Location, location, location was a big draw that prompted Broken Earth Winery to move its tasting room from Highway 46 East in Paso Robles to a large industrial space just steps down the road from Firestone Walker’s brewery and tap room.
“We obviously know what Firestone does and how busy they stay,” General Manager Justin Tooley told me just before their Memorial Day weekend grand opening. “There was an opportunity with the existing space that we were leasing to get out of that lease.”
Broken Earth is raising its Tri-Counties profile in a big way. The new venue is a huge space with exceptional emphasis on wine education. The owners want it to be a destination where visitors can order pizza from a wood-fired oven and buy artisan goods that are hard to find elsewhere.
Broken Earth gets its name from the 2,500-acre ranch where its vineyard is located, originally called Rancho Tierra Rajada, or “land of worked earth.” In 1973, a group of investors including actors James Caan, Wayne Rogers, Peter Falk and Jack Webb bought the ranch, 12 miles east of Paso Robles. Managing partner Herman Schwartz planted 500 acres of grapes at a time when there were only about 2,000 vineyard acres in the Paso Robles region.
The winery, then called Continental Vineyards, became one of Paso’s first large-scale producers, selling wholesale under several brand names and creating custom label wines. The property was acquired in 2006 by Gerald Forsythe, an Illinois resident best known for owning high-performance race cars and teams. The Broken Earth brand was established soon after.
It wasn’t until Oct. 1, 2011 that the winery opened a tasting room off Highway 46 East. I unexpectedly visited it that day when I saw their NOW OPEN sign.
Fast forward to 2019. My first impressions when visiting the new venue just before the opening weekend were the size of the place and the industrial chic look that fit in well with the surroundings on Ramada Drive. The entire front of the 23,000-square-foot facility is fitted with floor-to-ceiling glass framed windows in metal panes.
The centerpiece inside is an “infinity” bar with a cascade of LED lights above. The bar is on wheels and modular, so it can be assembled in varied sizes and shapes. It meanders in and out to afford plenty of room for tasting. The top is made of slat wood, the kind used in winemaking to impart oak influence to large batches in tanks. The bar front is an industrial looking steel mesh. Tables and chairs in the room have the same oak wood with steel legs.
At one end, not yet finished when I visited, is the bistro and marketplace space. Neapolitan style pizzas, salads and seasonal small plates will be offered, starting early in July. Among items they expect to have in an artisan market are olive oils, crafted pasta from Etto in Tin City, cheeses and meats.
Behind the bar is a wide conference room with equipment for tasting seminars and classes. A wine club lounge is on a mezzanine level, overlooking the action below.
The winery is offering courses through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust that are designed for industry professionals and wine enthusiasts. Everyone who works at Broken Earth will go through the program, Tooley said, and it’s available to the public. Classes include tastings, and attendees must pass exams to be certified at levels from one to three.
Tooley wants the staff to do much more than repeat tasting notes. “So one of our mottos around here is we don’t want to tell what it is, but we want to tell you the why,” he said.
Beyond classes, seminars will be offered often for wine club members. They could be vertical or reserve tastings, a dive into their sparkling wines or a technical lesson from veteran winemaker Chris Cameron, tasting room manager Maury Froman said. Cameron’s career spans more than 40 vintages.
Schwartz replanted the vineyard between 1995-98 and it has been expanded to 713 acres. Cabernet sauvignon is the dominant variety, followed by merlot and chardonnay, but there are many lesser planted grapes. Among them are whites fiano and vermentino from Italy, verdelho from Portugal and torrontes from Argentina. Reds include nero d’avola from Sicily, tannat from France and the Spanish grape albarino. Tooley said Broken Earth’s education component plays into the wide variety of wines offered.
Wholesale distribution still makes up 80 to 85 percent of Broken Earth’s production of 150,000 cases. The new facility figures to supercharge direct to consumer sales.
Forsythe is chairman and principal shareholder of Indeck power equipment and energy services companies, and is active in farming and ranching in the Midwest, as well as racing. Broken Earth is something he wants to be proud of and keep in the family, Tooley said. “We know what the expectations are and Jerry is very involved in the business.”
Tooley said there may be more big moves ahead. “This kind of plays into a little bit bigger vision for us,” he said. “If this concept works…we hope to duplicate this in other parts of California. But this is the spot we wanted to start with.”
.• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]