John Munch at the Le Cuvier Winery’s terrace, 2018. Credit: Mira Advani Honeycutt.
by Mira Advani Honeycutt
Vintner John Munch was a maverick before arriving in Paso Robles, so it’s no wonder he was drawn to the wild west spirit of the region and decided to put roots down in the late 1970s. An intrinsic part of Paso Robles wine history, the legendary winemaker will be roasted and toasted by his peers and friends at the 4th Annual Fryers Celebrity Roast on October 28 at Terra Mia in Paso Robles.
In the past four decades, the veteran winemaker has seen an avalanche of change in Paso. “There were about eight wineries at the festival in the downtown park,” Munch recalled about the first Paso Robles wine festival which marked its 36th celebration this year. “It was a joy,” he reminisced sitting in the tree-shaded patio of his Le Cuvier Winery in Paso’s west side Adelaida District. The idea behind the festival was to draw visitors to the wine tasting rooms, he noted.
Le Cuvier’s busy “by appointment only” tasting room now attracts some 15,000 visitors annually. “We didn’t have 15,000 coming through Paso when we started,” said Munch in amazement.
Munch’s grey hair and scraggly beard give him a wise-man look, but the irreverent winemaker is anything but. His witty mind borders on the idiosyncratic and unconventional, and he can be self-deprecating in the best possible way. “Now that I’m no longer a winemaker, they give me the Winemaker of the Year award,” he quipped when receiving the San Luis Obispo County’s 2018 industry leaders award at the California Mid State Fair. Munch recently handed over the winemaking reigns to his assistant winemaker, Clay Selkirk, but is still involved as Le Cuvier’s self-appointed wine herd.
The Costa-Rican born winemaker is something of a throwback to the 1960s Berkeley hippie era. But a life’s patchwork of adventures has taken him on a circuitous route from Central America to Europe and then finally to California.
Along the way, Munch studied poetry at UC Berkeley, worked in international litigation in Switzerland and the construction business in San Francisco, all this culminating in his illustrious experiences with winemaking in Paso Robles. In fact, Munch admits that when involved in the legality of international issues, it wasn’t so much the law but the precision of language that fascinated him, which led him to abandon law for West Saxon poetry. He himself is amused by his long winding seemingly accidental career. After returning from four years in Europe, school finally made sense, and he graduated from San Francisco State.
Munch and his late wife Andree Guyon, whom he met in France, moved to San Francisco, a city they both loved. Eventually, they longed for a place reminiscent of Provence and got introduced to Paso through an artist friend Michael Lidbury. The couple’s first trip to the town was in the 1970s in the height of summer. They cooled off with a rum and coke at downtown’s Rodeo Club.
“What the hell was our friend talking about,” Munch recalled saying to his wife over that beverage. Remember, though, not much was happening in Paso in those days. “But then we went over the hill and fell in love,” he said of the Adelaida region. In 1978 the couple purchased the property on Vine Hill Lane (location of the current Le Cuvier winery).
At the time Munch had the choice of buying the 10-acre Vine Hill property for $50,000 or 120 acres on Chimney Rock for $80,000. The latter property became Justin Winery. “That was too far out and this property had a great view,” he mused.
Since Munch was in construction and millwork at that time, the idea was to restore the Vine Hill property and sell it. Building a winery was not on the radar. As happens in Munch’s accidental life, however, winemaking came by happenstance.
Through his French wife’s brother, Munch was introduced to a group of French investors from Champagne looking to produce sparkling wine in California for the US market, much like what Domaine Chandon (founded by Möet Hennessy) had launched in Napa at the time. Munch was brought on board to do research and soon got into partnership with them.
“The next thing I knew I was making sparkling wine at Estrella winery,” said Munch with a chuckle. Most of the fruit was from the Estrella Vineyard, but Pinot Noir grapes for Blanc de Noirs were sourced from Shandon. “The best Pinot Noir for sparkling wine, it was remarkable,” he commented.
The original sparkling wine label was “Chat Botté” (French for puss in boots). The brand was later changed to “Tonio Conti,” named after one of the investors. “Because the American tongue changed the pronunciation and people started calling it ‘shat booty,’” Munch explained. At Estrella, Munch was in the company of such illustrious names as Gary Eberle, Neils Udsen, Tom Myers, and Bill Scheffer.
The production of Tonio Conti sparkling wine began in 1982 with a 1,600 annual-case production and grew to 6,000 cases by 1984. Unfortunately, just as the first bottles of Tonio Conti sparkling wine hit the market in 1987, Estrella was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Between 1981 and the Estrella bankruptcy, Munch and his colleagues enjoyed the benefits of purchasing bulk Estrella wine in barrels to blend for their labels. “Estrella reserved what they deemed to be their the best wines, Cabernet was reserved for their own brand,” Munch recalled. “And we could select any of the other lots of Cabernet, or whatever wine, and put together our blend.”
But much to Estrella’s displeasure Munch added, “The blended wines that we put together were the wines that ended up winning the gold!” They didn’t have to pay for bottling or glass, only for labels and capsules. “We paid for the wine when we took it out the door, for somebody who didn’t have any money, this was a pretty good deal,” he remarked.
Munch and his wife, Andree, launched Adelaida Cellars as a Négociant wine brand using Estrella grapes and/or bulk wine beginning with the 1981 vintage and set up a bonded winery on their Vine Hill property in 1983. The iconic Adelaida wine label of the two faces was designed by Lidbury, who captured Andree’s reflecting image.
The Estrella-acquired cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were successfully sold by Andree at $8 per bottle (soon raised to $12 per bottle). “This was a hefty price back in the mid-1980s,” Munch commented. Tasting rooms and wine tourism in Paso Robles were almost nonexistent, so Andree was selling up and down the coast from the back of her car. “A French accent does a fabulous job,” Munch said with satisfaction.
Munch’s life took another turn when he was approached by Matt Van Steenwyck to bring his Adelaida Cellars label to the Steenwyck property on Paso’s west side and offered to plant vineyards and build a winery. The Steenwyck family had sizable acreage of walnut orchards and had already acquired the historic HMR vineyard (planted by the late Dr. Stanley Hoffman in the 1970s), which Munch revitalized and also planted the prized Viking vineyard.
While at Adelaida Cellars, Munch made an agreement with the Van Steenwycks and continued to produce his own wine under the Le Cuvier label made on Adelaida Road in a rustic farmhouse. “We were so busy developing the Adelaida brand that we had little time for selling Le Cuvier, so left it in the barrels.” That’s how Munch got into aging his wines. “I liked what was happening to the wines, three years plus in the barrels, wines became unique and different,” he confessed.
But that aging also posed a challenge because everyone around him was selling current vintages, and they all thought Munch’s wines had a problem. “How come you can’t sell your wines,” they would ask.
Munch left Adelaida Cellars in 1999, ushering in Steve Glossner as his successor. Two years later he entered into a partnership with consultant and investor Mary Fox and the duo relocated Le Cuvier’s operation to its current location, building a new winery and tasting room which officially opened in 2011.
Munch who sources all his fruit from prized Paso vineyards practices a maverick wine mantra: let the grapes do the work. “You’re getting an expression of the vineyards rather than the winemaker.” The intervention-free approach allows him to herd the “feral beasties” found in the finest fruit from top-notch vineyards into his wines. Munch is a big proponent of dry-farmed grapes. His uncommonly lengthy process of barrel aging in neutral oak barrels for 33 months or longer and purchasing pricy fruit is certainly not a good business model though.
“With three years of aging, I’ve lost a quarter of my wine through evaporation and paid three times the price for grapes,” he admitted. “But each vineyard shows its individual personality and each barrel has an entire colony of microorganisms growing in the barrels.” In some cases, he added, “The barrels are whacko and unique, so we hold those back for four, five or six years of aging.”
Currently available in the tasting room, Le Cuvier’s lineup includes 2015 vintages of a lusty zinfandel, a deep goth red berry-loaded Petite Sirah, the velvety dark Littoral – a Petite Verdot-driven Bordeaux style blend — and Chrysos, a lyrical blend of Viognier and Roussanne.
Munch revealed that they are running out of their small annual production of some 4,000 cases and the club has a waiting list. So now winemaker Selkirk has launched his own Devil’s Gate Wine Works label available at Le Cuvier tasting room. “So nobody goes thirsty,” Munch remarked.
Munch’s passionate approach is evident in the winery’s underground cellar stocked with old bottles. I’ve had the opportunity to taste some of these library wines dating back to the 1980s, which reflect how well Paso wines can age.
The wine maverick is now on his next life incarnation as a novelist. His current novel, “The Great Roach Race,” is available in the tasting room and his next one, “Drunkards Guide to Dive Bars in the Eastern Sierras,” is gestating in the wordsmith’s serendipitous mind.
The Fryers Club Roast is a fundraiser for Cancer Support Community.
For tickets contact: www.pasoroblesfryersclub.com