With a Wild West saloon ambiance and a James Dean-esque rock n' roll playlist as a background, Tobin James tasting room stands out from the traditional tasting experience in the wine world.
I met Toby at his house. We drank a glass of the 2015 Chardonnay in his backyard overlooking the beautiful Vineyard Drive. "Tell me about the book you are planning to do," he said while his wife was cutting some salami to have with the wine.
We talked about "The Winemakers of Paso Robles" book and after 2 minutes he was in. "I want to hear your story now," I said.
The thing that strikes me the most about Toby is that he had a clear mission from the beginning of his journey as a winemaker: he wanted to make affordable wines to enjoy. His vision for his tasting room is of a place to have fun.
Being born in Argentina and with Spanish and Italian blood running through my veins like most of the Argentine children of the immigrant who fled the war, I should confess that in my life wine has always been the way to grapple with the complexities of citizenship, race and gender. Bars and taverns are the common places where people get together to drink and argue about different topics.
For this reason, a place like Tobin James tasting room feels like common identity. There's no description of the nose or taste of the wines, they are poured by friendly and upbeat employees that will constantly make sure that you are having a great time.
I also took pictures of Tobin at the winery, this place has interesting stories in every corner. It's not a surprise that the un-snobby Tobin James has the biggest club in the world - yes, in the world. People are not intimidated when conducting a tasting, Tobin James makes sure everybody is in their comfort zone.
If you haven't been to Tobin James, it should be your next stop during your visit in Paso Robles.
I hope you enjoy Toby's profile as much as I enjoyed meeting him and his family.
Here's Tobin James' profile, excerpted from "The Winemakers of Paso Robles" book, written by Paul Hodgins.
8950 Union Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
In the fall of 1985, a frustrated truck driver was at his wits’ end. He had just tried to deliver six tons of zinfandel grapes to a Paso Robles winery and was turned away. Not wanting to dump the grapes by the side of the road, the truck driver visited his daughter, who was working for another winery in town. Maybe she would have an idea about where to get rid of these grapes. Tobin James, then a lowly assistant winemaker, overheard their conversation. “The grapes were perfectly good – that winemaker must have been crazy,” James recalled.
Consumed by an idea, he approached the owner of the winery. “Hey, Gary,” said James, “Can I use tank six?”
“Sure, kid. Knock yourself out,” said Gary Eberle, whose burgeoning operation was helping put Paso on the map as a wine destination.
The most important outcome of that chance encounter was that James eventually married the truck driver’s daughter, and they lived for years in an apartment above their Old West-style tasting room, welcoming twin daughters and son into their cramped home before they could finally afford roomier accommodations.
The second most important outcome was James’ 1985 “Blue Moon” zinfandel, which won awards up and down the California coast and made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list. That early success created the foundation for one of the most iconic Central Coast wineries. Many people say the Tobin James tasting room (and its wine club, one of the largest in the area) is one of the principal pillars that Paso Robles wine country was built on.
But that’s not the beginning of the story. Let’s backtrack a few decades.
Toby’s New Jersey-born father, a World War II veteran, stepped off the boat in San Francisco after the war and started a family. Toby was a middle child of nine.
Early on, the family moved frequently as their father studied medicine at Seton Hall and eventually became a well-respected ear, nose and throat doctor in Cincinnati. Soon enough, the James patriarch’s Italian heritage got the better of him and the family bought a 30-acre vineyard in nearby Indiana. Toby spent summers in high school working the vines. An older brother started a wine shop, and when Toby graduated from the University of Cincinnati he worked there as well.
That’s when Gary Eberle, flying around the country in a twin-prop plane to sell his wines, burst into James’ life. He walked into the Cincinnati wine shop and impressed James with his product and his ebullient personality. A month later, James was working the harvest for Eberle in Paso Robles, and he stayed on with him for 10 years. Eberle and James clocked thousands of miles in Eberle’s plane, traveling around the country like a couple of desperados, selling wine and leaving a larger-than-life impression.
Years later, sitting on the veranda of his attractive house with a commanding view of Vineyard Drive, James remembers driving grape trucks with burned-out headlights for minimum wage all night long on the serpentine road below, a beer cradled between his knees as he fought to keep his eyes open. Then, as now, he knew the key to success in the wine business was simple: “Work hard. Be nice to people. Make wine that people want to drink.”
When he opened his tasting room in 1994 – built on the site of an old stagecoach stop on Route 46 – he followed those rules. For decades, James lived in that tasting room, figuratively and literally. He was always there, smiling, pouring wine, cracking jokes and laughing with patrons. He strove to make fine wine fun, not intimidating. His goal was always to make sure people had a good time, so they would come back again and again. His legions of fans would all agree: James succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. For years, Tobin James’ boisterous tasting room has been a customary first or last stop for wine lovers as they approach or leave Paso on the 46.