In the 1980s, Monterey County wines were virtually unheard of. It wasn’t for lack of grapes, but lack of wine – most grapes were sold to winemakers in other regions. Grape grower Rich Smith, who’d been in agriculture since 1973, set out to change that, and in 1990 helped create the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA.
Smith Family Wines started making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1989 under the Paraiso label. Today’s local wine industry – 225 vineyards, 72 wineries, 65 tasting rooms, according to the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association – far exceeds what Smith had imagined.
He died in 2015, and his son, Jason Smith, has since taken over as president and CEO. Two new labels, Alexander-Smith and Irie, have been added. Now those new ones, along with the original Paraiso label, are going away and Monterey County’s wine-innovator family is returning to farming exclusively next month.
“We have 3,000 acres of wine grapes, and that’s always been at the core of our business,” Jason says. “We’re ready to hang it up on making wine. We’re going back to our roots and growing grapes.”
The growing side has always been bigger than winemaking, he notes, both in revenue and in workforce, with 70 employees on the farming side (plus up to 150 seasonally) and eight to 10 on wine.
Kim Stemler, executive director of Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, expects the Smiths to remain at the helm: “Although they may be changing their business slightly, their family’s leadership in our region will continue.”