From water to wine (and lots of buildings) 

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When San Carlos-headquartered Black Mountain Spring Water Co. was sold for $100 million to Swiss food giant Nestlé in 2001, it could have been the end of the road for the venerable, family-owned firm that began delivering bottled water to Peninsula residents in 1932.   

“Most families in those situations would cash out and get a private jet,” observes Ted Hannig, Black Mountain’s longtime attorney, who handled the transaction.  “But this family chose to keep the money invested, and a big chunk of it went right back into the community – as opposed to just ‘take the money and run.’  And it’s always been that way.  They’ve always invested back in.” 

In this case, through the water company’s affiliate, Three Sisters Ranch Enterprises (now called Black Mountain Properties), a sizable portion of the proceeds went into commercial and industrial real estate in San Carlos, and eventually other locales including Burlingame, Sunnyvale and the greater East Bay and North Bay.  And now comes the latest chapter. Joe Bullock, who recently turned 70 years old and had run the water company since his early twenties, has established a winery in the town of Loomis, in Placer County. 

Wine, he says, is decidedly more difficult than water. 

“From the first time you plant that first vine, until you get your first bottle of wine, is six to seven years,” Bullock says.  “It takes four to five years to get the vine to maturity.  Then you’ve got to harvest the fruit.  Then you’ve got to ferment it, and then you age it.  And then it goes into the bottle.  So from the time you plant it until you take your first sip, six or seven years.  So you’ve got to have a lot of patience.  And you hope that it’s good when you drink it. 

“I always wanted my own winery,” Bullock continues.  “We were able to bottle water, now we’re able to bottle wine,” he says with the burst of laughter that often concludes his sentences.  “So we’ve moved from water to wine.  Some would say it’s an improvement.” 

So far, it’s a small operation – just two acres in Placer County.  They’re planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Bordeaux, Cab Franc and Malbec.  Bullock just bottled the first vintage – a 2016 blend – using a nearby winery (he doesn’t have his own bottling operation yet). 

The verdict?  “I thought I was going to be bottling a lot of vinegar,” Bullock says.  “But, God damn, it came out well!” he laughs.   

Bullock plans for profits from the winery to go to a foundation that can support charitable causes.  “Hopefully, we can use it to better the community,” he says. 

Black Mountain has long been involved in raising money for charities.  For years, at the company’s San Carlos Business Park on the city’s east side, fundraising dinners with themes such as “The Wild, Wild West,” “Back to the ‘50s” and “Viva Las Vegas” attracted up to 1,000 guests and raised tens of thousands of dollars for causes such as breast-cancer and juvenile-diabetes research.  Sparky’s Garage (Bullock’s childhood nickname was “Sparky”), a 1950s-themed party venue that housed Bullock’s extensive hot-rod collection, was also the site of numerous charity bashes over several years.  Bullock and Hannig also teamed up on the Hannig Cup, a highly successful charity sailboat race. 

As for the company’s current emphasis, there’s an adage that holds, “If you’re in business, you’re automatically in the real-estate business.”  The commercial and industrial real estate operation, under Bullock’s son, Tony, who became president of Black Mountain Properties in 2018 after working for the firm for 12 years, grew out of the water company and related manufacturing ventures (particularly involving leak-proof, tamper-proof, snap-on plastic bottle caps; the water company held more than 30 patents on water- and milk-packaging products and processing technologies). 

The manufacturing and water-distribution facilities extended from the Bay Area to Albany, N.Y., Kingsport, Tenn. and even Guadalajara, Mexico.  Joe Bullock and his grandfather, water-company founder George Faulstich, learned the real-estate and construction business through experience; Bullock acted as general contractor for each factory, working with subcontractors in the building trades and acquiring an understanding of how to design an efficient plant. 

That knowledge gained new usefulness after Black Mountain Spring Water was sold. Bullock put his high school drafting classes to good end as he sketched office layouts for his new clients.  Meanwhile, Tony Bullock left his advertising job with the Redwood City firm of Addison Olian and brought his marketing skills to the company, first as a consultant, and, later, as an employee. 

Tony Bullock says his father was initially reluctant to hire him because he was afraid he might have to fire him someday.  For Joe Bullock, there may also have been memories of the waves that rolled through the firm when he was made president at an early age.  The younger Bullock, now 40, worked his way through several assignments, learning property management, the leasing portfolio, the ins and outs of buying and selling properties, and finance and accounting.  He was judged ready to take over in 2018, and any of Joe Bullock’s lingering reservations have been dispelled. 

“He’s very good,” the senior Bullock says of his son.  “He’s very smart, very personable.  He gets along with everybody.  He works well with the cities.  And he has that vision for the future, and the drive.” 

Hannig adds that Tony Bullock, like his father, is highly competitive.  The two Bullocks share a love of motor sports, as evidenced by the many racing trophies that once glittered in Sparky’s Hot Rod Garage.  Tony Bullock raced professionally for three years after college, and continues as a passionate amateur.  Just before being interviewed for this story, he had competed in a 25-hour, team endurance event at Thunderhill Raceway Park, near Willows in the Sacramento Valley. 

But as Darwin observed, it’s not the strongest and most competitive who survive; it’s the most adaptable.  And Tony Bullock’s job these days is to position Black Mountain Properties for growth and diversification. 

Just a few years ago, Tony Bullock says, “the majority of our properties were large, single-tenant buildings.  We wanted to focus more on multi-tenant commercial and industrial buildings – spread our risk, so we weren’t always beholden to any single, one tenant.  We were really successful over the past four years in accomplishing that task, selling property at high value and going out in the market, diversifying our portfolio, which was really centered around the San Francisco Peninsula … and also, we want to start moving towards development, and repositioning the assets that we do hold to their highest and best use.” 

In addition, Bullock says, the company “wants to make sure our properties are good fit for the communities they’re located in, and that they’re in line with the goals of the cities and the areas that the cities want to develop towards.” 

Among the properties sold was the water company’s longtime home on Alameda de las Pulgas in San Carlos.  The buyer was a local developer, Dragonfly Group, which has proposed housing for the site.  Before the sale, voters in San Carlos turned down a referendum to buy the land for use as a park and open space. 

In its recent geographic expansion, the company has spread across the bay to Hayward and Pleasanton, and north to Napa.  Even so, for its first foray into major commercial-industrial development, Black Mountain Properties came back home to San Carlos with a proposed six-story, 200,000-plus-square-foot life-sciences building at 888 Bransten Road, next to the life-sciences complex currently under construction by Alexandria Real Estate Equities. 

With Tony Bullock now steering the ship and his father content to give him room at the helm, the inevitable question comes up:  Will Joe Bullock ever retire?  The answer:  A hearty laugh, and a reference to his grandfather, Faulstich, who worked seven days a week and called “every day a holiday.” 

“No, I’ll never retire,” Bullock says.  “To me, it’s fun.  I don’t even look at it as work.  I enjoy coming into the office when I’m down here (from his home in Loomis), I enjoy talking to everybody, I enjoy working with everybody on what they’re doing with the buildings – tenant-improvement work and stuff like that, new buildings we’re thinking about designing and trying to get entitled to build and so forth.  I’ve got the ranch to keep me busy (a 4,250-acre spread outside Ukiah), I’ve got the winery to keep me busy, I’ve got the business to keep me busy when they need me.  So, nah.”   

 This story was originally published in the January print edition of Climate Magazine. 

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