Hearst throws its name into the wine business

The Hearst family — which has the largest beef cattle operation in San Luis Obispo County on top of its billion-dollar media empire — is lending its famous name to the wine business.

In the past year, it has started a Hearst Ranch winery brand, a Hearst Ranch wine label, a tasting room near Hearst Castle in San Simeon and has bottled 10,000 cases of six types of wine.

This is the first wine venture for the Hearst family, said Steve Hearst, who is William Randolph Hearst’s great-grandson. As a vice president of the Hearst Corp., he’s responsible for managing its real estate commercial interests and extensive ranching, timber and property operations over 214,000 acres of California property — most of which is in this county, according to the company’s Web site.

Sales of the Hearst Ranch wines will start in March at its tasting room in the Sebastian Grocery and Cafe in Old San Simeon Village, Hearst said.

The tasting facility, which is across Highway 1 from Hearst Castle, should be a great spot to capture an estimated 1 million visitors who stream through the state landmark every year, said Hearst Ranch winemaker Adam LaZarre.

The wine will be part of the Hearst Ranch business operations and is a partnership with Jim Saunders of Saunders Vineyard in Paso Robles, Steve Hearst told The Tribune.

The Hearsts are neither buying, building nor growing anything themselves in this endeavor. They have agreed to let Saunders license the Hearst name and the Hearst Ranch brand and will receive a royalty or percentage based on sales after Saunders recoups his costs, Saunders said. He declined to say what that portion would be.

The Hearst labels were approved earlier this month, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the U.S. Treasury Department division that handles the licensing of wine labels.

“To have such a well-known family invest in the wine business is a powerful credit to our region,” said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

“The endeavor will put Paso on the map in a new way,” Jacob added. “Anyone who is committed to quality wines in the Central Coast region will help us all.”

The Hearst-Saunders enterprise started less than a year ago, Hearst said.

“The back story is Saunders purchased a ranch tour at a cancer fundraiser last year,” Hearst said. “We realized we shared views on sustainable agriculture and ultimately decided to do this project together.”

“We have become quick and high-quality friends. … He is a real dynamo,” Hearst added. “I think we complement each other’s businesses. It was a lot of fun putting it together.”

Saunders owns, with his brother Terry Saunders, the Park Ballroom in downtown Paso Robles and Pacific Management and Development, a real estate company. And with his wife, Debi, Jim Saunders owns an 80-acre vineyard and two wine-processing facilities in Paso Robles.

Part of his grapes and one of his wineries are licensed to Four Vines Winery, which makes about 50,000 cases of wine a year. The Saunders brothers have been growing grapes in Paso Robles since 1993 and built Treana Winery, Summerwood, and Austin Hope Winery and worked on expanding Wild Horse Winery as well, Jim Saunders said.

Saunders has also collected the grapes from several vineyards in the Paso Robles area, including his own, processed and bottled the wine at his winemaking facility on his vineyard, and will run the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room in San Simeon.

Six wines selling between $25 and $70 a bottle are chardonnay, merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, a red blend, and a late harvest zinfandel.

They will be sold with names associated with the Hearst Ranch, such as Glacier Ridge, Pico Creek, Lone Tree, The Point, Enchantment and Bunkhouse, Hearst said.

In addition to the Hearst Ranch wine, LaZarre is also the winemaker for San Miguel’s Villa San-Juliette, which produces about 35,000 cases and is owned by “American Idol” producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick.

“Jim Saunders asked me to head up the Hearst project and I was excited to do something with these guys,” LaZarre said. “The Hearst name is synonymous with quality and I made sure they got the best grapes possible.”