Martin Croad was just looking for a place to crash.

He and a fellow New Zealander, Stu Brown, had run out of money three months into their extended tour of America and they needed a short-term financial boost.

Brown's mother's best friend lived in Bakersfield. Might she put them up for a while? Yes, it turned out, she would be happy to.

And so began the unlikely story of an award-winning boutique winery situated in the rolling hills west of Paso Robles: Croad Vineyards.

The opportunity to couch-surf in Bakersfield was a fortunate turn of events, but the rest of the story is all about hard work.

For more than 30 years, Martin and Patti Croad ran a Bakersfield-based company, Croad Electric, before selling it to a former employee, Tony Hernandez, who had previously ventured out on his own. With a healthy little nest egg, they went in search of property near the Central Coast. What they discovered instead was a new calling.

In 2004, the Croads found some hilly property southwest of Paso Robles overlooking miles upon miles of vineyards and the westernmost stretch of Highway 46.

"It was this 38-acre distressed piece of property with two old mobile homes and a distressed vineyard on it," Martin says. "It was a disaster, just a mess. In true New Zealand-Kiwi style, I said, 'We can do something with this.'"

His enthusiasm took some time to transfer over to Patti.

"That night I laid in bed thinking, 'Oh, please fall out of escrow. What are we doing?,'" she says. "I didn't see it; I didn't have the insight Martin did. All I saw was a broken-down old vineyard. But that's Martin. He can see these things. I can't see anything until it's done."

Zinfandel was the only grape growing on the property (grenache, zinfandel and mourvèdre would be added the following year, and sirah and petite sirah later still) but it was in sorry shape. Living in the least dilapidated of the two trailers, they went about the arduous task of clearing the weeds and salvaging the vines.

That first harvest, September 2004, was modest. A friend and neighbor, Hank Donatoni, a retired United Air Lines 747 pilot turned winemaker, suggested they see what they had.

"'Why don't you bring a bin of grapes over here and let's make some wine,' he said," Croad remembers. "So I brought over a half-ton of zinfandel grapes."

They submitted that first batch, affixed with the Donatoni Winery label, to legendary wine critic Robert Parker. "We got 90 points right off the bat."

And now, "We've got the winemaking bug."

Croad hails from New Plymouth, a dairy and oil town on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island, about halfway between Auckland and the capital city of Wellington.

Upon graduation from high school, he entered a four-year apprenticeship program to become an electrician. He worked for a year in Australia, then in the early 1980s, embarked on the undertaking that would change his life.

He and Brown went on what Kiwis called an "O.E." — an overseas experience — of what they expected to be a year-, year-and-a-half-long exploration of the U.S. and Europe. They flew to LAX, collected their bags and set out for a friend's house in Redondo Beach. Three days turned into three months and then they were broke. 

The Bakersfield option then dawned on Croad.

"We looked at it on the map and said 'Why not?' We got into our beat-up old Volkswagen and headed up there. It was just a stop off, we figured."

Croad got some work as an electrician and they gradually recouped their depleted travel funds.

"That's when ceiling fans first came out," he said. "I was the attic guy, the guy who got to crawl around up there and wire it all up."

Business was good during the summer but slowed in the winter. Croad and Brown took advantage of the lull and traveled to Europe, as they'd always planned to do. But that spring they returned to Bakersfield and continued to work. They followed that work-travel-return-repeat schedule for three years.

By now his reputation as a skilled and agreeable electrician had spread well enough that he was getting work on his own. Ceiling fans remained a specialty, and one day a medical transcriber named Patti Gillespie hired him for just that purpose. They hit it off and she invited him back that evening for a barbecue she'd been planning.

"He was obviously handsome," says Patti, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz. "But I was just thinking, since I was having friends over, it would be nice to invite him."

Croad had been in training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro — seriously — but he put those plans on hold. They're still on hold.

They married in the late 1980s, around the same time he officially opened Croad Electric, situated on Union Avenue next door to Smith's Bakery. "I came in every morning at 6 o'clock and went right over there for cheese danish," Croad said. "That had to stop."

Croad's primary experience as an electrician had been in commercial and industrial work, but when he started Croad Electric the focus switched to commercial and residential work.

"I had the same approach. Never had a business plan. People called me up and wanted me for a job. For me it was always whatever makes sense, gut feeling."

That gut of his helped him finance an enviable second career as a winemaker.

"We planted and replanted the vineyards that we had those first couple years. Then we got the permits for the winery. Then we built the winery. Then we built our house, which is on the other hill. Then we built the bed and breakfast."

Croad thought he was finished with real estate investing, but then 2½ years ago another property, located between the winery and Vinedo Robles Lane, the main road out, became available. The Croads purchased the 10 acre property, which included a ranch house that, as of last year, they started renting out to families and groups. Several Bakersfield businesses rent it for midweek company retreats.

Croad wines aren't available through distributors; they're sold directly to wine club members. "We're a small boutique winery and that's how we're going to keep it," says Croad, who specializes in Zinfandel and Rhône blends.

Wines from France's Rhône region, from whence the name comes, are banned from straying outside certain blending guidelines, but in Paso Robles no such rules apply.

"We're the Wild West; we're cowboys. We can grow what we want, we can blend what we want. Your hands aren't tried and the winemaker can be very creative. I make about 12 different varietals and blends each time we bottle.

All of his blends have New Zealand-derived names. The language of that country's indigenous, eastern Polynesian Māori people turns up on many of his labels: Kahurangi, Haka, Karakia, Taranaki, Towhenua, Ariki.

"If you go to an Italian winery, they'll tell you about how Momma used to cook the spaghetti. If you come to Croad, you're going to hear about New Zealand and the Māori."

One label has absolutely nothing to do with New Zealand, other than the Croad connection. It's a blend he calls 661 — in homage to the area code of the city that made it all possible.

The idea came to him when Firestone Walker Brewing Co. came out with its 805 light ale, commemorating the Central Coast's area code.

Croad's 661 blend is available at several Bakersfield establishments, including Urrichio's, Frugatti's, Temblor Brewing, Red Pepper, Mexicali and Imbibe.

Robert Price can be reached at 661-395-7399. Follow him on Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

(1) comment

mstratton

It's refreshing to read a great story about this visionary man who made it by working hard and the chance meeting of his lovely wife! I loved it!

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