Left to right: unknown, Jon Alexander, Cliff Giacobine, Niels Udsen. Front: Tom Myers, Jack Bettery.
Tom Myers and Jack Bettery at Estrella River Winery lab.
Cliff Giacobine (CJ, Gary Eberle’s nephew) and Tom Myers.
Assistant Winemaker Stacy Eaton and Tom Myers at Paso Wine Festival in the 1980s.
Tom Myers leading tour at Estrella River Winery in the 1980s.
Summary: The Winemakers’ Winemaker
Tom Myers is recognized as the expert on the science of making wine in San Luis Obispo County. As of 2019, he is also recognized as the man who has filled over 190 million bottles with San Luis Obispo County wine following his 42 harvests. Perhaps the best description of his talents, according to his colleagues and local winemakers: “Tom Myers is the awesome winemakers’ winemaker.”
Impact on the Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
Tom is recognized as the expert on the science of making wine in San Luis Obispo County. In Tom’s own words: “Wines are a living biological system. They are dynamic and subject to changes both fast and slow, good and bad.”
Tom has one of the finest palates in San Luis Obispo County County. “To be a great winemaker you must have a very sensitive and acute taste for wines” to quote the esteemed winemaker, Charles Fournier, who encouraged Tom Myers to apply to UC Davis.
Tom sees wine as one of the great foundations of western culture. His views have inspired local winemakers. In his own words: “Without diminishing the wonder, the winemaking process can be explained by the sciences. That appealed to me and played a large part in my decision to pursue a winemaking career. It was an idea that melded to the appeal of making something I feel is spiritually and physically beneficial to civilization, and I had discovered my ideal career.”
Tom was the first graduate in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis to work in a modern scientific lab with a “state of the art” laboratory and winemaking equipment in San Luis Obispo County. Tom started working as the assistant winemaker at Estrella River Winery in 1978. At the time there were no scientific laboratories to analyze wine samples in San Luis Obispo County. Samples had to be sent to Northern California for analysis which was an expensive and time-consuming process. Most wine was made by personal trial and error.
Tom made wines at Estrella River Valley Winery (ERW) and Castoro Cellars which have served as the prototypes for the trends and styles in the Paso Robles AVA. Estrella River Cabernet Sauvignon and Castoro Cellars Zinfandel and red blends are examples of these prototypes. In Tom’s own words: “I had a seminal role in the development of Estrella Winery. It is easy to make the case that ERW was the first large scale ‘proof of concept’ winery in Paso Robles.” This attracted many more growers and winemakers to San Luis Obispo County.
Tom’s winemaking skills were honed entirely within the Paso Robles and great Central Coast AVAS.
Tom is recognized as a great Zinfandel winemaker. Tom describes: “The distinctive and amiable characters of Zinfandel entitle it to rank among the noble varieties of the world. It is our heritage grape.”
Over the years Tom has been described as the best winemaker in San Luis Obispo County and the man who has put more wine in bottles than any other winemaker in SLO County. According to calculations by Tom in January 2020, he has filled over 190 million bottles and cans with wine in San Luis Obispo County.
Tom has had the unusual experience of working in only two wineries in San Luis Obispo County during his 41 harvests: one was a very large modern winery with vineyards and a production of over 100,000 cases annually and the second, a start-up, owned no vineyard, tasting room or winery. The first was the largest modern winery in San Luis Obispo County in the 1970s, Estrella River Winery (later purchased by The Beringer Group and renamed Meridian), where Tom Myers worked from 1978 through the 1980s; in 1990 he was hired as the winemaker at the start-up known as Castoro Cellars which has grown to become the largest family-owned custom crush business and winery with organically managed and certified vineyards in the County. Tom helped select each piece of equipment and each variety of grape grown in the vineyards at Castoro Cellars. He has experienced the process of winemaking at every level of production.
Historically speaking, Estrella River Winery was the incubator of many of the most famous and influential winemakers on the Central Coast. Winemaker Tom Myers was able to share his skills with many winemakers in the area, forming long term relationships, influencing their winemaking styles and the quality of their wines.
Tom has worked with, mentored and influenced more winemakers than any other person in San Luis Obispo County. The Custom Crush facility enables Tom to work with a large number of winemakers and business owners who rely on him to produce their wines at Castoro Cellars under their own labels.
Tom’s wines are enjoyed in many states in the USA. In Tom’s own words: “The wines I produce continue to find their way in bulk form or as custom bottlings into wineries, locally, statewide, and all the way to the Midwest.” Tom is currently canning wine for customers in New Zealand.
Tom’s analytic skills in judging and evaluating wines have helped individual winemakers increase the quality of their wines. Tom, with his fine palate, scientific knowledge, and analysis, is known as the man to call with any question, challenge or problem in the winemaking process.
Tom has always incorporated new ideas, equipment, techniques and trends in his winemaking. He continues to look to the consumer for their preferences and changing tastes. In Tom’s own words: “Winemaking has been a life lesson in the need for awareness and diligence.”
Tom’s knowledge of viticulture and his experience of working with more than 30 varieties of grapes farmed organically have been a model for the wine industry. In Tom’s own words: “The annual cycle comes alive with winemaking. My life is so dictated by the seasons. The transition of fresh grapes to aged wine is remarkable and never gets routine.”
Tom believes in collaboration as a vital part of wine production in San Luis Obispo County. In Tom’s own words: “My passion is to make wines that consumers take note of, make them feel good, and add to life’s enjoyment.
Tom has always made fine wines as an affordable price for consumers. His views is “I don’t like the elitism that sometimes infiltrates the wine culture. I encourage consumers to not be intimidated and realize they are their own best judge; I would like to see a more informal albeit affectionate approach to wine by consumers.”
Tom Myers’ views on his Legacy in San Luis Obispo County:
“If I am bold enough to shape things in the wine industry, these are the things I want to be remembered for:
- My winemaking skills were honed entirely within the Paso Robles and great Central Coasts AVAS.
- My winemaking approach is based on a melding of scientific learning and empirical evidence while acknowledging the intrinsic mystery and love of wine.
- I still do not feel that any other single winemaker has made the amount of Paso Robles AVA Wines that I have.
- As an authority on winemaking at a chemical level, I am always willing to adopt new ideas, techniques and equipment.
- I view all wines, regardless of style or category, as a challenge to produce and worthy of my best efforts.”
The Legend: The Winemakers’ Winemaker
Tom Myers is recognized as the expert on the science of making wine in San Luis Obispo County. He is also recognized as the man who has filled over 180 million bottles with San Luis Obispo County wine following his 41 harvests, starting in 1978 through 2019. Perhaps the best description of his talents, according to Steve Peck, is “Tom is the winemakers’ winemaker” to quote Steve Peck, Director of Winemaking at J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines. Winemakers have the utmost respect for his palate, his winemaking skills, his analysis and his ability to solve the challenges that winemakers face in the long process of making wines from over 61 varieties in San Luis Obispo County. Tom is never too busy to take a call from a winemaker to answer questions, to provide scientific analysis and to offer his support.
Tom’s love of science and his curiosity are the driving forces behind the man.
A Christmas gift changes Tom’s career.
Tom has the unusual combination of education in Plant Sciences and Viticulture as well as Enology. He understands the grapes growing and maturing in the vineyard as well as the science of each variety in the process of making wine. Tom graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in Biological Sciences in 1973. On Christmas Day of the same year, his wife, Kathy, presented Tom with a home winemaking kit. Tom was curious about the science of making wine and immediately submitted his application to the IRS for a permit to make wine at home starting in March 1974.
Tom and his brother began to visit a number of wineries in Michigan to learn about local production and grape varieties. Tabor Hill, Warner Winery, Bronte Winery and St. Julien Winery were well-known in Michigan in the 1970s. Tom was inspired by the Rhine and Moselle wines that he discovered during this time as an amateur winemaker. The first real table wine that he remembers drinking at a restaurant was a Tavel Rose, which Tom notes is back in style today. At local liquor stores, the Wente and Martini brands were the California wines Tom remembers drinking.
While Tom was making wine at home and tasting wines in Michigan, there were a number of articles appearing in Time Magazine and other national publications describing the expansion of the wine industry in California. One of them recommended the University of California at Davis as the place to study Viticulture and Enology. The home winemaking kit changed the direction of Tom’s life. If he had not received the gift, he might never have considered becoming a professional winemaker.
Research into the World of Wine in the Mid-1970s
Tom began to research educational institutions in 1975, including Cornell and U.C. Davis. Traveling to another country to learn winemaking was not a consideration because Tom had a family to support in Michigan and he did not speak French or Italian. Tom started to research the wine industry in the United States. Tom wrote to educators and to winemakers across the United States to learn more about the type of education he should pursue. He was also concerned about the economic downturn in the 1970s and the impact on the grape growing and winemaking industries.
The letter he received on November 5, 1975, from A. C. Noble at UC Davis, discussed Tom’s credentials, the economic crunch in the wine industry, the pay scale and career opportunities in the United States. It is very enlightening:
The delay in responding to your questions centered around having an informal evaluation of your transcripts to check your suitability credit-wise for acceptance in the Food Science graduate group as an M.S. candidate. The head of the graduate group INFORMALLY said:
“You have a fairly good background with essentially all the crucial chemistry, math, and physics, etc. courses including biochem and biochem lab. You lack p. chem and statistics, but many do. You could pick them up here. The graduate division of the University would have to evaluate grades but I, (meaning Dr. Brown), feel he will probably be OK in this respect”.
Both Dr. Duane Brown and I feel it would be silly for you to consider a second B.S. I doubt you would be accepted in any event. However, pursuit of a master’s degree in Food Science which is the route that enology or fermentation science graduate students take, seems possible and far superior an option.
Regarding job opportunities: the economic crunch has hurt the entire food industry and wine industry rather logically. However, there usually are jobs cropping up on a regular basis. Specifically, as a winemaker, if you desire doing this in the Napa Valley, I hope your wife works. The competition is stiff and the pay scale low. In the San Joaquin Valley, however, jobs in cellar operations of large wineries pay fairly well ($11,000 to $14,000). With an M.S. in this area you can compete in the wine industry in California, N.Y, Michigan, Ohio, etc. or in brewing or fermentation industries all over the U.S. If you strictly have a naïve desire to become an esoteric winemaker, I would advise strongly you NOT pursue study in enology. If you are flexible and will work in winery operations either in a large winery like Gallo, which in some ways is more like working for a huge dairy in terms of loss of the mystique that comes with large operations, or in working outside of California, then there are probably ample opportunities. If you are willing to take one of the above jobs to gain experience while waiting to get in on a job in a smaller winery such as those in Napa Valley (which will never pay fantastically well-too many people are willing to work for less there). Then I suggest there are good chances of your being satisfied by studying here. There are many things to consider of course.
Best wishes with your decision!
If you decide to apply, the application forms may be obtained by writing directly to the Office of the Graduate Division, Room 252, Mrak Hall, U of C, Davis 95616.
On December 3, 1975. Tom received a reply to his letter to Gold Seal Vineyards in Hammondsport, New York, a major area of grape and wine production. The letter was written by Charles Fournier, the famous winemaker from Rheims, France who came to America to become the winemaker and production manager of Gold Seal Vineyards Inc. in 1933. He was hired to restore Gold Seal Vineyards and winery which was severely impacted by enforcement of Prohibition from 1920 through 1933.
Charles Fournier became a famous name in the American Champagne Industry and wine production, in the Post-Prohibition era. I mention this fact for two reasons: the first is that Tom Myers took the time to write leading winemakers and educators in the United States to determine whether winemaking was a viable career for him and actually received their opinions and advice. The second reason is that these words of advice provide an interesting description of the wine industry in the mid-1970s. Here is the letter to Tom from Charles Fournier:
“Dear Mr. Myers:
I want to congratulate you on the education you want to have before starting a career in the wine business.
The Enology course of the University of California is one of the best in the world and I feel it is a must now to get somewhere in this country in wine production.
At the present time, we employ two Enologists and two Chemists. They are in charge of the Wine Production from the time the grapes arrive at the plant until the finished bottled product leaves the plant. Consequently, their daily activities vary according to seasons; but it is a very interesting field.
In our case, the activities of the Enologists are checked by the Production Manager who started as an Enologist, himself; I still check all wines and blends with him, as we feel checking each other is always a safe procedure.
What is, in my mind, of the greatest importance, is a very sensitive and acute taste for wines. Without it, all you could hope for would be to be a chemist but never a great winemaker. This you will have to find out for yourself by tasting wines with connoisseurs. I personally have been considerably helped by the fact that, having been brought up in France, I have drunk wine since I was three years old. This is an opportunity which has never been given to many Americans.
It is difficult to tell what your possibility of employment will be in the future. However, if you have not only the education that you are planning, but the gift of taste that I mentioned before, you shouldn’t have any problem in finding a career in the American wine business. Of course, there are always more opportunities in California than here but winemaking in New York State is, to my mind, a greater challenge than in California.
Good luck and best wishes.
Very Cordially yours,
On January 15, 1976, Tom received a letter from A.D. Webb, Professor of Enology, and Department Chairman in answer to Tom’s inquiry about the state of the wine industry in the mid-1970s.
The letter states;
“Dear Mr. Myers: Responding to your letter of last week, I am optimistic in believing that the current slow-down of planting of vineyards and making of wines is a temporary one which will be corrected within one to two years. The consumption of table wines in the United States continues to increase at a very satisfactory rate. Good grapes and enologists will be increasingly required to supply this growing demand.
The grapes and wine business in the United States has always been an absolutely free-market economy with resultant rather wild fluctuations. These economic fluctuations expressed in the emotional terms of the people of the industry have, I think, overemphasized the actual nature of both the good and bad times of the industry.
For the long term, I am quite optimistic.”
Tom chooses education as the path to becoming a winemaker.
Tom applied to UC Davis and was accepted in 1976 in the Master’s Program. The University had outstanding professors, researchers and the most modern wine science laboratory in any California educational institution.
Tom’s story about selecting winemaking as his passion and career differs from those of his contemporaries. For example, Randall Grahm came to U. C, Davis to study Pinot Noir, his passion. However, Tom Myers was a blank canvas. When he arrived at U.C. Davis, the world of winemaking suddenly opened to him with all its possibilities. All premium wine regions in the world, both white and red, were fascinating to Tom. Northern European, especially Bordeaux wines, were early favorites and Tom knew he wanted to make Cabernet Sauvignon.
In addition to studying at Davis, Tom frequented Corti Brothers in Sacramento to buy and taste imported and domestic wines available in their large inventory. Drinking a wide variety of fine wines while studying the science of winemaking and viticulture in the premium wine areas worldwide, enabled Tom to absorb the winemaking techniques of a broad spectrum of styles and varieties. He also developed a remarkable memory for analyzing and correcting the challenges he and fellow students encountered in the winemaking process. This has made Tom an invaluable resource in San Luis Obispo County when collaborating with other winemakers.
Tom finished his course work in 1978 and started his thesis with Dr. Vernon Singleton, the viticulture and enology professor known for his expertise in wine phenolic chemistry. The organic chemical compounds that affect the taste, color and texture of wine were researched and written about in over 200 papers and four textbooks by Dr. Singleton. His book Wine: An Introduction for Americans is still one of the most widely read books today. Tom completed his thesis in 1981 and received his Master’s Degree.
Tom Myers becomes the Assistant Winemaker at Estrella River Winery in San Luis Obispo County.
Tom immediately started looking for a job as a winemaker in Sonoma and Napa Counties in 1978 when he had completed his course work at UC Davis. He could not find any job openings in Sonoma or Napa so he started looking at job postings at UC Davis for other areas of California. Tom found an ad placed by Estrella River Winery in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County, for an assistant winemaker. Tom was interviewed by winemaker Gary Eberle and winery owner Clifford Giacobine on the UC Davis campus. Tom’s second interview was at the new Estrella River Winery in Paso Robles. He was hired as the assistant winemaker just before the winery’s second harvest in 1978. From the day Tom was hired, he was given the freedom to make the wine in his style; his palate and knowledge were soon highly respected. He shaped winemaking in San Luis Obispo County and was, in turn, shaped by the terroir and varieties grown there. Tom is known for his style; his career was “made in Paso Robles.”
Tom described the Estrella River Winery as the largest and the most modern in San Luis Obispo County at the time. Gary Eberle designed the winery and planted the vineyards with modern irrigation; the winery was laid out in a modern efficient design with a state-of-the-art scientific laboratory, the most modern winemaking equipment, fermentation tanks, and bottling operation. The production of Estrella River Winery had started at around 10,000 cases in 1975, but the goal was to produce 100,000 cases of wine annually by the end of the decade. It was the largest and most modern winery built to date in San Luis Obispo County.
Tom describes his early years, 1978 to 1982, at Estrella River Winery as those with a steep learning curve. It was a “hands-on” experience working the long hours, seven days a week, during the months of harvest. Tom learned every step of winemaking, including harvesting, running the crusher, making yeast cultures and running the bottling line. His work continued all year long in the lab, monitoring Estrella River Valley wines as well as those made by other local winemakers.
As the assistant winemaker to Gary Eberle, Tom communicated winemaker Gary Eberle’s template to the cellar crew which included Niels Udsen, Tobin James and Bill Sheffer, well-known names in San Luis Obispo County today. Other cellar rats included Jack Betterley, cellar master, C. J. Giacobine, the son of founder Clifford R. Giacobine and Jon Alexander who went on to work for San Antonio Winery and Central Coast Wine Service.
Estrella River Winery becomes the incubator for young winemakers.
Estrella River Winery became the gathering place for young winemakers, including Jim Clendenen, John Munch, and Dave Caparone, to share ideas and their wines. Each of the three men started their own wineries and became well-known winemakers who have also shaped wine history in San Luis Obispo County. Their wineries were started in the 1970s and 1980s and are well known for their unique wines today. Estrella River Winery also made and bottled wine for those winemakers just starting out in Santa Barbara County, including winemaker Ken Brown’s Pinot Noir for Zaca Mesa Winery.
In 1982, winemaker Gary Eberle decided to leave Estrella River Winery to found his own brand. Eberle. Tom Myers was promoted to head winemaker. Tom Myers, the second winemaker at Estrella River Winery, enjoyed making the classic wines. Production continued to grow. Estrella created a secondary label with bottles of 750 ml and 1.5 ml. Production soon reached 100,000 cases per year. By 1986 the annual production was 150,000.
Tom’s focus was on creating high-quality Central Coast wines. Estrella River Wines were sold throughout the Central Coast, in Southern California from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, and in the Central Valley all the way to Stockton.
The Estrella River vineyard was managed by Lorzaro Morones, born on December 17, 1926, in Safford, Arizona. He passed away on November 26, 2018, in Paso Robles. All the grapes for winemaking were grown on the estate. Tom worked directly with Lorzaro in the vineyard, learning how each varietal ripened in the terroir and climate of the Estrella River Plains. Lorzaro worked at Estrella River Winery for about 10 years as vineyard manager. Howie Steinbeck also managed the Estrella River Winery vineyards.
Varieties and Award-Winning Varietals in the 1970s and 1980s: a Discussion with Tom Myers
The original nine varieties grown in the Estrella River vineyards included Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, French Syrah, Barbera, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Johannisberg Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Muscat Canelli was also grown, a favorite of Gary Eberle’s wife.
French Syrah grapes and wine
The 35 acres of French Syrah in 1986 was the largest single planting in the state. “The French Syrah is totally different from the Petit Sirah. The French Syrah has a dark inky color, but not the coarse dry tannins. It has elegance and balance.”
Late Harvest Muscat Canelli
The 1980 San Luis Obispo Late Harvest Muscat Canelli received a four-star rating by Winegate, Wine & Spirits Buying Guide in 1982. It had won a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair, The grapes stayed on the wines until late November and were picked at 32 degrees Brix, about 10 degrees more Brix than normal. The grapes had developed botrytis and were shriveled almost to raisins. Tom’s style was to crush the grapes and allow the juice to sit on the skins for 24 hours. They were then pressed off. The wine was cold fermented with fermentation stopped at 15.5 percent residual sugar and 8.6 percent alcohol. The wine was aged in stainless steel. It was bottled in 1981. The four-star rating was impressive. There were 107 wines presented; six four-star wines were selected from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties including the 1980 San Luis Obispo Late Harvest Muscat Canelli.
The 1981 Johannisberg Riesling Estate Bottled, made by winemaker Tom Myers won the American Champions Johannisberg Riesling in the American wine Championship sponsored by Winestate, Wine & Spirits Buying Guide in 1982. The competition was designed by the magazine as a Champion taste-off to include all wines that had won major competitions nationwide or major regional tastings. Tom describes his winemaking: “It was a pretty normal harvest, a pretty typical wine for our climate.” According to Tom, these grapes were from the second harvest of the vines which produced more tonnage than the 1980 harvest. Tom’s method was similar to the production of most sweet wines. It was cold fermented with low solids. Fermentation was stopped at 2.1 percent residual sugar. The wine was not aged in oak barrels and was bottled in 1982. Tom described the characteristics as “a fresh fruity, slightly floral aroma, a wine meant to be drunk young. The grapes had 19.8 sugar at harvest, 0.78 total acidity by volume, 10.3 percent alcohol and was made in the soft style.” The 1981 Johannisberg Riesling won silver medals at both the Orange County and Los Angeles County fairs.
Estrella River’s 1985 Syrah Blanc was the first in the state. The 1200 cases sold out quickly.
Blanc de Blanc
In 1986 Tom announced a new venture, the 1982 Blanc de Blanc, a champagne just being released. “We are doing it in the traditional methode champenois which is a labor-intensive effort of fermenting the wine a second time in the individual bottles.”
The 1980s – An Explosion of Grape and Wine Production and the Formation of the Paso Robles AVA
During the 1980s, Tom Myers and his Estrella River wines continued to receive medals and awards. The main competitions in California were the Los Angeles County Fair, the Orange County Fair, California and Mid-State Fairs. Winning an award in one of these venues meant that Estrella could add gold medal seals to their bottled wines and sell the wines more easily.
1983 put Paso Robles on the map. The Paso Robles AVA and the Paso Robles Wine Festival which became a significant draw for tourists and wine lovers were established in the same year. A major wine competition by Winestate Wine and Spirits was open only to those wines that had won local or regional competitions. Tom Myers entered his Estrella 1981 Johannisberg Riesling and won first prize.
The success of wineries throughout California attracted larger companies to acquire new wineries in Sonoma and in Napa. The first major corporate takeover occurred in 1988 in San Luis Obispo County when Nestle Corporation acquired Beringer Corporation who in turn made a bid for the Estrella River Winery.
Estrella River Winery files for bankruptcy.
As Estrella River Winery increased production, the financial challenges increased. As the threat of bankruptcy increased, Estrella filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. In 1988 Estrella River Winery was sold to Nestle Corporation SA, owner of Wine World Inc. which was the parent company of Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley. The original offer was extremely complex and valued at around $10 Million according to Michael Moone, President of Wine World. The offer included the winery and 500 acres of land in Paso Robles. At the time, Michael Moone stated that half the acreage at Estrella River was planted in Chardonnay “and the balance will be grafted to Chardonnay rootstock.”
The Estrella River Winery was renamed Meridian. The sale resulted in a new vision for the winery; Meridian was famous for its Chardonnay and so Meridian began shifting production from Paso Robles wines to Central Coast wines. In addition to the grapes grown in their own local vineyards, Chardonnay grapes were purchased from growers in Santa Barbara County to produce” Santa Barbara Chardonnay”. Meridian wanted to make wines in SLO County, but they sourced additional grapes in other areas of California to create much larger brand recognition and distribution.
This was the first major corporate takeover in the Paso Robles area. It is interesting to note that in 1988, Wine World Inc. also purchased Paragon Vineyards, a 300-acre parcel in the Edna Valley planted in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varieties from the Jack Niven family for an amount in excess of $3 million dollars. Michael Moone announced that the Paragon Vineyards has 150 acres of Chardonnay and 50 acres of Pinot Noir; Wine World Inc. would graft the remaining acres to Chardonnay.
The new corporate owners brought in winemaker and Meridian founder Chuck Ortman. “Chuck deferred to me some due to my familiarity with the staff.” But soon Chuck Ortman was named Winemaker and Tom Myers was named the Director of Operations. Tom was suddenly in charge of facility maintenance, personnel management, budgeting and expansion.” As Tom describes it, “he went from a passionate winemaker to a man in a job.”
This was the first major corporate takeover in Paso Robles. Tom describes the impact: “Their entry into Paso Robles and the Central Coast was influential. J. Lohr set up shop at the same time. Perhaps their influence was a bit diluted by the fact Meridian focused on Santa Barbara Chardonnay instead of the reds which proved to be the definitive grape choice of the Paso Robles AVA.”
In 1990 Tom resigned from Meridian. The world of wine production was changing. Many large corporations acquired successful wineries but ran them with corporate structures. At the same time, many winemakers approached wine as a craft in small wineries that were opening across California. Tom was in the unusual position of making his decision based on personal experience. He did not belong in the corporate structure. He was a winemaker, famous for handcrafting his own wines and mentoring others.
Tom Myers started his own wine consulting business with Niels and Bimmer Udsen, founders of Castoro Cellars as his first clients. Niels could not afford to bring Tom on staff full-time as a winemaker in 1989, so Tom worked part-time on Castoro Cellars and as a consultant for other winemakers including Bronco, and Le Vigne Winery owned by Walker and Sylvia Filippini. Sylvia’s family had purchased the land where the vineyard now stands. Hay and cattle were the commodities produced until 1982 when the first grapevines were planted in their vineyard. Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted to meet the growing demand for these varieties in Napa and Sonoma. The Filippinis started making wine from the grapes in 1989 with Tom as their consulting winemaker. Tom became the winemaker at Castoro Cellars in 1990.
Tom’s Journey at Castoro Cellars
Tom described the new challenges of moving from a large state of the art facility at Estrella River Winery run by corporate management to Castoro Cellars which was producing “Dam Fine Wine” without its own winery facility, tasting room or vineyards. Niels did own a mobile bottling unit that provided services to a large number of local wineries in Paso Robles. The profits in the business were used to build the Castoro Cellars brand.
Niels Udsen sourced grapes from independent grape growers; the Castoro Cellars wine was made first at Estrella River and then J. Lohr Winery. Tom’s experiences in viticulture were valuable resources for Castoro Cellars; Tom had worked with estate-grown fruit and spent much of his time in the vineyards to make his wine at Estrella River Winery. In contrast, Tom made the wine with Niels for Castoro Cellars at both Estrella River and at the J. Lohr facility, sourcing grapes from a number of vineyards. Tom’s talents and skills made it possible to produce quality wines from day one at Castoro Cellars.
Castoro Cellars had no tasting room. The wine was sold by Niels and Bimmer directly to customers and through one distributor. The needs of the clients were well-known in selecting grapes and making wines. Tom immediately focused on making quality wine at an affordable price. He wanted the consumer to enjoy the wine. At the time, each wine was made with 100% one variety of grapes. Blends came into favor much later.
Tom describes the challenges he faced in the transition of winemaking from Estrella River Winery to Castoro Cellars:
1. Fruit: Tom was moving from Estrella were all fruit was grown on the estate in one location to purchasing the fruit from multiple locations for Castoro. The advantage was Tom gained a better understanding of what goes into growing quality fruit. However, it required developing a variety of relationships with small independent growers and learning the subtleties of soils, microclimates, and terroir of each vineyard. Tom traveled to each vineyard to work with the growers as the grapes ripened and later harvested at the appropriate time.
2. The Winery: The first wines Tom made for Castoro as their winemaker were made in the J. Lohr facility in Paso Robles. In 1991 Niels purchased the land on Van Dollen Road in San Miguel in 1991, with one existing building. Tom worked with Niels over the years to purchase winemaking equipment, outbuildings, fermentation and storage tanks piecing together a large and complex facility over the years. Some of the equipment was purchased new and others were purchased from other wineries. Tom was working with a variety of people to build the facility he needed.
3. The Vineyards: Vineyards were planted on the surrounding land where grains once grew, and cattle roamed the hills. Niels and Bimmer in consultation with Tom began to purchase vineyards in the San Miguel area. Tom remembers asking Niels if anyone else would ever plant vineyards in the wide valley supporting grains, apples, and cattle.
Today the area is home to many vineyards and wineries.
4. Organic and sustainable farming: By 2020 the vineyards have become organically grown and sustainable. They are Organically Certified with 26 varieties planted.
5. Varieties: Tom his winemaking career with the nine varieties grown at Estrella River. In his career at Castoro, he has had the freedom to work with more than 30 varieties to produce varietals and blends in many styles. Below is the list of 26 varieties grown at Castoro Cellars:
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chenin Blanc, Muscat Canelli, Orange Muscat, Gewurztraminer, Viognier, Grenache Blanc Falanghina, Pinot Grigio, Albarino Barbera, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Carignane, Charbono, Petit Sirah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Dorsa, Grenache, Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Dorsa.
A few notes about Zinfandel: Zinfandel was the varietal that was most often bottled at Castoro Cellars. One of the most special Zinfandel was Late Harvest from a designated vineyard. Later on, Zinfandel found its way into most blends at Castoro.
6. Equipment: Tom transitioned from the modern and sophisticated equipment at Estrella to creating his facility with equipment gradually accumulated and often bought secondhand. “Tom mentioned that the process of establishing and growing a small winery gave me valuable experience. Sometimes we had to go without but the process also allowed us to modernize continually.”
7. Laboratory: Tom had the knowledge and experience of working in the most sophisticated laboratory in San Luis Obispo County. At Castoro Tom had to create his own lab from scratch. Tom has enjoyed adapting to the new technologies and scientific discoveries in his new lab.
8. Experience: Tom as winemaker and viticulturist. Tom stated “This period of time allowed me to gain experience with many new grape varieties. Technologies have changed, and consumer preferences have changed although I find they always come back to the tried and true. The desirability of blending has also evolved.
By 2019 Tom Myers had filled more than 190 million bottles of wine in San Luis Obispo County and completed his 42nd Harvest.
Tom continues to work as the winemaker at Castoro Cellars. 2020 will be his 43nd Harvest.
Tom’s comments about his winemaking:
“Over the period of 41 Years I have made a greater quantity of Paso Robles wines than any other winemaker. Therefore, I can say that my winemaking has reached more consumers over time than any other single winemaker. Considerably smaller and confined to a unique region of the AVA. Winemaking at ERW and Castoro Cellars plus the interactions within the larger industry influenced the migration of the wine/grape industry to the Paso Robles AVA. The wines have served as prototypes for the area’s trends and styles. Estrella Cabernet Sauvignon and Castoro Cellars Zinfandel and red blends are examples. Both ERW and Castoro Cellars have served as a launching pad for many winery operations, winemakers, and others serving in the wine industry in virtually every role.”
“If I am bold enough to shape things in the wine industry, these are the things I want to be remembered for:
- Winemaking approach based on a melding of scientific learning and empirical evidence while acknowledging the intrinsic mystery and love of wine.
- I feel that people look at me as an authority on winemaking at a chemical level.
- I am always willing to adopt new ideas, techniques and equipment.
- I view all wines, regardless of style or category, as a challenge to produce and worthy of my best efforts.
TIMELINE – TOM MYERS
1973: Tom attended Michigan State University and majored in the Biological Sciences. He studied plant physiology and graduated from MSU in Biological Sciences in 1973.
1973: Tom received a Wine Making Kit for Christmas from his wife, Kathy, and started to experiment with it. Tom’s main interest was always in science. So, in winemaking, he was curious about the production of wine. He had studied plant physiology.
1974: Tom and his brother started visiting wineries in Michigan to learn more about winemaking.
1974: Tom files Form with Assistant Regional Commissioner of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the State of Michigan to announce he will start winemaking as of March 1, 1974. This form is the only one in our collection and states that Tom intends to begin production of not more than 200 gallons of wine annually, solely for his family use on or about the date to the right. This form relates directly to prohibition. Tom signed the form on February 15, 1974, and it was approved a few days later. Tom begins to make wine and study the process.
1975: Tom begins to research a career in winemaking by writing to educators and winemakers across the country to learn more about the career in the economy of the mid-1970s and the job opportunities.
1975: Tom wrote to the University of California, Davis to the Department of Viticulture to see if his past courses would qualify him for entry to the M.S. program. The letter he received on November 5, 1975, from A. C. Noble discussed his credentials, the economic crunch in the wine industry, the pay scale and career opportunities in the United States. It is very enlightening:
1975: December 3, 1975. Tom receives a reply to his letter to Gold Seal Vineyards in Hammondsport, New York, a major area of grape and wine production. The letter is written by Charles Fournier, the famous winemaker from Rheims, France who came to America to become the winemaker and production manager of Gold Seal Vineyards Inc in 1933 to restore the company after prohibition. He became a famous name in the American Champagne Industry. I mention this for two reasons: the first is that Tom Myers took the time to write leading winemakers and educators in the United States to determine whether winemaking was a viable career for him and actually received their opinions and advice. The second reason is that their advice is an interesting description of the wine industry in the mid-1970s.
1976: January 15. Tom receives a letter from A.D. Webb, Professor of Enology, Department Chairman in answer to Tom’s inquiry about the state of the wine industry.
1976: Tom applied to and was accepted at UC Davis for the Masters’ Program in Enology and Viticulture. He moved to UC Davis with his wife and entered the program.
1977: Estrella River Winery is built in 1977 by founder Clifford R. Giacobine. The winery was designed by his half-brother Gary Eberle who was the first winemaker at the facility.
1980: Wine was still not commonly enjoyed with meals by the public who had very little understanding of varietals. The Food Revolution was just beginning so most people did not have the experience of pairing wine with food. Wine was not widely sold in liquor stores and supermarkets except in a few urban marketplaces like Dallas, Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. The Duke of Bourbon Canoga Park was a wine store in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles that was one of the only stores specializing in California wines.
1980: Marketing wines produced in Paso Robles. The 1980s were a difficult era in winemaking and distribution. “Estrella did have a tasting room. It was the only tasting room Highway 46. The tasting room was very successful in introducing Paso Robles wines to travelers, especially from the Central Valley”.
1980: Niels Udsen graduates from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo with a B.S. in Agricultural Business Management.
1981: There were a number of individuals, Gary Eberle, Tom Martin, Herman Schwartz, and Victor Hugo Roberts, who formed a group to develop the hospitality industry in Paso Robles by building tasting rooms, founding the Paso Robles Wine Festival and hosting wine dinners to showcase the wines and chefs of Paso Robles
1981: Niels Udsen started work at Estrella in the fall of 1981. “We quickly formed a bond due to a like-minded world outlook and a shared love of backpacking and outdoor adventure centered on climbing. In the workplace, he was impressive for a good work ethic and a studied approach. He streamlined many of our operations based on observation and innovation.”
1982: Tom Myers became the Winemaker at Estrella in 1982 when Gary Eberle left to establish his own winery. “Throughout my career, I have been given a great deal of freedom and have made essentially all major decisions.” Tom’s assistants at Estrella were Jon Alexander, Chuck Mulligan, and Stacey Eaton.
1982: By 1982 Estrella River Winery was producing 100,000 cases of wine annually.
1983: The Paso Robles AVA was established. Tom remembers those working to apply and obtain AVA status for Paso Robles included Tom Martin, Gary Eberle, Pasquale Mastantuono and Herman Schwartz of Ranch Terra Rejada.
1983: The newsletter reports on the South Central Coast with the following description: the South Central Coast falls within the political boundaries of two counties, San Luis Obispo to the north, Santa Barbara to the south. San Luis Obispo County contains 16 wineries with 13 located in the Paso Robles area. There are several large vineyard operations and 14,000 acres of premium wine grapes. The wines at Estrella were designated with San Luis Obispo County until the AVA was established in 1983.
1983: In the first Winestate American Championship, Tom Myers’ Johannusberg Riesling wins first prize.
1983: Tom had developed a close relationship with Niels Udsen and his wife Bimmer. They shared a love of backpacking and climbing. Niels had worked at Estrella and learned winemaking from Gray Eberle and Tom Myers.
1983: Niels Udsen wanted to start his own label. He was working at Estrella but making his own wine in a garage in Atascadero. Tom began consulting with him and Niels decided to start his own brand in 1983. Tom helped Niels with the paperwork to apply for his label under the bond of Estrella River Winery. Castoro Cellars, in 1983. Castoro means beaver in Italian so Niels stamped “Dam Fine Wine” on his cartons and the label. His first location (a mandatory requirement to apply for his own brand) was in a small shed on the Estrella River Winery property.
1983: Niels purchased fruit from old vineyards growing Zinfandel in Paso Robles and he produced 500 cases. Tom was his consultant and winemaker. The wine was produced and bottled at Estrella River winery.
1984: Tom Myers wrote an article that was called The Wines of Paso Robles which was printed in the Country News on Wednesday, February 22, 1984. It is in the Tom Myers archive and should be added to this timeline. The subject of the article is Oak Cooperage which dates back to Roman Times. Tom begins to lecture and conducts wine tasting for local clubs and organizations.
1986: Estrella is producing 150,000 cases annually.
I988: Estrella River Winery was sold to Nestle Corporation and renamed Meridian. The sale resulted in a new vision at Meridian shifting from Paso Robles wines to Central Coast wines. In addition to the grapes grown in their own local vineyards, Chardonnay grapes were purchased from growers in Santa Barbara County to produce” Santa Barbara Chardonnay.” Meridian wanted to make wines in San Luis Obispo County, but they sourced additional grapes in other areas of California to create much larger brand recognition and distribution. This was the first major corporate takeover in the Paso Robles area
1988: Niels Udsen signs a five-year contract with J. Lohr to manage the production facility and make his own wine at J. Lohr.
1989: Niels purchases his first mobile bottling truck with the support of local wineries..
1990: Tom resigns from Meridian because he does not enjoy working in the administrative end of the wine business.
1990: Niels purchases his first vineyard early in 1990. Niels continues sourcing grapes from many small high-quality growers in Paso Robles or Templeton including: Ueberroth Vineyard planted in 1885 still privately owned at the time. Willow Creek Vineyard (purchased and renamed Ueberroth). Richard Sauret Vineyards. Norman Vineyards.
1991: Castoro Cellars moved to winery building on Von Dollen Road. Niels purchases. His business model includes building the custom crush business to provide surplus cash flow for the purchase of equipment, a tasting room, and land to grow grapes.
1996: The Custom Crush business continues to grow and serve San Luis Obispo County.
2000: The vineyards begin to transition to organic and are later certified as organic.
2002: Tom Myers is named Winemaker of the Year by the Paso Robles Growers Association. He receives the award at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.
2019: Tom Myers has filled more than 190 million bottles of wine in San Luis Obispo County and completed his 42nd Harvest.
2020: Tom continues to work as the winemaker at Castoro Cellars. 2020 will be his 43rd harvest.
Estrella River Winery Vineyard
An early brochure (around 1985) of Estrella River Winery promotes their Estate Bottled Wines. Award-winning wines at affordable prices. The motto:
“Life is an Estrella Cabernet, My Friend.”
The winery was built on a hilltop in the Estrella River Valley in 1977 by founder Clifford R. Giacobine. The winery had a tasting room, the first on Highway 46 East, Winery Tours, picnic tables, a 700-acre irrigated vineyard, 1000 roses, and a 50-foot observation tour. The winery was designed with modern technology by Gary Eberle, the first winemaker at Estrella River Winery. Gary also laid out the vineyard and designed the irrigation system by doing his own research at Cal Poly Library. The impressive building contained “state of the art” winemaking equipment, stainless steel tanks, French oak barrels, a bottling line, and a complete laboratory, the first in SLO County.
Estrella River Winery set a new standard for winemaking and was the second modern winery built in the County. HMR was the first modern winery built by HMR with advice and consultation with Andrew Tchelistchef. However, Estrella River Winery was much larger and had its own on-site tasting room.
The wines produced were:
Red Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel
White Wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc, Johannisberg Riesling
Method Champenoise: Blanc de Blancs
Dessert Wines: Muscat Canelli, Late Harvest Muscat Canelli, Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling
Here is the description of the winery: Estrella River Winery is one of California’s top five award-winning small wineries. Year after year. Estrella River Winery estate bottled wines have consecutively placed as some of the finest wines available to the consumer.
Vineyard Management at Estrella River Winery
The Estrella River vineyard was managed by Lorzaro Morones, born on December 17, 1926, in Safford, Arizona. He passed away on November 26, 2018, in Paso Robles. He worked at Estrella River Winery for about 10 years as the vineyard manager.
Tom Myers, the second winemaker at Estrella River Winery, enjoyed making the classic wines. Production continued to grow. Estrella created a secondary label with bottles of 750 ml and 1.5 ml. His focus was on creating high-quality Central Coast wines. Wines were sold throughout the Central Coast, in Southern California from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, the Central Valley all the way to Stockton. Production soon reached 100,000 cases per year. By 1986 the production was 150,000.
The original nine varieties grown included Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, French Syrah, Barbera, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Johannisberg Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Muscat Canelli was also grown, a favorite of Gary Eberle’s wife.