Reworking Norman Vineyards in Paso Robles

Lei Norman, left, and son Jim Norman, center, plan to sell Norman Vineyards’ 40 acres in Paso Robles and move wine tasting downtown. Winemaker Steve Felten, right, will consult but launch his own label.
Lei Norman, left, and son Jim Norman, center, plan to sell Norman Vineyards’ 40 acres in Paso Robles and move wine tasting downtown. Winemaker Steve Felten, right, will consult but launch his own label.

A longtime member of the Paso Robles wine community, Norman Vineyards, plans to sell its 40-acre property west of Paso Robles, including the winery it has operated for nearly 20 years.

Meanwhile, its general manager and winemaker, Steve Felten, is planning to consult while he launches his own label.

With 23 acres of vineyards and 5,000 square feet of winery and tasting room space, Jim Norman, the founders' son, said the property is listed at about $3.8 million. Already it has garnered serious interest.

“The profits have been steadily declining,” he admitted. “Without making this decision, the viability of the brand and the property would be in jeopardy.”

He plans to move the family business to a warehouse and tasting room downtown, while eliminating its debt burden and streamlining costs.

“We can save $1 million a year by doing that,” he said. “I have to change my marketing strategies to go where the numbers are. In downtown Paso, I see a viable alternative.”

His parents, Art and Lei Norman, began shopping for vineyard land in 1971. An engineer, Art Norman learned winemaking from his father, Art Norman Sr., while growing up in Oakland.

They purchased the acreage on Vineyard Drive in the Adelaida region and sold grapes to local producers, including Gary Eberle’s Estrella River Winery.

“We were looking for 2 acres and ended up with 40,” Lei Norman said. “We planted the first 10 acres by ourselves, vine by vine by vine.”

After crafting its first bottles in 1992, Norman Vineyards opened the winery the next year.

In 2005, it brought Felten on as general manager and winemaker. As director of winemaking for Eos Estate Winery for the previous decade, he was well acquainted with the Normans.

“I’d always wanted to work for Art,” Felten said. “He must have known he was getting close to passing the baton. I was going to work with him for two or three years.”

But in 2006, Art Norman died.

“I was not the salesman, my husband was,” his widow said. “I think it’s time for the younger generation to take over.”

Now 70, Lei Norman officially retired on New Year’s Day.

She will still be involved with bookkeeping and other aspects, but has given control to her son, who is also a chef. He has the same outgoing traits, she said, that made her husband successful at selling.

Planning to do more volunteer work, she will also move from her home on the winery property to live in the city.

Her son has brought a more youthful, rockabilly vibe to Norman Vineyards and its tasting room.

“He’s attracted a younger crowd that’s into classic cars, tattoos and old rock and roll,” Felten said. That’s a great market to tap into.”

The younger Norman also plans to eliminate small lots of higher-priced, reserve wine available only to wine club members.

Existing stock ranges from about $13 to $42 a bottle. Felten said its most popular wine, The Monster Zinfandel, sells for between $25 and $28.

With distribution in 48 U.S. states, Canada, China, Japan, Germany and Belgium, Norman will focus on the more popular wines.

New releases will be in the $20 range.

“I’m going to streamline and basically go back to what we started with: zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, pinot grigio, chardonnay and white zinfandel,” the younger Norman said. “The seven wines that I sell (the most) are at about a $25 price point.”

Current annual production is 7,000 cases — much lower than the 25,000 cases anticipated from the 2005 vintage.

“We sold a lot of bulk wine,” Felten said. “We still have quite a bit of inventory to burn through. It really doesn’t make sense for us to keep this facility.”

Felten gave his 90-day notice Tuesday. Norman plans to keep the other four full-time workers, whom he considers part of the family.

Felten Cellars will release its first wines this summer, including a pinot noir in the traditional Burgundian style. The grapes are from Will Webster’s vineyard, Felten said. It will sell in the low $30 range.

He is still looking for a quality white wine for his initial release. Starting with 500 cases, Felten plans to slowly build to a maximum of 2,000 a year.

“I’ve always wanted to have my own small brand,” Felten said. But he added: “I’m emotionally invested in the Norman brand and Art’s legacy. I’m going to certainly continue my relationship with Jim and Lei for years to come.”

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