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Alumni Spotlight

Among the Vines

Eric Johnson working in the barrel room of winery
Written By Jayan Kalathil

Meet Eric Johnson, who was lucky enough to stay in SLO after graduation and succeed and thrive in the wine industry that he loves.

Coming from a family farming background, Eric Johnson (Agricultural Business, '07) grew up with an appreciation for both agriculture and Cal Poly, and both would end up playing a huge role in his life. 

“I grew up in Los Banos in the Central Valley, which is a farming and dairy town” he explained. “Most of my family went to Cal Poly, so I always wanted to go.” 

That dream became a reality when he enrolled as a Food Science major in 2002, only to switch and finish with an Agricultural Business degree with a minor in Wine and Viticulture. Today, Johnson is the Director of Viticulture and Winemaking at Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande, where he oversees all aspects of production, from the growing of grapes to the making of wine. 

Eric Johnson working in the barrel room of winery

Talley Vineyards has been around since 1986 and focuses on making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but also produces Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc and Grüner Veltliner. It's a local family-run business that also owns Talley Farms, a 70-year-old produce company.

Johnson’s introduction to the wine business began during his first year living in Fremont Hall.  

“I had a roommate that was from Sonoma who loved wine,” he said. “His family owned vineyards and they had a wine label. He started getting me into it.” 

But it wasn’t until he started taking classes and getting his hands dirty that he developed a passion for it.

“The great thing about Cal Poly is the Learn by Doing philosophy. I took Viticulture Practices multiple times. You were just out there in the vineyard and I really, really liked it. We were able to make wine in the closet before this amazing wine-making facility they have now. It reminded me a little bit of farming in Los Banos.”

During his senior year in 2007, he secured an internship at Talley Vineyards in the tasting room, was hired full-time a couple of months later and has been there ever since. In 2010, at age 26, he was promoted to winemaker and was recently promoted to his current position just a few months ago.

Johnson loves making wine in this area, now known as the wider San Luis Obispo Coast region, which also includes Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley.

“What’s nice about this area is that it’s a cool region and we can grow so many different things. We have such a great maritime influence – the Pacific Ocean just controls this place and that’s ideal for growing cool climate grapes. There’s a lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Gamay, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre can potentially ripen.”

He also appreciates the friendliness and comradery that the local wine industry has, partly because it is smaller than Paso Robles to the north and Santa Barbara to the south. While those regions have hundreds of wineries, the San Luis Obispo Coast region has 30 to 40. 

“We all get along. We share each other’s wines, and we help each other out constantly. Everyone is so chill, so welcoming, and we don't want anyone to fail. The reality is we are such a small area that we have to rise together. When you look at California regarding wine tourism, people tend to visit Napa, Sonoma, Paso and Santa Barbara, and we tend to get skipped over, even though it's such a beautiful area. We’re trying to get more awareness of the San Luis Obispo Coast region.”

Eric Johnson

Being a local, Johnson is still very connected to Cal Poly. Many of the interns at Talley Vineyards are students from Cal Poly and half of his staff are Cal Poly grads. He takes his family to Cal Poly sporting events throughout the year and still regularly sees friends from his undergrad days. He’s pleased with the advances on campus today, especially regarding his industry.

“Cal Poly is going in the right direction in terms of wine and viticulture,” he said. “We are competing with UC Davis and Fresno State now. It’s something that I always wanted to see and I’m just so proud.”

When asked if he could give any advice to current or future Mustangs when it comes to finding success as he did, he replied, “Figure out what you want to do, figure out your passion and just go for it!”