ONX (pronounced onyx) Estate Vineyard in Templeton is a passion project and country escape for owners Steve and Brenda Olson of the Olson Company, a Seal Beach developer of affordable, urban homes in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
It’s also a purple tapestry of art for Drew Nenow and Happy Saunders, ONX’s winemaker and manager of events and vineyard experiences, respectively.
Nenow, of Templeton, works his magic with the grapes, while Saunders, of Paso Robles, explores opportunities to complement consumption. Both are armed with Cal Poly degrees as well as strong ties to Napa.
“I grew up in San Diego County, a classic Southern California upbringing of beach and sun, but I also got a taste of agrarian and farming life making trips up to the Napa Valley a handful of times a year,” Nenow said. “My aunt and uncle, Lisa Drinkward and Les Behrens, started a winery called Behrens & Hitchcock in the early ’90s, and my father was a routine helper and harvest hand for them during my childhood.”
When Nenow was a teenager, his father started his own brand and “commissioned me as child labor to help out,” he teased.
“That was where my love of the cellar, vineyards, and wine came about,” he continued. “I decided then and there that was what I wanted to do with my career and never looked back.
“I attended Cal Poly SLO and received a bachelor of science in enology with a minor in agribusiness in 2013 and moved up to Paso to work in the wine industry. I worked cellar jobs for Turley Wine Cellars and Villa San-Juliette before finding my way to ONX in 2015 where I have planted my flag ever since.”
Nenow was an assistant winemaker at ONX until 2018, when he became head winemaker.
Saunders grew up in wine culture in Napa and Sonoma counties, and also loved gardening, eventually leading to a degree in ornamental horticulture, with an emphasis in floriculture. In early 2021, she joined the winery’s ONX at Home program—bringing virtual and live experiences to guests—then transitioned to her current position in 2022.
She is excited to merge her passion for wine, floral design, and creating memorable experiences for ONX customers “that utilize her artistic flair, attention to detail, and years of experience,” she said.
She has also earned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level 2 certification and is working toward WSET 3 credentials.
“The classes I took at Cal Poly, such as chemistry, botany, and soil science, have helped to give me an insight to the grapevines and how the vineyard is managed,” she said. “And the knowledge from our winemaking team and the wine certification I’m currently taking have given me more insight to the vines, grapes, and the amazing wine we pour.”
ONX’s latest releases will be showcased at the Paso Wine Fest from May 19 to 22.
Planted in 2005 off Paseo Excelsus in the Templeton Gap District of the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, the 127-acre parcel—combined with ONX’s more recently acquired 54-acre Kiler Canyon property in Paso’s Willow Creek District—produces 18 varieties of grapes.
ONX’s trademark red blends consistently earn industry accolades, with its current lineup being no exception. The winery’s 2018 grenache- and tempranillo-heavy Mad Crush earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast, while its syrah blend 2018 Reckoning landed 94 points, and its standout 60-percent mourvèdre 2018 Level 22 earned 95.
The distinct characteristics of ONX wines derive from the property’s marine influence, extreme temperature swings, and complex soil containing onyx calcite, the winery’s namesake.
Nenow takes full advantage of the property’s unique characteristics when crafting his wines, and he’s careful not to pick a favorite. That would be like “picking your favorite child,” he jokingly said.
“We craft each grape independently before undergoing an intensive blending process each summer,” he explained. “With each of our cuvées we focus in on our core varieties—grenache, syrah, tempranillo, zinfandel, cabernet, sauvignon blanc, and mourvèdre—and blend for balance and complexity.”
Rounding out ONX’s combined 87 acres of vines from the estate and Kiler properties are grenache blanc, grenache gris, viognier, petite sirah, malbec, mourvèdre, petit verdot, sezao, touriga nacional, tannat, picpoul blanc, and vaccarese.
“We blend to accentuate and prop up the focus grape with a strong desire to not lose the essence of the focus grape,” Nenow added. “Above all, we also farm for quality over quantity with a major focus on balancing crop loads and making sure our canopies are allowing the ideal amount of sunlight.”
Producing 4,500 cases of wine per year, ONX team members are fierce protectors of their property and are working toward best practices in farming and winemaking.
“It is our mission to craft acclaimed wines not just for today but for generations to come,” explained Carrie Beurskens, ONX’s marketing manager. “As such, our vineyards have received sustainability certification from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. While this is only one of our first steps to our long-term goal of completing certification for organic farming on our properties, we feel that the tenets of the CSWA match well with our own beliefs and ideals.”
ONX is also elevating its tasting options. Guests can enjoy traditional pours at its Tin City tasting room and its winery on Limestone Way in Paso Robles or mix it up with new immersive experiences at the Templeton estate vineyard.
“Our owners pay a lot of attention to detail,” Saunders said. “[The estate] is very thoughtfully laid out and meticulously landscaped,” with views of the vineyard and Santa Rita Creek, semi-private and hidden oases, guest cottages, fruit orchards, a lavender field, and more.
Saunders aims to capitalize on the dramatic setting with three new tasting options, including a private picnic, elegant afternoon tea, and luxurious vineyard proposal.
“The vineyard has always been a special place to host guests, and I love that our team is taking the time and energy to build upon what we have been doing out there for so long,” Nenow said. “It’s a magical place that I’d love for every single one of our customers to experience at some point.” Δ
Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte is dreaming of an ONX escape. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.