Q&A with Jim Saunders from Hearst Ranch Winery
By Matt Browne
I am quite familiar with Hearst Ranch Winery and have now officially visited each of the tasting rooms that they have or have had. They have a location in San Simeon at Sebastian’s General Store, which is awesome. If you haven’t been, go. More recently I visited their location on North River Road in Paso Robles. While on this visit I was introduced to Jim Saunders, co-owner, by a friend and had the privilege of having a nice conversation with him. I wanted to learn more and through this Q&A he agreed to do, I did, and now you can as well.
Q&A with Jim Saunders from Hearst Ranch Winery
If I recall correctly, you were born and raised in Paso Robles, right?
Yes, that’s correct. I was the first boy born in the new hospital on the top of 15th Street. (Sharon Taylor beat me by an hour or so). They didn’t have scales to weigh babies at that time, but Dr. Straughan “estimated” my weight as 10+- Pounds. My Mom was 4’11”, poor little thing…
What are some things that stand out to you about Paso Robles from your youth to now?
There are too many things to mention, but I will do my best… One fond memory is we didn’t have dial telephones, so you would simply pick up the phone and say “operator, could you please dial 102 for me?” if you didn’t remember the number for whom you were trying to reach, you would just say “operator, could you please call the Smiths”? I would always be told by the operator, “of course Jimmy, tell your Mom and Dad hi for me.” Crazy. Everyone in town knew everyone, (our home phone # was 112, yes, I remember).
I distinctly recall driving down the street and having to wave at everyone. I got tired of waving at all the people I knew. One could go into any little café and know everyone, from the servers to the customers. Now, I don’t recognize very many people. I find that especially true at restaurants today. It is rare we know anyone when we dine out.
What have you thought of the changes over the years?
Change is inevitable, especially when you have such a wonderful place to live such as Paso. Some changes have been great, such as increased commerce resulting in tons of jobs here. That did not exist when I was young. I did everything I could to make a buck (legally) from picking almonds and walnuts, my own paper route (the Paso Robles Press building was in Bistro Laurent), pumping gas, working at Nacimiento Lake and so on. However, not all changes have been good, I am sorry to say. A few people have come to the area and have taken advantage of the lack of regulation we have here, that for years, was simply common courtesy. For example, drilling mega-deep water wells for frost protection and building huge reservoirs to store that water, leaving neighbors with dry wells. We all remember the grower/winery who slash cut ancient oak trees to clear the land for more grape planting. (That one I still cannot believe happened). Building fees have increased to the point where it has become a major cost of building a home, yet city and county leaders wonder why there is a housing shortage. The same applies to commercial building fees, they are exorbitant. I was told that a new hotel in Paso paid over two million dollars in fees to build their hotel, yet there is a 10-percent bed tax collected from hotels. (Sorry to get off on a tangent.)
What has your career in the area consisted of? I mean, a brief resume of sorts to understand your and background.
I had to make a decision the year I graduated from high school here, get drafted, go to college and get a deferment, or join the armed services and avoid being put on the front lines in Vietnam. Since I did not have above average grades, I joined the Air Force. A year later, I was in Vietnam anyway. After serving two tours of duty over there and growing up very fast, I returned home to Paso and went to Cal Poly to study Animal Science, as I had visions of being a Veterinarian. I was absolutely broke, so I had to work several jobs just to make ends meet. One of the jobs I had was in building. I liked being able to work hard and make a few bucks rather quickly. After I got out of Poly, I was looking at another 4+ years to get my veterinarian’s degree which was really disheartening. So, I got my contractor’s license and started building. After many years of building, I was asked to build a winery for a local company. I agreed, although I told them I had not built a winery or tasting room at that point in my career. I got the job anyway. My wife and I owned a few acres by this point and I asked the winery folks “if I grow some grapes, will you buy them?” They agreed and we were off into the abyss of the wine industry. To date, we have built many wineries here in Paso and elsewhere. My building career has been a blessing. Without that revenue stream, we could not have afforded to get into the wine world. After many years as a grower, we decided to process our own grapes and make bulk wine. This was a great alternative to be able to process our own crops and sell juice, which we did for many, many years.
When was Hearst Ranch Winery started and what is your role there?
Fast forward 20 + years: My wife and I attended a fundraiser (with a tenant from one of our medical buildings who started The Hearst Cancer Resource Center) at the Hearst Ranch in San Simeon. Steve Hearst was the host, He offered as one of the auction items, a private tour of the Hearst Ranch, Private tour of the castle, breakfast, lunch and dinner at the ranch. The same auction item had sold the previous (and first year of the auction) year for $52,000 dollars. Well, the year we attended, the item went up for auction and stalled at $5,000. I thought, what a bargain and jumped in. I seemingly bid against myself several times, but ended up purchasing the tour (for 8) for about $20,000. My wife was ready to kill me. So the tour date was set up a few months out and came the day of the tour. We invited some friends who had been affected by cancer as well as the damn Doctor Tenant who talked us into attending the fundraiser (DR’s Tom and Karen Spillane who are great people). Steve Hearst did not disappoint us. We spent the entire day with him, having a ball and concluding our day with a swim in the Neptune Pool at the castle. To thank him for his incredible generosity, Debi (my wife) and I made him two 9 ltr bottles of wine as well as two cases of wine. All bottles were hand etched and painted with an etched thank you from us. The bottle had a huge etched “H” on the front, symbolizing the brand for the Hearst Ranch. Steve was taken a bit by the gift and called me a few days later. He asked what the name was of our winery. I told him we were not actually in the retail end of the business as it was super competitive and one needed a really cool Name and back story. He said “Hey, what would you think if we made a wine and called it Hearst?” I jumped on it. I formed a corporation immediately, filed forms with TTB and we were off to the races. That was over 10 years ago. (I cannot believe it). My wife and I actually own the company, as Hearst Corp wanted nothing to do with TTB and ABC.
When did your love of wine begin and why/ how?
Wow, you are taking me back with this one. When I was 14, I could buy Muscat from Rotta Winery. It was $1.50 a gallon. Mrs Rotta was an old Italian lady who really didn’t care how old you were, she just told us to behave. Years later, I only drink good vodka and Jack Daniels. I was introduced to some French white wine at an early age. It was Louis Latour Pouilly Fuisse. I really liked it and soon, that is all I cared to drink. Unfortunately, I graduated from PF to other nice French Chards. I hardly touched red wines. Then one day, I was given some really nice Burgundy Red Wine and thought, not bad, I can do this stuff. Gary Eberle was with Estrella Winery at the time and I happened across some of their Cabernet one day. I was impressed. He actually did a great job, and remember thinking “why doesn’t he have his own winery”? I think I actually knew before him.
What is your philosophy on wine?
This one is simple: One shouldn’t have to try to analyze if a wine is good or not. It should be pleasing right out of the gate. Yes, in several instances, I can see laying a wine down for a few years, but when you get to be my age, that is not as appealing or as sexy as it was when I was 30. Wines should not be manipulated with additives or chemicals ever. If wine needs color, blend in a darker varietal. I could go on with this one but I will spare you.
How did you go about finding a winemaker that fit that your goal was?
This was a tough one. I will say that it is a mutually learning experience, hiring and working with a winemaker. I am a grower and self-taught winemaker and I know how I like wines to taste, based on my experience and knowledge that has not come easily. I will say that now we have an extremely well-rounded winemaker (Soren Christensen) who is hardworking, honest and very talented. He is very much younger than I, so I have to not be stubborn or old schooled in thinking.
If you had a crystal ball, what do you see as the future of Paso Robles wine?
I absolutely hate it when we are compared to Napa. I don’t want to be the next Napa. I want us to all embrace being Paso Robles. We grow some fantastic grapes on both sides of the Salinas River. If a wine is not tasting as it should, it is probably not due to the location in which it is planted, but more due to it being the wrong rootstock, varietal or clone for that area. One must know the soil and growing conditions and chose your plants wisely. That said, I hope Paso Robles will continue to be a great area for wines that will be recognized all over the world.
What are some of the issues you see needing to be dealt with in Paso Robles and its continued growth and tourism (like parking or infrastructure)?
Numerous answers here. We need to fix immigration now. Without good labor, we are all in trouble. Affordable housing is a must. I am glad to see the city helping out by providing some assistance. Parking and traffic will continue to be a problem until a few things occur. We must have a parking structure, with natural gas or electric busses to trolley people around town. It is not a new concept (right San Francisco?) At the end of the day, we all need to choose our city, school and other leaders wisely. That means, everyone should be involved in the solutions. People need to volunteer for the numerous, thankless jobs that are out there. Yes, it is time consuming, but look what recently happened with our school district budget going from a $7m savings fund to less than $100,000. The same scenario happens to other cities as well such as San Luis Obispo. Responsible people need to step up and make sure we go down the road responsibly.