Tobias Wine Label
Doug Beckett and Pat Wheeler in the Tasting Room at Cayucos in the basement of the Way Station.
Doug Beckett and Pat Wheeler in the Tasting Room at Cayucos in the basement of the Way Station.

From Sailing to Winemaking

Pat Wheeler was a tool and die maker from Southern California who was living on a sailboat in San Pedro with his wife Marty in the 1970s. He met a neighbor, a fisherman from Yugoslavia, who had a  talent for winemaking in the style of his native country. Pat was intrigued, sharing many beers with his neighbor while discussing the craft of winemaking.  Pat’s friendship with the fisherman changed the direction of his life. Pat and Marty engaged in the serious study of the techniques of winemaking.

Pat and Marty started making their own wine after reading every book about winemaking they could buy or borrow.  Their first vintage netted 15 gallons. Pat sourced his grapes in Templeton.  Each subsequent crush produced more and more wine. They made their wine to their own personal liking and then asked friends to taste and critique their wines.  Pat joined the Cellar Masters of the Los Angeles Home Winemakers Club to participate in wine tastings and attend seminars given by winemakers from Northern California. He lost his heart to winemaking. After five years as amateurs, Pat and Marty decided to start their own winery and become a commercial operation. They had sourced grapes from vineyards in San Luis Obispo County and decided to move to the region, purchase the land,  plant their own vineyard and build a small winery.

Pat needed to learn the vineyard techniques for growing his own grapes in addition to the science involved in winemaking. Pat signed up for classes at the University of California at Davis and enrolled in agriculture and chemistry classes at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo. He found a mentor in Pasquale Mastantuono who founded his own winery in Templeton in 1977. Pasquale was a member of the Cellar Masters and became a close friend.

Tobias Vineyard

Pat and his wife, Marty, moved to the Paso Robles area and purchased thirty acres at the top of a mountain on Kiler Canyon Road around 1978. They had two young sons, Toby and Jed. Pat and Marty named their new endeavor, Tobias Vineyard, after their oldest son, and obtained their bond in 1980. Their signature jug wine, Jed’s Big Red, was named for their younger son. Tobias Vineyard was the smallest winery in San Luis Obispo County at the time.

They planted a few acres of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in their vineyard surrounding their home and modest winery. They planned to plant all thirty acres in the next few years. Pat’s winery was small, a Rube Goldberg operation  with no tank and no filters. He bought used oak whiskey barrels for aging his wine. For those who may wonder who Rube Goldberg is: Goldberg is best known for his popular cartoons depicting complicated gadgets performing simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways.

Pat and Marty sourced their grapes from Benito Dusi in Templeton and from John Radke’s “Rest and Be Thankful Vineyard.” The Petite Sirah was purchased from the Jones Ranch east of San Miguel. Benito Dusi grapes were their favorite fruit because Benito’s Zinfandel grapes provided the flavor Pat wanted to achieve in a big full-bodied wine. The Tobias operation was run by husband and wife, both participating daily in the vineyards and the winery.  Pat was the winemaker and Marty handled the day-to-day aspects of the business.

The First Tobias Vintage

The first Tobias vintage was bottled in 1982, with the help of two friends, Jim Steiger and Doug Beckett. Doug was captivated by the process. Pat and Marty’s first vintage produced about 100 cases of wine.  And most important – the first vintage of Tobias 1980 Zinfandel won gold medals at the Santa Barbara County Fair and the San Luis Obispo County Fair.

The following year, in 1983, Doug Beckett and Pat Wheeler formed a partnership to make Zinfandel wine under the Tobias label, sourcing their grapes from the legendary vineyard of Benito Dusi. The decision to work together, a spontaneous choice for both men, would bring about major life changes for each partner. They had skills that complemented one another in this partnership. Pat taught Doug about the craft of winemaking and Doug taught Pat about the business aspects of running a winery and selling wine. However, it should be noted that Doug kept his day job.

Doug reminisces about their first oak barrels used for aging Tobias Zin. These barrels had been used as whiskey barrels so the Tobias Zinfandel was a bit rough and since the wine was unfiltered, there was always sediment to be found at the bottom of the bottle. Doug liked to sell the Tobias wines to shops where the bottles were standing upright on the shelves to enhance the clarity of the Tobias Zinfandel wines.

The First Paso Robles Wine Festival – May 1983

In May 1983, Pat and Marty Wheeler poured their wines with Doug Beckett at a table at the first Wine Festival held in the Paso Robles Downtown City Park. Most of the wine lovers came from Southern California and the local communities in San Luis Obispo County. The wines they poured were the 1981 Zinfandel, the 1981 Petite Sirah, 1982 White Zinfandel, and the non-vintage Jed’s Big Red. All of the Tobias wines at that point in time were sold only in San Luis Obispo County.

Doug agreed to take charge of sales and marketing, starting with the first 100 cases  produced under the Tobias label. Doug loaded the cases of wine into the back of his pickup truck and drove up the California Coast to Carmel and Monterey, both known for their beauty as tourist destinations. Tobias Zinfandel was sold directly to consumers and wine shops from the back of his pick-up truck.

The First Tasting Room in Cayucos

When Doug suggested to his partner Pat Wheeler that they open a tasting room in the beach town of Cayucos on Ocean Avenue, Pat agreed. The historic wooden Cottage Hotel, built around a hundred years earlier, had been purchased from the first owner’s family in 1974 by Hank and Maryellen Eiseman who restored the buildings and planted beautiful gardens. They renamed the property The Way Station and converted the hotel rooms to art studios and small shop spaces. In 1985 Doug negotiated the rent for a small basement in The Way Station. Doug carried two large wine barrels and a piece of wood down the stairs to set up his tasting room. He placed a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk advertising free tastings of Tobias Zinfandel wine. He welcomed the adventurous guests who climbed down the narrow stairs to the cellar and handed them glasses of Zinfandel each weekend. This tasting room was the first in Cayucos and it was Doug’s first retail experience of selling Tobias wine directly to the public. He enjoyed the experience

The Tobias wines were also sold in a tasting room in Templeton, owned and operated by George and Ann Nagano. They established business combining a gourmet delicatessen and a tasting room to promote and sell wines for 15 small family-owned local wineries, none of which had the space or the staff for their own tasting room.  It was located in the village of Templeton at 590 Main Street with a patio and inside tasting room. The name was Templeton Corner – Wine Tasting  and Delicatessen. George and Ann Nagano were very knowledgeable about wines. For a small fee of $2.50 the visitor could sample over 30 wines from a three-county area. Wines could be purchased by the bottle or by the glass. They offered local cheeses, sandwiches, cookies and pastries. Specials of the day were varied and picnic lunches could be purchased for take-a-way. George and Ann were open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Large oil paintings and clippings of wine history hung on the walls. Patio dining was also available.

Pat Wheeler and his wife Marty found themselves facing both a marital and economic crisis by 1986.  Ultimately, they divorced, sold the Tobias vineyard property and went their separate ways. Pat moved to Oregon and still resides there. Doug Beckett continued as the winemaker for the Tobias label in 1987 while Doug and his wife, Nancy planned their own future.

Doug’s marketing skills continued to increase the sale of Tobias wines. His most adventurous sales campaign took him around the globe. Doug decided to try marketing the wine in Hong Kong and China in 1987. Doug and Nancy planned a trip to Asia with friends in March 1987; they packed Tobias wines in their suitcases. Doug had lived in Taiwan during his childhood and was familiar with Chinese culture. They visited Hong Kong and met with Doug’s tailor Eddie Su. Doug offered Tobias wine to his tailor in exchange for the new clothes he was ordering. Eddie graciously refused but offered him a better alternative. The tailor introduced Doug to Kevin Sinclair, the writer of the wine column for the Hong Kong Daily Sun. After tasting the Tobias Zinfandel together at the top of a skyscraper overlooking the city, Sinclair wrote about Tobias wine in his newspaper column and praised it highly.

This article led to an audience with the Chinese Economic Trade Commission in Beijing. Doug presented Tobias wines in both Beijing and Xian. Tobias Zinfandel was the first wine in San Luis Obispo County to be presented at a formal tasting in China. Kevin Sinclair became a friend and visited San Luis Obispo County several times to taste the local wines. These memorable experiences were the foundation for the many trips that Nancy and Doug  made around the world, advocating for the Paso Robles region and local wines.

1987 was the last vintage of Tobias wines. Doug and Nancy Beckett had already planted vineyard on their walnut ranch and decided to found their own winery and tasting room, Peachy Canyon, in 1988. The Tobias label was released and later acquired by a winery in Northern California.