Paul Lato is one winemaker whose own story is almost as good as his amazing wines. His highly acclaimed pinot noirs -- always rich and site-specific -- perhaps come from an approach that thinks of wine as food and not drink. Born in Poland, having worked as a sommelier in Toronto, he was drawn to California's Central Coast in 2002.
After informally interning with the legendary Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, he began making his own wine at Central Coast Wine Services, an incubator of numerous talents over the years. Then, as he puts it, "Robert Parker, by a stroke of luck, tasted my 2002 vintage about a year and a half into its making. The wine was bottled, but I had neither a label nor a name for my winery. After tasting both pinot and syrah, Parker looked at me and said, 'You have a true talent. Hurry up with those names, I want to be the first one to write about you.' With all the challenges I've had over the last 13 years, as someone who started with very little and stubbornly continues without partners and investors, this was truly a blessing. My Parker reviews continued to receive higher and higher points, and as much as I don't like or want to sell my wine on scores, I am very much aware that this is a vital part in the recognition of any brand, especially a new one."
He impressed more than the dean of wine reviewing relatively quickly, taking advantage of "knowing several famous sommeliers from my previous career." In L.A. his wines are on the list at Lucques, Providence, and Craft. In San Francisco, his "first sale was to the Rubicon, with legendary Master Sommelier Larry Stone. Other things came as lucky surprises, like a phone call from Thomas Keller, who accidentally tasted my wine from a friend. Lately, I'm very proud of my new relationship with Wolfgang Puck, for whom I made 100 cases of very special pinot noir, as well as provided wines for his son's upcoming wedding."
It certainly doesn't hurt that he sources fruit from some of the most hallowed spots in California, from Pisoni to Larner to Zotovich. Lato admits he started with next to nothing.
"In some miraculous way," he says, "I found connections and friendships that allowed me to get two vineyards which I consider very special, and with which I still work to this day. Those two are the Hillside block of Bien Nacido for syrah, and Gold Coast Vineyard for pinot noir. Now I'm working with twelve different vineyards from which I contract per acre rather than per ton, which allows more control over viticultural process and quality."
That's one way to say quality over quantity in grape-talk.
Now that's his reputation is established, he has some choice in what grapes to purchase, but he says it's still not easy.
"I usually start by observing the quality of the fruit on the vineyard, and then start tasting wines made from that site by other winemakers I respect," he explains. "If I get excited about it, I'll usually talk to the owner and try to negotiate the best quality and the best part of the vineyard. Showing a real interest in the site and the work that goes into it always helps to build strong relationships with the most attentive vineyard owners."
That real interest began with his training as a sommelier, not in some academic viticulture or enology program. His winery's website says, "I do believe that true artisanal winemaking is based on intuition, sensitivity, and passion." When queried to provide an example of such an intuitive choice he says, "I studied wine appreciation very extensively, but my winemaking is more connected to my mother's and grandmother's cooking than programs at UC Davis. To give you a funny example, I learned early in life, cooking with my mother, that there is only so much chicken soup we can cook with one chicken to end up with the right flavors. There has been a lot of talk about yields and quality lately, but to me, it's obvious: in some wines, there simply isn't enough chicken."
Currently producing around 3000 cases, Lato hopes to continue to expand slowly, and maybe someday buy his own vineyard. In the meantime he says, "Most importantly, the experience of being a restaurateur has taught me that wine is a beverage of pleasure with which we celebrate life and friendship. It is not about pH or TA [total acid], but the general feeling of happiness that it brings to our lives."
A bottle of Lato's wine is certainly a great time waiting to be uncorked.
People can learn how true that is by attending a delicious dinner August 22 at the Santa Barbara Public Market when Chef Luca Crestanelli from the delectable SY Kitchen matches up a four-course menu with Lato's wines. The dinner will include one of Lato's most recent projects that excites him the most, a sauvignon blanc from Grimm's Bluff Vineyard, "a certified biodynamic vineyard I developed for my client Rick Grimm in the most beautiful part of Happy Canyon."