Meeting Paul Lato
In Santa Maria, Paul Lato makes vineyard designate wines — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah — from Santa Maria Valley, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Ynez, Paso Robles, and Santa Lucia Highlands. We meet to first sample his about-to-be-bottled 2012 Pinots, then enjoy his other wines over food. In the midst of our meeting, I receive a message from a friend long in the wine industry about Lato — “that guy’s cooking skills are as legendary as his winemaking.” The dinner demonstrates it. During dinner, I can’t get enough of his Chardonnays.
Lato originates in Poland during communism. He explains that while there the overwhelming passion of writer-artist
Kandinsky Kosinski, who Lato was able to meet in Poland, helped inspire his willingness to leave home. After, he lived for a year in Spain, before moving to Canada. Driven by a love of food, he became a sommelier in Toronto selling the best wines from around the world.
Eventually, Lato found inspiration in the early achievements and quality of Robert Mondavi. Mondavi’s story, and wine helped spark a dream for Lato of making his own wines, leading to his move to Santa Maria, California. He arrived with almost no resources except his willingness to learn and work, and by now has created a brand celebrated by Robert Parker, Thomas Keller, and international wine lovers as well. At the hardest moments, Lato explained, he found courage in Mondavi’s philosophy that it is less important if you fail at what you try to do than it is that you go ahead and do it.
As some of you know, when a figure has a clear, and distinctive story, I prefer to let them speak for themselves. Following are portions of my conversation with Lato. This represents only a small hint at everything we were able to discuss, but gives an interesting glimpse into how Lato handled the transition of becoming a winemaker.
Becoming a Winemaker
“I came to Santa Maria in 2002. I was a sommelier in Toronto for 12 years, and began here [in CCWS (a custom crush facility)] as a cellar rat with a dream of making my own wine.
“In 2002, I like to say, the CCWS was the Woodstock of winemaking because of the labels that were in here making wine. Some of them don’t exist any more. But it was a bee hive in here, a happening place, with everybody making wine. I was in the best position though because there I was cleaning everything, and watching what everyone did, and I could ask all of them, why are you doing this? What are you doing? We had interns too, from Spain, Australia, New Zealand, from all over the world. They would have oenology degrees. And all I did was ask everybody questions.
“To talk to a winemaker that has been making wine for 25 or 35 years, and hear what he was doing… and to stand there and also taste, and listen to what he says, but also watch how he works… Hmm… This wine has a bit of VA and he comes in late and doesn’t clean his barrels. Or, this one tinkers his wine all the time, always adding something, and I see that. I would taste the wine, and learn what techniques.
“I started with 6 barrels, with no partners and no investors. I have 160 barrels now in this vintage. I constantly would work for the other guys. Someone would live in Fresno but have wine here and ask if I could watch it. I would say, don’t pay me, just buy me another barrel. I had about five jobs, working here, watching projects. It all added up, and then suddenly someone would buy me a new barrel or new equipment and it would build like that.
“So, now, here, essentially I have my own winery, the tanks, equipment, you see here. The way I operate, I have to have everything paid in half a year. I own everything, no leases. This is my bonded space. [We enter a cordoned off section of the CCWS space.] And back here is the kitchen space I have. [He shows me a gorgeous grill, a machine for making homemade fries, an espresso machine, and more.] Every harvest I cook for my guys every day.
We walk by the dining table of the space. Beside it hangs a photograph of a fine dining restaurant in Paris, Lapérouse.
“This is my philosophy. What we make here has to end up there (pointing to the restaurant photo). What we make here, when we take it and put it on a white table cloth environment ends up bigger there. This is a worker’s environment, it feels different here. You can forget. The picture reminds us to do our work for a wine made for that environment. I tell my guys, don’t punch down so hard. The wine is for there, not here.”
Thank you to Paul Lato for so generously hosting me.
Thank you to Pierre LaBarge, and Sao Anash.
Post edit: In my hurry to get the post up this morning I typed Kandinsky instead of Kosinski. Lato was able to meet novelist Kosinski. Please excuse the typo. Cheers!
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