December 18, 2018 – Like many other small wineries, Kevin Olson Vineyards finds itself in a slightly frustrating situation: its output is not enough to attract the attention of a large distributor, but how then to get its wines out to potential fans?
If the winery was in Carmel or Santa Cruz, it would be a no-brainer—a tasting room would be the way to do it. But Olson Vineyards is in Prunedale, the rural, somewhat scattered North Monterey County community that is better known for its beer-drinking, pickup-truck-driving lifestyle.
But the Olsons—Kevin, wife Patti, and sons Nick and Parker— have persisted. And now, their tasting room/wine bar 101 Wine Press is close to becoming reality, and will offer Olson chardonnays and pinot noirs as well as a selection of premium craft beers and Santa Maria-style barbecue.
“We always wanted to have a tasting room and to share our wines with more people,” says Patti. “There really isn’t anything here like it here. People are familiar with our property, and they recognize the name, but they don’t really know who we are.”
That’s all set to change with 101 Wine Press, envisioned as a place for both locals and travelers to get together to enjoy a glass or wine or a craft beer, and enjoy a little barbecue as well—a combination that should go over well in this rural community.
The casual dining establishment, which has been several years in the making, will open in the Prunedale Shopping Center sometime in January, according to Nick Olson. The Olsons chose the name for Highway 101, which runs alongside the shopping center, and the wine press part harkens back to the old days when grapes were crushed using a hand-cranked press.
Olson vineyards can be glimpsed by those traveling along 101, on the hills just west of the highway before the ramp that leads to the Monterey Peninsula. Up on the 30-acre property, there are still many of the old buildings built by Olson ancestors, including a corn crib and a blacksmith shop, and beautiful views looking down the beginning of the Salinas Valley.
The property is part of what was originally the Olson family homestead established in 1882, when the family moved west to escape harsh Wisconsin winters. But according to an Olson family history written by Kevin, it was a hardscrabble existence for generations, as the family tried making a living by growing wheat and hay, then apples and pears, and finally beef cattle.
Some zinfandel vines were planted in the 1940s, “and every once in a while, we’ll see a wild old vine growing,” says Nick. But it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that Kevin met the head winemaker for Talbott, who told him the ranch’s west-facing slopes and proximity to the ocean made it perfect for growing wine grapes.
After much deliberation, 20 acres of cattle ranch became a vineyard, using clones of Talbott’s “Diamond T” and “Sleepy Hollow” chardonnays and its “666,” “113” and “667” pinot noirs.
Nick calls it a “niche vineyard,” with quality rather than quantity. Because of Prunedale’s cooler climate, “the grapes hang a lot longer and they’re more flavorful,” he adds.
Today, much of the harvest is sold to other winemakers, including Bernardus in Carmel Valley, Big Basin Vineyards in Boulder Creek, and House Family Vineyards in Saratoga. The Olsons do their own bottling, as well, under the Kevin Olson Vineyards label.
But getting from concept to reality has taken a lot of time and effort over the past few years. Nick first negotiated to get a space in the other Prunedale shopping center, the Prunetree, but ultimately couldn’t reach an agreement with center management. Then he started looking at the older Prunedale Shopping Center, which had some vacancies.
First getting a wine and beer license, and then clearing hurdles with Monterey County to create a restaurant, took much longer than anyone anticipated. Kevin, Nick and Parker will be hands-on managers at 101 Wine Press, says Nick: “One of us will always be there.”
Another item that took longer than expected was creating a custom-built mobile smoking pit/barbecue, where pit masters will turn out tri-tip, sausage and chicken every day, along with daily specials like smoked brisket and salmon.
Nick and Patti emphasize using local meats and produce on their menu, as well as focusing on seasonality. “We’re creating a menu that is not overly complicated, that’s simple and well done,” says Nick. “We will have some sides and some staples as well as seasonal specials.”
“It’s the real thing,” says Patti. “We want to be authentic and to stay rooted to the family history.”
The style of barbecue will also come from local roots. Meats will be cooked with high heat over oak and apple wood, then finished in the smoker, says Nick, playing off what is called Santa Maria-style or California-style barbecue.
Among the local brands to be featured are bread and rolls by Golden Sheaf in Watsonville, sausage by Roy’s Swiss Sausage Factory in Greenfield, and beers and ales by Discretion Brewing of Santa Cruz. Other beers and wines are yet to be decided.
The Olsons are excited about the new challenge and are looking forward to serving their community in a different way. “There will be some trial and error, and we’re prepared for that,” says Nick. But he also sees opportunity to turn Prunedale into a food hub, something that would have been unimaginable even five years ago.
In the past few years, locally-owned, non-chain restaurants have been gradually been making their claim—Ichiban Sushi, Stevie’s Family Restaurant, and mostly recently Ay Caramba Mexican restaurant in the Prunetree Center—and Rosie’s Ice Cream in the Prunedale Shopping Center, serving up selections from Marianne’s in Santa Cruz as well as delicious smoothies, juices, and fresh-fruit bionicos and mangoneadas.
All this activity bodes well to draw in people who are driving through on 101, in addition to creating a food destination for North Monterey County locals.
“It’s fantastic,” says Nick. “I think it makes people more willing to stay in the area to go out to eat, rather than going elsewhere.”