Enologist/General Partner, Eberle Winery
If it weren’t for Gary Eberle, two accepted truths of modern American viticulture may never have taken root: Paso Robles is a great place to grow grapes, and Syrah is a great grape to grow across the country.
The only child of a single mother in Western Pennsylvania, Eberle rode a football scholarship to Penn State. After earning his Bachelor of Science degree, he went to Louisiana to pursue graduate studies in zoology and genetics, but fine wine stole his heart. In 1971, he headed west to study at the University of California, Davis, where he worked and studied under professors who were examining whether Paso Robles could be the next Napa.
“I just fell in love with Paso Robles,” says Eberle. “The people are nice, and the weather is so conducive to Bordelaise and Rhône varieties. They do very well here.”
Eberle cofounded Estrella River Winery in 1973. He quickly won accolades from Los Angeles to London for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Crucially, he also planted Syrah, and his 1978 vintage was the first American bottling to ever feature 100% Syrah.
Eberle’s “Estrella clone” of Syrah, reportedly from Chapoutier by way of the Davis campus vineyard, became coveted across the U.S., from Washington State to Virginia.
“Probably 60% of all the Syrah grown in the United States is that damn clone,” says Eberle. “It’s a great producer and it doesn’t have any viticultural problems.”
Based on the initial success, Eberle’s partners at Estrella River wanted to keep growing, but he advised otherwise. He officially left the partnership in 1981 to start Eberle Winery, eventually planting three more vineyards and growing production close to 30,000 cases a year while mentoring new generations of winemakers and steadily raising Paso’s profile.
Eberle says he modeled his Paso Robles strategy after what his old mentor Robert Mondavi did for Napa.
“I tried to promote Paso as much as I did my own winery, because it was one of those chicken or egg things,” he says. “They both had to go up at the same time. I knew that I wasn’t going to be successful unless Paso was successful.”
“We used to go to the East Coast and say ‘Paso Robles,’ and they’d ask if we were from Texas or Baja California,” he says. “Now Paso is known in the major wine-consuming nations. We are a very serious part of the wine industry.”
More than a half-century in, Eberle still works every day, but it’s more of a cruise-control lifestyle than his early days.
“I never inherited a dime—everything I have, I crafted,” he says. “But I’ve never had another purpose. Right now, I’m sitting in front of my winery. I’m here every day, seven days a week. I have good people in all the key positions, so this winery runs itself. I’m allowed to just sit out here and talk to consumers.”
For helping make Syrah and Paso Robles major players in the American wine world and mentoring the next generation of stewards for both, Gary Eberle is Wine Enthusiast’s American Wine Legend. —Matt Kettmann