We knew we had picked a good place for the grapes and we knew how to grow good grapes and the next step was: "where would the grapes go when they were ready?"
In 1983, the year of our first (albeit minimal) crop from our young vines, there were only about 12 wineries in the entire area. We had visited all of them. We also had visited wineries far out of the area when we were looking for property.
We had a pretty good idea of who was producing what. We knew we were making good grapes, so surely somebody would buy these grapes (which we had planted without getting contracts from any potential buyers).
went from winery to winery, winemaker to winemaker, in the area and we
didn't really get much of a response. "How do we know your grapes are
"You've never sold grapes before." "You're too little."
We even had one winery say that they would never make that kind of wine ("we want to make fine cabernet and pinot noirs"). They said they would never make zinfandel. (They now do.)
Back to Paso Robles wineries. Our idea was that we wanted to grow really great grapes and have them used by Paso Robles wineries so that the appellation would improve its wines and image. We finally won our case on our new sales pitch to Mike Hoffman at HMR. (It is interesting to note that 80% of Paso Robles grapes are sold up north and other areas. Been that way since we planted and is still true today.)
Mike was more than happy to try out our fruit since we were both pioneering the area. However, just prior to harvest, HMR winemaker Chris Johnson came to see us. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond their control, they couldn't buy our grapes after all. But, HMR had already talked to Nick Martin at Martin Bros, who said they would buy the grapes. The first year's production was sold! Things were looking good....
But the next year, because the grapes would be mature, we knew that we would have a lot more grapes to sell and Martin Bros. wouldn't need them all, so we'd have to find more homes for our grapes. Mother Nature solved part of the problem for, due to a huge, say devastating, frost literally every vineyard lost tons of fruit... except for us! We had located on hillsides which, by their nature, are better protected. We had escaped unscathed. Now, people who had turned us down the year before were calling us. Twin Hills bought what Martin Bros didn't.
In 1985 we were back to a now increasing crop and again looking for buyers. The problem was, we weren't the only ones with grapes planted in 1979-81. There were a lot more grapes out there and the price of grapes dropped to $100/ton and less. (Vineyards let their fruit hang, rather than harvest it at less than cost of production.)
Gino was saying "we've got such good fruit that if we show them some wine we would make from our fruit then they would know that our grapes were of value and start to buy." In 1986 we contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the Alcohol Beverage Control Board of California (ABC) to begin the permitting process to let us sell wine. We were ready to crush grapes for our first wine in 1986. This needed about 2" of paper (and fingerprints) for a process that is much easier now.
before harvest of 1986 we were expecting our BATF permit and when it
come we called. They had lost our application. Fortunately we had
We started the permitting process over and in August of 1987 we got our
basic permit from the BATF. The California permit soon followed.
In 1987 we both sold grapes and produced our own wine, all of 30 barrels (24 cases to the barrel) consisting of Merlot and Zinfandel. Carol would carry it from retail store to retail store while Gino and Joe would take it from winery to winery for the purpose of demonstrating the quality of the grapes.
The wine grape glut went on all the way to 1990.
Meanwhile, the whole northern part of the state had decided to start a friendly little competition trying to see who could make the biggest zinfandel. Sutter Home got the idea that they should crush the grapes and drain off much of the juice. Nobody talks about what happened to the little bit of juice that was to make the "big zin." But after harvest they went back and tasted all the juice which had been drained off and left in a big stainless steel tank. It had fermented dry and tasted decent enough.
The following vintage Sutter Home did the same thing. Only this time they gave more attention to the drained juice. Instead of letting it ferment dry, they left a little bit of residual sugar. It was an immediate hit, the White Zin craze was born.
All the other white varieties (French colombard, chenin blanc etc) fell out of favor and all of a sudden the cost of zinfandel grapes skyrocketed. Paso Robles was back in business. Including the Fratelli Perata. Once again you could make a profit in the vineyard.
our demonstration wines were doing a good job of selling the grapes. We
kept increasing production of grapes for sale based on the wines we
Paso Robles started a Zinfandel festival. Wineries were asked to donate 10 gallons of wine for a blend. We brought a sample of our wine to the winemakers luncheon where a portion of each bottle was poured into a graduated cylinder to make a quick and dirty, ad hoc blend. The rest of the bottle was passed around the table. Everybody just stared at us and said: "can we buy your grapes?" Also, the first wine we ever entered in a competition (we wanted to get our name out in the world), our 1990 Merlot, received a Gold Medal at the Los Angeles County Fair (they thought it was a Petrus).
But you can see the problem here. We had good grapes to sell, but it was also clear we could make really good wine. In fact each of the early years after becoming a bonded winery, we sold more and more wine and fewer and fewer grapes.
After 12 years of negative income we were a bona fide winery.