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April 13, 2021

Vintners hand craft success

HOLLISTER
– Visitors may have the feeling they’re going back in time as
they walk in through one of the three massive, hand-made arched
doors and into the winery at Léal Estate Vineyards hidden in the
foothills east of Hollister.
HOLLISTER – Visitors may have the feeling they’re going back in time as they walk in through one of the three massive, hand-made arched doors and into the winery at Léal Estate Vineyards hidden in the foothills east of Hollister.

Made from 100-year-old French oak from fermentation tanks from the historic Mirassou Winery in San Jose, the doors are stained from years of fine wine-making and riddled with small axe marks from earlier wine makers chipping tartrate crystals from the inside of the tanks. For owner Frank Léal, the doors are just one of the small details that make Léal Vineyards larger than life.

“Image has a lot to do with how people perceive your wine,” Léal said. He and winemaker and seller David Griffith, both just 31 years old, hoped to create an elegant-looking, hand-made winery from scratch – and did just that.

Just six years ago, Léal was a fence contractor living in Morgan Hill and Griffith was in San Jose doing corporate sales. Neither had any idea they’d be working in the wine business.

“I’ve always been a big connoisseur of wines. My honeymoon was in Napa,” said Griffith, who has lived in Gilroy since 1998. “But never did I consider this. It all just came together.”

This is the just the second harvest at Léal. It may be hard work, but it’s a far cry from what the two friends of seven years would have been doing if it weren’t for the winery. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s a labor of love,” Léal said. “The romance of the wine, the romance of the grapes, and brand-new French oak barrels … that’s what gets us out of bed every morning.”

It’s what they call “crush time” at the vineyards – time to harvest the grapes and make wines. For Griffith and Léal, it also means 16-hour work days and breaking off any plans they have.

“When the grapes are ready, you have to be ready,” Griffith said. “That’s when your friends and family become second.”

The dream of owning a winery began in 1997 Léal and Griffith helped work at a friend’s winery on the Silverado Trial in Napa. Although still doing their other jobs, the two were in training for their future.

“We got hands-on experience,” Griffith said.

A few years later, and thanks to the booming economy in northern California in the mid-1990s, Léal was able to finance the purchase of 40 acres on the east side of Hollister in 1998. He would add five acres more to his land at 300 Maranatha Drive in 2001.

“It was a big risk,” Léal admitted. “We’ve hit some bumps in the road, but nothing that would make me second guess myself.”

While continuing to work as a fence contractor, Léal brought Griffith on to help him work in the fields building a trellis system and putting in irrigation, hoping to get the soil prepared for growing grapes.

“I barely got it in in time,” Léal said. “When the (grape) plants start blooming, they need to be in the ground.”

Estate varietals include Chardonnay, merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, syrah, petite verdot, mourvedre and grenache.

Once the rows and rows of vines were carefully placed to complete the vineyard, it was time to begin work on the 10,000-square-foot winery. It was another do-it-yourself job for the Léal and Griffith. With painstaking care, the two built the winery knowing that wine connoisseurs would be stopping by on weekends to taste their concoctions. Léal and Griffith had to craft a winery that could match their wine.

Building a winery is no cheap feat. Outside of buying the land and building the winery building, costs include giant machines used to turn the grapes into grape juice, fermenting tanks and machines to bottle, cork and label the wine.

“How do you put a price on that,” Griffith said. “I’d say it was an astronomical amount.”

Léal shelled out most of the money associated with getting the winery started, and is slowly paying for it with each $24 bottle of wine sold.

“I’ll call you when it pays off,” Léal said. “In the next couple of years, as long as we keep producing fine wines, we’ll see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Once it was in place, Léal quit working the fence contracting business and officially was a vintner.

“And that’s how we left the stress of Silicon Valley,” Léal said. “At 31 years old, we’re doing what people want to do once they’ve retired.”

But, from the looks of it, it’s no retirement. The two friends have taken on the entire process – from growing their own grapes to selling the bottled product to the store. From the design of the vineyards to the design of their labels, Léal and Griffith have complete autonomy.

“We have total control over the whole bottle of wine,” Léal said.

Their first run, Léal said, was considered an “upper-middle class wine” selling for $24. Now that they had a wine, the two needed to build a customer base.

Griffith, being in sales earlier, goes out and pitches the wine to local restaurants. He has sold the wine as far south as Carmel and Monterey and as far north as Palo Alto, and has built the winery’s reputation along the way.

“I go in with a bottle of wine and ask for five minutes of their time.” he said. “I get more respect being the wine maker and hand selling it instead of being a representative.”

This respect has even come at restaurants known to carry the most elite wines, where Griffith has been more successful than others.

“People always ask, ‘How did you do it?'” Griffith said. “I think it’s that we go the extra mile to meet the people we sell it to. We can choose who we sell our wine to. We don’t want it available everywhere.”

Léal hopes to keep the availability to this region, sacrificing quantity for quality. While some wineries produce anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 cases of certain wines, The Léal Winery only produced 310 cases of its 1999 Napa Valley Merlot and 454 cases of its 2000 Central Coast Chardonnay.

“High demand keeps it local,” Léal said.

Griffith and Léal say the key to making good wine is producing low yields in the vineyards, allowing for sweeter grapes. Léal said he’d much rather have smaller numbers of a good wine than larger numbers of an average wine.

“There’s too many bad wines out there.” Léal said. “No one needs another winery making bad wine.”

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