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 .