You might call it a moment of Zin—the moment when Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick decided to purchase a winery in California’s San Miguel at the northern tip of the Paso Robles AVA. It was the kind of idea that sits in the barrels of the mind, fermenting for years until the dream becomes real.
“Everybody thought we were joking at first,” recalls Lythgoe, co-creator and executive producer of the Emmy award-winning “So You Think You Can Dance.”
“Until they realized we weren’t,” adds Warwick, an “American Idol” executive producer.
“Everybody” turned out to be many of their friends from “American Idol”—including Randy Jackson, Simon Fuller, Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest, who were so moved by their passion that they, too, wanted to get in on the winemaking. Some even joined as early investors—a consortium of Hollywood heavyweights and reality TV A-listers—who planned to purchase the vineyard with Lythgoe and Warwick. However, in the end, the pair—childhood friends from the streets of Liverpool, England—was left alone to purchase the 168-acre San Miguel vineyard in 2003.
The adventures and shenanigans that followed were documented in “Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes” on Hulu. In one humorous scene, Lythgoe and Warwick arrived at the vineyard in a Bentley, dressed in designer clothing, and tried toconvince the tight-knit, jeans-clad Paso Robles community that they were serious about horticulture. Lythgoe says he doesn’t blame them.
“After all, we wouldn’t expect a farmer to come produce a television show,” he says. Quips Warwick: “The price of the property went up when the owner saw the Bentley.”
Eventually, they won everyone over with their passion for wine and immediately got to work on their vision for the property. First, they commissioned local architect Steven Puglisi to design a new 14,000-square-foot Tuscan-style estate and tasting room. Warwick, who has a keen eye for details, oversaw much of the design and building process.
“We didn’t want the winery to look like a film set,” he says. “It needed to be a destination. We wanted to make it so lovely for people to come and relax. We want people to keep coming back.”
They decided to name their new winery Villa San-Juliette, after Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which takes place in Verona, Italy. Evidence of this can be seen in the Romeo and Juliet-style balconies that grace the villa—a nod to the romance Lythgoe and Warwick wanted to bring to the property.
However, they quickly found that owning a vineyard isn’t all romance. Challenges have a way of cropping up when least expected. For instance, they discovered that 50% of their grapes—which consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc—had to be replanted due to an outbreak of phylloxera, amicroscopic root insect that attacks the vines.
“Replanting is quite a large project,” says Lythgoe. “You can’t just replace the vines. You have to replace the water lines and the wires that support them.”
There were other challenges, too: wild pigs tearing up the soil, a varmint infestation and a wildfire. The wild pigs proved to be one of the most eye-opening experiences for the first-time vineyard owners.
“The pigs were doing substantial damage to our beautiful property,” recalls Warwick. “In wine country, they shoot them. It’s the only way to get them to leave you alone. On one occasion, which was captured on ‘Corkscrewed,’ we stayed up all night with rifles in our hands to keep guard. Neither one of us had ever handled a gun before. I don’t know what was more terrifying—shooting the pigs, or the thought of us shooting a gun!” And of course, they were also hit with the harsh financial reality of vineyard ownership. They had to wait at least three years to produce a wine. “Our brains were exploding and our bank accounts were empty,” jokes Warwick.
Despite those challenges, the partners forged on, determined to make their dream a reality. They eventually hired their first president and chief operating officer, and acclaimed Hearst Ranch winemaker Adam LaZarre, who brought the estate’s first vintage to fruition in May 2008. Today, he crafts their diverse collection of vintages—including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Syrah, “Chorum” blends, Rosé, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and a “fabulous Albariño right now,” says Warwick.
Last year, Matt Ortman came on board as winemaker and COO. He is responsible for the estate’s Fat Monk wines, which are sourced from Villa San-Juliette and blended with grapes from the Central Coast. The Fat Monk name hinges on a legend involving a monk who sought to create the perfect wine by experimenting with the vines at hand to come up with “a fat, robust, perfectly balanced wine.” Explains Lythgoe: “Allegedly, there was a monastery in the hills of San Miguel at one time, so it’s not entirely made up.”
With its deeply sweeping hillsides and sun-kissed vines, it is not surprising that there are myths surrounding the Villa San-Juliette topography. The landscape has an almost mythic quality about it—a place where people go to plant the seeds of a dream and watch them grow. You might say it is a site of beginnings. Marriages have even been hatched on its grounds, including that of “So You Think You Can Dance” costars Alison Holker and Stephen “Twitch” Boss in 2013. Concludes Lythgoe: “To be able to drink your own wine while overlooking your vines…is it not the dream of everybody?”