Like most of us, Craig Stoller likes to get away from it all once in a while. He loves his work, but even the wine business can become grueling. He needs a break.
Ah, Bakersfield! A place a man can relax, stretch, take it easy.
Stoller is doing the work he seems to have been born to do — run a thriving Central Coast winery, Paso Robles-based Sextant — but he hasn't escaped the bonds of his native Bakersfield. Can't, won't and doesn't want to. He and Nancy, his wife and business partner, still own a house in their hometown.
"Bakersfield is a place to decompress," Stoller says. "It's where family is."
It's also where work is, or an important part of it. He is still one of the owners of Sunridge Nurseries, the grape stock propagation and grafting business his parents, Glen and Terrie Stoller, founded in 1977. In fact, he is also Sunridge's CEO, although he leaves the day-to-day management to capable others, Rick Burnes in particular.
But Bakersfield beckons often.
"We usually go to Bakersfield together," Nancy says. "It's kind of funny. We vacation in Bakersfield. Craig works and the rest of us vacation with family."
Most of Stoller's time is devoted to Sextant, a Zinfandel house that in recent years has had great success with cabernet sauvignon, a much better known varietal. The winery is making inroads on palates across the industry.
It started modestly enough.
"I was going to sell grapes and makes very little wine," Stoller says. "Then I kind of got fascinated with zinfandel — kinda edgy, kinda hip. That's how we made the leap. 'Let's plant some zinfandel.' Now there's no turning back."
The Stollers bought open land near Templeton in 2001 and harvested their first crop in 2004. They made their first batch of wine that year with help from the Zenaida Cellars, located, like the Stollers' operation, on Highway 46 west. "They rented us a little space and we made some zin, petite sirah and sirah."
Those three became Sextant's flagship trio: Wheelhouse zinfandel, Holystone zinfandel and Night Watch proprietary red blend. In 2006, they poured their first "shiners," as they're called — bottled wines without winery labels.
And Stoller Winery was born.
Well, not quite.
An Oregon winery was already using the name.
Consultant Andrew Jones, of the Central Coast winery Field Recordings, "asked me, 'Well, what do you like to do?' I said, 'Go to sea with my dad. It's euphoric for me.' So we started kicking nautical terms around," Stoller says.
They settled on Sextant, borrowed from the name of the 300-year-old mechanism used for celestial navigation on the sea.
The names of Sextant's flagship wines followed naturally from that. "We're navigating from the vineyard. The Wheelhouse is where you pilot the boat. Holy Stone is an old seaman's term: On the big ships they would scour the desk with a pumice stone. Brings a man to his knees, praying position. So they call it the Holy Stone. Then there's Night Watch, a reserve made from the best barrels of zin, petite and sirah. It's dark, like the night."
Sextant's tasting room and production facility was built by an investment group that was purchasing and building out property for fledgling wineries. The economic downtown hurt their position and the Stoller purchased the nautically themed building in 2011. The first crush was in 2012.
Stoller graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1986 and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1991, then went on the road selling Sunridge's grape stock almost immediately. He owes his success as much or more to another life event than to any of those three resume bullets: Nancy Josephsen.
"It's a love story," he says. "It was almost a prearranged marriage. My dad's life insurance salesman, Kent Richardson, kept wanting me to meet her. I'd run into him on the golf course and he'd say, 'I have someone you need to meet.' At the time I was engaged, and she was, too. (Kent) said, 'You can marry your girlfriend but you gotta at least meet Nancy first.'
"She was a receptionist at a law firm. I fell in love with her on the telephone. I told myself, 'I gotta meet this gal.' I arranged a blind date at the Red Pepper and we were holding hands by the end of the night. We met in June, got engaged in July and were married in September. It'll be 25 years in September 2020."
Craig and Nancy, a 1991 Highland High School grad, have four girls, ages 22, 21, 12 and 9: Maya, Gianna, Ella, Armana. "Same wife," Stoller says, repeating his regular response to queries about the nine-year gap between No. 2 Gianna and No. 3 Ella.
In addition to being what Craig calls "the glue that holds us together," Nancy handles Sextant's human resources, IT, direct-to-consumer sales and tasting-room hospitality.
"She's my rock, she's my right-hand man," he says. "Without her there wouldn't be Sextant. She is an incredible partner and my best friend."
It's hard to see Stoller going any other direction in his life, however, no matter how good his fortune in finding a life partner. He was born with the social gene to go along with the purple thumb.
"Right after graduation, my dad handed me a customer list and a wine country map and told me to take a road trip," Stoller said. "He said, 'Go meet some people and keep my wine cellar full.'"
"So I drove everywhere — Sonoma, Napa, Paso — selling grape stock. And they'd ask me, 'You want to sell me some grape stock?' I'd say, 'Sure, but I really just came to meet you.' And I meant it. I just loved it — the food, the wine, the people."
That's the aspect of the wine industry he continues to love best. As a grower, he has a thing about soil, but it's the people that get him out of bed in the morning.
Nancy feels the same way.
"At the end of the day, it's just a beautiful business to be in," she said. "Everybody's happy. People want to be educated. If you enjoy food, wine and people, this is the business to be in."
Once upon a time, early on, Craig Stoller had designs on making it in the big show — Napa.
"I remember coming back from a road trip one time and saying to my dad, 'Dad, I'm moving to Napa.' He's, 'No you're not. We've got work to do here. If anyone is moving to Napa, it's going to be me.'"
And so it was that Stoller came to cast his lot with Paso Robles — and Bakersfield.
Bakersfield customers can purchase Sextant Wines at Imbibe, Luigi's, Wine Me Up and Westchester Liquors.