I confess. I’ve become a Paso wine fanatic. Paso Robles, California that is; situated in San Luis Obispo County, just north of Santa Barbara (where Kevin and I honeymooned in 1984, and where I first fell in love with real wine). Back in the ‘70s when I was in college at UCLA, I would take drives up the scenic coast along Pacific Highway to camp at Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, San Simeon (William Randolph Hearst’s home and playground otherwise known as Hearst Castle), Big Sur, Monterey, Carmel and points north. Back then, the only wines I could afford were the jug Almaden ($1.99) and on a special occasion, the Gallo white Zinfandel. [Therein my disclosure above about “real” wine.]
Little did I know that just about 20 miles east of San Simeon along Interstate 101 lie the towns of San Miguel and Paso Robles. Both towns were known for their artist colonies, cottage industries and hippie vibe, but it wasn’t until the early eighties did Paso begin its ascent as one of the most acclaimed (and still underrated) wine regions in California. With ideal soil conditions comprised of everything from ancient sea bed, volcanic, rocky alluvium, shale, oyster shell, granite and the perfect climate for growing grapes, it is no wonder that before long, renegade visionaries like Russell From (Herman Story), Vailia Esh From (Desparada), Andrew Jones (Fableist, Field Recordings, Alloy Wineworks), Karl Wittstrom (Ancient Peaks), and Niels and Bimmer Udsen (Castoro Cellars) revolutionized the wine industry along the Central Coast.
On a recent trip, I made a point of visiting Herman Story, Desparada, Ancient Peaks and Castoro Cellars (all of these wines we love and carry at Teller). Not only because they represent the small boutique producers we want to support, but because I wanted to get a more intimate look at the people behind the labels. So, who is Beaver, you ask? Niels Udsen got his nickname when he was working in Italy. His friends began calling him “Il Castoro,” which is “beaver” in Italian. The name and the motto stuck. On every bottle of Castoro Cellars wines is a picture of a beaver and the tagline “dam fine wines.” Hey, if the name fits . . . .
Unlike the other Central Coast wineries I visited on this trip, Castoro’s vineyards are onsite with the tasting room. The grounds are comfortably Californian. Once entering the tasting room, which is reminiscent of someone’s living room (but with a lot of bottles of wines and wine-related décor for sale), I go straight to the tasting bar. For regular folks, it’s only $5 for a taste of 6 wines that they apply to your purchase. But because I was a VIP, my very knowledgeable server waived my tasting fee and proceeded to give me an in-depth rundown of their offerings for that day. All I can say is, it’s a good thing there was a couch there!
I tasted eight remarkable wines, including a Chenin Blanc, Falanghina, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet, and a special 32nd anniversary release called Trenta Due Anni, which is not exported outside of California. But of course, I bought a bottle and carefully packed it into my suitcase.
Last year was our 32nd wedding anniversary, and 1984 was also Niels and Bimmer’s first vintage after establishing Castoro Cellars in San Miguel. Niels was born and raised in Ventura, California, and got started in the Paso Robles wine business while studying Agribusiness at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo. After working on a few winery-related projects, he became intrigued by the field and went to work at Estrella River Winery. It was there he was mentored by winemaker Tom Myers, who taught Niels the finer points of wine production.
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Niels’ father was a native of Denmark who immigrated to America in the late 1940s. A farmer turned successful businessman, he taught Niels about the agricultural and business worlds. The two made many trips to Denmark. As fate would have it, during one of their first trips Niels was introduced to Bimmer; he was 8 years old, she was 6. Upon returning to Denmark at the age of 14, Niels learned to make wine under the tutelage of his future father-in-law, setting the precedence for what was yet to come.
“There’s a lot less romance in the everyday wine world than appears from the outside,” Niels explains. “The winery isn’t a showplace, we don’t have big stone pillars and art collections, but we have everything we need to make great wine.” Establishing their own winery in San Miguel and being able to produce their wines in one place as opposed to producing different wines in different locations, still ranks as one of Niels’ most gratifying experiences.
At first Niels made the wine in his spare time, while still working at Estrella River Winery. Bimmer sold and delivered the wine and managed the bookkeeping, all the while attending the local junior college. By 1985, the brand had become so successful that Niels left Estrella River Winery to concentrate fully on the Castoro brand. Production grew over the next few years from 1,000 cases to 3,000 cases.
In the span of two-dozen years, Niels and Bimmer have gone from making a few barrels of wine for family and friends in a rented corner of someone else’s winery to developing a custom-crush operation and a 60,000-case operation for Castoro Cellars. Most recently, the Udsens purchased two local vineyards, one aptly named “Hog Heaven” after the wild hogs that inhabit the area. The second vineyard, “Blind Faith,” got its name when the opportunity to buy the vineyard arose. Bimmer was in Denmark at the time. Niels called her and together they acted quickly on … blind faith.
Castoro Cellars currently has over 750 acres of Estate vineyards, 350 of which are certified organic. All the vineyards are SIP Certified, which stands for “sustainability in practice.” Roughly 15 percent of the fruit is sourced from local farmers, many of whom they have been doing business with for almost two decades.
After my visit to Castoro Cellars, I ventured into downtown Paso, where I browsed art galleries, cute boutiques, and enjoyed a lovely tapas dinner (with wine of course). Leave it to Beaver to make some damn good wines!