Introducing Paso Robles’ First Fully Dedicated Wine Tour Vehicle
Pictured here: seven of my two-case-capacity cold bags that keep your wine tasting-room temp, even on our hottest days! I’ve been using this cold bag system for many years now. Total case capacity without impinging on the passenger area is 21 cases…252 bottles of wine. Sky’s the limit if you want to put cases in the passenger area!
It’s been quite a few years since I decided I was too old, and it was way too much work to move clients’ wine purchases (sometimes several cases) out of the summer heat into tasting rooms and barrel rooms. A search for a simple, cheap solution led me to a restaurant supply company selling the foam insulated bags you see in the photo. Happy to share where I’ve purchased these bags. By the way, the blue container on the left side is a 33 gallon trash can that’s fed by a chute from the passenger area. Who ever heard of a limo with a trash can that size before? I love this ride!
Scoring a New Wine Tour Vehicle…the Hard Way: Creating the Perfect Ride for Paso Robles
I took possession of my Mercedes limo Sprinter in Mid-March of 2019, and drove it back to the West Coast from Hornell, New York.
As time went by and more CA Public Utilities Commission oversight loomed and pressed for more control of safety after a horrendous limousine accident in the Bay Area in 2013, I started looking for a newer vehicle which would no longer be in the crosshairs of the CHP and the PUC. Unfortunately my limo (a great low mileage ride built by coachbuilder LCW with 3.5” raised roof and a fifth door) fell under the new rules with its modified/stretched wheelbase, and now required escape windows or a hatch, plus other safety modifications under the limo safety law that went into effect at the beginning of 2018. The sad part was that there was generous room on both sides for interpretation- the retrofitter doing the work- a state-approved coachbuilder, and the CHP Commercial Division Director. The other pressure point adding urgency to get the work completed and the limo CHP inspected was renewal of my California TCP Permit (Transportation Charter Party). An active permit is a necessary piece of the puzzle required to commercially insure the vehicle for passenger service. After an extra and undeserved $4,000 of pain (total $8,500) to fulfil the decrees of the one person in Sacramento holding sway, the CHP Commercial Division Director, a search began for my next vehicle.
The New Direction of Paso Robles Wineries and Wine Touring
As our Central Coast wine region matured, I began to notice wineries’ steady movement away from large groups, and towards appointments for groups now as small as four or five people, or appointments required for all visitors. Currently several wineries are curtailing group size to eight people. The other movement I’d noticed is the popularity of Mercedes Sprinters- the new standard for luxury transportation. Especially in its limo-style seating configuration.
With the sour taste of owning a traditional limo in my mouth, which now seemed pretty clear that State Government was out to eliminate as a vehicle class, I started a nationwide search for a used 144” wheelbase Sprinter with limo-style seating. This size would hold eight or nine people- 10 max with the driver, and fall outside all the regulations that make owning a limo or higher capacity vehicle cumbersome.
Sadly, a nationwide search yielded very limited results for a short wheelbase limo-style Sprinter. I found one in black in New Jersey, which I wasn’t crazy about due to Paso heat and extra effort to keep clean. Unfortunately the photo of the factory builder’s plate the salesman sent me showed that someone had tampered with the tag, raising the number of passengers to nine in the passenger area with a sticker overlaid on the original eight. No bueno. The search continued with plenty of shuttle-style vehicles available (rows of seats) – not what I was looking for. After six months of perusing scores of ads, I realized that the vehicle I sought out would be as rare as hen’s teeth!
A discouraging 18 months went by. And then one day a text came in, somewhat in jest, from my good friend Alex, who also owns a local limo company. A white Sprinter was advertised on a nationwide limo owners Facebook page. I gave it a long serious look: low mileage, like brand new, and had a limo-style seating configuration, but it was back in the Finger Lakes area of New York State. The geography kept me pondering for a couple days. After thinking about the logistics hard and long, I contacted the owner. He was somewhat like me: had a transportation company back in Hornell, New York, and was doing all kinds of jobs, including wine tours in Finger Lake area vineyards.
He sent me better photos of the interior: great looking upholstery, pull down sun shades, large flat screen in the rear- all looking good and unblemished. But that bar, and the privacy slider- OMG! The bar footprint was just too much and not a very practical design- like it was designed around the needs of beer drinkers and not wine drinkers. The privacy slider forward was placed like a hamburger stand order window- too small and too high. It was so high occupants could not see the road or the driver. More serious thought followed. My next move was making a list of coach-builders in Southern California, and finding someone I trusted who was willing to make the modifications necessary to turn it into a more wine tour friendly vehicle.
After mulling all that over, and having an initial conversation with a somewhat willing coach-builder, I felt confident to talk price with the owner of the Sprinter. This was followed by a fair amount of gut wrenching, as I turned all this over in my mind while putting the financial and logistical pieces together. After a couple more calls inquiring about more vehicle particulars, the owner and I reached a number that worked. Luckily after a bit of strategizing I was able to handle the funding, and wired a deposit.
Taking a look at my schedule, and after notifying a couple clients about my status, I sent Alex a text two days after he sent me the ad: “Looks like I’m taking the red eye to Rochester!” He was somewhat surprised I was taking the leap, and also happy to cover the jobs for me of course.
The red eye flight out of SLO was like every other I’ve taken: uneventful, and agonizingly sleepless since I wasn’t able to wedge myself in a comfortable pose next to a window. Sitting mid-row upright for that long seemed like a painful yoga exercise after the first couple hours. I was very glad to get off the plane to make the next connection. Another upside was that plane travel afforded me the opportunity to get my tape measure out and record the strategic ergonomic measurements airlines incorporate into their seating and passenger space- not much, but that nonetheless started me gathering benchmark numbers that could help the redesign of the bar and other components for retrofit later. The owner, Anthony, met me at the airport and drove me to his shop in Hornell, 90 minutes south.
The Journey Begins: New York Finger Lakes Wine Region to Paso Robles CA
I test-drove the Sprinter, inspected and checked here and there, turned on this and that (totally stoked on the killer stereo!), and we went to the bank to get the pink and exchange final payment. Soon I was off to the coach-builder, LGE in North East, Pennsylvania. At last the real journey had begun!
The weather was very pleasant Finger Lakes/south shore Lake Erie late winter with no rain mid-day. A relief for someone from California who has very little snow-driving experience. I drove straight to the coach-builder in this quiet rural, working class berg with lots of vineyards about…somewhat of a surprise to me. Wineries and vineyards were quite abundant and close to the lake.
Once at the coach-builder, owner David’s team jumped on the Sprinter to install eight seat belts in the passenger area, and a thumb drive receptacle behind the TV for my winery slide show. I knew I would have to bring it into CA with seatbelts in the back, or that would cause trouble down the line. In a little over an hour they were done, and I went looking for the BnB I’d rented.
I turned right, out of LGE’s parking lot heading west on Main Street, and lo and behold, there was a winery less than a mile down the road. Of course, even though it looked like they might be getting ready to close, I had to stop in at Courtyard Winery. “This rig’s a winery hunting machine,” I chuckled to myself. Luckily Tasting Room Manager Anthony decided that being the first winery stop for my newly purchased Sprinter was a worthy honor; he poured his lineup for me.
We also talked about our respective wine regions, plus he spent time telling me about the wine business in general in the Finger Lakes/Lake Erie area, and illuminating Courtyard’s varietals, farming practices, production style, and so on. Having spent most of my life in either Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo Counties, I often wondered what growing grapes and making wine in cold climates was like. I came away very, very grateful that I live on the Central Coast of California, home of limitless varietals and really great wines! Later during the trip, at a stop in Missouri at a winery, I had a similar bliss-filled torrent of gratitude, again realizing my great fortune to live where I do. Missouri- where they’re very proud of their Norman grape…almost like Cab they told me. Sure.
Winter gloom and cold loomed. It was sunset, and the lakeside bungalows were very quiet, save my presence. It was fascinating to look out and see ice scattered in flat patches with zero movement whatsoever clear to the Lake Erie horizon. Ice was stacked on the shore- motionless- no waves or movement of any kind. Seeing that vast expanse literally frozen transfixed in eerie gray silence was quite uncanny- having lived my entire life close to the Pacific Ocean, which never stops moving. It was such a weird, really incongruous feeling- my consciousness was rattled by something so extremely amiss.
The bungalow was just right and cheap. With the Sprinter now in my possession, it was now time to celebrate. The most notable dining and drinking establishment in the neighborhood I was told by the front desk, was a little restaurant called the Freeport Inn, to which I Uber’d over. I had a cocktail and lake perch appetizer (recommended by a local telling me he was the lake perch king- and mild, very good), followed by a steak dinner, garlic mashed potatoes, with the usual accoutrements. The entire bill before tip was under $50- shocking! The locals were friendly and informative- I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Ubering back was a bit of another matter, as the restaurant was in a draw with terrible cell phone reception. I started walking back home through freezing night air hoping that the conversation I’d started with an Uber driver I’d managed to hale 20 minutes prior would continue so he could find me before I froze to death. I was extremely relieved when he showed, as it was starting to get REALLY cold.
I awoke to more winter gloom, and amazing stillness. After gathering myself I headed back to the Freeport Inn for a great breakfast- still in celebratory mode I guess. Stopped at a hardware store to buy some road supplies, 1.5” blue tape and sharpies to map design ideas for the new bar on the floor of the Sprinter, as I grew acclimated to the ergonomics I’d have to work with in the re-design of the bar and seating area.
Then it was off to the Walmart, not far away, to buy my trusty travel companion- a 20 degree mummy bag, plus a case of bottled water, and a few other odds and ends I wasn’t allowed to take on the plane. I wasn’t too sure what kind of weather would be in store as I slept in Walmart parking lots and truck stops steadily angling to the southwest, so I wanted to be prepared in my new digs. Being a bit warmer than I would like, and able to peel some covers off sure beats being too cold every time. The bench spanning across the front side of the passenger area became my makeshift bed, which worked out well enough, but wasn’t really all that comfortable for sleeping. I figured I’d have some nice meals with the money I was saving on motel rooms.
And the driving began. Taking into account there was never any ice or snow, and just a couple rainy mornings on the entire trip, I’d call the weather great! I was very, very fortunate to slide through on a patch of pleasant weather, as the Midwest got slammed big time not long after I’d passed through. One thing that cracked me up was driving the Sprinter with no plates or anything else that made it look legally registered across eleven states, and never having any contact with law enforcement! New York requires plate surrender when ownership changes, and there was just a white rectangle where the license plate should have been as I drove past numerous highway patrol cruisers parked in the median of whatever interstate. I had all the paperwork to present a valid case. A little twinge would quake through my body, and I’d mull over how the contact with the officer would go, but there was never any contact. Much to my relief!
Numerous culinary discoveries were made during the trip- like my first visit to a Waffle House, and real grits…pretty funny. I’d never really paid that much attention to the trucking business, and was quite amused at how many truck drivers appeared to be from the Indian subcontinent- they are a huge sector of the long haul shipping business. To complement their clientele, truck stops were often under Indian ownership and solely offered Indian food, which was great with me. I had some fantastic curries, and tried various dishes that fall beyond the fringe of any given hometown Indian buffet. Love naan- their style of soft pillowy Indian-style flatbread made traditionally in a cylindrical clay oven called a tandor. There were numerous breakfast stops at Mickey D’s for my favorite breakfast: sausage egg biscuit and large coffee with four creams.
My normal cycle was to find a Walmart or truck stop when I was tired, go to sleep, wake up and start driving again, no matter the time of day. Sooner than later I’d come across a McDonald’s for refueling my body. There were a couple more fancy dinners, as I’d try to find some interesting place to eat wherever I landed- and a big celebration on my birthday at the Outback Steak House less than a block away from the Walmart in Flagstaff. From there I could smell California looming large, and I was so ready to be home! I noticed that diesel prices were a lot cheaper than California too. I’d shower at a truck stop every couple days when I stopped to refuel. The Sprinter was very comfortable and easy to drive on a journey of that length too. Great cruise control! All worked out well and the trip went super smooth.
Once back in CA, I got the road grit washed off the Sprinter at a truck wash manned by Indian type peeps, and headed to the coachbuilder in Ontario for a pre-arranged meeting. Owner Dominic was a rotund man wearing white Adidas’ and baggy gangbanger shorts with a thick, Mafioso-like New York accent, who panted in successive gasps after every sentence he uttered. Made me wonder if he’d be alive to see completion of my project. His yard and shop were crowded with all kinds of vehicles in various states of modification. Dominic rattled off a list of California coachbuilders both long gone and present he’d worked for or managed- claiming 40,000 limo’s in his career. Based on his website and what I saw in the yard, I knew he was capable. He and a couple of his lieutenants observed my interior while I went over the various parts of the job that needed modification.
Dominic stepped down from the Sprinter, told me he’d do the job, and asked for engineering drawings so he could quote the project. To which I said, “I’m on it. Thanks for your time,” shook his hand, and left.
A Polished Gem Appears on the Paso Robles Wine Scene
The level of relief I felt driving home from the coachbuilder is indescribable. The success of this entire mission revolved around finding the right coachbuilder to carry out the modifications to make the Sprinter more wine tour friendly. However, there was much to be done before the Sprinter did its first job. Foremost of all was drawing my ideas on drafting paper, and getting them over to Dominic so he could give me a price, and I could send him a deposit to get in his production schedule. I jumped on the drawings, and after nearly two weeks had produced 13 engineering drawings and documents, along with a bill of materials: bar and its various components and component views, new privacy slider, one large drawer under the bench seat for bottled waters, plus two smaller drawers for napkins and motion sickness bags, a small re-do for the rear J-seat, and so on. My boatbuilding and office interior design background had come in handy- had to shake a lot of dust off my drafting and design skills, but my drawings got the message across. After sending those down to Dominic, I waited anxiously for a response.
After eyeballing my plans a second time, Dominic modified his original quote, and told me he wanted $8,000 to do the job instead of the original $7,000. Oh well, it’s only money! It was a happy day when I was called with the date to bring the Sprinter back to the coach-builder to make the modifications I needed. I was quite confident that the job would be done to high quality standards I’d taken note of during my first visit; confident they’d turn out very close to what I had envisioned…nonetheless it was quite a nervous wait.
There was still much to do: sell the limo and Yukon XL, figure out an overhaul for my tour pricing, complete PUC paperwork adding the Sprinter to the State roll, create and apply signage and TCP numbers to the Sprinter, design new business cards showing off the Sprinter, hook up commercial insurance for the Sprinter, prep for switching over my website to feature the Sprinter and get rid of the limo and SUV- everyday there was a list, plus doing tours as they fell on the calendar. I was somewhat surprised that it took so much effort to redirect my energies into the Sprinter- almost like starting a new business. Trying to gather all the pieces of the puzzle together in an organized way over a couple months was quite exhausting to be honest.
There were a few phone calls with questions about the remodel from Dominic, but not much. Actually he seemed to be frustrated that he had to follow my plans- which were what he originally asked for. Having come from boatbuilding, along with writing the Boat Tech Column for Pacific Coast Sportfishing Magazine out of Newport Beach CA for 10 years, I was confident in what I had designed, and especially the strength and durability the bar needed, due to its orientation in the cabin. That was a key area of focus for me. During one call I asked, “Would you rather have the drawings on a bar napkin?” To which he replied, “Yes.” He really wanted to do it his way, but was held by the contract. He also had the nerve to claim he never asked for engineering drawings. The relationship seemed to slide into the unsavory zone after that conversation. Luckily his right hand Mark took over the project- easy to work with and wanted everything to be right, much to my relief. Happily, after about six weeks I received a phone call with the pickup date. Of course, outside of a couple cell phone photos of progress, I was on pins and needles, anxious to actually see what the remodel looked like firsthand…and luckily I was not disappointed. Actually, I was quite happy, and ready to start booking the Sprinter for real. I gave Mark a bottle of Paso wine as a thank you.
The first job the Sprinter went out on was early July. To this day I still look back on the journey: from flying into Rochester to pulling up in front of a Cayucos Airbnb to pick up my inaugural group of eight for a wine tour. Sixteen weeks to be exact- four months time from when I took possession to the first job. If you add the two weeks dialing in the deal, logistics and financing, you’re looking at four and a half months. I still marvel at that span of time, and the effort it took to get to this point!
The last detail that occupied my thoughts as the season moved on from summer into fall over many tours was: what is the best way to organize and store wine that goes into my cold bags? From the very first tour in the Sprinter, I knew I had to come up with some kind of rack to store all the necessary accoutrements required to handle every need on a tour- including keeping wine secure and cool. The rack would be a final and necessary touch.
The build was technical enough that I knew I would have to mock up the rack in wood to get my point across. I wanted it to float in the interior of the cargo area, and not touch any vertical surfaces surrounding the space, plus make some structural zigs and zags so structural elements would not impinge on fitting the bags, ice chest and plastic bin into available space. Any part of the rack, if it was to touch any pre-existing vertical surfaces, could be the source of noise coming from the back into the passenger compartment. Luckily the Sprinter came from the factory with several threaded mount points surrounding the rear door frame, where each shelf could have its own bracket from shelf to frame. This was especially important on the right side, as there’s a panel covering a large electrical board, which will eventually need to be removed in order to trouble shoot an electrical device at some point in the future. The removable brackets would eliminate the need to demount the entire unit. My local web guy, Bill from Central Coast Marketing Network, recommended Mitchell from J&M Welding right here in Paso Robles, for whom he’d recently completed a web site. Looking at Mitch’s website, it was pretty clear he could build just about anything in metal. I took my very crude wood mock up put in its mount location over to Mitch, explained what I wanted, and he immediately got what I was trying to do, along with being able to match the powder coating with the grab bar in the passenger compartment. Tre chic!
Only one thing to do now- wait for my turn to come up in the production cycle. About a month later I dropped off the Sprinter for a two day stay at J&M, along with my mockup and some engineering drawings, and they got after it. There were a couple decisions to make real time as the build progressed, and in a couple weeks all the details had been handled. The trial mount got me totally stoked- now the rack was on its way to the powder coater, also in Paso Robles. Three weeks later I was summoned to bring the Sprinter by for the final installation! The end product was stunning, and an amazing complement to the vehicle in an area that generally doesn’t get much attention from clients or the public in general. I wanted this to stand out- that I seriously cared about the condition of my clients’ wine. From the design to the neon wine colored powder coating to the cleanness of the welds, the rack is truly a piece of art. I’m very glad I spent the money and the time to create something that makes such a big difference for my business.
Anyhow- that’s the story of how my particular Sprinter came to be, and why I’ll always be wearing a great big smile every time I drive it. Let’s toast. Cheers!