Back in the canyons east of Arroyo Grande along Hi Mountain Road, the pétanque match doesn’t get heated until the skies have cooled and the sun is long gone. As a humming generator powers the bright bulb overhead, the players alternate swigs of fine wine with tosses of the bocce-like balls, all in a quest to better their brother, son, father, or visiting journalist in this age-old contest of strategy and skill. Of French origins, pétanque is a fitting competition for a rancho in the heart of Central Coast wine country, but the game is merely a stage for this cast of colorful characters, whose combined energies fuel the enterprise that is Conway Family Wines.
There’s the inventiveness of patriarch Christopher, whose 1969 founding of the Goleta-based health care giant Mentor Corporation delivered the wealth required for such an opulent setting; the creativity of son John, a veritable rock ’n’ roll star who tours the world as keyboardist for The Bravery; the business acumen of older brother Gareth, president of the wine operation; the down-to-earth friendliness of youngest brother Tom, who sells the family’s juice; youngest sibling Gillian, whose pleasant smile fits her marketing role with the company; and their mother, Ann, whose kindness and cooking seems to hold the whole crew together. (There’s also sister Sally, who helps with label design and tasting, but missed this particular pétanque showdown.) Together, the Conways—who spent the past couple decades living in Hope Ranch and attending Santa Barbara schools—make for a most welcoming and warm family, even if they swear all day to slay you in their silly sport.
The oak tree-surrounded pétanque pitch represents just a sliver of Rancho Arroyo Grande, the 3,500-acre spread of steep mountains, hidden valleys, and stunning natural beauty that the Conways purchased in 2007. There were already nearly 250 acres planted in wine grapes, but the family and their consultants quickly set about shifting the property’s priorities from quantity to quality. In so doing, the family got to intimately know their three separate plots: Coquina Vineyard, named after the ancient marine reefs that make up the rancho’s sedimentary soils; Zeferino Vineyard, a memorial to the rancho’s 1841 grantee Zeferino Carlon; and Portero Vineyard, which is 1,000 feet high in a mountaintop pasture. Due to the viticultural overhaul, there was no estate harvest in 2008, and the Rancho Arroyo Grande estate wines from 2007 have since sold out. The 2009 harvest of zinfandel and syrah grapes, however, is sitting in barrel, and should be released in six months.
Meanwhile, the Conways and French-born winemaker Jonathan Medard created the Deep Sea label, whose logo of a seashell is a nod to the intact fossils that can be found all over the property. “These wines are blends that focus on representing California coastal vineyards,” said Gillian, explaining that the syrah-based blend, chardonnay, viognier, and rose utilize both the family’s estate grapes and grapes from vineyards in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties. There will also be a single vineyard series this year, said Gillian, namely a chardonnay from Bien Nacido, a pinot noir from Sta. Rita Hills, and a White Hawk syrah. Altogether, Conway Family Wines puts out about 30,000 cases per year, all of it made at their winery inside Santa Maria’s Central Coast Wine Services. (The family also started construction on a rancho winery, but put that on hold to focus on, as Gillian explained, “getting our feet in the market first.”)
But wine’s not the only Rancho Arroyo Grander product. On the hillside near the pétanque pitch is a barn-like structure that houses a professional recording studio called Roccus Bacchus. Designed and developed sustainably by John, who used straw bale construction, recycled blue jean insulation, and repurposed corks and barrels, the building also features an upstairs loft with kitchen, bath, pool table, and impromptu art studio. “This is my favorite building on the property,” admitted John proudly, “and when it gets finished, it will probably be everyone else’s, too.” The Bravery will rehearse and record future albums there, but it’s also open to other musicians needing a place to sneak away and lay down some tracks. “It’s kind of a dream for bands and for people who handle bands,” said John. “It’s an oasis that allows you to be free and creative and go on that journey of discovery.”
Though wealth and family have always played critical roles in the wine industry, very few enterprises seem to work with as much joy, humility, and mutual respect as what’s happening at Rancho Arroyo Grande. “In some sense, you can never leave your work—it’s in your life, in your home, and you’re drinking your product at dinner,” said Gillian of the family work dynamic. “In some ways, it’s challenging, but in other ways, it’s really awesome. If you can embrace that, in the end, it’s a way more positive thing.”
Deep Sea wines can be found in Santa Barbara at Emilio’s, Live Culture, Louie’s, Petit Valentin, and Vino Divino; in Santa Ynez at Grappolo; and in Solvang at Wandering Dog Wine Bar. The Conways are also giving a 30-percent discount to Independent readers who order wine via their Web site, conwayfamilywines.com. Just click “Coupon Code” and type in “independent” to redeem the discount.