Long Finish: Famed Local Home Winemaking Team Bids Adieu to Members

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on July 8, 2012)

At a quaint gathering at Montecito’s Casa Dorinda Saturday afternoon, eight men gathered for an official changing of the guard.  Five of them have been calling themselves Los Cinco Locos – or the Five Crazy Guys – for almost 15 years, and producing stellar wine.  The other three are, respectfully, waiting in the wings and ready to take over and carry this quirky yet accomplished label forward.
The Original Cinco Locos
The original fab five – Dr. George Primbs, Howard Scar, John Van Atta, Dick Shakowitz and Lou Weider – have managed to create one of the most respected home winemaking operations in the country.  Their adventure began in the mid 1990s, when Mr. Weider and Mr. Shakowitz, both of Montecito, met overseas on a tour through Europe. The former was an investor in a 500-acre vineyard in Paso Robles called Rancho Tierra Rejada and his new acquaintance became instantly excited about turning that investment into an enjoyable leisure pursuit.  He wanted to turn those grapes – which until then had been exclusively sold to wineries throughout the state – into their own wine. Upon their return, the two convinced a trio of friends to join in their new winemaking enterprise.
As luck would have it, Mr. Scar was in the midst of renovating a small horse stable at his Montecito home, and coaxing him to transform it into a winemaking facility, instead, was easy. Dr, Primbs, a successful ophthalmologist and eye surgeon, was brought in for his extensive wine knowledge.  And Mr. Van Atta, whose PhD in biophysics had led to a decorated career developing food products for major companies like Quaker Oats, was embraced by the group for his knack for chemistry.

After the purchase of several barrels – all French – and some basic equipment, Los Cinco Locos began making wine.
Their label launched with the 1998 vintage and featured cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot sourced from Rancho Tierra Rejada.  Soon, they’d start sourcing pinot noir from top vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley.  Their total production would quickly grow to about 250 cases a year.
Because Los Cinco Locos are home winemakers, they’ve never been able to sell their wine retail, or for profit.  Instead, the five split their production, keep a few cases for their personal enjoyment, and then donate the rest to causes that are important to each.  And therein lays the success, if not the fame, of this special little label.

Over the years, Los Cinco Locos wines have been featured at major auctions and wine events throughout the state.  Their first was a fundraiser for the Music Academy of the West, where Doug Margerum, then-owner of the Wine Cask, won a case of wine that soon after sold for $115 a bottle at his landmark Santa Barbara wine shop.  Dr. Primbs donates a case every year to the Taste of the Vine – an event to benefit the Sansum Diabetes Research Institute – where it usually goes to the highest bidder for about $1400.  Mr. Scar once donated a case to an auction benefitting Scripps Health in San Diego, and it went home with a donor who paid $10,000 for it.

The winemaking five estimate that the wines they’ve donated over the years have helped raise more than $300,000 dollars for causes close to their hearts.  That – along with dozens of medals (gold, mostly) from high-profile home winemaking competitions – made this trip well worth it for them, they say.  In the large home winemaking community, it’s made their Los Cinco Locos label an esteemed endeavor, and a household name.

But now, as these five friends sit under shady trees at Casa Dorinda and around a table teeming with open bottles of Los Cinco Locos wines dating back to 2005, a new reality is setting in.  Three of them – for reasons both health-related and personal – have decided to end their winemaking ways.  They’re in their 70s and 80s, and younger men will be taking their place.

Two of the originals – Mr. Scar, 81, and Dr. Primbs, 82 – are staying on and initiating three men who’ve actually been helping them with winemaking operations for several years.  It turns out that much of the Los Cinco Locos lore over the years has revolved around the parties that have always ensued around the crushing of the grapes, filling of the barrels and bottling of the wines.  “I have an email list of 200 people who always want to know when we’re doing the crushing,” says Mr. Scar with a laugh.  “And we’ve always had five to 30 people come out to help.”  Those get-togethers, though wrought by the need for often-rigorous manual labor synonymous with making wine, became legendary for the food and wine, and for the parties, they’d foster. 

New Members of Cinco Locos
“It’s a lot of fun, but I soon realized they were using me,” says Jayce Yoder, 51, a plumbing contractor who’s been joining the fab five for harvest work since 2002, and who can now officially call himself one of Los Cinco Locos.

John Holmes, 51, has been taking part in the harvest frolic since 2007.  “At first, I just wanted to learn about fermentation because I wanted to distill whiskey,” says Holmes, an insurance broker, and a new Cinco Loco.  “Actually, I never really liked wine, until I met these guys and started drinking better wine.”

Chip Eckert, 52, has been helping Los Cinco Locos with harvest for only two years, but he’s been buying their wine at charity auctions for many years.  “It’s great wine,” says the fourth-generation Goletan.  His excitement about joining the team hinges in large part on the label’s focus on charity.  “That’s what it’s all about: giving back, promoting good causes and having fun learning about making wine.”  And he’s quick to add, with a smile, “Oh, and tasting really good wine.”

Currently, Los Cinco Locos have four wines in the eight barrels at Mr. Scar’s stable-turned winery: a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot and a syrah from Mr. Weider’s former vineyard (it’s now under new ownership and called Shimmin Canyon Vineyard) and a pinot noir from the popular Kick On Ranch Vineyard in Los Alamos.  They’ll be put in bottle – during another one of those fabulous work parties – this fall, to make room for the 2012 vintage grapes.  In the future, the new team may expand their portfolio to dabble more heavily in zinfandel and red blends, and will continue to seek out new sources for fruit.

But what matters most for the future of the label may be the enthusiasm the new members bring with them.  “When the original five of us started, we just did it for fun, and then it became something special,” says Mr. Scar.  “These guys are coming in with that passion already there, and that’s great to see.”

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