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Monday, March 23, 2015

When Boars Fly: Gary Eberle Gets a Big-Ass Award

Before I ever knew anything about wine I was working at a Murder Mystery event in Paso Robles for a private party. I think I got killed early in the evening and was probably dead while the guests finished their catered dinner. There was wine on the table, some label I didn’t know because I didn’t know anything at that point. It was a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Eberle Winery. Since I was a scavenger and poor, when the party ended I absconded with a half empty bottle of wine, when home and promptly drank it. Thus began my man-crush on Gary Eberle and a turning point into a world of wine I could never have imagined. Now as a professional wine writer and wine judge, I still recall that most excellent wine crafted by Gary Eberle. So when the California State Fair (they run a large wine competition which I have judged at) correctly decided to honor Gary Eberle with their Wine Lifetime Achievement Award it was like, what took you so long? Gary Eberle has been called the Father of Paso Robles wine, the Godfather of Paso; it really doesn’t matter because he is one of the two most important men (including Jerry Lohr) in the history of the Paso Robles wine.

Dinner in the vineyard with Gary, August 2014
Eberle Winery is one of the most awarded wineries in the nation with literally thousands of awards and accolades. Originally from Pennsylvania, Gary found wine at an early age. “I suddenly discovered what James Bond was talking about,” he told me. “I was young and stupid and went from drinking Boone’s Farm to Chateau Latour.” Fresh out of U.C. Davis, he and a few investors bought 160 acres in Paso back in 1973 when the place was mainly large tracts of dirt. He started by heading his family’s Estrella River Winery. In 1980 he co-founded the Paso Robles Appellation and in 1983, Gary opened the doors to his own Eberle Winery with the premiere of his 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon. Eberle Winery’s Cab was the first wine to place the Paso Robles AVA designation on its label. Gary was also the first to plant Syrah on the Central Coast, and the first to make a 100% Syrah varietal wine in the United States.

Judging with Gary at the San Diego International Wine Competition
As if that wasn’t enough I placed Gary at #43 on’s Top 100 Most InfluentialWinemaker’s list; the winery was the recipient of the “Winery of the Year” as voted by the wine judges at the CentralCoast Wine Competition in 2014 (caveat #1: I am a wine judge here too). But Gary, ever modest, takes his milestones in stride instead preferring to promote Paso and his love of red wines (“A wine’s first obligation is to be red,” he recently told me), specifically Cabernet. “If you want to know how good Paso Robles Cabernet is,” Gary once told me, “have a blind tasting of Napa Cabernet and a Paso Robles Cabernet. We may not always come out on top, but we can compete against Bordeaux and Napa first growths.” And having started my wine writing/judging career on the back of his wines, I know he’s right. “We have the potential to have the same reputation as Sonoma or even better.” Well, that may still be a ways off, but if Paso focuses its energies collectively, the region will be able to stand its own ground. And much of that is do to Gary as a believer in the region and a fighter for better quality wine from the region.

I love being on the Eberle property, almost as much as I love the wines.
A visit to the Eberle tasting room off Highway 46 East begins with the bronze statute of a boar sitting out front of the main doors, a replica of an original from 1620 that sits in Italy. Eberle in German means “little boar,” and it’s considered good luck to rub the boar’s nose and toss a coin in the water. All money collected at the Eberle boar fountain is then donated to local children’s charities. The winery offers a free 30-minute tour of their facility, discussing the entire winemaking process and if you’ve never taken a tour, this is a great crash course on wine education. And if education seems too formulaic, consider another of Gary’s nuggets of wine wisdom. “The difference between wine and children is that you can sit down and reason with a bottle of Cabernet.” See, this is why I like the man. The winery also has a beautiful picnic area overlooking the vines and a bocce ball court. And Eberle is heavily involved in the community, most notably being the founder of the long running Winemaker’s Cook-Off held each August (caveat #2 – I am one of the judges at this fantastic event too), which raises money for local charities. The annual event pulls in 30 winemakers who personally grill up their best dishes to match their wines. It’s a feast of food and wine with live music and has raised nearly $500,000 for local high school charities. Damn!

So, if you don’t care that someone was a warded a lifetime achievement award, that’s okay, in spite of the fact that Gary Eberle is the most deserving person to get this award. What’s not okay is to bypass Eberle Winery when you visit, or drive through, Paso. Check it out for yourself, rub the boar’s nose and enjoy the wine. It’s that simple. Eberle Winery - 3810 Highway 46 East, Paso Robles. They are open everyday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone (805) 238-9607.

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