WATSONVILLE -- For decades, J.P. Pawloski has rafted down the West's fiercest rivers and made small batches of refined wine now featured in posh Bay Area restaurants.
But it took a home and a heaping helping of "serendipity," he says, to bring his worlds into alignment and have his future "make cosmic sense."
In the early 1970s, Pawloski was driving out of Santa Cruz County and, in a fit of introspective prediction perhaps brought on by a foreign substance, perhaps by the magic of the area, said to himself, "Man, I'd sure like to own a winery here one day."
For about a decade after that trip out of town, Pawloski spent his springs and summers rafting, often as a job, always having fun. When out of the water, he and his fellow guides "cooked and partied, probably in equal amounts," he says.
At the time, he was dabbling in homebrewing and winemaking -- "The fermenting business was fermenting in my mind" -- but he needed something, some sort of sign, to tie everything together.
Family life beckoned in the early 1980s, and with it a need for a new home. That's when he and his wife saw it: a property called River Run, 4 acres of Santa Cruz County soil along the Pajaro River where apples flourished and the then-owner had made wine until his prospects proved fruitless. Someone else had named it River Run, but it seemed destined for Pawloski.
"It was serendipity," he says. "I thought, 'Wow, this is the place 10 years before where I said I wanted to start a winery.' Being a professional rafting guide and buying a place called River Run, I knew it was what I was supposed to do."
So he set about renovating the property and abandoned winery, which had been left vacant for a few years. "The termites were taking care of the place," he says.
He produced barrel after barrel of zinfandel, viognier, riesling and other varietals, while finding time to conquer rapids, work as a respiratory therapist and recover from a broken leg suffered along the Snake River that would limit his river adventures but create time for winemaking.
After a few decades of hard work, he has mastered his craft, but the money, ahem, hasn't flowed like wine. "My capital is sweat equity, and I've been sweating a lot," Pawloski says.
Unlike the money, praise for Pawloski is easy to come by.
Steve Gliessman, a retired UC Santa Cruz professor and a grape and olive grower in northern Santa Barbara County, has known Pawloski for nearly 20 years, and the two have worked together on the Gliessman family's Condor's Hope wines.
"I like to call (Pawloski) a zin master," Gliessman says. "I'd be afraid to give our dry-farmed grapes to just any winemaker."
J.P. Pawloski, left, looks on as Steve Gleissman of Condor's Hope Ranch loads the syrah grapes he has just delivered into a crusher at Pawloski's Watsonville/Aromas area winery Sunday, August 26, 2012. (Patrick Tehan/Staff) (Patrick Tehan)
Pawloski's River Run wines are featured at dining destinations from the Santa Cruz coast to the East Bay. The 2008 River Run Zinfandel, for example, is sipped and savored at Kuleto's in San Francisco, and the viognier has a spot on the wine list at Gather in Berkeley.
"We love that it's from older vines and sustainable," says Gather beverage manager Sarah Cain. "We appreciate the approach to winemaking."
But Pawloski, who admits he often puts a cork in self-promotion, isn't one to sound off about the popularity of his varietals or their inclusion on exclusive wine lists. "I can't afford most of those restaurants," he says, laughing.
Follow Tim O'Rourke at Twitter.com/timothyorourke.
Where to buy
River Run Vintners wines are available at many markets in Santa Cruz, East Bay Safeway groceries and BevMo stores across the region. Or, you can order through River Run by calling 831-726-3112 or by going to www.riverrunwines.com.
More coming soon...