Paso Robles Loses a Pioneer

Jim Smoot, California grower and viticulture consultant, dies at 67

by Kathy Marcks Hardesty
Jim Coffee Smoot, Jr.
Jim Coffee Smoot, Jr.
Paso Robles, Calif. -- Paso Robles has lost one of the region's most highly respected pioneers, winegrape grower Jim Coffee Smoot Jr., 67, who consulted for many of the region's top wineries over the last three decades. After a year-long battle with lymphatic cancer, Smoot still managed to get through last year's harvest and promised his wife Treanna a vacation in Palm Springs to play golf. Three days after they arrived there, pneumonia overtook Smoot, a complication of lymphatic cancer, and he died Monday, Jan. 14, with Treanna, their children and his sister all at his bedside.

"Jim Smoot set a high standard that many after him emulated," said vintner Justin Baldwin of Justin Vineyards, adding: "He was one of a kind, and will never be duplicated." Baldwin said he first met Smoot in 1981, "when Jim was the only vineyard consultant in Paso Robles." Smoot laid out plans and oversaw the planting of Justin Vineyards and Winery. Baldwin described Smoot as well known for his strict attention to detail, and his pride in keeping current with the latest vineyard practices.

"Jim was great at bridging the knowledge gap between city folk like me and others, and the reality of grape farming," Baldwin recalled. "In many ways he was a mentor, as well as a listening post for the many frustrations we all experience in dealing with nature."

Doug Beckett of Peachy Canyon said he worked with Smoot frequently in the past when he bought grapes from other vineyards in Paso. "Whenever I went into a contract with a vineyard that Jim managed, it was a guarantee we would get quality fruit and we would get everything the growers promised."

Smoot, a graduate of Fresno State University, began his winegrape growing career in 1978 in Paso. His peers described him as a visionary who saw the potential of Paso to produce premium quality winegrapes. That was five years before the AVA was established in 1983. He worked in most of the microclimates and soils within the Paso Robles appellation, and consulted for many of the most highly regarded wineries in the region.

In 2001 Smoot began advising Dick Niner, owner of Niner Wine Estates on Hwy. 46 West in Paso, across from Peachy Canyon's Tasting Room. "I've met many fine people in my 10-years of investing in San Luis Obispo County, and Jim Smoot was at the top of my list. He was the best in his profession, probably in the whole state. Always a gentleman, and in every respect a true and generous friend, Pam (Niner) and I will miss him terribly."

While consulting for numerous vineyards, he managed his own Smoot's Vineyard on the Estrella Plain, east of Eberle Winery on Hwy. 46 East, growing Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Portuguese varietals. Smoot and Treanna relocated from Bakersfield, where, she explained, his family was noted in history books as early California pioneers. "Jim was a strong man who fought until the end. I kissed him on his last breath," she said, choking back her grief.

She fondly recalled he was a cowboy before he went to college, and he always had the cowboy spirit. When they planted their vineyard in 1978, she said, they worked side-by-side, and she has always helped him manage it. Recognized by the Central Coast Winegrape Growers Association as "Grower of the Year" in 1994 and 2004, Smoot also served as a board member for the association, and for the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Gary Eberle, founder of Eberle Winery, said, "People always refer to me as a pioneer in Paso, but Jim was one of the very early pioneers in viticulture." He explained that Smoot was instrumental in raising the overall quality throughout Paso. "He had a whole lot to do with getting the right grapes planted in the right places."

Smoot's neighbor and friend Creighton "Mac" MacDonald, director of production and facilities at Treana Winery in Paso, met the viticulturist in 1976. MacDonald was working at the region's famed HMR Winery, owned by Dr. Stanley Hoffman, whose winemaking advisor was the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff. "We had issues in those days with pests and nutrients, and little experience at handling it," MacDonald recalled. "But Jim brought a lot of knowledge from his experience in the Central Valley, and he was our first pest control advisor. Not just in grapevines either. He helped farmers growing pistachios and almonds."

At Tobin James, co-owner Lance Silver said the winery had been buying grapes from vineyards Smoot managed since its start, including Smoot's Vineyard Cabernet Franc and Merlot. "Paso Robles has lost an icon; he really was an icon for our community," Silver said. "Jim's standards made Paso Robles a region that could compete with any winegrowing region in the world. This community is really going to miss him."

Smoot was fondly remembered for his love of music--he played the piano and accordion--and frequent travels with Treanna. Baldwin noted, "He was worldly without being affected. He was one of the most down-to-earth guys you will ever meet, and he will be missed by many."

His memorial service will be held Saturday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m. in Atascadero at the Atascadero Bible Church.
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