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Meet John Ziegler of Intimate Wine Weddings and Elite Wine Tours Paso

Kris Williams | Voyage LA Magazine

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Ziegler.

It started out as a desire to do something different.

John came from boat building in Santa Barbara, and an association that started in the late ’70’s with an iconic boat yard in Santa Barbara, creating one-off commercial fishing boats, harbor patrol boats, and high end sport fishing and diving boats. He started working as a staff writer for Pacific Coast Sportfishing Magazine, Newport Beach CA, a year earlier- writing feature articles and the Boat Tech column. Along with working at the magazine for 10 years, he sold freelance articles to an array of publications. Playing music professionally in the Tri-Counties area with his band the Harlequins has also kept him busy on and off for the last 13 years. Cold Spring Tavern off Hwy 154, above Santa Barbara, is their home club.

“Doing the limo thing allowed me the flexibility to keep up with my other interests,” John said. “A surprise benefit was doing wine tours, and the blessing of constant learning about wine, which I gratefully enjoy and relish to this day,” adding, “Not to forget all the wonderful relationships that have been created with wine industry folks over the years as well.”

John stated, “Anytime one embarks on creating something new, there are always challenges and solutions that require research, perspective and intuitive, creative thinking to meet those challenges. Part of the mission is attempting success in charting the future on a path that has not yet been traveled by you personally.”

However, John was very lucky to work for a couple mega-pro’s in the business in the Santa Barbara market. He related, “There are so many nuances on the business side alone: creating solid relationships with lodging, wineries, restaurants and so on. Where your referrals come from, if you’re perceived to be professional and someone they would trust with their reputation by having referred you. Then there’s dealing with people enjoying wine. These kinds of things are a broad scope learned over time and experience.” He emphasizes that the basic kernels were imparted by these two guys, for which he’s eternally grateful.

Three years ago, John did a re-brand that was brought on by people all over the world, who didn’t know the proper spelling of Jay-Z. You know- that guy in the entertainment business, who’s married to a talented singer named Beyoncé. “I was getting thousands of hits from people everywhere misspelling Jay-Z’s name, which also happens to be my actual initials- JZ. My nickname morphed into that over the last 20 years. It was a 10 to one hit ratio- 10 for him and one for me.” So out with JZ Wine Tour Guy and in with Elite Wine Tours Paso.

“Wine tours are easy- I’ve done over 1,300 since 2005, but my current challenge is to book jobs from my Intimate Wine Weddings website.” A couple years ago a client contacted him to drive his wedding party around, plus take all their wedding photos. With brother-in-law as the officiant, the party was six total. “Photos have been part of my tours for quite a few years now. I love taking shots of couples, families and friends having a carefree afternoon in Central Coast wine country. Actually, makes me be a little more attentive to my groups by watching for a great shot from offstage,” he says, with a confident nod.

“I had recently bought a limo, and was wracking my brain on a way to keep it rolling on the least busy days of the week: Monday through Thursday. Why not get married on a wine tour?” Just like max attendees at the local courthouse for a civil wedding, his limo holds eight passengers. After several of Paso Robles’ most beautiful and prestigious wineries gave the go-ahead to do weddings for small groups on their slow days, he obtained the Universal Life Church minister’s certificate allowing him to perform weddings, and upgraded to a serious wedding camera rig. During that stretch he also designed, wrote and photographed content for what ended up a very large website with lots of great photos to give clients a broad range of potential sites to conduct their ceremony, plus other beautiful places to experience more joy on a couple more tasting and picnicking stops. He takes photos the whole time, plus does a GoPro shoot of the actual ceremony.

JZ reminded, “Guys- if you’re looking to pop the question, I can help with that too. I’m “wedding proposal central”. What better way to cloak your secret plan than on a wine tour, with your own photographer to catch all the action? I’ve done quite a few proposal shoots.”

“By the way,” he adds, “All stripes welcome here. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to be happy in life. I totally support gay marriage.”

“I was lauded by friends in the business with “genius idea”, “brilliant”, and so on, but it’s been very slow going,” he confided in a contemplative tone. John’s had one inquiry since his website went live a year ago. “Conversely, I was cautious about fanning the flames too high, because I take so many pictures at a wedding, that too many of these type jobs would prove an overburden on my wine tours. Friday through Sunday is prime time in the wine tour business.” He’s advertised on Wedding Wire, Yelp, and shuffles ads on Craigslist in major markets. A fun swag-gy (stuff we all get) gimmick is handing out pens (“Talkin’ quality pens here,” he says) imprinted with his websites and phone number.” “So we’ll see where that goes. It’s a memento from a prime one-on-one contact. I was hoping the word might get around, and make inroads via the word-of-mouth underground that pushes some wine labels to become highly in demand cult labels- but that hasn’t happened yet. I intend on slogging forward. Apparently, I own this market!” He has trouble containing a laugh that’s led by his own amusement.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Intimate Wine Weddings and Elite Wine Tours Paso – what should we know?
On the wine tour side John says it’s experience, knowledge, and great relationships with the Central Coast’s iconic labels that really sets Elite Wine Tours Paso apart. He’s done well over 1,300 wine tours since 2005, with over 500 in Santa Barbara County alone. Elite is based in Paso Robles.

“Discover the Unique and Boutique Wine Road Less Traveled” is a simple descriptor summing up what he does- a moniker that echoes throughout his websites and social media. Every tour is custom, and based around clients’ wine preferences, or desired experiences. Experiences go from production tours to winemaker one-on-ones, barrel tastings, and beyond. John gratefully declared, “I’d be nothing without all the great clients I’ve met over the years, and the referrals and repeat business that come with happy customers. I’m kept on my toes pretty good with my regular clients. I’m so lucky!”

“Part of my job is digging into the nooks and crannies of wine country to find these amazing, passionate, oenological craftspeople (ee-NOL-o-ji-cal) men and women intently studying winemaking, and applying their knowledge), get to know them and their wines, and bring clients whose palates, and sometimes personalities and vibe match up.” John says he’s been blessed that his website, which he wrote and photographed himself, attracts a more serious-about-wine clientele. “A cool stop client’s fall in love with is a label whose owner is an Oscar winning film editor, and the nicest, most down-to-earth unaffected family you’ll ever meet- join their wine club and you get to have your photo taken holding the Oscar.”

Every stop is by appointment. He intimates that some have a hard time getting their heads around the fact that an appointment is needed- “They’re welcome to go mingle with the rest of the cattle, maybe on a bus that does what I call “milk runs” to larger, more corporate wineries. If clients are looking for something a bit more on the quiet side, maybe a seated flight-style tasting with your own exclusive attendant sharing information about their winery, then I’m your guy.” His max group size is eight by design. Tours are planned and driven exclusively by John, with sometimes as many as 20 or 30 emails going back and forth to create the client’s ideal day. John unequivocally claims, “As Paso moves into critical mass mode on busy weekends, I’ve found more and more often, most wineries aren’t all that interested in doing groups larger than eight, because they tend to go more social. They move away from being wine-centric, the opposite of what the wineries would obviously prefer. Wineries need to gear up with setup and more staff for large groups, and accept that there will be less sales dollars. They accommodate more out of tradition and our region’s sense of welcome. My service is about quality in every perspective.”

Pro-quality photos provide lasting memories of wine outings. John’s spent time as an industrial photographer and magazine photographer, and really loves taking shots clients will enjoy as part of their slide show on their computer, or blow up to frame. Typically, 50 to 60 images are saved from a wine tour, and the following day are edited in Lightroom, then sent to the clients via Dropbox link.

“It’s been fun applying my writing skills in social media, but I don’t get too crazy with that. I post across my platforms about three times a week, and keep it more on the journalistic informational/news side along with solid SLR digital photos. I stay away from images of people doing cartwheels and fairy leaps with the limo as backdrop- that’s not my market,” he stated with a sweeping hand gesture.

Another facet of his business is helping with either sit-down or to-go meal planning during the tour. “There are lots of places with fantastic picnicking or more high-end sit-down dining. I’m happy to pick up to-go food on the way to clients at no extra charge if logistics allow,” John says with a smile. He’s set up with lots of bottled water and clean tablecloths for any size group. “Basically, I’m all about complete concierge-ing. I make dinner reservations for your group, run to the drug or grocery store while your tasting- you name it. We’ve got an awesome cigar store here in Paso, by the way. It’s all about whatever you need.” In other words, service, service, service.

One feature John provides, that no other services have invested in, are catering cold bags for hot weather, and or food transport- “After an extensive search,” he adds. These bags hold case boxes, and maintain them at tasting room temperature. “If the temperature’s going to be over 75-degress the catering bags are used without fail. I finally figured out that carrying client purchases into the tasting room or barrel room at each stop on hot days was just too much work. For days over 85-degrees, I use special freezer blocks in the bags to protect the wine.”

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