“Wine is about passion – a passion for life, a passion for food, a passion for people. I am in the winery seven days a week because this is what I truly believe in. I have never had another career and I am living my dream.”
Gary’s dreams have helped shape the history of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County. He is a visionary who saw the importance of creating a regional identity and lent his support to the movement to create the Paso Robles AVA in 1983. He helped identify the unique soils and microclimates of Paso Robles so growers and winemakers could work together to put the Paso Robles wine region of San Luis Obispo County on the map.
When a visitor arrives at Eberle Winery and walks toward the tasting room, he sees Gary outside with one of his dogs waiting to welcome him. Gary loves to be here, sitting outside at a table with a glass of red wine welcoming guests or pouring his wines in the tasting room. His physical presence gives Eberle Winery a sense of place, you see his vineyards rolling over the hills as you look northwest and know you are on land that grows the grapes that become these award-winning wines.
Gary grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. His mother and father divorced when he was young, and he was raised by his mother, Laura. Through her previous marriage she had three sons and one daughter. One of these half-brothers, Cliff Giacobine, would be instrumental in Gary’s move to California in 1973.
Gary graduated from Penn State with a degree in biology and entered the doctoral program at Louisiana State University to study cellular genetics as a National Science Fellow. While there in 1970 he enjoyed the food and wines of New Orleans. Gary and one of his professors, Harold Berg, also known as Hod Berg, would listen to opera while enjoying fine French wines from Hod’s wine collection. Gary learned about fine red wines and particularly enjoyed French Cabernets and Bordeaux’s. The only California Cabernets Gary remembers drinking are Paul Masson and Almaden. They did not compare to the French varietals.
Gary had an epiphany; he did not want to become a geneticist – he wanted to become a winemaker. While Gary had never seen a winery nor met a winemaker, one of his LSU professors, Denny Webber, had a brother who was the winemaker at Freemark Abbey in Napa. Gary researched the industry and applied to the Enology Program at UC Davis in 1971. Gary convinced the chairman of the Enology Department to admit him to the doctoral program without an entrance exam.
He met his first winemaker, Joe Heitz, in a graduate seminar that met once a week in the evenings. Napa was an up-and coming wine location, and Gary made a number of visits to meet winemakers including Brad Webber at Freemark Abbey. Gary formed a close relationship with Robert Mondavi whom he visited at his winery and studied the way Robert Mondavi greeted his guests and customers outside in the garden, full of warmth and conversation.
Gary established important relationships with his professors at UC Davis that later informed him of where he planted his grapes and how he made his wine. His doctoral committee was composed of four professors of enology and one of viticulture, Dr. Harold Olmo. Gary traveled to San Luis Obispo with Dr. Olmo and Professor Curtis Alley on three field trips to take core samples of soils all over the county. Gary’s professors advised him to plant grapes in the Estrella River Valley region. In 1792, near the Estrella River, members of the Mission San Miguel planted and cultivated the earliest vineyards in the region. These vineyards were gradually replaced over the next 180 years with farming grains and cattle. The gravelly loam soil derived from the Paso Robles Formation was the place Dr. Olmo believed perfect for growing grapes. The water runs deep during the rainy season because of the porous soil.
When Gary’s mother Laura turned 70, the family celebrated the occasion with a reunion. Gary talked with his half-brother Cliff Giacobine, and Cliff told Gary about his dream of moving to the Central Coast to raise cattle. Cliff also had an interest in wine. Jack Foote, County Farm Advisor, had advised Cliff to plant a vineyard in San Luis Obispo County as well. That dream became a reality.
From 1973 to 1982, Gary Eberle and Cliff Giacobine planted 700 acres of vines, including the first modern commercial acreage of Syrah in California and established Estrella Winery, the largest winery in the county. Laura’s Vineyard, planted in 1977 and named after Gary’s mother, was planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah and Riesling. Gary also established an experimental garden in which he planted 14 varietals, testing their viability in the terroir. Terroir is often used to express a “sense of place”, including geology, soils, geography, and climate which affect the quality of the grapes and wine produced.
Gary, as the vineyard owner, was the first to use his science background to make business decisions on vineyard management at his own property. He used his training in enology and viticulture to establish vineyards and a winery based on soil science. He was the first to study methods of irrigation using scientific research. In Gary’s own words: “I moved to Paso Robles to make great Cabernet. My professors from UC Davis chose my acreage, we did soil samples and I haven’t looked back since. I truly believe that wine growers in Paso Roble have the best soil for my favorite wine.”
In 1975 Gary established the first commercial vineyard planted in Syrah on its own roots and in 1978 was the first California winemaker to make a varietal with 100% Syrah grapes. Gary loved red wines and developed a favorite, Cabernet Sauvignon, long before he became a winemaker. Eberle Winery was the first to establish Cabernet Sauvignon as its flagship wine in San Luis Obispo County and the first to plant the specific clone of BV Cabernet that grows in his vineyards today. Gary’s first vintage in 1979 had San Luis Obispo on the label, but in 1980 he became the first to put the words Paso Robles on the label. Gary and Paso Robles were honored; President Ronald Reagan took a case of the 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage on his trip to China.
The Eberle Winery label was established in 1979 with his label showing the golden boar – Eberle means small boar in German. Gary was mentored by Robert Mondavi who stressed the importance of the label. The lettering and logo had to be large enough for the customer to identify it on the store shelf. The label and symbol tell your story, so it was important to decide on your design and stick with it. Gary paid a Cal Poly student $75 to design his label. The image of the boar was found in the Webster’s Dictionary next to the definition. Gary has used the same label for almost 40 years.
Robert Mondavi is remembered as a legend in wine history, but he never made wine. He developed the marketing plans that made his family winery famous. Mondavi taught Gary that making a great wine was the just the beginning of the process. A winemaker is not only in the business of making wine, he is in the hospitality and marketing business. Robert Mondavi felt that every winemaker had a story to tell; the winemaker has to craft that story to make it compelling making every interaction with the public a personal one that will be remembered.
Gary took his mentor seriously and led the marketing efforts to create a region people would want to visit. Gary developed his own marketing plan. He took flying lessons, obtained his commercial license, purchased a small plane – a 180 Piper Comanche, and traveled throughout California and beyond introducing his wine to potential customers. This strategic plan increased his sales and brought the Paso Robles Region to the attention of wine lovers, wine sellers, and restaurants. In the beginning, when he mentioned Paso Robles to potential customers, he was often asked: “What part of Texas is that located in?”
Gary became a champion for the appellation called Paso Robles, which was finally established in 1983 with 556,765 acres. Gary wrote the soil section of the AVA application and collaborated with Tom Martin, Herman Schwartz and Vic Roberts on the application process. Gary also worked with fellow winemakers to organize the first Wine Festival in Paso Robles in 1983. There are now over 50 wineries in Paso Robles producing spectacular wines, and Gary serves as a judge of wines at six to seven competitions per year.
Gary was the first to initiate the wine dinner in 1984 at his winery using local chefs like Ian McPhee to create the perfect menu to pair with Gary’s wines. Gary would close his tasting room at 6 p.m. and roll in six round tables. Ian would set up his three-burner hot plate and barbeque and make a five-course meal for 48 people. The wine industry preceded the food industry, and the wine dinner became a major marketing tool throughout the county. Both Ian McPhee and Gary were involved in the Central Coast Wine Classic from its inception at KCBX in 1984. Archie McLaren and the Central Coast Wine Classic brought national and international chefs to the county in a variety of venues including Hearst Castle.
The wine club memberships became a vital distribution system for local wineries. Gary started his wine club in the late 1980s with a cost $450 to join. The benefits included Gold Boar Label Wines, a gold necklace made by the Golden Bear Company in Colorado, a 30% discount on all wines purchased in the tasting room, one wine dinner, and one wine party.
In 1999 Gary completed the construction of 16,000 square feet of caves below his redwood winery and tasting room. The caves were built both to age Eberle Wines and to create the 100 seat Wild Boar Room for monthly Guest Chef Dinner Series, private events, and public events like the popular Halloween tour. Eberle Winery recently won an award for best destination Winery for its unique caves.
Beginning in the 1980s, Gary has been asked by Royal Viking Cruises to lecture and serve his wines on cruises all over the world. To date he has enjoyed 49 cruises, sharing his wines throughout the seven seas. In the fall of 2019, Gary will be lecturing on his 50th cruise in eastern Canada.
Mentors like his football coach Joe Paterno, Hod Berg, Harold Olmo, and Robert Mondavi, shaped Gary’s career and contributed to his success. And in turn, Gary has a number of friends and winemakers who have worked with him at Estrella and Eberle Wineries that have enjoyed his mentoring: Niels Udsen and Tom Myers of Castoro, Dan Panico of Dover Canyon, Robert Nadeau of Nadeau Family Vintners, Mat Garrretson, Tobin James, and Jason Edwards to name but a few. Gary Eberle is both a legend and an inspiration in the Wine History of SLO County. In 2019 Gary will be celebrating his 75th birthday and the 40th Anniversary of Eberle Wines.
View the San Luis Obispo County Wine Legends Film Series: The Legacy of Gary Eberle – Six short films celebrating Gary Eberle’s contributions to Paso Robles wine history created by the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County.