As I shared lunch Aug. 16 with Jim Saunders, owner of Hearst Ranch Winery in San Simeon, he seemed less energetic than usual while we munched on crispy fried calamari and salmon salad.
He was entitled to be exhausted. After all, he, his crew and his helpers had just finished moving his entire wine-tasting operation.
In about a week.
Sure, they’d only moved kitty-corner across SLO San Simeon Road — vacating the circa-1852 Sebastian’s Store building, which is now closed for complete renovation, for another historic but lesser known building, a Hearst warehouse in Old San Simeon Village.
But still. To have accomplished all that in such a short time, especially during summer’s high tourist season, and having been open for business throughout the entire relocation? No wonder Jim was frazzled.
He also was very excited. If the move had to be made, he said, where better to move to than a rustic but spacious oceanfront building on a marine terrace where scattered picnic tables could offer sweeping views of miles of shoreline and the sea?
Relocating the tasting room, even just temporarily, means “another aspect of Hearst property that hasn’t ever been open to the public can now be enjoyed by them,” Jim said, “thanks to the generosity of (Hearst Corporation vice president) Steve Hearst and the Hearst family.”
In the past few years, Steve and the corporation have allowed the warehouse to be used by several nonprofits for fundraising events, but it’s never before been available daily to the public in general.
The emergency move was triggered by an engineer’s safety study about Sebastian’s, a report commissioned by Hearst Corp., which owns the building and almost everything else in the village. Apparently, the building had severe structural challenges, including a sagging roof, aging wood floor and having been built on piers rather than a foundation.
In late July, with those safety study results in hand, “Hearst decided it was in the best interests of everybody to close all the operations (wine tasting, café and post office) as soon as possible,” Jim said, and start the renovations immediately.
Hearst had been talking to the U.S. Postal Service about the future for some time, Jim said, but only because the post office’s lease was up for reconsideration and/or renewal in 2020.
However, after getting the safety report, U.S. Postal Service officials closed the San Simeon branch on Aug. 1.
For now, patrons must do their postal business elsewhere, getting their mail in Cambria, although Hearst and postal officials are negotiating about an interim site somewhere in the historic village.
Plans for the Sebastian’s historic restoration project are being designed, and it’s estimated the work could take about two years to complete.
But in the meantime, there was a busy tasting room to move.
Jim said it took 18 people plus his winery staff and subcontractors working 12 hours a day to complete most of the shift to the warehouse.
They had to move and adapt a heavy, wooden, 22-foot-long, wrap-around wine-tasting bar with a lowered section for people with physical restrictions. And all those wine glasses!
All the furniture and sales racks were bought in Las Vegas by Aug. 12, delivered the following Friday and were completely assembled by the end of Saturday. Doesn’t that sound like an IKEA-style, night-before-Christmas nightmare?
The historic, board- and batten-sided Hearst warehouse is one of several along the San Simeon shoreline.
In past decades, the buildings — including a mission-style one constructed entirely of concrete — used to house artwork, furnishings and miscellany headed for Hearst Castle and other William Randolph Hearst holdings.
Now, the northernmost warehouse rocks a rustic but upscale industrial look inside, with a soaring ceiling, black metal beams, skylights concrete floor with a wood runway and the focal-point wine bar.
The building’s much roomier than the winery’s quarters were at Sebastian’s. But while a sense of history was more palpable in Sebastian’s, the warehouse also evokes a feeling of times gone by.
There was one other problem to solve: Sebastian’s has a kitchen, tiny but workable. The warehouse doesn’t. And the café was an essential part of the operation.
Jim solved that issue for now by adding a self-sufficient food truck outside and offering an eclectic, upscale, ever-changing menu.
And that’s where we got our lunch. Jim’s calamari rings and tentacles were served with curry and mustard aioli. My salad had perfectly cooked chunks of salmon atop lemon vinaigrette-scented, vegetable-accented couscous.
By the time we finished our lunch and chat, Jim looked a bit more relaxed.
Sure, there’s still work to do — artwork to install, signs to hang, a website to get updated. But he’d survived chaos week, and maybe it was time to sit, tip a glass and enjoy watching as his employees served the visitors streaming into the new Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room.
Visit Hearst Ranch Winery
The Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the northern curve of the SLO San Simeon Road loop that starts across Highway 1 from the entrance to Hearst Castle. For more information, call 805-927-4100 or visit https://www.hearstranchwinery.com/