Food & Drink

Wine Notes: Phantom Rivers Wine

John Thunen, red, his wife Linda and Steve Mathis at their Phantom Rivers Tasting Room in the Arroyo Grande village soon after it opened in 2009.
John Thunen, red, his wife Linda and Steve Mathis at their Phantom Rivers Tasting Room in the Arroyo Grande village soon after it opened in 2009.

For the past three years, the Nipomo Wine Group has been selling its Phantom Rivers Wine through its wine club and Web site, local wine retailers and a handful of restaurants stretching from Los Angeles to the Bay Area.

When I first wrote about them in July 2006, partner Steve Mathis admitted the venture was “really still a work in progress.”

Since then, the wine group has definitely been moving things along, and last month it took the next step, opening a new tasting room in a beautifully remodeled old home in the heart of the Arroyo Grande Village. The Nipomo Wine Group is a collaboration of four couples who had been making wine separately as home winemakers for years and decided to join forces in 2004, renting space at Central Coast Wine Services and getting the necessary financing to buy grapes, barrels and other equipment.

John and Linda Thunen, Steve and Sue Mathis, Gary and Diana Smith and John and Kerri Klacking make up the partnership. Each brings skill to the party. Thunen, who worked as a physicist in the aerospace industry and had been using his scientific background to make wine at home for more than 30 years, is the head winemaker. Steve Mathis is president. Linda Thunen is secretary and treasurer, and Gary Smith used his construction experience to build out the tasting room. He also serves as assistant winemaker. The Klackings live in Reno and are considered the group’s “Nevada expansion team.”

It’s rare that friendship and business work well together, but this is a case where it clearly does. When asked if it was difficult for the group to decide to go forward with investing in a tasting room, John Thunen answered, “We must have spent the better part of a year looking at places, arguing over what we wanted to do.” But once they saw the quaint 100-year-old house on Branch Street, he says the decision was easy. “It was instant. We were all in agreement that this was the place.”

The name Phantom Rivers was selected by the group for its reference to the misty fog that flows in and out of the valleys along the ancient rivers of the Central Coast. In cooling the vineyards at night and extending the hang time of the grapes on the vines, the foggy weather directly impacts the quality of the fruit.

The partners have grown from an initial production of 640 cases in 2004 up to 2,500 cases this year. They buy from almost a dozen vineyards in just about every part of the Central Coast, including Wolff Vineyard and Edna Ranch in Edna Valley, Still Waters Vineyard in Paso Robles, and the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard.

“We focus our efforts in finding the perfect area for each varietal and purchasing grapes from those farmers,” Thunen explains. He’s currently making seven different varietals in addition to two blends.

The tasting room will be open five days a week, Thursday through Monday. And like several other businesses in downtown Arroyo Grande, it will be open later on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The space itself is charming and elegant. Recently remodeled, the 600-square-foot space is divided into three rooms, with two separate tasting bars. Gary Smith designed most of the elements in the space, including the solid cherry bars. When asked why he built two bars instead of one, Smith optimistically said with a smile, “Because we’re going to be really busy.”

The tasting room is also part art gallery, currently featuring oil the paintings of Nipomo artist Marsha Duenas. The group plans to rotate artists on a monthly or bimonthly basis and host open house events regularly.

Regarding all the steps necessary to open and operate the tasting room, Linda Thunen says the process was surprisingly smooth.

“Everything just fell together,” she said. Her husband had to qualify that statement: “It took longer, cost more, but we knew that it would.

It’s just one of those things that you sit down and itemize what you think everything will cost, then you double it!”

Phantom Rivers Wine

Owner: The Nipomo Wine Group

Address: 211 E. Branch St. in Arroyo Grande

Winemaker: John Thunen

Cases produced: 2,500 in 2008

Web site:

Tasting room hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday, open until 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday

San Luis Obispo Harvest Celebration Weekend

The San Luis Obispo vintners’ 19th annual Harvest Celebration starts today and continues through this weekend. Major events include winemaker dinners tonight at 10 different wineries; a grand tasting and auction Saturday at the Avila Beach Golf Resort featuring more than 50 wineries and restaurants; and more than 20 open houses at participating wineries on Sunday. For more information and tickets, go to or call 541-5868.

Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at