Paul Lato, Winemaker
Sociable, genteel, cosmopolitan, and very interesting: Santa Maria winemaker Paul Lato has much in common with the wines he produces. We first tasted Paul Lato’s wines at the 2011 World of Pinot Noir, piquing our interest to know more of the winemaker who produced these exceptional Pinot Noirs. Graciously, he hosted us for several tastings at his winemaking space in a Santa Maria warehouse during which the conversations ranged widely from Burgundy (of course), Frank Lloyd Wright as a winemaker, guiding the wine with one’s mind as with martial arts, and family recipes paired to his wines. No matter where the conversation traveled, however, he always called our attention back to the wine in our glasses as it opened and changed: “What do you think now?”
Blending European Winemaking with California Fruit
From a culinarily-gifted Polish family, winemaker, sommelier and chef Paul Lato has been making wines under his own label for the past eight years in Santa Maria from fruit produced in some of the Central Coast’s most renowned vineyards including Bien Nacido, Sierra Madre, Fiddlesticks, and Pisoni vineyards. His success with winemaking results from a passionate collection of attentiveness, skill, artistry, and wide-openness to the world of nature in which the fruit grows and the wine evolves. A practitioner of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, Paul has committed to doing everything possible in carefully handling the fruit to keep the wine alive, including full de-stemming, manual punch-downs, working with small batches, and using gravity systems. He’s emotionally involved with his wines, in a very good way. Back to the wine: “So you see how it opens up and softens?”
Understandably proud of his wines to which he has given so much of himself, Paul has a goal of bottles of Paul Lato one day gracing the White House dining table for both their ability to pair very well with fine foods and because they are the embodiment of a European style of wine that’s clearly not afraid to be Californian. “I’m not trying to mimic a European wine. I want to make what California is conducive to produce,” he says. Some American winemakers harvest in a manner designed to replicate Burgundian choices, but Paul chooses to manage and harvest in a way that recognizes the difference the warm California sun makes for Central Coast grapes. “I love Burgundy,” he says, “but I don’t want to pretend to be making a ‘California Burgundy.’ I just want to make the best wine from California and then put it next to a Burgundy blind and … [laughs] see what happens.”
It’s All in the Name
The thoughtfully-conceived names that Paul has chosen for these wines reinforce the passion that he applies to every facet of winemaking. Sharing these stories also allows him the opportunity to entertain and engage friends and customers: he’s a great storyteller who can be witty in several languages. “The name is important to signal what the wine is all about,” he says before telling another story behind the names of his wines.
- “Seabiscuit” is what he named the wine produced from fruit cultivated in a vineyard with great potential that had been poorly managed. One of Paul’s customers repeatedly invited him to purchase the Pinot Noir fruit from his vineyards and was repeatedly rejected until they improved the vineyard management practices. After three years, the vineyard was in much better condition and held great promise with its sandy soils and 10-year old vines. Another customer (and friendly rival to the first) also wished to sell Paul his Pinot fruit. This savvy winemaker has decided to call the wine from the second vineyard “The Admiral,” to create healthy competition for producing the finest grapes, as Seabiscuit had his own rival The Admiral on the track. “I push them to the best viticulture,” he smiles, anticipating great things from these wines.
- “Cocoro” is what he plans to name a blend from three of his best single-vineyard barrels which will incorporate the following fruit: Zotovich for the spiciness, Duende Gold Coast Vineyard for the nose, and Pisoni Vineyards for bigness and heft. This Japanese word refers to the psycho-spiritual energy of those who pour their souls into their art, an appropriate name for a wine constituted from three of the most exceptional vineyard lots among many fine barrels produced by this precise and passionate winemaker.
Skillful Cooking and Talented Winemaking
“Winemaking,” says Paul, “it’s a liquid kitchen.” His skill in the kitchen directly links to his winemaking ability; he inherited his skills in cooking and, by extension, winemaking from his Polish ancestors especially his grandmother. “If you can’t hire a real winemaker,” he says, “hire a housewife who can cook for her family and she will do the job.” Paul declared that he “learned more from my grandmother than from winemaking books.” When asked which of his grandmother’s dishes would pair particularly well with his wines, he smiled and described Polish gourmet comfort food: Naleśniki Scapusco which features the complementary food components acid (saurkraut), fat (bacon), and earthiness (mushrooms) that pair so well with Pinot Noir.
- plain crepes
- 1 large onion
- 1/2 saurkraut
- 1/2 fresh cabbage
- porcini mushrooms
Saute the stuffing mixture. Fill the crepes and roll. Fry stuffed crepes in butter.
Pair with Paul Lato Pinot Noir.
Balancing Wine with Everything Else
In response to an observation about writers perhaps taking too serious of a tone with this intoxicating drink, he gravely declared, “Wine is serious business.” Over the last eight years, he has confronted the challenges arising from such dedication to a perfect end product that beautifully integrates old world and new world winemaking. He takes steps that slow down the process of winemaking significantly from the efficient mechanical approach. Always, he tries to arrive at an understanding of the wine’s evolution even before the wine: “I guide my wine with my mind so I’m there before the wine gets there, like with martial arts.” As wonderful as this makes the wine, this approach has demanded nearly his whole life for years as he developed his quality relationships with his thoughtful, small lot wines. This dedication has also helped him develop as intuitive an experience of nature around and through his wines much as Frank Lloyd Wright experienced nature around and through his buildings. Back to the glass: “You see how this wine is evolving.”
The question of wine and balance that has attracted so much attention in recent years remains a challenge for Paul but not with regard to the wine in the glass. Every Paul Lato wine beautifully balances a high acidity with plenty of fruit that’s not overbearing. The imbalance comes for this winemaker in giving so much to his wines that he must work to re-establish a better rationing of living and working. When asked to indicate on a pie chart how much time he spends involved with wine, he circled the whole pie. His intense effort, however, has begun to pay off with his wines recognized as some of the finest, most balanced, and complementary bottles to pair with creative, flavorful cuisine.
Calling upon his 12 years as a sommelier in Toronto, Paul Lato strives to craft wines that encourage guests to order a second bottle of the same, a positive signal that the first recommendation hit the spot. If a wine is too big or over the top, however, guests cannot likely handle more than one bottle. Balance, restraint, complexity and delicacy swim together in each glass of his wine. This gracious and friendly winemaker embodied his own motto that “The wines should be approachable and so should the winemakers.” We concluded our interview over sushi and toasted with his wine. I have big plans for the two bottles we’re hoarding and look forward to my next opportunity to say hello to Paul and experience his intelligent, pretty wines.
Paul Lato Wines