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A closer look at PRWS: 75 Central Coast brands under one roof.

The first year Paso Robles Wine Services (PRWS) opened, there were four or five wineries; when I came on it jumped to 23," says lead winemaker Dan Kleck, who joined PRWS just before harvest 2003. By harvest 2004, that number tripled: "This year, we have 75 wineries."

In Santa Maria at Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS), the Miller family's original custom crush facility, this year the client base grew from 12 wineries to 47, both small and large producers. But even industry people working within the Paso Robles region find it difficult to imagine 75 brands making wine under one roof--a number that almost equals the 82 winery members in the Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association.

At PRWS, most are small production brands made by people working within the industry who are trying to establish a label and become part of Paso Robles' winery boom. Some of the wines are made for grapegrowers who hire Kleck and his winemaking team to produce them. Although most viticulturists only want to show off their fruit to potential buyers, many are now creating brands and trying to sell their wines in local markets.

Obviously, when a grower brings in something special here, it's an easy sell. Kleck says PRWS only accepts winemakers or growers who bring in a minimum of 2 tons. The largest producer there now processes 80 tons. But PRWS is not about helping out hobbyists, Kleck adds. "We want people who want to put a bottle of wine in the market."

Kleck was originally hired only for PRWS, but when the Millers found themselves without a lead winemaker at CCWS, he was asked to take the helm there as well. Kleck admits it's not difficult to head both sites, because he has good assistant winemaking teams in place. He divides his week into three or four days at each facility. There are no home winemakers or hobbyists at either winery, but there's a difference between the two custom crush wineries. Kleck and his team provide more of a "tutoring" process for the novices they've taken on in Paso Robles.

The Miller family, Central Coast wine industry pioneers since the early 1970s, helped many artisanal winemakers, giving them an opportunity to make wine professionally that wouldn't otherwise have been affordable for them. Sadly, 59-year-old Robert "Bob" Miller passed away in September, after a long illness. His brother, Stephen Miller, formerly handled most of the family business on the viticulture side. But he's taken an active role in managing the custom crush facilities, joined by his son, Nicholas Miller. They're working at keeping the winery as it's always been, Kleck says, adding that Bob Miller never intended the alternating proprietorships, colloquially called "APs," to stay forever. "Once they were established commercially, Bob assumed after three or four years they would start their own wineries elsewhere."

At PRWS, it's easy for newcomers to get started. Kleck, who says he honestly appreciates the opportunities provided him through his career is now paying the industry back in spades: "I reflect on how exciting it was to learn winemaking," says Kleck, who started his career in Michigan as a tour guide at the first winery that would hire him. He moved to Long Island, where he made wine for 19 years before he moved to California in 1988. "I learned everything from the people I worked with over the years. If I can take years of learning and put it into a concise package that I can translate to others, saving someone from the mistakes I made, it's really exciting."

About 15% of the winemakers at PRWS are fully hands-on, requiring no assistance from the winemaking team. But many hire Kleck and his crew to make the wines, then show up to work beside them. "You're in a glass house here; there are no secrets," Kleck says. "Here, you're in the heart of winemaking with 70-plus producers. If you don't learn quickly, your eyes aren't open.

"It's unbelievable how much sharing goes on. People are learning about themselves and how to cooperate with others at the same time," Kleck explains. "I enjoy watching their work ethics change.

It's a refreshing situation you don't see in a capitalist environment, and it's pretty cool." Nevertheless, there's still a glut of wines in the marketplace in San Luis Obispo County, and newcomers are discovering that popular local distributors like J & L Wines rarely accept new brands.

"I get called literally every other day from growers who have made wines, but have given no thought to marketing them," says Lorraine Alban, co-owner of J & L with Jeanne Eberle. The firm represents many of the Central Coast's most popular and exclusive wineries. Alban explains: "I ask them, 'What's your story? What makes your wine stand out from all the other brands on the shelves?' and most of them don't have one. The fact that they're passionate about making wine is no longer enough."

Still, Kleck optimistically believes the nouveau winemakers at PRWS can succeed, "if the wine community accepts them with open arms." After relocating in Paso Robles from Monterey County, where he worked at Kendall-Jackson's Soledad facility, Kleck began producing his own two labels, Silverstone and Red Horse. They're sold through the Coastal Vintners Tasting Room, located alongside Highway 46 East in Paso Robles, a collective tasting room in which he's one of five partners, all vintners. He's also trying to establish his wines in four or five states.

Kleck says the industry no longer requires the three-tier distribution model to work. He cites the Internet as the "new tool" that allows small wineries to compete with established brands by selling directly to consumers: "Financially, the Internet has a big impact. If the majority of small producers can sell wine directly, allowing them to make more profit, there's less desire to pay distributors."

PRWS so quickly outgrew its original building that the Millers purchased a larger property in Paso Robles on which to build a new facility. The first site has 33,000 square feet, but PRWS will grow to nearly three times that size, with more cubic feet, adding 20% height capacity. It's also reaching out to wine services like Vinquiry, hoping to add a full laboratory at PRWS so advanced testing doesn't require sending samples out. Kleck admits they hope to take on "substantially larger clients" by spring, but they won't turn away small producers.

"I like the business," Kleck finished, "and without key help from key people, I wouldn't be where I am today."

(A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Kathy Marcks Hardesty has followed California's wine and food scene since 1979. She's spent the last eight years in Central Coast wine country as cuisine columnist for New Times of San Luis Obispo. Contact her through
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Author:Hardesty, Kathy Marcks
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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