a rich, long history and culture of winemaking like they do in France. So if I’m not improving my pallet, I’m losing.”
Sinor went on to say he chooses to enjoy friend’s wines and finds it refreshing to try different wines from around the world.
“For instance, I really like Broadside Wines Cabernet. It is made by winemakers Chris Brockway [Broc Cellars] and Brian Terrizzi [Giornata wines] who are very passionate about wine that is done well; their wines transmit place. In other words, their wines exhibit my mantra: ‘The message is the place; the messenger is the wine.’”
As we continued to walk the grounds of the winery, Mike showed me how Ancient Peaks has added buildings and updated the old Creston Manor and Vineyards that Jeopardy! game show host Alex Trebek used to farm. The latest addition was in spring of this year when extensions were added to the Margarita Vineyards.
Story is unfolding, evolving in vineyards
Our trip across the ranch ended when we stood on a rise overlooking the Oyster Ridge Vineyards. I marveled at Mike’s zeal as he spoke of the land, rich in fossils from an ancient sea bed, adjacent to vineyards planted in shale, sedimentary, volcanic and granite. Mike was spirited and had a fanaticism or fixation on soil that many in this country have for baseball or football. And when we stopped to walk the Oyster Ridge Vineyard, he held a football-sized, petrified crustacean like it was a trophy.
“These (oysters) are high in calcium and, when they are crushed or broken down, create a soil profile similar to those found in the world’s most prestigious grape growing regions.” Sinor beamed as he spoke and the pace of his voice quickened, rising in intensity while we moved from row to row.
He spoke about the legacy of environmental stewardship at Margarita Vineyard as if it was his own child. The vineyard advanced to “Sustainability in Practice (SIP),” and was certified by the Central Coast Vineyard Team in 2010.
“There still are places that are compelling to plant but I am still trying to figure out who we are and how to stay on target,” Sinor said. “We have five wines at Ancient Peaks and three White Label wines. And with the longest running ranching operations in California and new zip line business always demanding attention, I am determined to stay in constant watch to focus the winery’s goals to offer high wine quality for the price point.”
Wine Spectator agreed with Mike’s assertion and promoted Ancient Peaks as “Best of the West for $25 or less… 2009 Zinfandel, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Merlot” in their April 2012 issue.
I asked Mike how he ensured there was not a conflict of interest between his Sinor-LaVallee label and the Ancient Peaks wines he consulted on.
“I am working with about an acre of fruit from the Talley-Rincon Vineyard and the Sinor-LaVallee wines I make are not meant to compete with Ancient Peaks,” Sinor said. “I am working with 2-4 barrels of wine from 14 rows. Actually, the diversity of exposure is what makes my consulting for Ancient Peaks exciting. The time spent with both brands requires and puts into practice a balance of reading/studying, keeping me fresh. This is fun! I’m honored to do this. Do the math: I get to live at the beach.”
Mike Sinor is married to Cheri and they live in the Edna Valley with their two children: Tomas (12) and Esmee (10). All four of their thumb prints appear on every bottle of the family wine label. “By definition, I am an alcoholic,’ Sinor said, “but I mimic a healthy lifestyle to my children, showing them how to live responsibly.
“I look to enjoy and share my life wife my family and community in good and bad,” Sinor said. “We are born to suffer, grow to overcome suffering. I have my dad’s and previous winemaker’s work ethic. They inspired me and now I work with many of my heroes.”
Mike currently is the President of the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association and says he likes to volunteer his time in community events and organizations because “The wine business has given me everything I own. I owe it to wine.”