Growing premium California grapes is hard enough on its own. But, what does it take to be a heavy hitter in both wine and table grapes? The man himself, Al Good, shares all...
One of my first lessons in produce was how to tell the difference between the growing trellises of wine grapes and those that weave a vineyard of table grapes. Watching the sun rise over renowned Paso Robles, California, on a warm summer morning, I am now on my way to see these two separate but sibling worlds come together again. Tendrils of the same vine.
“If it’s not good, you won’t find it here, and that goes for everything that we do.” Al Good is explaining the fundamental truth that fuels his businesses. We are now standing with the whirring sounds of winemaking at our backs at Shale Oak Winery, with beautiful vineyards spanning before us as far as the eye can see.
Titled a holistic entrepreneurial farmer, Al may need no introduction, but I will give him one anyway. His passionate, driven, decorated career in produce is well-known and many look to him as a standard to aspire to in the industry. What many might not know is that this has laid the groundwork for a winery in one of the most premium regions for wine producing in the world.
For table grapes, it’s about how they look & taste, whereas with wine grapes, it’s about how they drink. - Al Good, Founder, Castle Rock Vineyards
“Quality, quality, quality,” he emphasizes as we continue to roam the scenic grounds anyone would be lucky to call work. He may be sharing with me the most important part of either side of his businesses, or he may be reciting a mantra. Honestly, either is possible. Al’s is a mind that never stops working, even while giving a grand tour.
On the other side of the property we meet with Laura Berryessa, Sales Manager at the 20-plus year-old Castle Rock Vineyards, Al’s fresh produce operation. Together, they help me understand how successful table grape growing burgeoned into an on-the-rise winery.
“At Castle Rock, our goal is not to be the biggest, but to be the best. It’s the same here. We want to grow and harvest only top-quality product, and Al does the same at Shale Oak,” Laura explains. “To supply our partners with top-quality grapes throughout the season will always be our top priority.”
To understand how the wisdom behind Al’s approach came to be, I have to travel back in time two-plus decades to when Castle Rock Vineyards began to establish itself as a leader of growing and marketing premium California table grapes. This is by no means the beginning of Al’s story, which started in his home state of Virginia, far from Golden State staples like fresh grapes and top-tier winemaking, and before he was sent “kicking and screaming” to the West Coast. But for the sake of not making this too much about Al, who no matter how much he earns it doesn’t care much for the spotlight, I’ll go with the fruits of his experience.
Castle Rock takes care to live up to the regal images its name conjures with everything it touches, including its practices, its product, and the brand that represents it all.
“We can’t control market swings and tariffs, but we can control our quality,” Laura tells me. “Since we have no outside growers, it enables us to have full control over our crop. The growing, packing, marketing, and distributing of our fruit is not a task we take lightly. We take a lot of pride in what we do top to bottom.”
This can be found in Castle Rock’s sustainability practices, with the grower touting both GLOBALG.A.P and PrimusGFS certifications. Over the years, Castle Rock has remained committed to growing its grapes in an environmentally friendly and sustainable process that protects the water and soils that it farms.
“We also purchased a state-of-the-art pack line a few years back to enable us to pack many different clam and bag styles,” Laura adds of how the grower continues to cultivate its practices. “This business is ever changing and you have to be prepared to adjust at any given time.”
And those lessons, refined like an aged wine (I had to go there) have proven to be crucial building blocks that have set Shale Oak Winery up for the same promising future Castle Rock continues to assemble. So, I absolutely have to laugh when Al tells me what he knew about winemaking when he kicked off this latest project in 2005.
“Nothing. I like to drink it!” he says sincerely. As we talk, we cross what I first took to be a moat around the tasting room. But Winemaker Curtis Hascall explains to me this is among the main sources of the operation’s irrigation—and of its LEED Certification.
“When it rains, all the water will hit the rooftop and grooves of the building, which divert all the rainfall into the drain. When it’s pouring rain, we get a full-on waterfall, and there is a cutout in the cement around the pond that distributes the water to a pipe so that any extra flow goes back around for us to use to irrigate, landscape, and anything else we need to do with it,” Curtis shows me. “Of all the sustainable parts of the winery, that’s my favorite. Water is a big issue and that sustains it in a really creative way.”
More and more I see the overlap between the two industries I love, so much so that I have to ask: What are the key differences between growing wine grapes versus table grapes?
“There’s a lot more similarities than differences,” Al explains. “There is a lot more handwork in wine grapes than table grapes, a lot more labor. For table grapes, it’s about how they look and taste, whereas with wine grapes, it’s about how they drink. But, I would say we have a lot of the same practices on both sides. A lot of people like to use mechanical harvesting, which we do not like to do. We hand harvest because you’re picking the bunches that are right—right sugar, right finish—and you go around more than once. We do it the same way at Castle Rock.”
Even prior to my visit, Al recently married the two sides of grape growing by introducing some of the wine industry to what Castle Rock offers, complemented by Shale Oak’s wine, of course.
“We recently had a wine industry gathering here with different wineries in the area, buyers, and guests, and we brought out some Castle Rock Sweet Celebration grapes. They were gone in no time,” Al laughs.
I will vouch for the tasty combo, but you can only get it when you visit the cool, modern, stained glass-accented tasting room of Shale Oak yourself. At least for now, because, like I said, Al has taken all his fresh produce lessons with him over to the wine business.
“Currently, we only sell the wine here at Shale Oak and the reason why is simple—I don’t trust distributors,” he says and we laugh. But, he insists on this as he continues to talk about the importance of relationships between any grower and buyer, no matter the product. “All we want to do is be appreciated, in grapes and in wine. That is it. The last thing I want to be is some number no one has a real conversation with. It’s all about the relationship.”
That relationship is a two-way street, and as important a step as it is, Al insists he never forgets when both sides are met...or aren’t. But he is not without reason. Business is business, and a new chapter is brewing for Shale Oak, now eyeing its 15th anniversary since its inception.
“We are in talks to sell in one supermarket chain. I can’t say who, but yes, we are considering it,” Al tells me in the same breath of discussing this need for relational awareness. “We have two processing facilities and a decent amount of acreage, so whatever does come, we will have the supply. We have the grapes, we have the land, and we have the resources.”
And the quality. This is the factor Al and Laura both say brings consumers from all over the world, whether it’s to Shale Oak’s tasting room or markets across the ocean demanding Castle Rock’s grapes. The reason is both singular and simple. Not easy by any means, but simple.
“You can separate yourself through quality and customer service. That is why we stay in touch with customers’ demands and are always making sure we deliver exactly that,” Al assures.
To that, I have to give a definitive toast. Because I dare anyone to doubt the holistic entrepreneurial farmer who has managed to bag and bottle success.