Caliza Winery: Bowker turns horticultural focus into viticulture dream

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 decorating conventions and trade shows with plants and flowers for 26 years, Carl Bowker switched careers from horticulture to viniculture after two European wine tours.

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 of Exhibit Plant and Floral, Carl Bowker and Pam’s food and wine trips to Napa and Sonoma began to transform their interests from plant rental to winemaking.

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.

With the Tuscan hillsides in the back ground, Carl and Pam Bowker hang out along side a vineyard on a foggy morning during their 2001 trip to Italy.

“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.”

Lowell Zelinski, left, of Precision Ag Consulting, consults with Carl Bowker each week at Caliza Winery. He provides vineyard management and technical services and has done so since 2008.

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.

Carl and Pam Bowker found the Paso Robles wine region quite by accident after a foggy evening drive to SoCal prevented them from going any further south. Today Caliza Winery in the Templeton Gap west of Paso Robles creates award-winning wines.

“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.

Carl Bowker creates 200 cases of Caliza Companion as a blend of estate grapes, using 50% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Peachy Canyon property. The rest of the blend comes from the Anderson Road vineyards: 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre and 10% Tannat.

“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 a first trip to Italy help create an obsession for winemaking, a tour of France’s Rhone Valley solidified Carl Bowker’s vision for old world wine in the new world. In 2005 he planted 20 acres on their hillside property on Anderson Road, joining cutting edge winemakers in the famed Templeton Gap.

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).

Frontier ranching in Paso: Rangeland Wines and Laird Foshay, Part II

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.

After 20 years in the Silicon Valley, media entrepreneur Laird Foshay moved his family to the hills west of Paso Robles, establishing Rangeland Wines and Adelaida Springs Ranch.

“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.”

Laird Foshay runs a 1,500-acre ranch with 80 Angus beef cattle and 40 acres of vineyards.

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 Fresno State grad, Shannon Gustafson, as his Rangeland winemaker in 2009. She studied in Bordeaux, France, in 2001 for four months at Château du Grand Mouëys and has worked for other local wineries, including Talley Vineyards and Zoller Wine Styling.

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.

My favorite was the 2009 Rangeland Limestone Reserve. This Cabernet is age-worthy and wowed me with its floral aromatics, immediately upon opening.

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 manages his Rangeland Wines and beef from their inception until a customer buys them for their table. The meats, estate wines and honey products are unique where they are grown and express their environment.

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.

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.

“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.

Today Laird Foshay is making a name for himself as a winegrower and rancher. Yet he also manages a custom meat processing facility: J&R Natural Meat and Sausage in Paso Robles and Templeton.

“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.”

From their dry farmed (no irrigation) Petite Sirah, to the Limestone Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and estate blends, Rangeland Wines are available through club purchase, local retail outlets and tastings at the Adelaida Springs Ranch.

Laird Foshay can be reached at the Adelaida Springs Ranch via the web site. Visitors are also encouraged to Ranch Stay and tour the vineyards, ranch and historic homestead.

For previous TalesoftheCork stories, please use the menu bar at the TOP of the page or check out my personal essay celebrating my daughter’s first wedding anniversary: Her Mother and I.

A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II

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

Sinor LaValle owner directs Ancient Peak Winery

“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.”

Bernie Sinor on one of his hunting trips to Wyoming where he hunted big game (bison) in 2004.

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.

Mike Sinor left Domaine Alfred Winery after receiving an offer to be the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita. The Oyster Ridge Vineyard is in the foreground with the Santa Lucia Mountains providing the backdrop.

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.

While the vineyards and winery are 17 miles away near the Margarita Vineyard, the Ancient Peaks tasting room is in Santa Margarita, one mile east of Highway 101.

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.”

During his winemaking career, Mike Sinor, right, worked with Tim Mondavi, left, and Ken “Byron” Brown while creating wines with Byron Winery.

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.

Since 2007, Mike Sinor has been the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

“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.

The Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge Vineyard soils include crushed and larger pieces of ancient, petrified crustaceans. The vineyard was a part of a large seabed millions of years ago.

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.

The 300-400 cases of Sinor-LaVallee [Mike Sinor’s personal label] wines are created from about 14 rows of fruit from the Talley-Rincon Vineyard in the Edna Valley.
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.”

The Sinor-LaVallee wine label is named after Mike’s Spanish heritage and Cheri’s French last name. The Sinors appear here during their 2004 Burgundy trip and winery visits.

For more information on Ancient Peaks Winery and wines, visit Ancient Peaks Winery or Mike’s personal web site: Sinor-LaVallee Wines.

Dunbar Brewing: Santa Margarita’s neighborhood microbrewery

With a town of only 1,200 people, one would not expect a local brew pub to generate any kind of excitement. Dunbar Brewing has not only done that, but the college, and 20-something crowds from San Luis Obispo, have been making the 15-minute drive to Santa Margarita, Calif., for one-of-a-kind micro brewed beers for years.

Self-taught brewmaster, Chris Chambers, set up Dunbar Brewing in Santa Margarita in 2009. Despite the small town locale, the micro brewery successfully attracts patrons from all over the Central Coast.

Located about 11 miles north of San Luis Obispo’s California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and 30 minutes south of Paso Robles, the tiny craft brewery is small in size, but big on taste.

Self-taught, Chris Chambers began his brewing career in Los Osos, the original Dunbar location founded in 1997, for three years. However, a six-year stint in the military probed him to think about settling down, and a dry town made the perfect landing spot.

Dunbar Brewing, only a mile off Hwy 101, is on Santa Margarita’s main street, El Camino Real, and also conveniently located across the street from the town’s newest attraction: Margarita Adventures: Zipline Canopy Tours.

“We came to Santa Margarita to become involved in a small community,” Chambers said, “and Dunbar is a neighborhood pub: a place for folks to meet and build community together.”

Chambers has done more than that. He bought a house with his wife, Lauren, and three girls, near the Irish-themed brewhouse, which reopened in 2009, and cycles to work every day.

Dunbar Brewing, while small, is set up for conversation. No loud music, plenty of table and bar space and Chris is eager to talk with patrons as if they were from the neighborhood.

“From the beginning, I wanted to become involved with community projects–to pour back money into the community who has given me so much,” Chambers said. “We became involved with the 4th of July Parade and helped build a basketball court in town. I love being involved as one of the ten local businesses in Santa Margarita.”

Chambers creates five different beers, plus seasonal creations, always having at least two varieties on tap each day: English Style Ale, Brown Porter, IPA, Scottish Heavy or Oatmeal Stout. In fact, a couple of years ago, he served the special Guinness T-250 anniversary stout in an Imperial Pint glass to celebrate the great Irish brewery. The news of Dunbar carrying the special stout at $5 per pint glass brought Guinness lovers to the brewery from as far south as San Diego and north from the Bay area.

Chambers creates five different beers, plus seasonal creations, always having at least two varieties on tap each day: English Style Ale, Brown Porter, IPA, Scottish Heavy or Oatmeal Stout.

On this occasion, I taste-tested his two beer on tap: Scottish Heavy and Oatmeal Stout. The Scottish Heavy was fantastic. The malt was earthy, peat-smoked flavor with a dry, crisp finish. And the Oatmeal Stout? Well, let me say, I love my oatmeal in the morning and I was blessed to drink oatmeal in the late afternoon. Chambers said he uses eight grains to provide texture but I definitely enjoyed its chocolate and coffee overtones. Plus his beers are on nitrogen taps. Like he told me on a previous visit, his beers are “smooth and silky,” much like the classic Irish brews.

While Chambers said he does not go out and try a lot of other craft brews on the U.S. market, he did say his last trip to Portland did result in a positive Oregon experience, giving a shout out to Burnside Brewery. Yet he remains strongly convinced and vocal about his microbrewery.

“No disrespect to anyone else out there, but I have the best beer… period.”

While creating craft beer from scratch is his passion, Chambers also made sure I made note that while his pub is small, it is a place people come to visit, talk and hang out without loud music.

Look for the Dunbar Brewing sandwich board on the left as you arrive in Santa Margarita, traveling east along El Camino Real from Hwy 101.

Of course, the music has also made its impact on the brewery. Johnny Cash is the only music playing over the speakers, but it’s a cash-only pub as well.

Dunbar Brewing has a Facebook page and is located in the same building as Ancient Peaks Winery. Dunbar Brewing is located at 22720 El Camino Real, Ste. A, Santa Margarita, CA. Call 805.704.9050 or for more information.

Chris Chambers can be found behind the counter at Dunbar Brewing 3-10 p.m. Wednesday through Thursdays; 1-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 1 to 9 p.m on Sundays. All 20-ounce pours are still only $5 and served in Imperial pint glasses. Growlers can be purchased for $45 and $20 for refills.

Dunbar Brewing is set up for locals and those traveling to take the local micro beer home in Growlers for $45 filled or $20 refill.

While a tavern at the other end of town now makes two Santa Margarita, CA beverage establishments, Chambers said a different kind of patron visits his local competition. Each has established a niche and there is plenty of room for both.

Please return for the next installment of TalesoftheCork: Part II of “Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor,” August 9. (Note date change) Read as Mike overcame his great loss and accepted a new challenge at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita, Calif. His wife, Cheri, and Mike still produce Sinor-LeVallee wines and continue to be leaders in the Edna Valley winemaking community.

For a past article, read Part I: Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor.

Rangeland Wines and Angus beef: Get to know Laird Foshay

Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, with Sottish and French heritage, Paso Robles raised Laird Foshay, complete with a cowboy hat and boots, intrigued me before I even arrived at the sprawling Rangeland Wines’ home base. I previously read Laird had been a Silicon Valley-type for half his adult life. However, I couldn’t believe for the life of me that, after ten years in computer magazine publishing and ten years as the founder of an investment news service business, he wanted to be a winemaker and rancher in the hills west of Paso Robles.

Once a web publisher for and the founder of, an investment news service, Laird Foshay gave up his office job for wide open spaces at Rangeland Wines and the 1,500-acre Adelaida Springs Ranch in 2000.

Boy was I wrong. This Central Coast  winemaker not only has kept his ‘shirt and tie’ business savvy, but for the last 11 years has also added plaid, down-to-earth, unpretentiousness to his forté. His wife, Lisa, and him now operate both a winery, and the 1,500-acre  Adelaida Springs Ranch, including all-natural grass-fed 80 Angus beef cattle.

My trip to the Rangeland ranch house came after a visit with Mike Sinor of  Ancient Peaks Winery and Sinor-LaVallee. Despite my late arrival, Laird offered me a ranch guest room. We then talked well into the night, then picked up where we left off in the morning.

But before he shared his story, Laird was keen on giving me a circle tour of the ranch. We jumped into his white pick-up,  tossed the rifles in the back seat and proceeded to give me a personal tour.

The late, July sun seemed to illuminate the golden pasture grasses. The Angus beef grazing in the pastures were smaller than I had seen on other ranches, but the muscular build of the cattle stood out. The high mineral limestone soils created high-standing yellow grass and the animals looked fattened and sturdy after two years. He said the practice of rotational grazing, never allowing the animals more than 30 days in a pasture, kept them fit. The truck traveled down worn paths for almost two hours, and I never saw evidence of overgrazing. In fact, we passed by a few 1,300-pound specimens which Laird said were scheduled to be harvested in the days/weeks to come.

Through the hills, dozens of remarkable, natural springs gravity-fed the ranch’s needs and actually have been doing so since the Salinan Nation and the Chumash native peoples lived in and near this area hundreds of years ago. The many species of oak trees dotted the pastures, rocky outcroppings and at the edges of the vineyards. The laurel oak, live oak, blue oak and valley oak are all common to Paso Robles and the Adelaida Springs Ranch.

Rangeland owner Laird Foshay traded unstable high Internet dollars for fair/bargin-priced land in the oak-covered hills west of Paso Robles and a chance to be an Angus beef rancher and winemaker. He wanted a rural lifestyle and was willing to be a beginner to do it.

As we continued around the ranch, Laird shared his love for the land and the native peoples. We talked about the history of the old Adelaide and the Klau and Buena Vista Mines and mid-1800 homesteaders. Laird spoke as though his family had homesteaded the place, not like someone who had moved there from the City of Palo Alto, just 11 years before. Later, he even pulled out a 1992 copy of J. Fraser MacGillivray’s coffee table book, Adelaida. It is fabulous, self-published book on the history of the region, including manuscripts, photos, and newspaper clippings.

During our drive through golden pastureland, 40 acres of vineyards, past ponds, posts and ranch machinery, we talked about raw beginnings, watering holes, golden eagles and putting up with new visitors to the area: 250-700 pound wild feral hogs or even and maybe even a 200-pound  wild black Russian boar.

“This is a new wild frontier,” Foshay said. “The ranch is a place of opportunity and freedom for me and for our young winemaker, Shannon Gustafson. It’s about a new place. I’m reshaping my history.”

My thoughts turned to a, July 2012 article, which published Steve Ballmer’s comments of reshaping  Microsoft, despite its past success. Ballmer’s drive reminded me of Foshay’s confidence about reformatting his life. Laird’s courage and conviction was gripping.

“Hey, I’ve changed careers twice already,” Foshsay said. “I’ve taken a lot of criticism but few things are rocket science and this [ranching] isn’t one of them.”

The 2009 The Watershed (Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend) is one of nine Rangeland wines produced on an annual basis. Rangeland wines are offered through club membership on their web site or through over 20 area wine shops and restaurants.

As dusk fell, the California quail and hares skittered under twigs and piles of dead vine stock. The talk in the truck of  abundant wildlife, including wild turkey, deer, bobcat, mountain lion and bear, red-tailed hawk and a pair of bald eagles, seemed to give evidence of a healthy ecosystem beyond what Foshay was creating with his cattle. Laird added he brought on one other full-time employee in 2011: Nathan Stuart. Since last summer, Paso Robles-born Stuart has managed the vineyards, introduced grazing sheep in the vineyard and also kept the bees busy with the ranch’s honey-making venture.

Our drive ended back at the ranch house with talks of dinner before our conversation would turn to winemaking. Laird offered me a couple of Angus beef hamburgers. No take out or maid service here. The patties sizzled and the fat rendered like juice in a pan: simple western food that smelled of the land. He poured a glass of 2009 Rangeland Syrah Mourvedre. The Rhône varietals grow well in Rangeland limestone and sandstone soils. The Syrah’s robust gaminess and smokey characteristics are complimented by the fresh fruity Mourvedre bouquet, including hints of blueberry and blackberry and flavors of leather, clove, and vanilla. The super fine tannins and smooth texture heightened the organic, mineral-like depth taste of the burgers.

Over his home-grown dinner offerings, talk turned to the interior decor of ranch house. So much of it reflected the land we had just meandered through. The natural limestone and sandstone fireplaces, the huge picture windows overlooking the Santa Lucia Range, pastures and vineyards. Native artifacts found on the property were displayed carefully as if in a museum. Foshay’s crossbred 10-year-old Australian cattle dog, Silver, was welcome inside and out.

Laird wanted to talk about the original Dodd Ranch and Frank Sawyer’s homestead; Sawyer was the physician at the Paso Robles Inn 100 years ago. His son Marshall later bought the ranch land in the 1970s. The area’s history seemed far more important than his successful 20 years as one of Palo Alto’s “bit players” (his humble quotations) of Internet and finance. Heck we even talked about the Paso Mennonites who settled the area in the 1890s.

After planting his first Bordeaux vineyard in 2002 and Rhône varietals in 2008-09, former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Laird Foshay, harvests vineyards growing at 1,700 feet among oaks, grasslands and Angus beef.

So then who is this University of California, Santa Barbara, history major? I kept telling Laird, “I am still having trouble figuring out how a guy who met Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the early years of personal computer and Internet development, turned to ranching and winemaking? It just seems crazy.”

One thing for sure, Foshay no longer wears Polo shirts and has no intention of going back.

Please read the Sept. 14 post and the second part of this series: Frontier ranching in Paso: Rangeland Wines and Laird Foshay, Part II. Read as Laird put aside criticism and raw beginnings to produce wines worthy of acclaim. Laird lives on his Adelaida Springs Ranch with his wife Lisa. They have two college-age boys: Sam and Jackson and a high school senior, Angeline.