Still Waters Vineyards: home winemakers’ haven

Still Waters Vineyards: home winemakers’ haven

Kathy Marcks Hardesty

“A Napa just waiting to happen,” claimed a headline in the Los Angeles Times last fall, when the newspaper’s editors dedicated the food and wine section to Paso Robles wine country. That was all it took to inspire Angelinos to drive 400 miles north to visit the fine wineries along Paso’s wine country trails.

According to Paul Hoover, winemaker and owner of Still Waters Vineyards in Paso Robles, “Many people came after reading that article, and they came again the weekend after the harvest festival weekend.” Hoover opened his tasting room to the public only last summer, but he added, “It would have seemed normal if it was quieter, but it wasn’t. It was the first time we’d had several cars in the driveway at the same time.”

A down-to-earth man, Hoover said candidly, “We’re not Napa Valley, unless you compare it to 30 or 40 years ago. When you visit our tasting room, you’ll find me there giving tours and pouring wines.” On the Central Coast, like most of California’s other “undiscovered” regions, vintners love to mention the fact that you won’t find Robert Mondavi in his tasting room greeting visitors. Vintners like Hoover, who consider their wineries as much a hobby as a vocation, often visit their tasting rooms and share animated discussions about growing grapes and making wine.

Still Waters Vineyards is the fulfillment of Hoover’s “long-held dream.” He was a home winemaker for eight years before becoming a professional winegrape grower and vintner. “I love the combination of being a grower and a retail operation. I like to go into the tasting room to meet people,” he explained, adding that the winery and vineyard are a family dream that includes his wife and partner Patty and their adult children, Benjamin and Stephanie. Of course, it’s a small operation, so Hoover hasn’t quit his day job as CEO of Morris & Garritano Insurance, the oldest insurance brokerage in the city of San Luis Obispo.

When you talk to the man about winemaking, his ardor is infectious. That enthusiasm is evident in the Hoovers’ winery and tasting room. Every visitor, from the casual imbiber to the home winemaker, is offered an opportunity to enjoy the bounty of the estate. Still Waters has three wine clubs for consumers: the Barrel Club, the Wine Club and the Vine Club. The Barrel Club allows members to participate in “a day at the ranch,” which includes a bottling party for the two cases of wines they receive each vintage ($400-450), and lets them personalize a blend of red wine with Hoover’s Reflection label. The Wine Club provides two six-bottle shipments at $200 to $240 annually, and a 20% discount on tasting room purchases; the Vine Club offers six bottles annually at $100 to $120, with a 10% tasting room discount.

When the Hoovers bought the estate in 2002, they also gained an olive grove with Mission and Ascolano trees known to be at least 70 years old. In fall, Still Waters’ tasting room offers visitors freshly picked olives for canning, with recipes provided by Patty Hoover.

“It’s really been fun and interesting for the family and our extended family,” said Patty, who celebrated her 25th anniversary with Hoover last summer. She enjoys being part of the wine industry, although she says she doesn’t quite share her husband’s passion for winemaking. She also helps with the catered events and barbecue lunches for wine club members at the estate. “It’s really rewarding when people come out. They hear about us through word-of-mouth and through local restaurants,” she said. “The people are the best part.”

The vineyards were 10 years old when the Hoovers purchased the estate, all Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. But they immediately began replanting sections adding Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Hoover also offers a home winemakers club, because he empathizes with them.

“As a home winemaker, I was always frustrated by not getting the quality fruit that’s sold to wineries,” he explained. Now, besides selling grapes to highly respected wineries like Talley Vineyards, Cinnabar and Clos La Chance, he sells his low-yield grapes to home winemakers. He also provides a consultation service to the latter, allowing them to call during the winemaking process for his advice. “Home winemaking is big on the East Coast and we treat home winemakers like the big guys.”

Brian Talley, general manager of the Talley family’s winery in Arroyo Grande Valley, is choosy about grapes, but over the last two vintages he’s purchased Hoover’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Viognier. “It’s too early to tell yet, but the fruit looks very good,” Talley said. “It’s really great to have people like Paul, who has so much enthusiasm, growing grapes and making wines. His business acumen is good the for industry.”

In this family-run business, unlike most mom-and-pop shops where the kids want to do anything but the same thing their folks are doing, the Hoovers’ two children are eager to help out. When Cal Poly isn’t in session, Benjamin and his cousin Chris Elrod, both juniors, live at the ranch, helping run the winery and manage the vineyards. Ben’s father said they look forward to the end of the school year so they can work at the winery. But by the end of summer, they’re just as eager to leave the hard labor behind and go back to their studies.

Stephanie, a Cal Poly freshman, usually brings her enthusiastic classmates along to help bottle wines. She’s credited with designing the first label, which inspired the winery name. Based on a photo of Benjamin in the Sierra, fly fishing atop a rock in a river, the mountains were reflected in the still waters behind him. “Besides, Hoover doesn’t sound like a good wine,” Hoover said good-naturedly.

Because there are cities named Still-water in Oklahoma and Minnesota, when Hoover consulted a lawyer to trademark the winery name, he was advised he couldn’t do it because of the commonality of the name. Not dissuaded, Patty went online to the trademark Web site, where she discovered the trademark had been dropped, so she was able to trademark the “Still Waters Vineyards” name for fresh fruit sales and wines. Hoover said they’re quickly learning that when you’re committed, you can get things done yourself.

“What I’ve found is my going personally to restaurants and wine shops makes a big difference in presenting (our) wines,” Hoover said of his experiences in marketing. “You have to feel strongly about your product, and that confidence comes through in dealing with consumers and retailers. It’s one thing to have great wine, but you have to get it out there.”

(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 edit@winesandvines.com.)

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