From the numerous interviews we’ve done over the years, we’ve learned that the journey of a winemaker is rarely an easy one. Paul Lato definitely took the road less travelled and the challenges he faced almost forced him to give up pursuing his dream. Thankfully he persisted, and when you taste his wines you’ll be as grateful as we are that he did.
We were invited by Paul to join him for lunch at his winery in a similar fashion to what we experienced a day earlier at Au Bon Climat; a long table filled with staff and friends, and Paul at the helm cooking up a storm.
As we found out the day before, when Paul first arrived in Santa Barbara County, he worked at Au Bon Climat with California wine pioneer Jim Clendenen. When we told Jim we were going to meet Paul the next day he said, “I remember when Paul first showed up. He asked a lot of questions and was willing to do the work. Now he’s one of the top winemakers in Santa Barbara County.”
Paul was born and grew up in Poland, not exactly a breeding ground for winemakers. He moved to Toronto as a young adult and attended George Brown College to study English.
He got into the hospitality management program and ended up taking a sommelier course which set him on his current path. From that moment, wine became his obsession. He worked as a sommelier in Toronto covering the of highs and lows of the restaurant scene (literally) including Monsoon, a restaurant located in a basement in the Theatre district, all the way up the restaurant at the top of the CN Tower.
The events of September 11, 2001 were the impetus that prompted the thought to move to California’s Central Coast. “I decided after 9/11 that I wanted to change my life and create something with my hands and mind. California had the sun, and the personality of the people drew me there.” It was a big move and any hesitation he had was quickly quashed by a friend living in the US. “My friend asked me straight out, what was stopping me. Money? You can borrow it. No green card? We can figure out the application process. I realized fear was the only thing holding me back, so I packed up my life into 2 suitcases and came here.”
One could easily skip to where he is now almost two decades later, producing critically acclaimed wines that have a loyal following, but that would be skipping the best part.
Or the worst, depending on your perspective. Five years into his winemaking journey, Paul was close to broke, driving a beat-up Toyota truck and living in a small apartment with a roommate just to help pay the rent. He recounts lots of close calls where he thought he might have to give up his dream and return to Canada. But through all those moments of despair someone would appear in his life to provide the inspiration that he needed to continue making wine.
During his worst time of doubt, he met a stranger that gave him what he considers a life-changing gift, “A guy who worked in TV came to taste with me and stayed with me for 3 days. When he left, he gave me 6 videos called “The Hero’s Journey”, where Bill Moyer interviews Joseph Campbell. It literally changed my life because it felt like it was speaking directly to me. Here I was on my journey, easy at the beginning, exciting, a little bit difficult, exciting again, and then I ended up in a dark forest feeling completely lost and that I should give up. But Campbell helped me realize I wasn’t lost, I had to keep going and there was light at the end of the horizon, you just have to persevere.”
And persevere he has. He produces just over 4,000 cases a year which is made up largely of Pinot Noir followed by Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache and a Malvasia Bianca. Both are terroir-driven wines and the winery mainly focuses on vineyard designated wines that reflect the personality of the 16 different vineyards he works with. He is self-trained, but his knowledge came fast working harvests while studying to become a sommelier, speaking to winemakers, and continuously studying the methods of winemakers that inspire him such as Burgundy’s Henri Jayer.
The mention of Henri Jayer starts a robust discussion about his influence on Paul as well as the comparisons that people inevitably try to make between Burgundy and the wines of California’s Central Coast and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “Jayer turned around Burgundy. He was a humble man with very little money and toward the end of this life he was rivaling DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti] with the quality of his wines.”
He sums up his own winemaking philosophy with an analogy to his mother’s cooking, “she would say, buy the best ingredients and don’t screw it up! My winemaking is very simple…simple and non-intervention based, but not naïve.
I’m aware of chemistry and so on but I focus on buying the best grapes from the best possible vineyards. Most importantly, we don’t rush the wine; all the single-vineyard red wines stay a year and a half in barrel.” Paul cites Jayer’s belief in waiting for ripeness, de-stemming Pinot Noir entirely, and being very clean as things he employs in the winery. He adds with a smile, “the goal here is to make great California wine but if someone mistakes them for really good French wine, I’m ok with that!”.
Everything with Paul has purpose and meaning right down to the labels and names for each of his wines. The names are often a good indication of the personality of the wine or the vineyard, and usually have an interesting story to go along with them. His Paul Lato labels have a purposely clean, elegant, and timeless design, shaped like a diamond. The diamond comes from the suit of the Harlequin from Picasso’s paintings. Paul explains that the Harlequin was like the court jester, used for entertainment, but was the only one that could get away with telling the truth to the King. “I want to make serious wines, but they should also entertain.”
His 2nd tier label wines are the “Matinee” label which are made for restaurants to be able to sell by the glass, “they’re like a matinee movie—just as good but half the price.” These wines are approachable early, not aged quite as long, and very food-friendly, which also helps protect the single vineyard wines.
Finally, there are his “pop up labels”, blended wines that he doesn’t make every vintage. Space Cadet was inspired by Paul meeting astronaut Dave Scott. They became instant friends and have spent many hours talking about space. “Initially, the name started as a joke, but it’s definitely a serious wine. The more I thought about Dave and how he’d inspired me and how the name represents exploration and experimentation as we delve into biodynamics and following the moon phases, it just seemed right.”
Our conversation with Paul spanned more than 3 hours where we tasted through several of his wines and touched on all manner of topics, some wine-related, some not.
It was as if we’d been friends for years, the discussion flowing as freely and openly as his wines. As the tasting notes below will show, his wines are of the highest quality which to us truly reflect the man behind them. They will make you think, they will make you feel, and they will bring you enormous pleasure.
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” – Joseph Campbell
2018 Paul Lato Malvasia
This was the first time we had encountered a Malvasia outside of a few white blends that we had enjoyed in Spain. Paul ferments this in concrete egg whose shape naturally creates convection which stirs the lees and gives a little creamy texture the wine. Nicely balanced with minerality and earthy stonefruit notes. Refreshing acidity.
2017 Paul Lato Matinee Chardonnay
Fermented in French oak barrels this wine has good texture and a medium+ body. Notes of apple mingle with the barrel flavours and get structure from the good back-end acidity. Refreshing and well-suited to lighter dishes and appetizers.
2017 Paul Lato Le Souvenir Chardonnay
From the Sierra Madre Vineyard planted to the Wente Clone this wine delivers intense flavours of stonefruits with a mineral driven backbone. The texture is full and gorgeous. California is capable of producing world-class Chardonnay and this wine proves the point.
2017 Paul Lato Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay
Paul is lucky enough to buy some fruit from the famous Hyde Vineyard in Carneros, where the southern tips of the Sonoma and Napa Valleys meet. And good thing he does! This is amazing Chardonnay! Rich, textured, full and intensely flavoured, this is wine that makes an impact. Not loud, showy or overdone, but impacts you with its power and balance so precise that there is no heaviness, just beautiful flavours apple, melon and pear with wet stones in the background.
2017 Paul Lato Matinee Pinot Noir
The Matinee shows dark cherry flavours with medium+ body and structure. All of Paul’s wines show his signature texture and this is no exception. We get hints of spice on the finish which add complexity and definition.
2017 Paul Lato Suerte Pinot Noir
Fruit for this wine comes from the storied Solomon Hills Vineyard, a cool site at the western outreaches of the Santa Maria Valley. Beautiful dark red colour reveals the medium+ body. Dark red fruit flavours abound in this silky, elegant and delicious wine. We were very surprised to learn the wine spent 17 months in 65% new French barrels. The fruit completely absorbed it and there were barely even traces of barrel in our tasting.
2016 Paul Lato Lancelot Pinot Noir
Paul tells us that blocks of fruit going into this wine from the Pisoni Vineyard are selecion massale from La Tache. Here all the dials are turned up as this delivers intense black cherry, mineral, earth, apple skins and hints of blueberry. Powerful but exquisitely balanced. Grand Cru quality with California sunshine.
2017 Paul Lato Il Padrino Syrah
Huge blackfruit aromas greet your nose well above the glass. Very complex array of flavours showing blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry delivered on a full body with moderate tannin. Hints of expresso and black licorice are revealed on the finish. Powerful but perfectly balanced, this is incredible Syrah. The texture is rich and round and very seductive. The acidity on the back end keeps things defined and precise. The finish just goes on and on. Extraordinary