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Zaca Mesa Winery

Santa Barbara County region

The original pioneers of Santa Barbara County winemaking

John Cushman thought it was just another real estate deal. After all, by virtue of owning a successful commercial real estate business, he had been involved with thousands of land investment opportunities. This one was supposed to be another passive investment, with little or no active involvement. Little did he know then how different it would turn out.

In 1972, John’s friend, Lou Ream, who was Executive VP at Atlantic Richfield Co., assembled a group of high profile investors to buy land in Santa Barbara County for the purpose of growing grapes. The property was 1,500 acres of primarily grazing fields, located in the heart of beautiful Santa Ynez Valley. The land was reasonably priced, and the way things were going in California, any land was good land. Lou was convinced this new venture was sound, based on two main premises. He saw a resurgence beginning in the California wine industry that would create more demand for grapes than the available supply. He also knew that Santa Barbara’s fertile soil and agreeable climate had huge grape growing potential that was virtually untapped. What he didn’t know till soon after acquiring the property, was the extent of his prognostication.

This group of investors was not a bunch of amateurs mind you. Besides Lou Reams and John Cushman, other original investors included, Joe Harnett, President of Standard Oil; Ruben Metler, former Chairman of TRW; and Walter Pearson, former Chairman of Amoco. All were to be passive investors except for Lou who lived in the Santa Barbara area, and who was tapped to manage the project.

They purchased the land that same year. Immediately, 214 acres was transformed and divided into four distinct vineyards they named Chapel, Fox Run, Misty Ridge, and Windmill. Early emphasis was primarily on Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. (Each vineyard has since been fine-tuned and planted to other, more suitable varietals as more was learned about the soil and microclimate.) The grapes initially grown, were in demand and easily sold on the bulk market. For several years as the vines matured, the entire harvest was routinely sold to other vintners.

During those early years it became increasingly apparent that the location was special, and indeed prime for grape growing. This fact was confirmed by viticultural experts who analyzed several successive harvests. As it turns out, the area’s topography is a unique factor in promoting extremely healthy and productive vineyards. Along the coastal area of Santa Barbara County lies the only east/west running mountain range on the entire length of the United States West Coast. On either side of Santa Barbara, the mountains pick up the usual north/south pattern that continues on in their respective directions. The unique east/west landform phenomenon in Santa Barbara County, called the Transverse Range, allows the funneling of ocean air into an otherwise potentially hot terrain. The result of this geography creates warm sunny days and cool breezy nights that produce near-perfect temperature variations, ideal for varietals such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Rhône style grapes.

With tremendous opportunity coming into focus, the logical evolution was to start a winery. They named it, Zaca Mesa Winery, and as the wine label tells you, comes from the early Spanish settlers who affectionately called the area, “La Zaca Mesa,” or “the restful place.” The scene on the label is a montage depicting the elements of sun, wind, earth and rain that combine in just the right mix, to produce the area’s unique climate.

The winery’s first wines were produced at other facilities while their own winery was under construction. A blended red table wine was released in 1976, followed by a Zinfandel in 1977. By 1978 they had completed construction of their own winery and added their first Chardonnay to the line-up. Through the 1970’s and early 1980’s Zaca Mesa Winery quickly grew in size, adding wines at a dizzying pace. In 1986, a nearby 630 acre vineyard named Sierra Madre, was purchased, further increasing grape production and allowing even more varietals to be added. By the mid-1980s Zaca Mesa was producing nearly 95,000 cases per year and distributed in 35 states.

Ironically, this quick growth brought on by the winery’s success, had also begun to muddy the focus of the operation. There were too many varietals trying to cover too much ground. There were low priced, medium priced and high priced wines, all more or less competing with each other, and confusing retailers and consumers. The wines were terrific, but these confusing signals were a detriment to the winery’s sales.

Knowing a change was needed in order to get it back on track, John Cushman and his twin brother Lou, bought out all of the other Zaca Mesa shareholders in 1989. John then rolled up his sleeves and began making strategic changes to help ensure the winery’s longevity.

All of the varietals not suited to the microclimate were gradually eliminated. This meant a concentration on fewer varietals with which to produce higher quality wines. A decision was made to focus heavily into three main areas—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rhône-style wines, primarily, Syrah. Smaller amounts of other Rhône-style wines such as Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Roussanne and Viognier were gradually planted. All of these varietals had already proved highly compatible with the area’s unique microclimate.

“Changing direction for a winery is like turning around a battleship!” quips John Cushman. “You can’t do it as quick as you’d like.” Indeed. It takes valuable time to graft new varietals. It took several years of hands-on management by the Cushman brothers to get the winery turned around in the right direction. By early 1993, a new yet seasoned management team was in place to continue steering in the winery’s new direction. Jeff Maiken, a long-time beverage industry professional, was brought in as President and General Manager. He joined Jeff Fiolek, VP of Sales and Marketing, who has an extensive wine industry background, and had come aboard several years earlier.

Zaca Mesa today stands strong as one of the original pioneers of Santa Barbara County winemaking. Over the years, the winery has “graduated” an uncommonly high number of successful, independent-thinking winemakers who have gone on to carve their own niche in the wine business. The alumni includes Ken Brown, who later started Byron Winery; Jim Clendenen, co-owner of Au Bon Climat; Adam Tolmach, owner of Ojai Winery; Lane Tanner, owner of Lane Tanner Wines; Bob Lindquist, owner of Qupé Wine Cellars; and most recently Daniel Gehrs, who ventured-out in 1992 to start his own brand of wines. All of these former Zaca Mesa artisans, are part of a new breed of exciting winemakers to closely watch.

Since reaching a production plateau in the mid-1980s, Zaca Mesa has scaled back down to 50,000 cases annually. The focus during the past decade has been on further developing their Chardonnay program as well as their Rhône-style wines such as Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne. This month’s featured wines, exemplify the new Zaca Mesa—solid, lots of finesse and a bright future.

Map of the area

John Cushman - Winery Owner

Picture of John Cushman - Winery Owner

John Cushman took control of things just in time. He was only a passive investor of Zaca Mesa Winery before he saw it beginning to falter in the late-nineteen eighties. It was then that he knew he’d better act quickly or risk losing his entire investment.

Twenty-five years earlier, John graduated from Colgate University without the foggiest notion he would ever in his life be running a winery. After growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, and heading off to college to study Economics, John had logically decided he should enter into the family business after graduating.

John’s Grandfather and Great Uncle started a commercial real estate business, Cushman & Wakefield, in New York, in 1918. Their business had grown into a hugely successful enterprise by the time John joined the firm in 1963. After just four years under his belt he led the company’s expansion to the West Coast, moving to Los Angeles, to head up the huge ARCO Plaza development project. It was a monumental undertaking—twin 52-story towers in the middle of downtown L.A.

Cashing in on their holdings, Cushman & Wakefield sold the company to RCA in the early nineteen-seventies. They in turn, sold to the Rockefellers in the mid nineteen-seventies. Through both transitions, John stayed with the company. In 1977 and ‘78, he was invited into and completed Harvard University’s internationally acclaimed, Advanced Management Program (AMP).

It was after his completion at Harvard that John decided to start his own firm, Cushman Realty Corporation. Aside from buying and selling commercial properties, his new company got fully involved in the development and management of properties as well. By the mid nineteen-eighties he had solidly positioned Cushman Realty into one of the most successful commercial real estate firms in the country.

So you might surmise, that by this date, John still had little idea he would soon be operating a winery. But by 1989, it became apparent to him and his other fellow investors in the Zaca Mesa project, that something had to be done to save their ‘passive investment.”

John recruited his twin brother Lou to help buy out the other investors and assist in turning things around at the winery. After a few years at the helm, John put together the current and final pieces of his management team to run the operation on a day-to-day basis.

Jim Fiolek was already at the winery as Vice President of Marketing and Sales, when Jeff Maiken was hired as President, and Daniel Gehrs came on board as V.P./Winemaker.

Jeff came to Zaca Mesa as a seasoned veteran of the beverage industry with a wide range of experience. After obtaining his MBA at the University of Wisconsin in 1971, Jeff worked for Coca Cola, heading up their nutritional beverage program in Brazil. In 1974 he was recruited by Hublein to run a small winery in southern Brazil. He later transferred to the U.S. to take on worldwide responsibility for their Smirnoff brand.

In the late nineteen-seventies, he was wooed by a caramel manufacturer (the stuff that makes Coca Cola its brown color) to open new plants in Ireland, Europe and South America. As if that wasn’t enough experience under his belt, in 1980 Jeff left to work for Glenmore Distilleries in Louisville. Two years later Glenmore purchased a small winery in San Luis Obispo, California, by the name of Lawrence Winery. Jeff was sent there to make something happen. And happen it did. The name was changed to Corbett Canyon Winery, and starting from virtually scratch, by 1988 the winery was pumping out 300,000 cases a year. He left that year after an unsuccessful attempt to buy the winery.

Aching to get into business for himself, Jeff started the Central Coast Wine Warehouse, created to provide a custom workshop and bottling facility for independent winemakers. It was there that John Cushman caught up with Jeff. Initially hired as a consultant, Jeff was lured to Zaca Mesa in January 1993. Whew!

This year marks Zaca Mesa Winemaker Dan Gehrs’ 20th year in the winemaking business.

Dan was born and raised in southern California’s San Fernando Valley, and attended Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state. He recalls how his wife’s father in Seattle, used to buy loads of Zinfandel from Lodi, California and have it trucked up for use in his home winemaking efforts. That, he says, is what initiated his interest in winemaking which has developed into a long, successful career.

In 1973, after college, Dan moved back to southern California and entered the graduate program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He soon realized his heart was into wine and left UCSB to work for Paul Masson in their Public Relations department. Two years later Dan started his own winery called Congress Springs, in Santa Clara County. For fifteen years he built his enterprise into a 25,000 case winery, and developed a solid reputation for making excellent Zinfandels, and Sauvignon Blancs.

In 1990 he sold the winery and began offering his winemaking expertise on a consulting basis to other wineries. This direction led him to a brief stint as winemaker for Elliston Winery. At the same time he began making his own wine again, this time under the Daniel Gehrs label. Then a mutual friend and area wine promoter, Archie McClaren, put him in touch with John Cushman. Drawn by the challenge and legacy of Zaca Mesa, Dan hired on as V.P./Winemaker in early 1993.

One of John Cushman’s goal is to cement Zaca Mesa reputation for fine premium wines, and have it be known for developing innovative winemaking techniques. It is apparent he is committed to the long term success of Zaca Mesa, and has assembled the talents at Zaca Mesa to assure these goals are met.