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What it’s Like To Run one of California’s Powerful Vintner Associations

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“What they saw in me is someone invested in Paso Robles,” says Joel Peterson, the recently named executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (PRWCA).

“We’ve got two girls. I’m on the school board. I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”

After more than 15 years marketing the region’s wine and beer industries, the 45-year-old is now in charge of promoting and advocating for the alliance’s more than 250 wineries and 40,000-plus acres of vineyards.

Peterson also oversees a budget of $1.6 million for an industry that contributes nearly $2 billion to the regional economy.

“The mission statement is to protect and promote the Paso Robles AVA,” says Peterson. “There are thousands of jobs that rely on this industry.”

Peterson’s journey to wine

Settling down in a small town never looked to be in the cards for a young Peterson, whose dad worked in construction.

“I lived in seven states by the time I graduated high school,” he says. “The positive thing about that is that you learn to make friends pretty fast and develop relationships.”

Peterson studied media arts at the University of Arizona and, afterward, worked on more than 25 film projects in Los Angeles.

But the wine bug had bitten during his junior year abroad in Florence, Italy. He fanned that interest with his wife by visiting the wine country of Paso Robles, his father’s hometown.

Jumping into harvest

In 2001, he convinced those at Justin Vineyards to hire him for a harvest. “I crashed in my grandma’s guest bedroom,” says Peterson. “It was awesome, an unbelievable experience that changed my life.”

He moved to Paso Robles full time in 2003 and worked another harvest, this time for L’Aventure. “I quickly learned that I wasn’t a winemaker,” he says. “I wanted to learn how wine was made, but my skill set was more organizational management and logistical things.”

Peterson found a full-time marketing gig with Hope Family Wines and spent the next eight years launching brands like Troublemaker and building Liberty School into a huge portfolio.

Then in 2013, he signed on with Solterra Strategies to empower multiple brands and wine events like the World of Pinot Noir.

In 2017, Firestone Walker Brewing Company needed someone to manage its marketing department. “At that point I’d been in wine since 2003, and beer seemed fun,” says Peterson. “I’ve always wanted to work with Firestone Walker—it’s an iconic beer company.”

He intended to settle in with the brewery, but when PRWCA Director Jennifer Porter announced she was leaving, Peterson threw his hat in the ring.

“To be the head cheerleader for an organization that’s full of quality wine, amazing people, and unlimited potential?” says Peterson. “I’m in.”

Minding a Region in Transition

Since starting his new job on February 4, Peterson’s schedule has him waking at 6:30 am, making his daughters’ breakfast and taking one of them to school.

Unless it’s Thursday. That’s when when Peterson plays basketball at 6 am with Scott Hawley of Torrin/Law, Niels and Luke Udsen of Castoro, and Eric Jensen of Booker in a decade-old pick-up game.

Peterson is usually in the office by 8:15 am.

After “a ton of lunch meetings,” Peterson says he tackles emails and attends evening events.

“My day is connecting with members, working with my team on marketing strategies and talking to the board throughout the month on strategic measures,” he says.

Paso Robles is not yet experiencing the anti-winery pushback that has stricken places like Napa Valley and Santa Barbara County, but Peterson knows it might come.

“We have to keep this small-town character…if that changes, people will stop coming here,” says Peterson. “Paso is gonna grow, but we have to do it in a smart way.”

He is concerned with water shortages, workforce housing and is actively strategizing how to evolve with the region’s improving reputation for fine wine and top-shelf hospitality.

“We’ve gone from a scrappy underdog region to a region with a lot of credibility and high-quality wines,” says Peterson. “It’s making that transition. How do you deal with it from an organizational standpoint?

“I need to be talking to the winemaker and the tasting room manager and the guys in the vineyard,” he says.

“As many touch points as I can have, the better I can tell that story and represent the region.”