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).