FRUITS OF HIS LABOR
Iranian-American entrepreneurs are a unique breed.
The majority are successful, but they are not all cut from the same cloth. They may make fortunes in different endeavors but many share one trait: even a cursory look at their empires offers little to no hints of any influence of their rich Persian culture.
Then there are the special ones.
Business mogul Bizhan “BJ” Fazeli is one of the rare moguls who proudly injects every component of his thriving Southern California winery, Fazeli Cellars, with touches of his Persian heritage. The Temecula Valley company’s adage is “Our Roots Run Deep,” and there couldn’t be a more apt description. His on-site restaurant is dubbed “Baba Joon’s Kitchen,” featuring a menu sprinkled with Persian culinary staples – from spices to actual kabobs served in the most unconventional yet tastiest of ways – and almost every wine from his Heritage Line is named after a Persian poet, celebration or cultural staple.
“This is a labor of love,” Fazeli proudly claimed in our midweek meeting in the ornately designed 5,400 square-foot patio (one of three outdoor spaces) of his majestic winery complex. “They used to say that in the wine business, you need to invest $10 million to make just $1 million. I can tell you you need double that to even come close. But this is my enjoyment, and I couldn’t be happier.”
To say that Fazeli is living his best life would be an understatement. Spearheading his luxurious winery – a nearly decade-long process that started with him posting his original, still-standing sign in 2006 – was just another phase of a highly successful business life that saw the youngest of nine children build an infomercial production and media empire, BJ Global, that for 30 years saw him design, develop, manufacture and distribute products in over 65 countries. BJ Global’s success enabled Fazeil to enjoy tremendous success but also sometimes kept him traveling away from his wife and his three daughters for up to 20 days a month.
He expatriated to London from Iran in 1978, and he had always harbored a passion for wines. While living in Orange County, Fazeli dreamt of living on a vineyard, and fate brushed its mystic hand in the early 2000’s when while perusing a local magazine he saw an ad for a 10-acre plot of land for sale in Riverside County’s Temecula Valley. A subsequent daytrip with his wife Wendy to scope out the land and enjoy a day of wine-tasting led to the discovery of a different site which is now the 46-acre home of Fazeli Cellars. Fazeli’s first vintage was in 2006, and after officially opening nearly three years ago, his winery boasts over 2,000 members, with wines shipped all across the world.
Currently, his winery produces 120,000 bottles a year, and a there’s a method to every part of this man’s madness, down to the bottle adorned by the names of celebrated Persian poets such as Hafez to Rumi To Ferdowsi, and other bottle monikers reflecting traditions such as Yalda, Mehregan, Phel Phel (a spicy blend which literally translates to “Pepper-Pepper” in Persian), Boland Rooz (Farsi for “Long Day”, as the Summer Solstice is known) and Norooz, the Vernal Equinox and 1st day of the Persian New Year.
The secret to Fazeli’s approach? A passion to be at his winery seven days a week, the exuberance to host every single one of his events – Fazeli Cellars is hosting their 1st cruise in Europe this fall – and a drive not predicated on making money but more so on providing an exquisite experience highlighted by the perfect pairing of food and white for his winery’s patrons.
His menu – created by Fazeli himself – includes such unique wonders as a “Pernoli,” (Persian cannoli), with a touch of cardamom, and as well as a cheesecake made with barberries (“Zereshk” in Persian), and his renowned Abgoosht turnover (a Persian version of a pastry reminiscent of England’s Cornish pasties). All of his renowned flattbreads are made with traditional, house-made barbari bread, and lavash bread forms the shell for his Persian tacos, with mini chicken and beef koobideh (or “luleh”) kabobs, replete with Persian salsa (essentially, Persian Shirazi salad).
“I hired some great people to work with me, and at a very late age, I educated myself by taking graduate and extension courses at UC Davis to learn packaging, branding, to just the art of winemaking,” Fazeli explained. “But the food part, I always had down. Everything on my menu, I made at home first for my family.”
Fazeli Cellars isn’t just a winery. It’s also an event destination, equipped with two kitchens – including a state of the art, 2,000 square-foot banquet kitchen predicated on a farm-to-fork approach – and an expansive event space/ballroom, which hosts corporate events, weddings, birthday and anniversary celebrations, as well as a few events throughout the year hosted by BJ himself, including annual rituals such as his Halloween Masquerade Party, Yalda Night Celebration, Alice in Wonderland Mad Hatter Ball, and monthly salsa nights.
During the wedding season, Fazeli hosts more than half a dozen ceremonies per month.
Though the average Southern Californian might only recognize Temecula passively as a tourist destination between Los Angeles and San Diego, or as home of the well-known Pechanga Casino and Resort, it is in actuality, the perfect location for a winery.
“The reason this area is wine country is the rainbow gap between the hills and mountains, which allows for a breeze from 2 to 6 pm from the Pacific Ocean,” Fazeli explained. “It brings the moisture and the salt from the ocean, and the vines love it, allowing the wine to come out perfect.”
One of the many layers of Fazeli’s past life involved art, as he previously worked in the business of dealing creative pieces in London, where he ran art galleries and antique shops.
“Art and wine are very similar,” Fazeli explained. “They are both subjective. Each person looks at art differently, and we all have different pallets and tastes. Art is also suggestive.
“If you are looking at a painting, and I point out what I see, you can see that. With wine, it’s the same. For example, my Shiraz – which has some tobacco – if your pallet doesn’t pick that up, that suggestion of that flavor starts to work on your brain, and you look for it and might discover it.”
Fazeli Cellars is one of three known Iranian American owned wineries in the U.S., joining the Momtazmi family’s Maysara Winery & Momtazmi Vineyards in Oregon (about 60 miles outside Portland) and Dariuosh Khaledi’s eponymous Winery in Northern California’s Napa Valley.
A further testament to Fazeli’s calculated madness: of the nearly 30 million people living in Southern California, approximately 22 million live within 90 minutes of Fazeli Cellars. From a business standpoint, it couldn’t make more sense to to do business where he does.
The world is starting to take notice of Fazeli, not only for his genius ways, but the exemplary taste of his wines.
“Our bottle of Ferdowsi just got a silver medal of recognition at the only Cabernet Institute competition in France, and we were the only American winery to place in the Cabernet-Franc category,” Fazeli proudly revealed.
It is the quality of his wines and food – as well as Fazeli’s likeable personality – that draws so many to host their celebrations of love at his winery. His banquet hall can host up to 250 people for a wedding ceremony, and even larger-sized groups for conferences.
Our Wednesday visit a week ago saw not only a packed patio for lunch patrons, but also lines of people waiting for wine tastings as well as multiple couples visiting the winery with eyes on hosting their own weddings at Fazeli Cellars. In the middle of it all, BJ Fazeli sat down to enjoy a bottle of Shiraz, gleaming with pride at not only how much his hard work is being appreciated by others, but also at how he is able to enjoy the fruits of his labor among them, right there in his glass.
“This is the width of my life, that’s the way I look at it,” Fazeli reflected. “I have already lived my life, traveled the world, lived in Europe, lived through revolutions, been involved in businesses in 5 continents… I want to see people happy. When I see the happiness on people’s faces, that gives me the encouragement to move forward.
“When we opened this place, we got a little pushback from the traditional expectation of what our food should be, because some people are still married to the traditions of how Persian food should be presented. I give them what they want, but with my own twist. I do Fesenjoon and Gheymeh (traditional Persian stews), but my way is on a flatbread.”
Breaking notions of convention isn’t just a business approach, it’s a philosophy he applies to almost every aspect of his life, especially the way he runs his winery. From the architecture of the winery’s main building, to the two palatial staircases representing Fazeli’s two open arms to all of his customers, to the elaborate details in the labels on each of his wine bottles, every piece of Fazeli Cellars has a bit of BJ Fazeli and his noble soul in its fabric. Afterall, it was his own sweat and tears that went into building his winery, as he was on the project site helping lay bricks since day one.
But in the end, it all comes down to the experience. Whether it’s customers from Australia, Canada or even Iran, Fazeli is flattered by the widespread reach of his winery’s appeal, but he wants people who come to visit his estate to be prepared for something that breaks their notions of what a winery is, or what a Persian-owned food establishment should be.
“You don’t drink wine, you experience wine,” Fazeli explained. “Wine has to be consumed with the right company, in the right ambiance, with the right scenery, and the right food. We have good food to pair with our amazing wines, but you are not coming here for a traditional Persian meal. You are going to experience the magical pairing of food and wine, with a Persian touch.”
BJ Fazeli and his eight siblings came from a family of success and diversity. Though he lost his father at a very young age, his mother –BJ refers to the matriarch as a lioness – tried her best to fill both parental roles, even teaching him the art of negotiation at a young age when they would get into a taxi cab and she would give him a single bill and have him negotiate the fair and calculate the tip and change due. His family was active in building construction and the bazaar network in Iran, but after losing his mother and 5 of his siblings – including Reza Fazeli, who many of our readers know as the famed actor, movie producer and entrepreneur – BJ decided to set out to establish his own legacy. After working odd jobs here and there, including shifts as a restaurant waiter, bartender and eventually Persian restaurant owner, he eventually segued into different businesses and found his way to Southern California, where he founded what is referred to as one of the pioneering infomercial enterprises in the world. All of his hard work let him to paradise in Temecula.
A visit to Fazeli winery is worth the opportunity to meet BJ Fazeli in itself. Arguably one of the top 10 most successful Persian entrepreneurs to grace the cover of Javanan Magazine, Fazeli comes across humble, likeable and passionate. He exudes a love of food, wine and people, and it truly is a spectacle to his see him in his element, anchoring one of the tables of his winery’s patios during the afternoon hours of a typical weekday, enjoying his surroundings in a way only a true lover of all things natural and beautiful can.
He is approachable yet reserved at the same time. You won’t bother him if you say hello after recognizing his face from the slideshow of events on one of the dozen or so monitors adorning the magnificent walls of his winery, and in fact, it will likely make his day. He lives for his winery, and as an extension, for the people who enjoy it with him.
The back label of every single bottle of Fazeli Cellars wine shares the quote, “Ancient traditions of Persia rooted in the modern expression of California”. The contents of each bottle share the same quality and distinction that has garnered Fazeli Cellars awards all across the competitive wine landscape. But the true essence of Fazeli Cellars as a company is the flair and passion of its leader, BJ Fazeli.
“I built this place with my own hands, it is a part of me,” Fazeli said. “And I hope in time, it becomes a part of other people’s lives for years to come.”
Fazeli Cellars is open every day from 11am – 6pm and is located at 37320 De Portola Rd. in Temecula, CA 92590. Visit them online at FazeliCellars.com, or reach them by phone at (951) 303-3366. Fazeli Cellars can also be found on Instagram and Facebook.