Rock Star Winemaker: Gary Eberle
A Paso pioneer, 40 years later
Janis Switzer, VINO
When winemaker Gary Eberle decided to plant a barely known grape variety called syrah in a virtually unknown wine region called Paso Robles almost 40 years ago, it wasn’t because he wanted to be a groundbreaking pioneer. Nor did he set out to lead a new generation of “Rhône Rangers” at a time when cabernets and chardonnays dominated the market. He did it, he explains now, mostly on youthful impulse.
“It was just something that intrigued me. It didn’t dawn on me that there would be some kind of importance to it,” he said. “I was just young and stupid, and I did it on a whim.”
Now 68, Eberle is known affectionately as the “Godfather of Paso Robles,” and is credited as a founder of the local wine industry, and chief promoter for its wines both at home and around the world. Among his recent accolades, he was named as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry” by IntoWine.com; one of the “Top Ten Gold Medal Winning Wineries in the U.S.” by the California Grapevine; and 2011 “Winery of the Year” at the annual International Sommelier Challenge.
His reaction to these plaudits is characteristically modest and self-effusive.
“I’m a little stunned,” he admitted. “I look back at where I came from and how I got here, and I say, ‘how could all this have happened?’”
It actually started in college, when the Pittsburgh native and son of a steelworker graduated from Penn State, where he was a star linebacker under Joe Paterno. He moved to Louisiana to study cellular genetics, but along the way met a professor who introduced him to wine. He was immediately enthralled and moved to California to attend the U.C. Davis doctoral program in enology.
It was a fellow grad student at Davis who introduced him to an Australian wine made with shiraz — known in California as the syrah grape. He was immediately hooked, and while looking for a place to grow the new varietal, discovered the sleepy town of Paso Robles. With funding from relatives, he started the Estrella River Winery in the early 1970s. That winery eventually grew to be enormous, with production exceeding half a million cases a year.
“We just kept growing and growing, and the quality was dropping off,” Eberle reflects now.
In 1983 he decided to leave Estrella (which later became Meridian and now is Cellar 360), to start a new small winery under his own name. He vowed at the time not to grow beyond 12,000 cases a year. Eberle Winery is obviously larger than that now, but his goal of keeping quality directly within his own control has not been compromised — as evidenced by both the accolades he receives every year, and the close personal bond his winery has with its customers.
The landmark redwood winery is a must-stop destination for every wine tourist in the area, and for the many drivers heading to and from the coast on Highway 46 East. He attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year to his tasting room, and unlike most wineries in the area, has promised never to charge a tasting fee.
When not greeting visitors at his tasting room, Eberle is usually flying around the country in his 340 Turbo Cessna, spreading the gospel of Paso Robles wine. With distribution in 33 states and three countries, he says he spends at least four months a year on the road. As one of the co-founders of the Paso Robles AVA and the PRWCA, his influence has been enormous.
It’s not all work for Eberle, though. He has passed day-to-day winemaking duties to winemaker Ben Mayo, allowing Eberle to spend more time promoting the Paso Robles region and hosting events for wine club members. He also is a driving force in the Annual Winemakers’ Cook Off, which has generated more than $700,000 for scholarships and other Paso Robles’ youth programs in the past 13 years.
But by far, his favorite place to be is at home, with wife, Marcy, and their two black poodles, Cabernet and Roussanne. Reflecting on his last 40 years, he said he’s proud of his role in promoting Paso Robles and its wines.
“If Paso wasn’t successful, Eberle wasn’t going to be successful,” Eberle said.