Each Arnold family member has a part in making Pozo Valley wines. From left to right are Joey and Michelle with their parents, Debbie and Steve Arnold.

Each Arnold family member has a part in making Pozo Valley wines. From left to right are Joey and Michelle with their parents, Debbie and Steve Arnold.

It’s a family affair at Pozo Valley wines, with Steve and Debbie Arnold, their two children, and other relatives contributing to the small boutique winery. Their tasting room in Santa Margarita, California, is located near a retail business that was run by Thomas Arnold, the first Arnold to settle in the area in the early 1900s.

"Now, some 100 years later, we’re within blocks of the store and selling our wines," said Joey Arnold, the fifth generation of Arnolds to grow up in San Luis Obispo County area.

Pozo Valley wines share space with Bonnie’s Kitchen, a gourmet food shop in the sleepy, little town that is about ten miles north of San Luis Obispo on California’s central coast.

The Arnold family grapes are grown in nearby Pozo Valley, which the winery is named for, on the original ranch of Thomas and Josephine Arnold. The Arnold ranch of rolling hills, native grasses, and oak trees, where the Arnolds eventually settled, has been in the family for five generations since 1919.

Although Pozo Valley and the Arnold family were for years synonymous with cattle and horses, Steve Arnold took a bold step for a cattleman when his wife Debbie and children Joey and Michelle planted 30 acres of Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 1995. They added their first white variety this year, planting a small amount of Viognier.

As Steve was looking for a profitable crop to supplement the cattle, he sought the advice of Don Talley, one of the county’s leading vegetable and wine grape growers. Talley suggested that instead of growing row crops, Steve should plant wine grapes. Talley believed that the site, with its elevation, marine influence, and wide swings in daytime and nighttime temperatures—which can span a difference of 45 to 50°F between night and day in the summer—would be ideal for red wine-grape varieties. Pozo Valley, nestled below the Santa Lucia mountain range and surrounded by forest, is about 30 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo on the central –California coast.

With the help of their then teenage children and other relatives and friends, Steve and Debbie planted vines just as the region began rapidly expanding its wine grape production. Joey and Michelle got the "wine bug" early in their lives, and both graduated with bachelor’s degrees in fruit science in 2000 and 2002, respectively, from California Polytechnic State –University, San Luis Obispo, taking viticulture and enology classes as a concentration. The college now offers a four-year degree program in viticulture and enology.

"We had a leg up on most of the kids in our college viticulture and wine classes because we had been helping in the vineyard since our early high-school years," Michelle said. "Most taking the wine classes were city kids wearing Birkenstocks, and they didn’t know anything about agriculture."

Both Joey and Michelle interned for large vineyard management companies during college to gain additional industry experience.

First vintage

Five years ago, Joey convinced his father to save a small amount of grapes from harvest so he could try his hand at winemaking. His first foray in winemaking was not impressive (he used an antique grape press for crushing), but he tried again the next year, this time using commercial crush equipment and working closely with a winemaker. "Dad is a show-me kind of guy. After I showed him that the end product was good, I was able to convince him that we could make our own wines."

The next year, 2003, the winemaker at Robert –Mondavi, where the grapes were contracted, wanted Steve to drop 10 percent of the crop. He agreed, but with the caveat that he would use the grapes for the family’s new wine venture. This year marks the fifth –vintage for Pozo Valley.

In the first year, they bottled 600 cases, increasing volume to 2,300 cases in 2006 due to an extra supply of grapes. However, volume is expected to return to around 800 cases in 2007. They use the custom wine facilities of Paso Robles Wine Services to crush, store, and bottle their wines. A Bordeaux blend will be released later this year.

Though the four Arnolds have full employment outside the family winery, their jobs are flexible enough to allow them winery time. Each takes a turn staffing the tasting room that is open Fridays through Sundays, along with other relatives who help out. Steve and Debbie grow the grapes, Joey is winemaker, and Michelle focuses on marketing and promotion. Joey’s wife, Jessica, a graphic artist, designed the Pozo Valley wine labels.

Already, the young winery is proving itself in the marketplace. Tasting room visitors often stop because they tasted the Pozo Valley wines in local restaurants. A local distributor keeps Pozo Valley wines stocked in local restaurants and wine shops, and Michelle has plans to work with the wine trade in San Francisco to expand their market. Their first Cabernet Sauvignon release (2003) won a silver medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, with the 2003 Merlot winning bronze; their 2003 Merlot was awarded a silver medal at the Riverside International Wine Competition.

Steve has one year left on his grape contract with Constellation Wines, the giant wine company that bought Mondavi. Although no one in the family is suggesting that they ramp up winery production to use grapes from all 30-plus acres, the family soon will be deciding just how big they want to grow in the near future.