The Canadian ex-pat in the cowboy hat running Rangeland Wines in Paso Robles is Laird Foshay.
An early investor in Silicon Valley who built and sold two startups in the digital publishing arena, Laird knows something about risk, reward and bridge financing. He jokes he and his wife Lisa are 17 years into a 25-year start up.
“There are wineries here in Paso – Justin and Halter Ranch – that are funded by some of the wealthiest people in the world,” he says. “They’re investing in Paso Robles, to the nines, and doing a beautiful job of it. We’ve adopted more of a bootstrap entrepreneurial approach because that’s how I always ran my businesses.”
The Foshay family bought the beautiful 1,500-acre Adelaida Springs Ranch in 2000 and planted the vineyard in 2002. “The highest value agricultural crop is vines,” says Laird, still sounding uncannily, like a venture capitalist. “Ranches around here have converted to vineyards large and small. You take $500 an acre grazing ground – which it was in the 1990s – and all of a sudden farmers are producing a $5-10,000 an acre crop every year. That is a glorious upgrade.”
Rangeland’s first vintage was in 2007 and the first wines were released in 2009. “At first we were growers for other wineries, mostly JUSTIN and Vina Robles. But when you’re used to running the show, growing grapes for others can be economically and creatively frustrating.” Frustrating also, because the Foshays saw the potential for Rangeland viticulture.
“JUSTIN was on the map with the number six wine in the world with the 1997 vintage,” says Laird. “I made a business decision early to be primarily planted in Bordeaux fruit because of the established success and excellence that JUSTIN – and others – had achieved, but notably JUSTIN. I think the Rhone wines have achieved a lot of critical acclaim and I am a fan of Tablas Creek and many other fine Rhone based wineries, but Paso is not only a Rhone based story.”
Risk and Reward
Nine months of beautiful weather is pretty darned appealing but in Paso, the Foshays knew they were investing in a warm climate that was subject to drought. “The crop here is variable and we made the targeted forecast number SOMETIMES, but less often than we wanted, he admits. “So you’re always looking for a way to extract more value from your hard work and making wine involves a lot of deferred income because instead of selling your fruit, you’re keeping it.”
No cash flow when you’re starting to buy $1,000 plus French oak wine barrels and hire winemakers and viticulturalists is tough. “We had to keep looking into the distance at that high gross margin bottle of wine. But it was clearly something we just gathered momentum at. We became less novice and more advanced beginners, which is how we would classify ourselves, even now,” he laughs.
The Foshays knew they would have to diversify to mitigate risk and adding a secondary revenue stream to winemaking has helped Rangeland survive a few gruesome years of drought.
“We work on multiple fronts. We raise livestock, we are wine grape growers, we are wine makers and we are also partners in the local USDA meat plant.” Laird says everyone is excited about the farm to table movement, but the hard part is local protein because the meat system in the U.S, and around the world, is so industrialized. “The little meat company I started (J&R Meats in Paso Robles) is one of the best local butchers around. We have an amazing variety of bison, venison, local lamb and of course – grass fed beef. Where we hope to be – and we don’t control all the variables here – we hope to have a winery and a tasting room* and offer some simple examples of our estate raised meats by the end of the (25 year) start-up period!”
With eight years left in his start-up plan, Laird has no regrets. “Modern people are starved for a connection to the natural world. I was there myself just 15 years ago. I spent my life on airplanes and in offices and meetings. You’re just going all the time.” The opportunity to switch hats from high stakes IT management to winemaking and ranching looked like the great escape. “It’s funny. I kinda thought this was an antidote to that but taking on a large property and being involved in diverse businesses, they’re all tiny bootstrap start-ups and although we came here financially comfortable, we risked all of that and I don’t regret any of those choices.”
On his winemaker, Paul Hinschberger, Laird has nothing but praise. “I am totally comfortable with Paul being the creative lead,” he says. “I used to be more involved in monitoring and blending. We still talk about the wine, I taste wine in the barrel. He prepares the blending trials, but it is a group thing: me, my wife Lisa, and the vineyard manager. We do blind tests and make comments and we talk about it creatively and in terms of commercial and logistical decisions. But with Paul, I take more of a laissez-faire attitude.”
A nice endorsement from a serial entrepreneur and cowboy who lives by his bootstraps.
- Rangeland’s Tasting Room is now open: 225 S. Main Street, Templeton, California
Feature image: Laird Foshay, – CWO, Patrick Hamilton – Vineyard Manager, Paul Hinschberger – Winemaker