As the Central Coast continues to emerge from pandemic isolation, it remains to be seen what activities and community events will return or be created in a new-normal future. And although Zoom-meetings became the band-aide we adopted to conduct business, educate our youth and socially interact, what we realized was we become better together. In fact, we need to be truly present for each other to spark our brainstorming juices, build our networks, and grow our businesses and organizations.

When the pandemic shuttered gatherings beyond inner-circle “families” Jim and Gloria Zion put their marketing strategy for Wicked Harvest Spirits on hold. It had taken over three years to develop the product followed by monumental efforts to navigate through governmental regulation before they could launch their unique brand of craft spirits. The couple nodded agreement that the hoops are much stricter than they are for wine, beer and even cannabis sales and distribution – some requirements hold-outs created during prohibition: For example, no sales/tastings on Sunday!

Once they finally began to connect with a few Central Coast retailers who understood how best to recommend their Wicked Harvest bourbons, dining out became dining in – take-home only – and successful event promotions were canceled. Jim is hoping such events like the Morro Bay Chamber’s TASTE, which kicked off the annual Avocado Festival, can be revived.

By following industry recommended best marketing practices and by personal experience the Zions knew in-person tastings of Wicked Harvest Spirits was the way to introduce their unique “nut-infused” Kentucky bourbons.

Gloria added, “With so many people hurting financially, I couldn’t make myself try to influence new buyers to purchase our bourbons. It was not the best way to spend their limited resources so we decided to wait for things to open up again.”

Last month Morro Bay’s Chamber launched a new event, Shop, Sip & Stroll, teaming a retailer with a social beverage provider. Jim was pleased and excited people came out in force. “We did tastings at Jeff Eckles House of Jerky on the Embarcadero and downtown at Mike’s Barbershop. I hope the Chamber continues these events. It supported local businesses and helped us reintroduce Wicked Harvest.”

The Zions had other business to conduct while they enjoyed settling into their new community. They officially made the permanent move to Morro Bay three years ago although they had a vacation home in the community for eleven years. Once they found their dream home overlooking the bay, it was a choice to live here and commute to the Fresno area where they went to school, met, and Jim still has responsibilities as managing partner for Meridian Growers. Their blended family has four children and four grandchildren that they visit frequently.

Additionally, they wanted to become more active in their new community. Gloria has joined Newcomers and Jim serves on the Chamber’s Governmental Advisory Committee while continuing to serve on an advisory council at Cal Poly.

Jim has enjoyed a career in the “tree nut” industry since graduating from Cal Poly. It was while serving on Cal Poly’s Food Science & Nutrition Advisory group he met a fellow graduate, Steve Thompson, who is the master distiller at Kentucky Artisan Distillery. Jim was always looking for new ways to use pistachios. Thompson suggested they combine products to create a craft nut-flavored bourbon. Jim was in, but they had to convince Gloria.

“I like wine,” Gloria said. Her teaching career had evolved to training teachers productive ways to teach their students. She never dreamed someday she would join a burgeoning craft spirits industry and enjoy teaching the art of tasting whiskeys by showcasing a product she would help develop. For example, she loves sharing the story of Wicked Harvest Hazel Nut which is sourced from nuts from Gloria’s childhood home on Oregon’s north coast. The bourbon is finished in pinot noir barrels.

“Spirits are not typically a woman’s social drink,” said Gloria. “I wasn’t on board when we first went back to Kentucky, but then Steve suggested we finish our product in a wine barrel to pick up the fruit flavors.” It was a worthy “trifecta” suggestion. “Now I was interested.” They combined smooth Kentucky bourbon with California Central Coast, Central Valley and Arizona pistachios then finished the blend in wine barrels. “Our first barrels were a Merlot.”

Jim admits Gloria is their best salesperson. “I believe our bourbons are for someone who doesn’t drink bourbon yet,” she added. “They are best when sipped over dessert preferably in front of a fire to feel a Kentucky hug.” One can easily picture her vision of sipping Wicked Harvest while relaxing with friends, or after a day at the links or slopes, or winding down after a busy day at work.

Jim lights up talking about the California tree nut industry. “California growers are the safest in the world,” he said. He noted the United States hired researchers to explore worldwide for new agriculture products. The pistachio was discovered in Persia and the one tree was brought to America, the ‘Mother Tree,’ was planted in Chico, CA. It spawned a growing market that is drought tolerant. It uses less water than other nut trees and bears fruit again when water is more plentiful.

Besides an advocate for the small grower, Jim hopes to link with youth groups to inspire careers in agriculture. “There is so much more to do in this business than drive a tractor.”
If your group, restaurant or retail shop is interested in learning more about Wicked Harvest bourbons, contact them at www.wickedharvestspirits.com.