The Cass Story
In 1999, Steve Cass retired from his career of twenty years at Charles Schwab. Forty-eight at the time, Steve had planned a sailing trip around the world with his wife Alice in order to give some thought as to what to do with their retirement years. After a few weeks on a boat with Steve in the Mediterranean on a stormy test sailing trip, Alice informed Steve that there was no way she was going to participate in this trip!
Thinking about what to do now, Steve knew he wanted to move out of the San Francisco Bay Area. He had visited Paso Robles a few years before and really liked the area and also subsequently heard it was quite the burgeoning wine country. A great place to start a vineyard. He then took on an exploratory trip to find a potential home and vineyard site. He was with a real estate agent and Paso Robles pioneer grape grower Jim Smoot when they came upon the then pastureland of Cass Vineyard. A year later in 2000 the 145 acre Cass Vineyard was established with twelve varieties to be planted. The barn to house all the farming equipment was built at roughly the same time.
In 2002, the man that built the new Cass residence and barn, Ted Plemons, and Steve Cass took a golfing/wine-tasting trip to Stellenbosch, South Africa to celebrate the completion of the residence and the establishment of the vineyard. During this trip they fell in love with the South African wine style and the ambiance of the tasting rooms there.
One night during this trip they sat down for dinner at a fancy South African restaurant and were amazed to see how inexpensive their bill was due to the value of the South African rand being so low. So, they ordered another bottle of wine, or two… During the consumption of these Syrahs Steve and Ted agreed to become business partners in starting a winery. Ted is a builder and knew how tough building permits could be to come by in regards to starting a tasting room. He had seen multiple year waiting periods with some Santa Ynez wineries at the time. So they decided to jump at the opportunity because at the time building permits for wineries in Paso Robles were relatively easy to come by.
The next day, they took a trip to the local University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town, South Africa, and put up a job wanted sign for an assistant winemaker. After a short interview process, Cass found winemaker Lood Kotze who ended up being head winemaker at Cass up until 2014. Once the vineyard began to bear fruit in 2003, the first vintage began. Two years later when the barn was finished being converted into a tasting room and the reds had aged a few years in the barrel, the Cass Winery tasting room opened its doors in May 2005.
Sterling Kragten - Winemaker
Sterling grew up in Southern California with a passion and skill for cooking at a young age. He thought about being a chef and having worked in some kitchens, found out about a major in Food Science. This major focuses on the chemistry, microbiology, safety and innovation of food products; which was definitely more mhis style. Shortly thereafter Sterling moved up to San Luis Obispo to attend Cal Poly and this is when his introduction to wine started. Although he started tasting a large variety of wines at Cal Poly, he did not think most people would have considered him a wine connoisseur since his tasting involved "drinking Franzia straight out of the bag."
His real wine education began when he moved to Newcastle, Australia on a study abroad trip organized through Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He spent a good amount of time on the beach, surfing, mountain biking, legally drinking, and trying to convince his current wife, "a hot American student" that she should date him. The University was located near Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine growing region. Here he was of legal age to taste higher quality wines. He was learning about the wine making process while wine tasting and it just clicked; the creation, sensory perception, art and chemistry. Wine encompassed each aspect of what he was most passionate about in life.
After a semester abroad, he returned to Cal Poly and was able to add a Wine and Viticulture minor to complement his Food Science Major. After spending a summer in Costa Rica surfing with that girl from Australia, he graduated from Cal Poly and took an internship at Eagle Castle Winery in Paso Robles. He subsequently quickly moved his way up to Assistant Winemaker. Here, he actually spent my time tasting wine in a dignified manner! He was still studying and trying to learn what he could about the science of the wine, and also trying to convince that girl from Australia that she should marry him.
After a few years at Eagle Castle, he decided he needed another wine adventure, so he took a job in Marlborough, New Zealand for Oyster Bay label wines. It was a factory more than a winery, but he learned a lot about large production winemaking. From there he moved onto Justin Vineyard & Winery for the following harvest. It was while working at Justin in 2013 that we asked if he would like to come work for us as our Assistant Winemaker.
He spent the first harvest learning to produce wines in the Cass-style and learning Lood Kotze’s (our former winemaker) tips and tricks. He took a few months sabbatical from Cass in order to take a position as Vintage Winemaker in Margaret River, Australia where he helped run a large custom crush winery. There, he produced wines in a variety of qualities- from $100 high-end bottles to wine made for cows in China (you read that right).
After that, he came back to Cass with a few wine making tricks of his own, but not before a short backpacking trip around most of Southeast Asia. He was most of the way through the 2014 harvest when Lood surprised us all by announcing his retirement from the wine industry and Sterling thus became the new Head Winemaker at Cass.
Bryan Cass - General Manager
Bryan’s start in the wine business began in High School shortly after his family purchased the property that Cass Winery and Vineyards now sits on. The summer before his junior year of High School, in 1999, he and his friends would work away the days repairing fences, clearing out debris, and avoiding rattlesnakes on the soon-to-be vineyard.
He applied to Cal Poly State University San Luis Obispo and got accepted under an Agricultural Business major with a minor in Wine and Viticulture. During his stay at Cal Poly, he spent two vintages, 2003 and 2004, working at Courtside Cellars in San Luis Obispo. This got him acquainted with working on a bottling line, doing pump overs, punch downs, as well as yeast and chemical additions amongst other things. He really enjoyed this experience, not yet being 21, and getting to work with wine and see how it is made.
After graduation from Cal Poly in June 2005, he started working in the Cass tasting room which opened the month before his Cal Poly graduation. Then in February 2006 six months later, he started graduate school at the University of Adelaide, Australia.
He went to school or “uni” there for a year and a half, completing a Master’s degree in Wine Business, and worked for a few Australian wineries along the way. Coriole Winery in the McLaren Vale and Abbey Rock winery in the Adelaide Hills. After graduation in June 2007, Bryan moved back to Central California and started working with Cass again. Since then Bryan has worked in the tasting room and managed the wine club, he is currently the General Manager.
Adam Lemon - Wine Club Manager
Adam was introduced to the Central Coast at age 5, when in 1989 his family relocated from Southern California to Paso Robles in search of more acreage for their small army of Thoroughbred race horses, dogs, cats and ducks. He spent the vast majority of his childhood years around the farm; riding horses, feeding horses, taking care of the other various critters, or riding his mountain bike around Paso Robles back country roads.
In the Spring of 2000, Adam’s Mother planted 10 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 acres of Syrah Grapes on their property when he was 15 years old. Through this he learned about the hard work that goes into making an end product. He distinctly remembers helping lay PVC irrigation pipe in triple-digit temperatures by following behind a continuously-moving tractor travelling up a 15 degree slope!
After Adam left Paso Robles to complete his Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, his interest and involvement in the industry had waned to a nearly non-existent state, until he came back to Paso Robles for Summer break in 2007 and got a job working in the Cass tasting room, which happened to be down the street from his Mother’s vineyard.
Even though he left in the Fall to complete his studies, through his hard work and dedication, he would still drive him up to Paso Robles on the weekends just so he could work in the tasting room at Cass. When he moved back to Paso Robles on a permanent basis in 2008, he spent more and more hours working in the tasting room, and even spent a good amount of time helping out with events as well. From here, Adam graduated to Wine Club and Shipping Manager. Adam’s strong work ethic, experience, and positive demeanor make him the ideal person to fulfill this very important role.
Michael Learned - Executive Chef
Mike is a Midwest transplant that has cooked all over the United States and now calls the Central Coast home. From a young age he was inspired to learn to cook and spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking for his family. He ultimately learned from his mother who was cooking healthy and making everything from bread to yogurt by scratch.
His passion for cooking led him to the Cordon Blue in San Francisco and it helped him fine tune his skills. Taking what he learned in school helped him hone in on his love for comfort food as well as his cooking philosophy; which is to take what was is so often found at the dinner table on Sundays and turn it into an upscale plated lunch or dinner.
Before coming to Cass Winery Mike was the Executive Chef and Pastry Chef at Estrella Restaurant. He is excited to bring his passion for fusing bold flavors with a flare for comfort and healthy options to a new level by pairing them with Cass Wines. Along with his Sous Chefs, Mike will continue to bring you amazing food whether its in the Cass Café or at an upcoming event.
Michelle Curry - Wedding & Private Event Manager
Michelle grew up in Fresno California, where she enjoyed the first 25 years of her life playing sports, traveling California, and discovering her love for the ocean and the great outdoors. After high school, and few years of traveling, she attended CSU Fresno. It wasn’t until after dipping her toes in a few different majors; Biology, Animal Science and Criminology, that she would discover the explorative major of Recreation Administration. Within this study, she soon learned that she could enjoy planning fundraisers, student backpacking trips, community youth programs, and environmental beautification projects; all in efforts towards accomplishing a degree she loved.
She has always been the person to plan her loved one’s birthdays, vacations, and even a large Portuguese family reunion; she had realized a talent for making these special days perfect! She credits a large portion of her perfectionism and meticulous attention to detail to her father. As a young girl, she can remember helping him create timelines for family vacations to Walt Disney World. Once finished, Michelle would present the family with a packet, including multiple options for each day, and items they would need for each possible scenario! She would say the “event planner seed” had been planted, yet it would not be until many years later that she would be able to grow that passion into a career. In the spring of 2014, an opportunity to merge her passions of event planning and living on the Central Coast presented itself. She took a position at Robert Hall Winery in Paso Robles, assisting in their weddings and events department; and started exploring her new home through kayaking, fishing, hiking, and of course, wine tasting.
Throughout the next 6 months, she fell in love with coordinating weddings and the ability she had to help create lasting memories for those special couples and their families. Fast forward to March, 2015. Michelle started working with Cass Winery as an Event and Wedding Coordinator
Meegan Huff - National Sales Manager
Meegan Huff brings a diverse set of skills and background to the sales team at Cass Winery. From television production to real estate development, event sales and management, Meegan brings a dynamic business sense combined with a knack for organization, concise communication style, sales and marketing experience and relationship building to the winery and the Cass brand.
As National Sales Manager, Meegan intends to grow the Cass brand locally, regionally and nationally. By targeting new markets and building relationships with new and existing distribution partners she aims to grow the brand. Meegan’s love and appreciation for fine wine is also an asset.
Brought to the Central Coast in 2010, Meegan fell in love with the Paso area and the lifestyle of the region. Meegan had her baby shower at Cass and welcomed her daughter, Quinci Rose, in December 2013. “I knew then that Cass was a special place and I felt like family. I was thrilled to officially join the Cass team in April of 2015. The wines are exceptional and the experience in the tasting room leaves you feeling truly like a member of the Cass family.”
Katie Gebauer - Certified Specialist of Wine and Level II Sommelier
It all began during a mid-winter escape from my frigid hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I was visiting a friend who brought me to her favorite local winery. As I lounged in the 70 degree weather under the protection of a massive oak tree, sipping a refreshing rose it struck me, "I'm moving here." The town was Paso Robles, the winery was Cass Winery, and nearly five years later there are few things I enjoy more than sitting in that exact spot with a glass of Cass wine.
Since that day my passion for knowledge and curiosity about wine has motivated me to pursue the Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Sommelier programs. I learned about the many facets of wine from history, culture, geology, geography, viticulture and chemistry, among others. I love that each of these aspects is ever evolving.
I created the Wine Education program at Cass with the goal of sharing my wine appreciation and knowledge with anyone, from the novice to the connoisseur, interested in expanding their understanding of wine. My favorite moments are when I am able to witness an individual's wine “Aha" moment; the second something just clicks – as it did with my experience under Cass's oak tree.
Jacob Bedell - Cellar Master
To say Paso Robles is home to Jake would be an understatement. He was born and raised just a stones-throw away from Cass, right here in the Geneseo district. Agriculture naturally became a way of life, from raising his own animals for 4H and FFA to interning in the fields as a young man. One of those internships just so happened to be working right here in the vineyards at Cass! The industry has always called to him and passion for hard work and agriculture as a boy was only rivaled by his love for soccer. A very promising sports career led to a successful freshman season of Div. II soccer at CSU Easy Bay. However, after a series of unfortunate and rather lengthy injuries his dreams of chasing a soccer career were just about over. It was then that he reverted to his roots and returned to Paso to seek a new purpose and direction.
Regressing to square one isn’t always easy and as such Jake leaned on his friends and family to help find a new path. What he rediscovered over the course of the next 5 years was his undeniable adoration for this place he calls home and its highest valued commodity; wine. Starting at a small custom crush facility Jake learned the ins and outs of the wine making process. Soon after that he found a real knack for cellar work and gained employment at Justin Winery. At Justin, he was able to take his hard work and passion and elevate that into a career. Making wine stopped being a process and turned into a devotion. Meticulous attention to detail coupled with a true love for winemaking is what brought Jake back home to be our Cellar Master.
Jennifer Jansen - Tasting Room Manager
Jennifer Jansen was raised on the beautiful Central Coast of California, a stone throw away from (what has become) the famed Paso Robles wine region.
Her wine journey began when a family friend who had purchased a winery said, "you're coming to work for me, and you're going to work in wine!" That leap of faith and drastic career change found her smack dab in the middle of a passion. A calling. A destiny.
As a Wine Industry professional for over a decade, Jennifer has found great fulfillment in learning about, teaching about and training about wine. This paired with her sincere love for others, and helping individuals to carve out their place in the industry, has proven a perfect Management recipe.
Over the years, she had always considered Cass her “home-away-from-home”, so when the opportunity to officially join the team arose, she could not have imagined a more gratifying venture. “Cass is a truly remarkable winery, unlike any other. The gorgeous property, incredible wine, delicious food, and the endearing staff have always had a special place in my heart. To be a part of this crew is, quite literally, a dream come true.”
When she is not in the Tasting Room, she can be found hiking local trails, tending to her crazy chickens, enjoying the lake with her awesome kiddos, wine tasting with her costar, Jeff and studying for her advanced WSET accolade.
“Next time you’re in the Tasting Room, please come say hello and I promise that my awesome team and I will work hard to ensure that your experience is nothing short of exceptional!”