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Custom Crush Opening Downtown Tasting Room

Dual model is rare near San Luis Obispo, though wineries have found success in other regions

by Paul Franson
Months after completing its new winemaking space in downtown San Luis Obispo, Calif., The Workshop is preparing to open a new tasting room.
San Luis Obispo, Calif.—The owners of The Workshop Urban Wine Collective in downtown San Luis Obispo took over the custom-crush facility in September, and they plan to open a tasting room there in a few weeks.

“The tasting room allows our alternating proprietor clients a place for people to taste and buy their wines,” said winemaker Jeremy Leffert. He who has a master’s degree in agriculture (viticulture emphasis) from California Polytechnic State University and served as winemaker at Hearst Ranch Winery in Paso Robles, Calif., and viticulturist at Saunders Vineyard in Paso Robles for nearly five years.

The new boutique winery specializes in small-lot, high-end winemaking, and Leffert says it has 18 clients. “We’re almost full,” he told Wines & Vines.

The Workshop has clients that are alternating proprietorships with 02 licenses as well as conventional custom-crush clients with 17/20 licenses that allow the winery to make the wine for them—although the latter can’t pour wines in the tasting room.

The winery caters to lot sizes as small as 1 ton, and it has one 150-ton client. Most clients are bonded wineries, though a couple of hobbyists make wine there, too.

The Workshop lets clients be as involved in the winemaking process as they like with input about all decisions from fermentation to aging, bottling and labeling. Clients can participate in the crush, then work with the winemaker and staff to create the wine. It offers all services, though bottling is provided by a mobile bottling line.

The Workshop also offers private label wines for retailers, restaurants, hotels, events and corporations.

The business is owned by Mike Kyle and Kimberly Walker, and the general manager is Jo Armstrong.

Five of the winery’s clients have signed on to have their wines poured in the tasting room: Tres Niños, Tolliver Ranch Brands, Mattina Fiore, Vijelante and Johansing Wines.

The Workshop will provide staff for the tasting room and events to attract customers. The management is also planning to offer a wine club that will offer selections from its clients.

Tasting rooms at custom wineries
A tasting room at a custom winery is hardly unique, but The Workshop appears to be one of the first in San Luis Obispo County. (Cellar Mates in Paso Robles opened in March 2013.)

Custom-crush wineries seem particularly likely to offer them as a benefit for clients in newer wine regions, and there are even a few in Napa Valley. For example, many “cult” wines are made at Napa Wine Co. in Oakville, Calif. It has a tasting room that highlights about 20 clients including its own brands.

Crocker & Starr Wines is one of the companies that makes its wine at Napa Wine Co., and its wines are available at the tasting room.

Owner-winemaker Pam Starr said that the company doesn’t sell a lot of wine there now that it has established its own tasting experience, but the resource helped when she first got started. “It was very helpful. It put us in company with many fine wines. Many people who learned about us there have followed us since.” She added, “It’s great for customers. They can walk in and choose from 20 wines.”

Starr has applied for a permit to build a winery and tasting room in St. Helena, Calif., but that town is considering changes to its small winery ordinances. For now, the company can offer guest experiences at its vineyard by appointment.

Silenus Vintners in the Oak Knoll AVA is also a custom crush winery that features about a dozen clients (including itself) in the tasting room.

The Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, Calif., houses a custom winery, Clarksburg Wine Co., and also has tasting for 10 wineries, though each has its own space.

One is Due Vigne di Famiglia, which started at Silenus in Napa Valley, where co-owner Ron Houle grows Cabernet and Merlot. His partner Ken Musso, however, grows Italian varieties in El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills. “Clarksburg is halfway in between,” noted Houle. “Also, when people are in Napa, they’re looking for Napa wines, not Italian varietal wines from the Sierra.”

The partners opened their tasting room in 2012, and Houle admits that their challenge is getting attention. Though the historic complex is only 15 minutes from bustling Sacramento, Calif., many people there still don’t know about the Old Sugar Mill.

To attract business, the tasting rooms in the complex have formed an association to host events and promote their businesses. “We recently had a country-western band that was well received,” Houle said, adding that they also have harvest parties and many other events.

Houle is very pleased that a long-anticipated restaurant for the complex seems to be becoming a reality. Rendez-vous Winery, which is owned by Larry Dizmang, who founded Folie à Deux Winery in St Helena in 1981, intends to open a bistro that could make the complex a more attractive destination.

In southeastern Arizona, Aridus Wine Co. has a tasting room at its new winery and another one half a mile away in downtown Wilcox, Ariz., which is undergoing a renaissance. Owner Scott Dahmer has about a dozen clients, and he can sell their wines in the tasting room, though Arizona doesn’t allow alternating proprietors yet.

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