Windsor Square residents make wine in Santa Barbara County

| November 2, 2017 | 0 Comments

JOHN AND GILL Wagner roam their Peake Ranch in Buellton, Santa Barbara County.

Many Windsor Square friends and neighbors know that my wife, Gill, and I also have another life in the vineyard lands of Santa Barbara County. People often ask how we got in the wine business.

After seeing many paper fortunes vanish in the tech crash of 2000, I was talking to a bond broker in New York about how he was interested in real assets. I complained that a lot of things I was looking at seemed very fully valued. The broker said that California vineyard land was trading at a discount-to-replacement value.

It turned out that the broker, Jeff Beckmen, had family that owned a winery in Santa Barbara. I said that sounded interesting and Jeff’s father set me up with a broker who was selling a vineyard in Santa Maria. After some work, I discovered that the land was worth more as strawberry fields and that it cost $25,000 an acre to plant.

However, it also turned out that the seller, Robert Mondavi, needed the grapes and was willing to buy them back at a cost that would make the transaction profitable. It seemed like a reasonable investment, and so we proceeded. A year later, the movie “Sideways” came out, and Santa Barbara pinot noir prices doubled. Clearly we were investing geniuses.

Vineyard expands

We were now in the wine business, and our Santa Maria vineyard, “Sierra Madre,” was happily producing fruit for Robert Mondavi. A good family friend, Sebastiano Sterpa, was intrigued by the fact that we owned a vineyard. Seb had emigrated from Italy after World War II, graduated from UCLA and made a fortune in the residential real estate business. He knew Gill’s parents in London, and he had looked after Gill when she moved to the U.S. It turned out that Seb had a ranch where he was raising cattle near Buellton and was interested in growing grapes.

Since I now had contacts in the business, I arranged for a consultant to tour Seb’s property and tell us what he thought. The consultant was working with Michel Rolland on another project, and he called me after they both had seen and tested the site to tell me that Rolland had told him it would be a crime not to plant the ranch.

So, I arranged for Seb to meet the consultants and to figure a plan to plant the ranch. When Seb found out how much was involved, he called, with a much heavier Italian accent, and said “I am 85, I don’t have any kids, but I have always thought of you and Gill as kids. Would you pay to plant the vineyard, and I will put in the land, and we will be partners in owning the vineyard?” It was a hard proposition to say no to, and according to Rolland we would have been committing a crime if we had.


We planted the vineyard, and Mondavi was doing a good job with the wine. A Sierra Madre pinot noir made the Wine Spectator Top 100 wines in the world. And many of the smaller Santa Barbara winemakers were attracted to our newer property, “John Sebastiano,” and bought grapes from us. The winemakers were doing well, with many of their wines scoring in the 90s.

One day, my vineyard manager said he had a winemaker he wanted me to meet. The winemaker, Paul Lato, told me his life story. He had been born in communist Poland, defected when he was 19, and had worked in a Michelin starred restaurant in Toronto. He worked his way from dishwasher to director of wine. One morning, he woke up and wondered why he was selling wine when what he really wanted to do was make it. He moved to Santa Barbara, got a minimum wage job at a winery and taught himself how to make wine. He had started his label a few years prior to our meeting, and his wines were in the best U.S. restaurants (such as Per Se and French Laundry). I was completely charmed, and I told him I would get him grapes from the John Sebastiano vineyard. He was thankful, and he said that, often, Americans were reluctant to sell grapes to a foreigner. I replied that, as far as I was concerned, he was the most American guy I knew. He had a passion, and he was creating something out of pursuing his dream. Two years later, Paul Lato’s first vintage from John Sebastiano was released, and it got 95 points. He called the wine “Atticus,” after the great American hero Atticus Finch.

Peake Ranch

At this point, Gill’s and my friendship with Paul had grown very close, and Gill and I had become very involved in the wine world. A parcel near John Sebastiano had come on the market. It had been the site of the original Sanford tasting room and was the former ranch of the California artist Channing Peake. (Peake was a close friend of Pablo Picasso and was a founder of the American Quarter Horse breed.) Gill and I knew that it would be an ideal place to build a winery, and with Paul’s help, make world-class wines. After a lot of thought, and after getting to know Peake’s widow, we decided to name that new project Peake Ranch.

Santa Barbara County’s planning and design review process slowed the progress of constructing the winery, but we were able to make our first vintage from the 2014 harvest. We used pinot noir from John Sebastiano and Chardonnay from Sierra Madre. Because both vineyards are known in the wine critic world, we were able to get our wines reviewed by Robert Parker. Gill and I were thrilled when both the Peake Ranch John Sebastiano Pinot Noir and the Peake Ranch Sierra Madre Chardonnay received 96 points.

It is our intention to acknowledge and support a worthwhile charity with each vintage. This year, the charity recognized is the Weingart Center, which transforms lives by combating poverty and breaking the cycle of homelessness in downtown Los Angeles.

We hope to complete the winery late this year or early in 2018. Because of the attention we received from the wine reviews, sales online are going well.

And that is how we urban Angelenos ended up in the California wine business. For more information, our website is

John B. Wagner, Windsor Square, is the managing partner and chief investment officer of Camden Asset Management LP, a convertible bond specialist firm in Los Angeles.

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