Drinking History with the Hearst Family

Discover how the Hearst family entertains, from Prohibition-era soirées to current wine-centric bashes.
Photo by Brian P. Hall

Then

Hearst Castle is an architectural wonder and home to one of the most outstanding collections of European art and antiquities in the United States. But the 56-bedroom, 61-bathroom, Spanish Colonial-Moorish spread in San Simeon was once just as famous for hosting lavish parties.

During its heyday in the late 1920s and through the ’30s, actors, writers and luminaries such as Winston Churchill would flock to the mansion on California’s Central Coast owned by billionaire and media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

To match the opulence of the setting, Hearst would impress his guests with wine from his prized cellar, favoring French vintages like an 1878 Nuits-St.-Georges or bottles from Château Cheval Blanc or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

The oldest bottles left in the wine cellar at Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California.
The oldest bottles left in the wine cellar at Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California. Photo by Brian P. Hall.

The Hearst beverage menu also was likely to include some top-shelf Alsace and German Rieslings, as well as a range of California wines, particularly those from Beaulieu Vineyard. They’d be served alongside Hearst Ranch-grown beef and other locally sourced foods at dinner, the fine dining preceded by a cocktail hour and followed by ample drafts of National Dry Pale beer.

Drinks, more than food, were the forte of the castle table: Meals were quirkily served with bottles of Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard. Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeleine children’s book series and himself a globetrotting gourmand, recalled the food as somewhat forgettable, but stressed that “the Moselle wine was superb.”

Despite the bevy of bottles and Hearst’s outrage over Prohibition—his newspapers offered $25,000 to whomever could come up with the best way to defeat it—he hated overindulgence. So, he had rules on imbibement, reluctantly accepted by revelers frolicking in the castle’s famous Neptune pool.

Those who became visibly intoxicated—including Errol Flynn one year—would be asked to leave and dropped off at the train station in San Luis Obispo. Moreover, all the fine wine and liquor was secured behind thick iron doors, about which Wilfred Lyons, a former employee quipped, “Mr. Hearst would lock up his cellar, and you couldn’t get into it. I mean, even the butler had to order ahead.”

The fountain and courtyard of front entrance to Hearst Castle.
The fountain and courtyard of front entrance to Hearst Castle. Photo by Brian P. Hall.

Now

The Hearst family donated the castle and its surrounding 127 acres to the state of California in 1958. Reopened as a state park, it’s a popular place for private parties—from weddings to the annual Central Coast Wine Classic.

But the Hearst taste for entertaining continues, as the family still owns more than 82,000 acres of adjacent land on which they host elegant bashes and charitable fundraisers for the family’s cancer resource center in San Luis Obispo, or Best Buddies International, a support organization for people with disabilities.

Today, the family’s strongest ties to its epicurean history are through its thriving grass-fed cattle operation and Hearst Ranch Winery.

Wine club parties take place at exclusive Hearst Ranch buildings, including the refurbished shoreline warehouse that once sheltered materials used for building the castle. The tasting rooms are also housed in historic structures owned by the family—one is a modest spot on Jack Creek Ranch, along Highway 46 on the eastside of Paso Robles; the other is on San Simeon Bay below the castle, in Sebastian’s General Store.

There, beneath the whale harpoon guns and surrounded by memorabilia from seven Hearst generations, guests can sip Hearst Ranch Winery wines, produced by Jim Saunders with the help of Paso winemakers Soren Christensen, who worked at Hope Family Wines and Alta Colina, and French-born Guillaume Fabre, who started boutique winery Clos Solène.

Though the 19th-century Burgundy may have been locked away, these much more accessible bottles from Hearst Ranch Winery now sustain Hearst Castle’s liquid legacy.

Winemaker Soren Christensen, and owner Jim Saunders pour out a tasting of Chardonnay in the barrel room at the Saunders Vineyard in Paso Robles, California.
Winemaker Soren Christensen, and owner Jim Saunders pour out a tasting of Chardonnay in the barrel room at the Saunders Vineyard in Paso Robles, California. Photo by Brian P. Hall.

Hearst Ranch Winery, a Spotlight on Paso

Hearst Ranch Winery came about when Paso Robles developer Jim Saunders, who’d been growing and making wine for years, met Steve Hearst on a tour of the family ranch. He gave Hearst two bottles etched with “Hearst Ranch Winery.” Saunders maintains it was a joke, but Hearst believes it was a strategic ploy.

The two became fast friends. Saunders received permission to license the family name from Hearst, and the winery was born. Today, varietal bottlings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Malbec, Tempranillo and Chardonnay.

Published on August 10, 2016
Topics: Wine History
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.




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