River Run Winery

Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

Big, bold, spicy Rhone wines like the kind you find in Europe

In 1972, J.P. Pawloski was driving through Santa Cruz county when he came across a piece of land that captured his imagination. There was something about the tree shaded property stretching along the banks of the gentle Pajaro River that called to him. J.P. knew one day he would buy the land and open a winery on it. To some that prediction might have sounded a bit farfetched. After all, at the time, J.P. had little money and had only recently begun making wine as a hobby. Ten years later, J.P.’s dream was a reality. In 1982 he purchased the land he loved and with it, the River Run Winery.

When J.P. purchased the four-acre property just outside the small town of Aromas, California, his first thought was to try his hand at both running the winery and planting his own grapes. His plans soon changed when he found out that the land was also inhabited by an Oak Root Fungus that would prevent planting for at least 20 years. With a vineyard out of the question, it freed J.P. to concentrate on what he enjoyed most, making wine. “I knew the secret to great wine was using the best grapes and now it was up to me to go out and find vineyards that would live up to my expectations,” says J.P.

J.P.’s quest for the perfect grapes took him all over California. During the early 1980s there was a glut of grapes, so it was easy finding vineyards willing to selling to a newcomer. So in 1982 with cash in hand, he bought eight tons of organic Zinfandel grapes and four tons of Chardonnay. The previous owner of River Run, who had only produced two releases, a Zinfandel in both 1978 and 1979, advised J.P. that the grapes were inferior and should be returned. JP disagreed and ended up producing 200 cases of medal winning wine. While the 1982 vintage was aging, J.P. bottled the wine under the old River Run Label. In 1983 he had a new label designed and released his own 1982 Zinfandel and 1982 Chardonnay.

While some vintners dream of creating an empire with worldwide sales, J.P.’s plan has always been to produce the best wine at the lowest prices. He believed in starting off slowly and then gradually building up production. Using the original basket presses left by the previous River Run owners, J.P. found that working at capacity meant processing up to five tons of grapes each production day. The first year, River Run produced just 600 cases. By the second year the case total had climbed to 1,000. Each year since that time, the winery has upped its yield by a couple hundred cases. Today J.P. produces approximately 4,000 cases annually.

“I never want to get too big”, says J.P. who enjoys keeping the winery a family affair. With the help of his wife Kristine, seven year old son Westly, and a small staff of friends, J.P. is thoroughly enjoying the wine business. It shows. He handles every step of the way, from buying the grapes, overseeing the harvest, transporting the fruit, making the wine, bottling, and marketing.

While the original winery was functional, J.P found the size inadequate and lacking in certain essentials. With efficiency and quality in mind, he doubled the winery’s usable space, added a new refrigeration unit for white wine production, and totally replaced the barrel selection. The winery has also expanded its varietal offerings beyond the initial Zinfandel and Chardonnay, to include White Riesling, Late Harvest Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and his proprietary red blend, Cote d’ Aromas. And this year for the first time he made an Orange Muscat wine. Today the winery brings in grapes from eight specially selected vineyards located from Mendocino to San Luis Obispo. Grapes for his Zinfandel, for example, come from three different vineyards; one of these has 105 year-old vines and the other boasts 80-year-old vines.

“I have a personal preference for big, bold, spicy Rhone wines like the kind you find in Europe,” states J.P. That preference shines through in his flagship Syrah and his unique Cote d’ Aromas. In making the Cote, J.P. experimented with over 200 blends before he found the one that had the rich complex flavor he was looking for. That attention to detail can be found in this month’s Gold Medal Wine Club offerings from River Run. Wine Club members are in for a real taste of traditional wine making excellence.

When asked about his plans for the future, J.P. indicated he is looking forward to making great wine, enjoying time with his family, and soaking in the beauty that surrounds River Run. To us that sounds like a future worth drinking to!

J.P. Pawloski - Owner/winemaker

Some vintners draw upon a long history of family wine making, others spend years working on viticulture degrees from prestigious universities. J.P. Pawloski followed a much different path on his way to becoming a gold medal winning winemaker.

Born in Pennsylvania, when J.P. was two years old he and the family moved to a small community just outside of Tucson, Arizona where J.P.’s father had built a roadside motel. A year later J.P.’s father suddenly died leaving J.P. and his mother to take care of the property. His mother supported the family by running the motel beauty shop and J.P. helped out by doing yard work. Raised in a strict evangelical household where wine drinking was frowned upon, there was no hint that a winery was in young J.P.’s future.

J.P. stayed in the Tucson area until he was 15, then got a small taste of the outside world when he was allowed to go to upstate New York for several summers to work as a dishwasher at the college attended by his sister. When it came time to begin his own college career he ended up staying close to home by enrolling at the University of Arizona. Once in school he majored in Near Eastern Oriental Culture and as a practical matter also studied Arabic, which he believed would be his key to success in an emerging global economy. After making it through his junior year of college, J.P. decided it was time to really see what the world had to offer, and left on what he intended to be a 7 month journey. The trip which began in 1965, would take J.P. to Australia, Indonesia, Burma, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Cypress, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and finally to Europe. It was in France and Italy that J.P. started gaining an appreciation for wine. Twenty months after starting his trek, J.P. realized that he had to return to the States or he might never come back. When he returned home he applied and was once again accepted back at the University of Arizona, but before starting classes he made a trip up to Oregon and San Francisco to visit friends. It didn’t take J.P. long to get caught up in the ‘Summer of Love” and the magic of the Bay Area. Before his trip was completed he informed the University that his plans had changed. Instead of going back to Arizona, J.P. stayed in San Francisco. In need of a job, he was prodded by a friend to learn how to become a Respiratory Therapist. J.P. didn’t know a thing about it, but it sounded interesting enough to give it a try. To this day he has continued to work in this field.

During the early 1970s his work and travels led J.P. to move to Santa Cruz county where he dug his own wine cellar behind his house, and began making wine as a hobby. His wine mentor at the time was a former migrant worker who showed J.P. how to make fruit wines. After making a few batches J.P. was hooked. Soon he was using his homemade wine to barter for services, paying the dentist and chiropractor with his latest blend. As more and more people sampled J.P.’s wine he received encouragement to turn his hobby into a profession. It was about this time in 1972 that his travels brought him to see the property that would one day become the site for River Run Winery. Looking at the property he had a vision of himself surrounded by family, working the land and making wine for all to enjoy. It was only a matter of time before that vision turned into reality.

In the years that followed, (1976-1979) J.P. continued to work winters as a Respiratory Therapist, but during the summer months took a leave to pursue his love of the outdoors as a river rafting guide. In 1980 while on a rafting trip in Idaho his wilderness career ended when J.P. suffered a severe leg fracture that sidelined him for four months. During his recuperation he met and fell in love with his wife Kristine, a registered nurse. ‘She first fell in love with my plum wine,” quips J.P. Soon after their marriage, she encouraged J.P. to follow his passion for wine making. The two set about looking for a spot to live where they could also build a winery. As fate would have it, the property that J.P. had dreamed about 10 years earlier was now available and coincidentally it had a winery already on the property called River Run. It was perfect. Even the name had appeal to the ex-river guide. So after 6 months of negotiations and waiting for the escrow to close, J.P. ended up where he had envisioned years before. The next step, or so they thought, was to begin planting some grapes and getting started making wine. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortuitously, a vineyard would have to wait for at least 20 years. That was how long it would take to rid the land of Oak Root Fungus. The news didn’t discourage J.P. who saw his setback as an opportunity to hunt down the best grapes available from outstanding local vineyards. After a lot of searching he found a batch of organic grapes that he felt would make a great Zinfandel. The previous owner who had offered J.P 40-hours of consultation as part of the land and winery purchase, was skeptical of the grape quality and advised J.P. to reject the shipment. J.P. stood his ground and waived the rest of his ‘free consultation”. J.P.’s instincts proved correct. The first vintage was outstanding and J.P. has never looked back.

Today, J.P., his wife Kristine and son Westly, live on the original 4-acre parcel they bought in 1982, J.P. still works two days a week in Salinas as an Intensive Care Respiratory Therapist, and fortunately they continue to make limited quantities of wine that people love to drink.