Ad Astra per Aspera
I just came across this Latin proverb in a book I’m reading about archery. It seems so right for the 10th anniversary of the six-barrel inauguration of Paul Lato Wines, back in 2002.
The words translate as “A rough road leads to the stars.”
Before I explain why this saying resonates for me, I first want to say how amazed I am by all of you - all of the friends, and strangers who became friends - whom I have met over the past decade. I’m very happy to know you, because my goal has always been to make special wines for special people.
My first visit to the Central Coast was in 1996, on the invitation of Jim Clendenen. “You don’t need to read any more wine books,” he told me. “Just come out and work for me one harvest and you will understand how this works.” It was a great three months. I returned to Canada, where I was a sommelier for Toronto’s best restaurant, and worked for six more years in the wine trade until I was ready to make a permanent move.
I came here for good in September of 2002, bringing all of my savings - which wasn’t much - and all of my life folded into two suitcases. I had all the passion in the world, some craziness, and the innocence of a five-year-old, to convince me that I could actually become a successful winemaker.
Bob Miller, the late co-owner of Bien Nacido Vineyards, gave me a job as a $10-an-hour cellar rat. He also greatly encouraged to me to make my own wines, and let me stay for free in a bunkhouse at the vineyard. During the long harvest days I was able to watch more than 20 experienced winemakers at work, and ask many questions.
I will never forget the moment when, almost by chance, I met Robert Parker. “Just call me Bob,” he said. “I hear you are this sommelier who makes wine. I want to taste it.”
Suddenly feeling shy, I sheepishly told him I had only three barrels of pinot and three barrels of syrah, which might not yet be ready for tasting. He said, “You are starting from the hardest grapes. But don’t worry about it. I’m a wine taster. I taste everything. But,” he added meaningfully, “if it’s s**t, I’m going to tell you.”
I pulled the cork from an unlabeled sample bottle of my pinot and handed it to him with a glass. He poured for himself, looked at the wine, and lifted it to his nose. “Wow,” he said, “this smells like really good pinot.” Looking almost like a judge presiding in a court, he put the wine in his mouth. As he spit it out and reached out for the black book he kept in his jacket, he asked “What is the name of the winery?”
“I don’t know, sir. I didn’t decide yet.” He smiled again and poured himself the syrah. He tasted it, made some more notes, looked at me again and said, “You have a tremendous talent. Hurry up with the name, because I want to be the first one to write about your wines.”
If I live another 100 years, I will never forget that. It brought tears to my eyes.
When I started I was so passionate and so dedicated that I thought that no matter what, I would make it somehow. But the road was just brutally hard. Without Parker’s blessing from the first vintage, I might not have survived.
As I’ve tasted with Bob every year since, I’ve found him to be genuine, generous, extremely kind and also extremely smart, a great taster with an incredible sense of humor. Most important, he loves people. As a critic he wants to bring new stars up, rather than break established ones.
He once wrote that I was sleeping in my car in the early years, though literally this only happened a few times. For nearly a whole year, through the grace of friends, I found myself staying in two, three, or four different places each week. Finally another friend invited me to live in his house, knowing I had no money for rent.
In one of the dark moments of doubt came a beautifully helpful call from Thomas Keller, saying that he loved the wine and wanted it for his French Laundry. Somewhere along the way I also discovered the writings of Joseph Campbell, and took to heart his reassurance that pursuing what you love is what matters most in life.
Throughout these ten years, people would always appear out of nowhere to give me a helping hand when I needed it most. Many days I had enough gas to get to work, but not enough to drive back home. And every time, someone would show up and ask to buy a bottle or two of my wine.
I somehow survived and withstood because I believed in my dream, and so did many other kind people, early supporters who embraced my vision and started buying the wines. Their word-of-mouth testimony to friends allowed me to continue, and I’m very grateful.
And now, with the Christmas of my 10th anniversary year arriving, I’d like to acknowledge how so many of you opened your hearts and wine cellars during the past decade. Most importantly, you became friends. During my most recent visit to LA, a very special friend who has supported me almost from the beginning organized two great wine dinners for a handful of people in two great restaurants. On the second night we dined at newly-renovated Spago. My friend most generously brought incredible wines from his cellar - a couple of 1982 Bordeaux’s, a Leoville-Les-Cases 1982, a Pegau 2004, a Domaine Comtes Lafon 1997 and a 1991 cabernet from Araujo were the highlights. And my chardonnays and pinots were ordered from Spago’s superb wine list, created by Chris Miller, Master Sommelier. My wines acquitted themselves well in that elegant company. They belonged on the team.
This was such a memorable evening, most of all because of the company of friends. The wines became a medium and brought us all together through a shared passion, like songs.
There are still so many things to learn, quite a long journey ahead of me. I am very aware of many things I would like to improve. However difficult the road, and however the mixture of challenges and successes unfolds over the next 10 years, one thing is for sure: I could not do it without you all. You know who you are.
It is because of you that I want to continue into the future, and I promise you to make truly artisanal, spirited fine wines, wines that inspire and provide pleasure, yet also bring a moment of reflection on the meaning of our life’s journey.
My holiday wish is to reflect back at least some part of the encouragement you have all given me. If there is a journey full of passion that you are on, or if you want to begin such a journey, please know this: A little guy from Poland can do it, and so can you. And if my wines can inspire you to follow your dream, please let them. This will be the best thing that happens to me in my life.
- An announcement: All the wines of the 2010 vintage have been sold out for several months. However, the new 2011 vintage will be released in early March. You will all hear from me then.