California Wine: It’s All a Dream

Date: 24 August, 2021 / Author: Norm Roby

Domaine Carneros Chateau. Photo credit: Domaine Carneros

A 50th Anniversary is a big deal not only for couples and businesses but also for California wineries. Throughout 2022, neither fires nor earthquakes will prevent two dozen wineries from celebrating their 50th harvest. In 2023 and over the following years, dozens more will have their own festive 50th anniversaries.

Fifty years pales when compared to Old World wine history, but what happened in 1972 and ‘73 signalled the beginning of the small winery proliferation which dramatically changed California wine.

A look back at these early start-ups (to use the current term), helps us better understand California wine, and shows why starting a winery is so wrapped up in the California dream, even today. It began in Napa and spilled over into Sonoma and Mendocino in the 1970s and continued to Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and the Sierra Foothills during the 1980s and ’90s. In this century, the pattern expands to include pop-ups, urban wineries and winery collectives.

Members of the class of ’72 and ’73 were for the most part outsiders making life-altering career choices. In one of those ‘road not taken moments’, they decided to take the plunge, pursue their dream, to follow their bliss as a result of a whim, an epiphany or maybe after too much fine wine the night before. A random survey of those who took the plunge during these two years reveals many were doctors, lawyers and engineers. But their backgrounds vary widely to include bankers, teachers, wine merchants, airline pilots and artists too. One was a geologist; another a private investigator. A few, like Jack and Mary Novak of Spottswoode, simply wanted to retire to a rural retreat.

Of course, some had deep pockets: the clichéd ‘Rich Americans’. The old saying was that ‘If you want to make a million in the wine biz, you have to start with two million.’ Sure, there were people like Tom Jordan, the wealthy Colorado oil executive, who built a replica of a French château, but there were also many more like Hans Kobler, a San Francisco maitre d’ who bought an old barn in Anderson Valley in 1973 and commuted while developing Lazy Creek Vineyards in Mendocino.

The ‘who’ is one part of the story, but the ‘why’ – the motive for changing careers – is also telling. The two primary figures in the Judgement of Paris were both newbies. Chateau Montelena’s founder, Jim Barrett, was a Los Angeles based real estate lawyer. With an expanded business and staff, he was seeking a retreat, a getaway from LaLa land. Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars said he had an epiphany over a glass of wine. A professor at the University of Chicago, Winiarski was drawn to the rural lifestyle and in 1964 packed up his family and drove them in a station wagon to Napa.

Barrett got a good deal on a historic dilapidated chateau. Winiarski studied wine and once in Napa, was hired to perform basic tasks like cleaning tanks and barrels and doing lab analysis at Souverain Cellars.

These two pathways to fulfilling the dream continue being the two primary options. Those with money, build chateau style and hire people. Those who don’t, start from the bottom, gain experience, and eventually run the show themselves.

Jack Cakebread is a favourite example of the ‘anyone can own a winery’ camp. Assigned as a semi-professional photographer to illustrate Napa wineries for a book, he fell in love with the lifestyle. Meeting an owner, on a lark he said, ‘if you ever want to sell…’ It turned out they did. And Jack used his $2,500 photography commission as a down payment on the land for Cakebread Cellars. For the first several years, he kept his day job running the family’s auto repair shop in Oakland.

Whatever career the startups abandoned in the ’70s, the common denominator was a lack of winemaking tradition. Caymus Vineyards and Raymond Vineyards were exceptions, started by people who knew how to prune a vine and drive a tractor. Clos du Val had a French winemaking connection, and two of Freemark Abby’s partners owned vineyards.

The upside is without being tradition-bound, anything goes, the new owner is free to think outside of the box. Winiarski bet the farm on a place called Stags Leap. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) grad, Dave Stare of Dry Creek Vineyards, converted a prune orchard to focus on Fumé Blanc. Rich Sanford returned from a naval stint in Vietnam, studied Santa Barbara’s unusual geography, borrowed money to plant one acre and is now commonly referred to as the ‘Godfather of Central Coast Pinot Noir’. A pharmaceutical wholesaler from Los Angeles, Al Brounstein of Diamond Creek Vineyards made not one, but four vineyard-specific Cabernets from his mountain vineyards.

This free ’70s spirit of going against the grain carries over into today’s wine scene. While there’s no denying that California wine production is dominated by the top three or four wine companies/corporations, over 80 percent of today’s 4,775 wineries make under 5,000 cases annually and 95 percent of Napa’s wineries are family owned.

Encouraged by online selling-direct strategies and by sharing production and sales outlets, many new small wineries are located in urban areas. At Paso Robles’ TinCity complex, 22 wineries (including trend-setting Desparada and Sans Liege) pour their wines. Six small wineries share space in Clarksburg’s Old Sugar Mill. Santa Barbara offers the popular ‘Urban Wine Trail’ with over 20 tasting rooms within walking distance.

New on Napa’s Main Street, wineries like Alpha Omega, Prime and Shadowbox Cellars are open, along with the appropriately named Carpe Diem and Rebel Wines. Since 2015, 100 or more new wineries have started up each year led by career changers reinventing themselves.

The wine version of the California dream continues.

Norm Roby is a contributor to our new book, On California, From Napa to Nebbiolo… Wine Tales from the Golden State, published this October.