Archie McLaren at the Central Coast Wine Classic Rare Wine Dinner, 2017.

By Libbie Agran

Archie McLaren is a legend – the man remembered for creating and sustaining the Central Coast Wine Classic, the region’s top event for more than three decades. The Wine Classic raised millions of dollars in philanthropic support for public radio station KCBX, the healing arts, performing arts, and studio arts in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

Archie was a master at marketing and building a network of relationships to educate and elevate the California lifestyle, all while promoting California wines. His grace and charm made him unforgettable. Friendships can shape the lives of those with whom we have worked and played. Archie was a great friend and influence who profoundly shaped the history of the Central Coast.

Archie’s mission was to introduce the wine lovers, collectors as well as international winery owners, to the winemakers of the Central Coast. Archie believed that the wines of the Central Coast could hold their own against any wines in the world. He brought the Central Coast wines and winemakers to the attention of the media, worldwide collectors, wine critics, and international winemakers through the Central Coast Wine Classic’s wine auctions, barrel tastings, educational seminars, and winemakers dinners held at venues from Hearst Castle to local wine cellars. The Classic’s Wine Auction also incorporated lifestyle events like rare wine dinners and trips abroad with Archie as the host. These events expanded the Wine Classic experience throughout the 12 months following the auction – the participants partied all year long. No one else was creating this type of wine auction experience. Archie eventually developed a consulting practice and advised fundraising organizations from Washington DC to Hawaii on the “art of the wine auction.”

Starting in 1985, the annual Wine Classic events were usually held for three or four days in San Luis Obispo County and included barrel tastings with local winemakers; dinners at Hearst Castle, Paso Robles, and Edna Valley wineries; educational symposiums; and an all-day live auction followed by the famous Vintage Dinner with Classic Cuvée tastings. Champagne brunches were celebrated on Sunday mornings, and the afternoon concluded with a wine tasting for the general public with over 100 winemakers showcasing their wines. His culinary friendships and patrons included Chefs Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Gary Danko, Jacque Pepin, Christopher Eme, Laurent Quenioux, James Sly, Ian McPhee, Michael Hutchings, James Siao, and famous cookbook author Julia Child with whom he dined regularly in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Archie took on the task of educating Julia Child about the world of wine.

Archie’s wine education – where did it begin? Archie says it all began when he returned to Memphis after graduating from Vanderbilt in 1964. He was the high school tennis champion of Tennessee and was awarded a full tennis scholarship to Vanderbilt. After graduation, Archie moved to Mississippi where he taught in the segregated schools but was too uncomfortable with the racial tensions to remain there. He taught and coached tennis at the Memphis University School where he had attended high school and pursued a law degree at night at the University of Memphis. He claims he would never have stumbled into wine if he had not smoked a joint at a party in the home of Russell Sugarman, a Harvard Law graduate, who founded the first interracial law firm in Memphis. The experience changed Archie’s life. The marijuana greatly enhanced his taste buds; aromas and flavors in the food and wine served by Russell’s German wife awakened his interest and his palate. Archie began to spend time in New Orleans learning about food. His fine wine education started with musician, David Porte, the songwriter of Soul Man in 1972. Archie had been drinking Cold Duck when David gave him a bottle of Asti Spumante, followed by a 1971 Bernkasteler Doctor Riesling Auslese from Germany. “It blew me away,” recalls Archie. “The texture was beyond description.” This started his lifelong journey around the world in search of fine wines.

That search propelled Archie to California in 1974 when after graduating law school he took a job with West Publishing, the largest legal publisher in the world. He arrived in maverick style, driving a Ferrari Daytona with his friend Peanuts, a night club owner in Memphis who had a friend in Morro Bay. Archie settled in Morro Bay for three years before moving to Avila Beach; he spent weekends driving all over California exploring wine regions. His career at West Publishing began with the Western Region sales territory including California and Nevada but expanded to include Alaska, Hawaii, and eventually Asia. He traveled to Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Manila. He took time to vacation in Europe and meet winemakers in France, Italy, and Germany. Archie set up offices for West Publishing in Las Vegas as well as San Luis Obispo where his office was fortuitously located in the same building as KCBX a local radio station. Archie worked for West Publishing until 1990 when he chose to work full-time as a wine consultant and expand the KCBX Central Coast Wine Classic.

Archie’s weekly wine radio show premiered on public radio station KCBX in 1984 and ran for two decades. The Wine Drinkers Guide to Indulgence was aimed at a growing demographic interested in fine wine. “I interviewed all these winemakers who’d never been interviewed before because in 1985 nobody understood the subject; nobody understood how good the Central Coast wines were.” Many people credit Archie as the first in the world to tout the quality of winemaking from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, long before the mainstream media recognized the region.

Archie operated on many levels to integrate wine culture into everyday life in San Luis Obispo County. He sought recognition of the region as a major wine destination. He served as the Executive Director of the then Edna Valley Arroyo Grande Valley Vintners Association (1999 to 2004) and re-branded the association to San Luis Obispo Vintners and Growers Association in 2002. He recognized the importance of the name San Luis Obispo as the key branding element; he led the effort to rebrand the organization which is now known as SLO Wine Country. He worked as a consultant to the Central Coast Wine Growers Association from 1987 to 1991 in Santa Maria.

Archie cofounded the World of Pinot Noir in 2000. Pinot Noir was Archie’s favorite wine. He worked with Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards to host a world-class Pinot Noir event in San Luis Obispo County at the Cliff’s Resort and introduce Central Coast Pinot Noir to a worldwide audience.

Archie believed in combining the arts and the world of wine. At each Wine Classic, Archie commissioned local artists to design the catalogs, publicity, wine labels, awards, and large wine bottles to be auctioned. He also asked those artists to contribute major works of art to the auction. Archie’s favorite music was the Blues, as you might expect from a boy who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. He asked local musicians to entertain at wine dinners and events. He served on the boards of the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, Guild South County Center for the Performing Arts, and San Luis Obispo Arts Council. He was chairman of the Avila Arts Council from 2000 to 2003. One of the first grants from the Central Coast Wine Classic to the arts was to Studios on the Park in Paso Robles to fund art education for children, a program that continues 15 years later with local artists teaching and inspiring young people. Archie suffered two strokes in his later life, and he worked with local Chumash drummers to rehabilitate his coordination and speech. He was profoundly moved and healed by their music; he honored the Chumash drummers and founded Avila Drum Day.

Archie will always be remembered for his philanthropy and the grants awarded to local charities from the foundation he formed in 2004 to expand the Central Coast Wine Classic when KCBX pursued other fundraising strategies. Archie’s raised more than 3.2 million between 2004 and 2017, the year of the last Central Coast Wine Classic. His grants focused on nonprofits who worked in the performing arts, the studio arts and the healing arts – broad categories that touched thousands of local residents.

At the 2017 Central Coast Wine Classic, Archie and Brian Talley worked spontaneously together on stage to raise over $135,000 for the families of our local farm workers. A toast to Archie from Brian Talley says it all, “we should raise a glass to my friend Archie McLaren who has single-handedly done more than anyone I know to tell the story that San Luis Obispo County wines belong on the table with the great wines of the world.”

On February 9, 2019, the Wine History Project released our first publication, Archie McLaren – The Journey from Memphis Blues to the Central Coast Wine Revolution. Our exhibit honoring Archie, Doing Good and Living Well: Archie McLaren and the Central Coast Wine Classic is available in part online and travels to venues throughout the county.

Watch a roundtable discussion with Archie McLaren, Jim Clendenon, and Brian Talley.