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Liquid Harmony

The quaint tasting room is a welcoming and casual experience.-photos courtesy Via Vega Winery

Walk into their winery and feel the harmony: Larry gregariously chatting up customers, April quietly tending to business, their kids playing. More often than not, they’ll have a movie or a baseball game playing on the “big screen” on their north wall that hangs from the ceiling. And Larry will hoist his young daughter up and put her on the tasting bar where she’ll sing a song with a stage presence that belies her single-digit age. The smile that lights up Larry’s face while watching his daughter perform is, well, magic. It’s hard to imagine someone who loves his family more.

Larry’s the extrovert. He’s never met a stranger. April’s the rock, the steady hand at the tiller. Together they have something special: a little winery that’s beginning to get big attention as people—especially Bakersfield folk—discover this gem of a place.

Perhaps what draws people to Via Vega is the variety of wines Larry makes, including Aglianico (a rare southern Italian varietal), Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. His Bench Stars and Bullpen are red blends that showcase the harmony (that word again) between different varietals. And don’t forget his Port-style wine, Eleganté, that features traditional Portuguese varietals Souzao, Tinta Cao, and Touriga Nacional.

Perhaps it’s good karma from the homage he pays to his forebears. Some of his labels feature cheerful skeletons—one holding grapes, another playing a guitar—in reference to the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), celebrated in Latin America as a way to remember family members who have passed on. Traditionally, it’s a day of celebration and partying, and Larry and April are traditionalists.

Perhaps it’s the balance in his wines for which Larry strives. In a region disparagingly dubbed “the land of big wines” by some, referring to the propensity for ultra-ripe, high-alcohol wines, Larry’s wines have more moderate alcohol levels.

“It all goes back to an earlier harvest,” he said. “You get fresher fruit, more balanced wines. I’m able to blend for flavor. I plant low vigor rootstock” that stands up to the warm climate better. “I crop here at our vineyard for 2.5 to 3 tons to the acre max so that I get concentrated flavors. On our estate vineyard you’re tasting the weather—you taste the trauma of drought or the trauma of cold weather. Hot weather dehydrates the grapes and concentrates the sugar. So in warmer years I pick earlier and earlier. I’m trying to bring freshness to my wines.”

And it just may be a combination of all three, and his appreciation of making his living off the land. It started at a young age. Larry was born in San Francisco and grew up in Atherton, near Stanford University. Early on he and his brother Rick “started hanging around” their uncle Tony’s vineyard in the Napa Valley. “We were drawn to the peace and toil of farming with no clue of its economics,” he said.

Rick took over farming duties at their uncle’s vineyard after high school, and Larry decided “I wanted to be a farmer, so I went to Santa Cruz to grow roses.” It wasn’t long after that, however, that Larry decided he’d had enough of roses, and enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he earned a degree in fruit science. Shortly thereafter, he enrolled at Fresno State where he earned his master’s degree in enology. While in graduate school, his uncle sold his Napa Valley vineyard.

His first job out of graduate school, from 1987 through 1990, was in a research winery in Fresno where he was involved in brandy production. In 1991, he went to Lockwood Vineyard in southern Monterey County as assistant winemaker. He stayed there until 1998, when he was hired at J. Lohr Winery in Paso Robles as its red-wine maker. He’d been living in Paso Robles so was familiar with the terrain, and not long after joining J. Lohr he purchased 20 acres of undeveloped land in September 1998 “not more than a mile from my desk at J. Lohr.”

It was also at J. Lohr where he met April, who, not long after that, became his wife.

©istockphoto.com/didyk

It was his dream to take a bare piece of dirt and convert it to a vineyard and winery. He planted 15 acres of the property in 1999 with 11 varietal blocks each with clonal variations and “started the wait for third leaf,” the first year he’d have a crop. In anticipation of that day, he built the winery buildings in January 2001.

Meanwhile, after four years at J. Lohr, he became winemaker at Wildhorse Winery & Vineyard in nearby Templeton. Two years later, in 2004, “Lockwood asked me back, and I’ve been there ever since. I have great respect for this group and I believe in their farming. They’ve made it easy for me to also follow my dream.”

Part of his dream included what to plant at his new vineyard. “When I was at J. Lohr I got to use mostly Bordeaux varietals—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, so I planted those. You’ve got to have a Zin here, and Grenache and Syrah are Paso stuff [varietals widely planted in the Paso Robles region]. I also wanted something true to type for making port, so I planted the Portuguese varieties.”

When all was said and done he wound up with four acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, an acre and a half of Cabernet Franc, three acres of Merlot, an acre of Malbec, three acres of Syrah, an acre and a half of Grenache, two acres each of Zinfandel and Aglianico, and fractions of an acre for each of the three Portuguese varietals. Between all the varietals, it provides him with between 37 and 45 tons of grapes annually, enough for 1,100 cases or so of wine a year.

His first harvest was 2002, but he found it was a bad time to open. “We hit the wine glut that year, and it took us a while to get traction.” They finally opened their tasting room in spring of 2007.

At a recent winemaker dinner for him and April in Bakersfield, guests raved about the richness and complexity of his wines. “We’re showing people what this place tastes like,” he said. They also liked his moderate prices: all Via Vega’s current releases sell for less than $30 a bottle, except for the port-style wine, Eleganté ($37).

It takes a bit to find Via Vega: it’s on a spur off Airport Road north of Highway 46 in Paso Robles. Look for a sign with an arrow pointing to the left as you drive north. “We’re where the pavement ends,” Larry quipped. “We’re open most weekends and some Fridays, so call ahead if you’d like to come visit us.” The number, by the way, is (805) 423-2190.

And if you do find your way there—Larry says they’re not on any maps—don’t be surprised to find the whole family taking in a movie, or a San Francisco Giants game (Larry’s a mega fan) on the “VegaTron.”

It’s all part of the harmony that makes Via Vega so charming.

Article appeared in our 27-4 Issue - October 2010