When you think of great wines, California is as likely to come to mind these days as Bordeaux, Rioja, or Tuscany. It’s no secret that California’s wine industry has blossomed over recent decades to become one of the most notable in the world, producing some of the finest wines that rival those of the legendary wine regions of France, Spain, and Italy. That’s why visiting California wineries have become one of our favorite pastimes.
We recently returned from experiences in California’s Napa, Sonoma, and Central Coast wine regions and found the experience a joy, as always. While we typically stop in at some of the larger and more established wineries, we also make it a point to visit smaller family-owned wineries as well. It’s an experience that often brings a more intimate tasting experience with an owner/winemaker or family member pouring in the tasting room. This allows us to not only discover smaller-production craft wines, but we get to hear the stories of how the wineries went from dreams to reality from the owners of the wineries themselves.
One such experience we recommend is a visit to Autry Cellars in San Luis Obispo, a charming mission town on California’s Central Coast. Here, turning off State Highway 227 onto a hard-packed driveway across from Los Ranchos Road, you meander for a bit flanked by a vineyard on one side and olive trees on the other, arriving at an unassuming building that’s production facility, barrel room, bottling line, and tasting room all in one. In a heartbeat, you know this place is all about the love of producing wine. It is also the dream of owner/winemaker Steve Autry, who by the way is indeed often pouring and happy to talk about his wines and winery.
According to Autry, the path to becoming a winemaker began some 30 years ago while enjoying a remarkable Zinfandel. He had no idea wine could be so extraordinary, or in fact that the experience would later influence the course of his life. It became his mission to one day make great wines like that, although he didn’t exactly know how.
A man with a serious scientific bent and a background in aerospace, he was no winemaker. But then, exceptional winemaking relies on science….lots of science, as it turns out. We know because we’ve been to Autry Cellars many times now to sample his incredible wines. When Autry isn’t pouring, he’s hands-on in some element of the winemaker/owner/mad scientist process, often with a calculator or notepad in hand and scientific instruments, scales, and beakers at the ready. Add a passion for the craft to the science – plus the finely-honed palate required to create great wine and a musician’s innate sense of balance and harmony – and you have a powerful formula for success.
Autry’s wines have done exceptionally well in competitions, as they should. His Malbec is sensational. The Tempranillo outstanding. And the Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc are favorites. Not content with doing anything as expected, Autry’s Chardonnay, one of the two whites he produces, is bolder than one would assume. Autry achieves this by leaving skins on for a full day after the grapes are crushed to gather their nuances, and of course by intentionally aiming to make it his own way. His whites are, he says, “white wines for red wine drinkers.”
Autry pours a rotating selection of 12 varietals including the wines mentioned plus Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Pinot Noir. Autry Cellars also became the first and only winery in the Edna Valley licensed for brandy production, so American and Hungarian-oaked brandies and Grappa have become popular additions in his tasting room.
How good are they? Autry’s Grappa just won a gold medal and Best of Class at the 2016 California Craft Spirits Competition, with his American and Hungarian Oak brandies each capturing silver. This well-deserved nod of recognition complements the additional six awards Autry wines recently earned at California’s 2016 Central Coast Wine Competition.
In the tasting room and on the outside deck, visitors learn the intricacies of each varietal as they are poured, what makes them unique, and how they came to be the way they are. All this is enjoyed amid vistas of vineyards and the Santa Lucia Mountains in the distance. Nearby is Islay Peak, the southernmost of the fascinating hilly volcanic plugs that define the area’s geography from San Luis Obispo to the iconic Morro Rock some 15 miles to the northwest in Morro Bay.
Visitors get an intimate sense of the winemaking process as all the tools of the trade – tanks, barrels, press, crusher, de-stemmer, labeler, and bottling equipment – are readily in view past the door of the tasting room. Autry personally works all these machines, and more, as he produces an average of 1,000 cases of high-quality handcrafted wines each year.
If you notice subtle musical decorations in the tasting room or note similar references in his promotional materials, it’s no coincidence. A winemaker by day, Autry is also a musician by night, regularly playing in rock and jazz bands at various venues in the region, plus the annual Summer Jazz Series in nearby Santa Ynez. A bass clef is a prominent part of the Autry Cellars logo, and his ‘Ostinato’ Wine Club is aptly-named, referencing the repeating melodic phrases in music.
Autry’s path to becoming an award-winning artisan winemaker has been an interesting one. He began as a wine enthusiast like many of us and then took up amateur winemaking, sharing his wine with family and friends. The transition to commercial winemaking came in 2001 as Autry began selling winemaking supplies and consulting services. He then took the leap to full-fledged winemaker six years later, producing and selling award-winning wines behind the roll-up doors of a nondescript space in a San Luis Obispo business park.
A move in recent years has brought Autry Cellars to a much larger location amid vineyards and bucolic environs in the nearby Edna Valley, at the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. While his production facility and tasting room are now more strategically positioned along the region’s famous Wine Trail, the experience here remains down-home and personal. This is readily evident to first-time visitors and regulars alike who come here to appreciate Steve Autry’s love of wine and his enduring efforts to bring this joy to others.