It was an inauspicious start to what ended up being one of the great Los Angeles real estate careers.


When John C. Cushman was asked by a former oil company executive to invest in a vineyard in Santa Barbara County it seemed like a no-brainer.


It ended up being a money pit.

It was 1972 and the then 28-year-old real estate broker was working on leasing downtown's Arco Plaza. Cushman figured that when the late Arco executive Louis Ream asked him to invest in the Santa Ynez Valley property along with the presidents of the Standard Oil Co. of Ohio and the American Oil Co. the business was a sure thing.


"I said to my wife, 'We are the luckiest people in the world because we are with these guys who are running some of the biggest companies in the world and they know what they are doing and we are just going to sit back for the ride,'" said Cushman, now chairman of the board of commercial brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield Inc.


But it didn't turn out how Cushman had planned. The vineyard, which became the Zaca Mesa Winery in 1978, turned out to be a vanity project for some of the well heeled investors, who weren't counting their losses. Then there were the seven-hour board meetings and a general lack of direction.


But while Cushman's investment languished, the business connections he made with the oil executives proved invaluable. Winery board member Joe Harnett, then president of Standard Oil of Ohio, presented Cushman with a key business opportunity after one particularly difficult board meeting.


"We've had a board meeting and everybody has yelled and screamed, and now we are having wine and Joe tells me they've been looking for space in San Francisco," Cushman said. "So I said, 'Joe, I don't think that's very complicated; I think I know how to solve that problem.' Out of that came a lease."


That deal was the first of many between Cushman and Standard Oil of Ohio. Even after Standard Oil of Ohio was acquired by British Petroleum, BP remained a client of Cushman & Wakefield. "BP has been a terrific client for the company all because of one thing Zaca Mesa Winery," Cushman said.


And something surprising happened along the way: the winery became a successful business.


Cushman bought out the other investors in 1988 and slowly shifted the winery's focus to a product more suitable to its location. In the early 1990s, the winery began to grow Rhone varietals more suited to the Santa Ynez Valley, lessening its reliance on Chardonnay and several other varieties.


By the late 1990s, the business was moving toward profitability while racking up acclaim for its Syrah. Zaca Mesa is now co-owned by Cushman and his twin brother Lou Cushman, vice chairman at Cushman & Wakefield, through their Cushman Winery Corp.


"We have a niche where our vineyards do great and we are hanging onto the Rhone varieties," said Brook Williams, president of the winery.


Though the business is now profitable, Cushman says he never misses a chance to promote his wine. "At a Cushman & Wakefield event, guess what wine is served? Zaca Mesa," he said.

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