John Bannister of BCH Construction in Morgan Hill remembers watching his grandfather crush grapes and tuck the wine barrels under the porch at the family home in the Central Valley on the E&J Gallo ranch where they worked as farm laborers.
His family hails from Madeira, Portugal, where both his grandfather and great-grandfather were winemakers. When his grandparents emigrated in 1934, they wound up working for the Gallo family, taking care of their cattle and horses.
Bannister grew up in San Jose, and loved visiting his grandparents on the ranch.
“The wine was thick, like syrup—they didn’t have the science back then,” recalled Bannister, who now lives in Morgan Hill, and has had his own construction business since he was 26. “They lived a long time. My grandmother would have kept going at 99, but she missed my grandfather.”
While at Santa Teresa High School, Bannister was working in construction after classes ended for the day.
“I wasn’t a great student, but they offered work experience for credit, so I basically got paid to graduate,” he said.
He went immediately to work on foundations and framing after high school, and ended up renting in Menlo Park from a finish carpenter who had just moved from Steamboat Springs.
“He built beautiful cabinetry and bookshelves,” Bannister said. “I worked for free for him just to learn, and it led to a $35 per hour job. He moved back to Colorado, and I took my contractor’s test at 25. I got into building houses because I got tired of doing concrete and framing, and found that many general contractors don’t know how to build a whole house.”
He’s built plenty, and along the way, ran into Jerry and Steve Lohr, who were also building houses, as well as growing their winery business.
“I blame Steve for the idea of getting into wine!” Bannister joked.
For a while, Bannister, an avid rodeo rider, remained in Menlo Park and kept his horses in Woodside. As the South Bay became built up, he found himself traveling to Gilroy and Hollister where his subcontractors lived.
“We rodeoed and cowboyed together,” he said. “Being down here opened my eyes to all this open space.”
He moved to South County in 2004.
At age 49, Bannister figured it was time to make some wine, so in 2013, he acquired some fruit from various sources, including from C.G. D’Arie in Plymouth, plus vineyards in Lodi. He made some Zinfandel and Chardonnay, and it turned out well.
In 2015, he moved the operation to what was then The Stomping Grounds in Gilroy (now AFS), where he made wine with a friend until 2018. After that, for almost a year, his brand J Winston’s tasting room relocated to downtown Morgan Hill.
In 2019, he acquired 10.5 acres on Live Oak Avenue in Morgan Hill, and in 2020, planted some two-year-old “uber vines” of Cabernet Sauvignon with the assistance of Nick Dorcich. Much of the fruit he sources for his wine portfolio comes from vineyards Dorcich works with, although Bannister also gets some Pinot Noir from Arroyo Seco, Chardonnay from Besson and Zinfandel from Santa Clara, San Benito and Paicines.
The wines are all made with the guidance of Tim Lee at ASF in Gilroy.
This year was Bannister’s first harvest off the property and he was pretty stoked about the quality. For a 2.5-acre property, a yield of five-and-a-half tons is a good first year haul.
When the vines went in on what was a former prune orchard, he transformed the old drying shed into a 4,000-square-foot tasting room area, fully covered and protected from the elements. There is outdoor seating as well, for people to enjoy concerts, and he recently added a wedding area.
As time goes on, he’ll plant more vines—maybe some Touriga and Albarino—and expand the property.
“We are one of the few wineries in South County to have such a big indoor space for when the weather is inclement,” Bannister said. “The only other one is Guglielmo, and theirs is a big tent.”
Those who visit the tasting room can taste Bannister’s 2023 Grenache Rosé from Rolling Hills in Gilroy, 2021 Chardonnay from Besson, 2021 Sauvignon Blanc from Rolling Hills, 2022 Pinot Noir Reserve from Arroyo Seco and several vintages of Zin. Additionally, there are several vintages of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a Meritage, mostly sourced via Dorcich.
The J Winston Tasting Room at 546 Live Oak Ave. in Morgan Hill is open from noon to 6pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Bannister had to quit rodeoing when he started his wine brand.
“It was just too much,” he said. “Having a winery and vineyard takes a lot of hours. I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out. The wine is getting better and better. My grandfather would be smiling.”