The "Best of the Best"

South Coast Winery – The “Best of the Best”

BUSINESS SCENE MAGAZINE – September 2011

“I’m going to tell you something,” said Jim Carter, looking at me with clear uncomplicated eyes. “1991 to 1995 were the worst years of my life.  I was living in Anaheim Hills, working my own construction company and losing money like water.  I owed millions of dollars, worked hard and wasn’t satisfied.” 

But, it hadn’t always been like that.  The owner and developer of South Coast Winery grew up with a good, ol’ Midwestern work ethic and “everything I touched turned to gold, according to my dad.” he said.  

Life was good to Jim and his family in the early years when he was building homes, apartment complexes, shopping centers, purchasing a 260-acre tree farm, a 400-acre parcel of land, a bank, and ultimately, a successful savings and loan just before the savings and loan disaster of the 1990s.  That’s when Carter learned the lesson of cash flow.

For the next ten years, Jim struggled to make ends meet, coming dangerously close to losing the very home in which he and his wife had raised their children.  He aggressively sold his assets, reduced his workforce from 500+ employees down to 50 employees, as banks continued to turn their backs on him.  Adding to this turn of events was the tragic and unexpected loss of his wife. He admits to being devastated, but determined to continue on.

“Then one day, I saw a movie called A WALK IN THE CLOUDS,” he said.  “you know the one?  With Keanu Reeves?  Well, in that movie was a vineyard, a pretty little vignette of a winery.  And I started to think I would love to have a winery like that.” 

“That vineyard reminded me of property in Wild Horse Peak.  I really wanted to develop that area into the same beauty I had seen in the movie.”  (Wild Horse Peak is a lonesome area in the San Gabriel Mountains about 20 miles to the southeast of Temecula reputed to have been the haven of horse thieves and renegades.) 

In the meantime, he started to research growing regions, grapes, soils and climates.  He visited people he know who owned and operated the Nichelini Winery, the oldest continuously operating family owned winery in the Napa Valley and continued to fall deeper and deeper in love with growing grapes. 

One of his companies was an ornamental tree business with 120 employees.  But Carter was looking for something simpler.  So he took his gardeners and quarters from the washing machines he owned in his apartment complexes and began to buy grapevines. 

During the week he would fight with banks and struggle to keep his businesses afloat.  On the weekends, he would go work in his vineyards and find peace.

He took his same gardeners to Wild Horse Peak and started planting in 1996.  Today the 400 acres in the Northeastern portion of the Agua Tibia Wilderness produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Petit Syrah and Cabernet Franc.

He learned to grow some of the finest grapes in the region and sold them to Temecula area wineries, such as Callaway, on a year-to-year contract.  In 2001, Callaway determined that they didn’t need his grapes and didn’t renew the contract.  “Well, I thought to myself that if I really did have the finest grapes in the region, then I should build my own winery and make my own wines,” said Carter. 

“It really saved my sanity.  I needed to be doing something constructive.”  Jim was 55 years old when he started to build his dream.  The dream resonated with employees and the team effort has produced award-winning wines every year since. 

“I’ve been able to surround myself with extremely talented people who have bought into the dream at 100%. I’m like the guy who continues to dream and they are the team that makes it happen.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.” 

“I made a promise to my winemakers to grow the best grapes possible; they made a promise to me to produce the best wines possible.  This bond allows us to produce all the great wines that have done so well.” 

The next dream Jim had was to produce the best wines in the state, which he and his team proceeded to do in 2008 when South Coast shocked the wine industry by winning the coveted “Golden Bear” award and was named “California Winery of the Year” in the California State Fair Wine Competition and backed up that title with a two-time win in 2009. 

It was the first time in 50 years that the award was given to a winery outside of the Napa Valley region.

“It’s an honor to have South Coast Winery recognized as an outstanding wine producer among its peers of California wineries, but I didn’t do it alone.  I simply set the goal to create the finest wines in all of California; then provided our incredibly talented winemakers with the tools they needed to accomplish our joint mission.  The three of us – Jon McPherson, Javier Flores, and myself – did it really.  By combining their skills, with my quality vineyards, adding in some hard work and a lot of heart, we have created the best wines in the golden state of California.” said Jim with a smile. 

“No one thought we could produce world class wines from the Temecula Valley.  But I know that when we make a commitment to do something, we have to believe.  Now they all believe.” 

South Coast has won 1,600 awards and ribbons from best of class to the coveted Golden Bear Award in California from competitions in Mexico, Spain, Portugal, France, Chile, Bulgaria, Germany, Argentina and Italy. 

Jim opened South Coast Winery in 2002 with only a barrel room.  He grew it into a lavish resort and spa where hundreds of people come every year to taste wine, stay in luxury and eat amazing food in the restaurant.  “When we first began to build the restaurant, everyone told me it was too big that all the space would be wasted.  But look at it now; on a Saturday, it isn’t big enough for all the people who come here!” 

A quaint note about the restaurant is that the gardeners grow most of the produce for the cooks in huge gardens across the street from the winery.  A small herb and kitchen garden is right outside the kitchen door and there they pick ingredients for their guests’ meals. 

The next vision is the fifty more hotel units Jim wants to build on his property.  His other dream is to begin to build Carter Estates, just as soon as he can get the okay from the county. 

With a love of flowers and trees, Jim has landscaped the winery with over 12,000 roses he and his gardeners have propagated.  He still has his original gardeners and about 500 more employees. So much for simplifying… But Jim is as happy as he’s ever been, and a  newly-wed too.  “I’m like Job,” he says, “God has blessed me more than I deserve.”