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Pomar Junction Winery Doubles Acreage

Vineyard manager/owner Dana Merrill buys Weyrich property

by Jane Firstenfeld
pomar junction
The farmhouse that came with Pomar Junction's acquisition is an ideal space for wine club, media and other events, according to owner Dana Merrill.
Templeton, Calif.—With his recent acquisition of 90-plus producing vineyard acres formerly owned by the defunct Martin and Weyrich Winery, seventh-generation California farmer Dana Merrill effectively doubled bearing acres for his family’s Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery. Merrill has been growing grapes on the Central Coast for decades.

As owner of Mesa Vineyard Management, he oversees an estimated 8,000 acres of premium grapes for clients. In 2002, like many old-line farmers, he saw the wisdom of going vertical and began producing wine at Pomar Junction with his son, Matt Merrill, who serves as general managing partner. Jim Shumate was named winemaker in 2011. According to WineVinesDATA, the winery produces 6,000 cases a year with an average bottle price of $25.

About a 1.5 miles from Pomar Junction, Martin and Weyrich Winery was a pioneer in San Luis Obispo County, producing well-received vintages starting in 1981. In the 2000s, an ambitious effort to develop a luxe resort crashed headfirst into the recession: Like similar projects across the continent, Villa Toscana went belly-up. By 2009, the business was bankrupt, with a reported $48 million owed to creditors.

Merrill purchased part of the property, not including Villa Toscana in Paso Robles. He declined to disclose what he paid, but told Wines & Vines that he got a good deal that included vineyards, undeveloped acreage and an enormous home.

The fancy farmhouse
Though it is not exactly suited to Dana Merrill’s more rustic personal taste, he said, “We’re restoring it and going to live there.” The home sits atop 2,000 square feet of “ornate” wine cellars that provide not only storage but also an ideal space for wine club, media and other private events. “That infrastructure is more than I’d have in my house,” he said. “There’s an infinity pool, and it’s on a secluded knoll. It feels like it would go together with what we do. Time will tell.”

The structure was in deteriorated condition when Merrill bought it. “The bank owned it, and had someone watching it, but typical of distressed properties, lenders don’t want to put more into it than they needed to if it costs twice as much as they’ll get back,” he acknowledged.

The deal worked for him, though—especially the outbuildings he’ll use to store much of the mechanized equipment that increasingly tend his vineyards. For Merrill, the opportunity for a residence was secondary to the potential for a machine shop.

“Tractors, harvesters—that equipment is expensive. Emotionally, you want to put them all in a building, but can you afford to build that?” The new property, he said, “gives us a better shot at making that work; it is centrally located as a main shop.”

Of the 278-acre parcel, 93 acres are vineyards planted about 15 years ago, Merrill said. “They should have a good 10 years left in them,” he said of the vines. The varieties will complement his marketing mix, including Cabernet Franc, Roussanne and Tempranillo. Pomar Junction’s current 4,500-case lineup features Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier and Chardonnay.

Room to grow
Merrill estimated that an additional 60 acres are suitable for vineyards. A canny farmer, he is not rushing into that until “we make sure we really map the soils and get the blocks set up.” Typically, area soils are linne callado—calcareous with dark clay in the upper levels—and the new property contains some of this. “Grapes love it,” Merrill said.

The Pomar Junction tasting room, housed in an antique caboose and boxcar on a short length of track, capitalizes on Templeton’s past as a railroad hub built by Southern Pacific, but does not offer a vantage point of vineyards.

With its wine cellar for storage and private tastings, and vineyard proximity, Merrill believes his new acquisition will provide perspective to invited guests, including the all-important wine club. “I believe half of our direct-to-consumer sales come back to our wine club,” which currently has some 600 members, he said. “I’ve heard how important a tasting room is to a small brand. It brings better prices from distributors, and visitors bring other people back.”

A leader in California’s wine sustainability movement, Merrill was instrumental in creating the SIP (Sustainability in Practice) program launched in 2008. Developed by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, vineyards and wineries throughout California have since undergone SIP’s rigorous, independently audited requirements to become certified, including “a good chunk” of Merrill’s vineyards.

The program is growing, he said, as more consumers recognize the distinctive SIP certification stamp. “It’s starting to mean something, even in the lower price ranges,” Merrill said. “We’d like to see it on a Trader Joe’s brand. A sustainable certification like SIP adds value.”

The SIP program advocates retaining natural habitats on vineyard properties. Merrill said that at his new property, “I could get into creek restoration. It’s gratifying to be able to leave a property better than you found it. Water is such a precious resource.”

What this property eventually will be called is still undecided. “At the moment, we’re considering Pomar Canyon or Creston Ridge,” according to Merrill. “Pomar Canyon” is a potential Paso Robles sub-appellation, so the name “could fit from that standpoint,” Merrill said.

In 2007, local growers withdrew a petition asking that the TTB divide the AVA into East and West sides. Merrill suggested that a more apt division might be “North and South” sides, to reflect more accurately the influence of cool Pacific winds from the Templeton Gap.

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