The concept of “estate winery” conjures images of chateaux with gated entries and armies of groundskeepers—those stately manors depicted on the classic labels of Bordeaux. But while that image is sometimes true, it certainly isn’t always the case. Because when it comes to wineries, “estate” generally means that the winery building—where the wine gets made—is at the same site as the vineyards.
In Paso Robles, California, “estate” can mean something decidedly more low key, as is the case with Brecon Estate. In 2012, when winemaker Damian Grindley and investor Simon Hackett took over a rundown winery located on the increasingly fashionable Vineyard Drive, they wanted to redesign it with an eye toward warmth, modernity and approachability. To refurbish the winery building, Brecon tapped Aidlin Darling Design, a San Francisco firm that has worked with Sonoma’s Scribe Winery and San Francisco’s Bar Agricole, among others. Recently, with a few vintages completed and phase one of the remodel wrapped up (phase two will shift the walkway approach to the winery), Grindley offered a behind-the-scenes peek at how the winery and vineyard were designed.
“We were blessed with [getting] some of the oldest vines in the region located right next to the winery building,” says winemaker Damian Grindley about the 23-acre parcel of 50-year-old Caber- net Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines he acquired with the property—one of the main attractions the Brecon team found appealing about the site.
An old vineyard comes with its own set of challenges; the understanding of how grapes ripen has advanced with time. A viticulturist will look at several factors when planning how to orient a new plot of vines: where frost and fog might form (“if you run with the slope, you can drain the frost,” says Grindley) and how the sun will hit the grapes. Fortunately, Brecon’s old-vine plantings are fairly well situated—the vines run at a few degrees shy of a north-south orientation to get even amounts of sunlight on each side for ripening. “You might divide it into blocks if you were going to replant it,” says Grindley—but he has no plans to do so, because the character of the old clones is so distinctive.
One change the team has implemented is to transition the old-vine plot from irrigation to dry farming. “We turned the water off and let the vines struggle,” says Grindley, who believes the flavor of dry-farmed grapes is noticeably better, with the smaller, more-stressed grapes producing wine with “nice, bright fruit, more acid, and more balance.”
Paso Robles’ hilly terrain means temperatures in vineyard sites across the region can differ dramatically. Brecon is situated in a relatively cool area in a natural bowl on the west side, which Grindley says is ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes tend to both flower and ripen later, with harvest usually taking place in late October. “A few hundred yards away at the top of the hill, you might as well be in Syrah country,” he says, noting how quickly the climate can change to something comparable to hotter growing regions, such as the plains of Spain or the Rhône.
The Brecon team also planted a new vineyard with plots of Malbec—only the second planting of this particular clone in California—and Petit Verdot, a grape with which Grindley has found success in the past. Grindley says the eclectic mix of grapes will allow Brecon to offer something both traditional (Cabernet Sauvignon) and something more unique, which could put the estate on the map. In comparison to the old-vine plot, the newer grape vines are given slightly more space, to better withstand the demands of dry farming.
Grindley also purchases grapes from area vineyards to supplement the estate grapes. With Paso Robles’ diverse plantings and climate, this allows him to create distinct blends. “We only own one hilltop,” he says. “Even [grapes grown] a mile and a half away could be stylistically quite different, but work well in a blend.”
The original winery building came with some advantages: it was situated directly next to the old-vine vineyard and a scenic creek, which would not be possible with modern-day permitting requirements. But the building itself, covered in a faux stucco—what Grindley described as a cross between a rundown Spanish mission and an industrial Taco Bell—left much to be desired.
Aidlin Darling began the renovation process by stripping the trim work and façades. In its place, the top of the split-level building was fitted with cedar slatting, which add an agrarian feel and reference the weathered cedar barns found along the coast.
The lower portion was covered in a rough-hewn plaster that mimics rammed earth structures, popular in Grindley’s wife Amanda’s native Australia. Peter Larsen, one of the lead architects, says this rustic element helps the building feel grounded in its site. “It acknowledges that wine is a product of the earth that gets barreled and stored under-ground,” Larsen says.
The original building also had few windows and doors, a design quirk that Larsen felt alienated visitors from the vineyard setting and the temperate weather in Paso Robles. To remedy this, he punched out large holes in the winery building to create an indoor- outdoor feeling. The tasting bar, for example, is situated at a window, so servers can pour for guests who want to enjoy the outdoors. In addition, the team created multiple gathering areas outside, including an outdoor fire pit on a concrete terrace, and a garden space under the trees that can be found a short walk from the winery.
Grindley wanted to use as much reclaimed material as possible during the redesign, but he wasn’t fond of furniture made from wine barrels. Instead, the architects found ways to tastefully repurpose materials: The tasting bar, seating and tables are built from large pieces of repurposed oak wine tanks, and antique mirror glass adds dimension to the space.
Grindley uses the existing split-level building to his advantage: the tasting room occupies the upper floor, while the winery operations take place on the ground floor, which is advantageous because of all the heavy equipment—fork lifts and tractors—that come in and out during the winemaking process.
Grindley says that if he were to construct a winery from scratch, he might build out the space to accommodate a gravity-flow system, which allows the grapes to be pressed and funneled into tanks with minimal handling. But within the confines of the existing winery, Brecon instead uses a custom crush set, which can mimic a gravity-flow system with the use of a fork lift, and then be rolled away after the crush process is finished, maximizing the utility of the space.
Rather than separate visitors from the winemaking area, mezzanines and catwalks on the top level allow a peek at the winemaking process below. The racking system, which stores Brecon’s wine barrels, was inherited from the previous owners. So far, for the small production levels at which they currently operate (under 5,000 cases), Grindley says this is workable, but that might need to change as they grow.