Meet the Ogorsolka family
Zenaida Cellars owners Eric and Jill Ogorsolka know something about the famous Templeton Gap that a lot of newer winery owners don’t.
Just ask Jill why Theatre Drive in Templeton is actually called Theatre Drive.
“We’d go down to the old drive-in all the time,” Jill reminisced during a recent tour of the couple’s now 20-year-old winery. “That’s before they even added in a traffic light.”
This was back in 1996, long before the intersection of Theatre Drive and Highway 46 West symbolized the beginning of a celebrated wine trail winding from vineyard-dotted hillsides to Cambria waters.
This was before “coveted Willow District” fruit and “romantic Templeton Gap breezes” graced the back labels of wine going for $40 a pop.
This was way back, before Paso Robles had been divided into various sub growing regions—a million years before it was named 2013 Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine. It was a real Wild West, and the Ogorsolkas were trying out this crazy idea of making fine wine on the Central Coast, hundreds of miles south of famous, predictable Napa.
Funny how life works out.
Now, Eric is known for his bold, uniquely “Paso Robles red blends” that sing with Templeton Gap terroir. Just say, “Zephyr” or “Fire Sign” to any winemaker of a certain age, and they’ll nod knowingly.
But, it could have all turned out oh so differently. As the story goes, Eric could have wound up studying plankton or fish, not zinfandel and yeast.
“I was a marine biology student, but couldn’t get hired on full time,” Eric said of his early adulthood. “I got frustrated, and decided to get a part-time job at Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles. All of us young aspiring winemakers learned a lot about wine from Ken Volk back then.”
This was around the year 1990. Something clicked in Eric, who went on to studied oenology at UC Davis and—in 1996—planted his Templeton Gap vineyard. Two years later, he built the winery from the ground up. The rest is history in a glass.
Jill’s own journey to wine country, wasn’t straight from point A to point B, either.
Like many kids raised rurally, Jill swore she’d plant roots in more exotic soil. She didn’t get far before she was called back home again.
“When I went to school at UCSB, it was night and day culturally. I got really into food and wine, and I had the opportunity to work at restaurants with amazing wine lists,” she said. Now, Jill looks back at her younger self, and can’t help but chuckle when she thinks of the first moment she saw a Paso wine on a fancy wine list.
Say what you will about the firestorm surrounding the current ownership of JUSTIN Wine today. What Jill experienced that night was the power of the then locally owned winery’s Isosceles cabernet sauvignon blend, which would go on to be touted as sixth in the world by Wine Spectator. It was riveting; a real game changer.
“I was like, ‘Paso? What?’” she said of the lightbulb moment. “We all shared the bottle and it was amazing; that’s when I realized Paso had street cred.”
Now, Zenaida’s offerings are giving wine critics the world over that same enlightening moment of clarity (yes, many wine experts still don’t know where Paso Robles is on the map, much less a sub-AVA).
Those who are in the know, however, have long since believed that there’s just something special about Paso fruit—especially the supremely balanced fruit grown in the Templeton Gap, which boasts cool marine breezes and dramatic temperature swings.
From where I’m standing, it’s undoubtedly true.
Harvest was in full swing during a recent tour, where baskets of shockingly purple mourvedre grapes basked in the late morning sun. The hum of the crusher/destemmer provided a productive winemaker’s hymn.
“This baby can do 4 tons per hour,” Eric said, watching the fruit of his labors pass from a conveyor belt to a hand-sorting station manned by nimble fingers.
The winery currently uses fruit from the estate vineyard and sources from other local vineyards for their portfolio of wines, which include zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and petite sirah. Nestled at the base of the Santa Lucia Coastal Range, the couple’s 35-acre property consists of 22 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards, and Eric knows them all by heart. Along withJill and their two young kids, the couple has walked the rows countless times.
“We have date sheets on every wine going back to 1999,” Eric said while checking on dozens of bubbly fermentation tanks stored in a converted barn (Jill does the record keeping and business tasks while her husband sweats in the field).
History, it seems, is alive at Zenaida Cellars, even as it hurtles into 2017 and beyond. The winery occupies the original homestead of the property, dating back more than 100 years. The couple farms the land much as folks did back in the day: Utilizing the same low-impact philosophy in the vineyard and in the winery, Eric maintains that farming and living sustainably will not only produce higher quality wines. It will also help leave the land in better condition than how he found it.
Now, the 40-somethings are becoming the “old timers” of the area, a winery for newbies to watch and learn from, if they should be so wise. Note: Zenaida boasts one of the only tasting lists that gives its members such increasingly good deals every year that a member stays part of the family.
Times may have changed in Paso Robles—hotels where there were none, more than 200 wineries where there were few, and a downtown tasting room scene to be envied—but the Ogorsolkas have kept their cool. For them, it still feels cozy in Paso, and the “howdy neighbor” vibe lives on.
“Now we’ve all gotten married and the kids are growing up, but we still maintain that we have the best little neighborhood of winemakers out here on 46 West,” Jill said.
Meet the Barton Family
Jenny Barton has what you’d call an electric smile.
Petite and powerful with a welcoming vibe that radiates true warmth, she ushers visitors into the remodeled Barton Family Wines and Grey Wolf Cellars tasting room she owns alongside her husband and winemaker, Joe Barton. The afternoon sun is shining brilliantly on this warm harvest day. A crisp, coastal breeze is flowing through the famous Templeton Gap.
Why the big smile? Today, work is play. She’s also showing off the winery’s newly remodeled outdoor lounge area, which overlooks Highway 46 West’s sprawling green vineyards and cow-studded knolls. The Tooth and Nail Winery “castle” floats in the distance, completing the storybook dream sequence.
But when Jenny looks around, she doesn’t just see a chic outdoor fireplace flanked by a modern sectional or a killer sunset. She also sees bits and pieces of her own rural childhood flashing before her eyes. The newly added antique metal siding and low tables perfect for propping up a glass of wine? They’re all salvaged from old turkey feeders and fencing.
“The metal all came off the turkey farm I grew up on in Frazier Park, over the Grapevine. My dad made these tables for us yesterday, and the barn wood—that’s real barn wood from the ranch, homesteaded in 1919,” Jenny says. “My favorite new part of the winery is by far the bar. It’s made from the first barn that my great-grandfather built on the family homestead. Joe made it into a real piece of art.”
It’s fitting that Jenny’s history is intertwined within the property, which stands as a monument to her husband’s family heritage. History lives in the tiniest details, and the details are many (just ask about the Barton family crest, which naturally features an arm and hammer, a wolf, and a chalice).
The tasting room is actually located inside the Barton family’s 80-year-old farm house, where the clan once lived, ate, laughed, embraced, and prepared for long days in the vineyard. Now, it offers a robust lineup of delicious Rhone wines, fruit- forward reds, and even a cozy corner where you can throw on a vinyl record and relax with a glass of chenin blanc (this space was once Joe’s parents’ bedroom).
Outside on the new, extended “porch,” tables are occupied with friends noshing on cheesesteak mac and cheese and saucy pulled pork sandwiches produced by Chef Jeffry Wiesinger of Jeffry’s Catering, located onsite.
Nearby, Joe’s new distillery venture KROBAR—which he owns alongside friend and fellow winemaker Steve Kroner—attracts a new kind of tourist to Paso’s idyllic west side.
These renovations represent a fresh, bold chapter for the Barton family’s long love affair with Paso wine. Grey Wolf Cellars truly began with the dream of Joe’s parents,
Joe Sr. and Shirlene, who first fell in love with premium wines after owning a restaurant together in Colorado. In the early ’90s, the couple returned to their native home of California, settling in the fledgling wine region of Paso Robles, citing their love of the warm weather and—most importantly—warm people.
The Barton family established Grey Wolf Cellars in 1994, and got to making their first wine, a blend of locally sourced cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, with gusto. This juicy red meritage debuted in 1997, marking the first of many wines handcrafted with attention to detail from luscious local fruit. One year later—with the help of Joe Jr. (then a Cal Poly viticulture major), the family planted their own vineyard. It was hard work, but the Bartons aren’t known to complain.
“When my family first moved in, there was just a beat-up old farm house. It was falling down, with pigs out front and an old blacksmith’s shed out back,” Joe said with a laugh. “I remember the day we bought this place, now 20 years ago, just hauling junk, praying we’d be ready for harvest festival weekend. In just one month, we vowed to turn this place into a tasting room.”
The whole Barton family—including Joe’s sister and uncle—pulled together and did just that (having a solid foot in the carpentry trade helped).
Hammers were swung and old farm equipment hauled away. Joe’s mother, who still resides on the property today, was amazed at the transformation, which included opening up the ceiling and redoing the floors. They did indeed open, just in the nick of time. Joe never tires of telling this story, and people never seem to tire of hearing it.
“Over the years, every person who’s ever lived in this house has come by,” Joe said. “It’s amazing. The guy who did the original wood floors stopped by, and he showed me where the rock came from that made up the fire place.”
Although those early days are marked with a frenetic excitement that can only come from building a new life from scratch, there is also a black mark that stings to this day. A devastating loss came after Joe Sr.’s tragic death in a car accident on Highway 46.
The year was 1998; the winery had just begun to find its footing, and the family was shaken to its core. Joe Jr. doubled down his efforts to keep the family dream alive.
“I was just finishing Cal Poly at the time; my mom still worked as a teacher in Bakersfield. Still, we never let the tasting room doors close,” Joe says. “We’ve stayed family owned and operated and we’re proud of that; it’s been hard, but we’ve enjoyed building the property so much. Every year, there’s always something new to experience and share.”
In 2011, the winemaker released the Barton label, known for complex, nuanced white wines and restrained, elegant reds. Joe says he loves the Templeton Gap’s supremely balanced reds—and both labels showcase more than a few—but he personally likes to kick back with a clean, acidic, floral white wine.
That’s what we drank as we stood atop the hilltop portion of Joe’s estate vineyard looking toward the old Barton home.
Surrounded by his own ripening fruit, Joe was able to easily point to neighboring vineyards that he still loves to work with. When you’ve been in the area as long as the Barton family, abstract words like “Willow Creek,” “Templeton Gap,” and “Adelaida District” meld into a first-name basis relationship that’s as real as a firm handshake.
Family has and still continues to touch every aspect of the operation, paying homage to the words Joe Sr. proudly emblazoned on his first Grey Wolf label.
Pull out an old Grey Wolf bottle and you’ll see it written in unshakable black and white, a message from the past that bodes well for Paso’s hardworking wine wolf pack: “A family is a circle of caring, strong and eternal.”