Steve and Stacey Cotton Answer the Call of Willow Creek

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I can’t foresee the future. Who would have predicted I’d own a winery in my lifetime? Oops. Sorry. I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
My wife, Stacey, and I used to live in Southern California. We married in 1991. Our first child, Nick, was born in 1995. Our second son, Jacob, dropped into our lives two years later. It’s funny because I swore early in my life that I would never have kids. Who knew?
While we were starting our new family, I worked in Information Technology. I once had fancied myself a writer of fiction, an idea that multiple publishers happily shot down. It was while working as a technical writer that my first IT manager suggested I change direction. Apparently, he sensed an aptitude in me. I sure didn’t see that one coming.
Raising kids was fun. As any parent will attest, no two children are the same, even when they share similar genetics and are raised in the same environment. Nick was more physically gifted. Jacob was more serious. We were just happy they got along … most of the time.
I wasn’t shocked that Nick was reluctant to go to college, but I certainly didn’t predict he’d join the Marines, or that he would get married as soon as he did, or that they would have their first child so soon. Nope. Grandparenting so early in life hadn’t yet crossed my mind.
willow sign optimizedStacey and I like wine. And no, that’s not a byproduct of parenting. We liked it before the little ones came along. Living in Southern California, it was easy to go wine tasting in Temecula, so we visited that area often. The town is cute, and the wine is often pretty good.
We visited the Napa-Sonoma area, too. The scenery is much nicer than Temecula. The wine is usually better. And San Francisco can be a fun city. But more times than not, the drive discouraged us from making the trip.
Then, unexpectedly, we found Paso Robles. It can be as pretty as Sonoma, and it’s half the distance. There were about 100 wineries in the Paso area when we first started visiting. That seemed like a huge number back then. We couldn’t have predicted three times as many in the short years since.
And the wine! Paso Robles had large, established, refined wineries that rivaled some of those in Napa. There were the smaller, artisan winemakers, as well. The vibe was like a cross between Napa and Temecula, but the wine was usually great. So, Paso became our typical weekend getaway — we made the journey three or four times a year. In fact, we haven’t seen a Napa or Temecula tasting room since.
I’m a road cyclist. When I discovered the Great Western Bike Rally several years ago, I was immediately excited. What could be better than an extended weekend that mixed morning bike rides with afternoon wine tasting? I vowed to join the Rally at some point, but every year something intervened. Between work, coaching youth baseball, or some other responsibility, each year’s Rally came and went without me.
That was until 2016, when the planets seemed to align. We found ourselves in Paso Robles over the Memorial Day Weekend. I rode. We tasted. It was awesome.
willow tractor optimizedAnd then, the totally unexpected happened. While visiting a tasting room we knew well, we saw a flier for a property which was for sale. It was a house with a vineyard. There was a barn, with permits to operate as a winery. While it was at our financial limit, it was not an impossibility. On that tasting room bar, in front of our eyes, was something we had only joked about, something we considered only in passing. It was something we always believed was an impossibility.
We seriously believed that we’d find a way to turn our backs on this crazy idea. But the money became available, the kids were grown, Stacey found a great job locally, and my customers didn’t flinch. Within six months, we had moved from the home we had lived for the past 20 years to a home in our favorite California town. The plans which we had made in May were tossed aside by November. Unexpectedly, without plan, warning or foresight, we were nearly unrecognizable.
That’s when HGTV came calling. They were spinning up a new show called “We Bought The Vineyard,” and wanted to know if we would consider being the subject of the very first episode. Never in a million years would we have expected something like that. My son asked, “Are you going to do it?” Silly question. There was no way we could say no. After several days of shooting and many months of waiting, Stacey and I saw ourselves on TV. That was weird.
Over the following year, we founded our own winery, Willow Creek Estate, as well as harvested and fermented our first batch of Zinfandel. We were amazingly lucky to acquire fantastic wines from connections we had made over the years of visiting. Who would have predicted any of that?
We’re not the only ones to be confounded by the future. Whether it’s the hand of God or the whimsy of fate, predicting the future is, indeed, a fool’s errand. Like a roller coaster, sometimes you just have to take your hands off the bar, raise your arms high above your head, and enjoy the ride.