- PHOTO BY STEVBE E. MILLER
- TRUE LOVE : Winemaker Augie Hug and his bride Raquel Rodriguez reminisce about a magical Montana evening heightened by Champagne
When Valentine’s Day comes around I get downright sentimental. I count myself quite fortunate to have found Dan Hardesty, my soulmate. An old friend once cracked, “You’re in love with love,” and it’s true. But I have no interest whatsoever in writing sappy romance novels. I write real-life love stories about the artistic people I’m around constantly, Central Coast winemakers. They are, after all, the talent behind those special wines we seek out when we’re celebrating Valentine’s Day, birthdays, or the moment we propose to the shining star in our life. I think you’ll enjoy these romantic stories about three notable Central Coast winemakers as much as I do.
I first called on my longtime friends, C.I. “Augie” Hug and his wife Raquel Rodriguez, winemaker and owners respectively of Hug Cellars in Paso Robles. I’m a big fan of their delicious Pinot Noirs and Rhone varieties. At first Augie tried to tell me he’s not romantic. When I doubted that, he recalled the most romantic memory of his life, admitting he has vivid memories of that special night. “
Raquel and I were in Montana last August for the Whitefish Food and Wine Summit. On the last night of the three-day event, a winemaker’s dinner was held at the summit house on top of Big Mountain at Whitefish Ski Resort,” he said, explaining that guests could only get up the mountain by gondola or chairlift. Since it was just two days before Raquel’s birthday, Augie hid a bottle of Champagne J Lasalle Rosé (chilled for him by the resort staff) and two flutes in his backpack.
At the end of the dinner they descended the mountain on one of the clearest nights he could remember: “The lights of Flathead Valley were like jewels it seemed you could reach out and touch. There was a bright moon, no wind, and the temperature was actually warm for a night in the high mountains.” After boarding the chairlift, he wished Raquel “happy birthday” and surprised her by popping the Champagne cork.
“There hasn’t been anything like it,” he reminisced. “Floating down the mountain on the chairlift, the moon glistening off the tree tops, Flathead Valley glistened below, that decadently delicious J Lasalle never tasted as good as it did right then.”
The Santa Rita Hills region is renowned for its Pinots and Syrahs grown in westernmost Santa Barbara County by such producers as Melville Vineyard. Vineyard manager Chad Melville (son of founder Ron Melville) told me the romantic story of his long-distance relationship with Mary Reicks (now Mary Reicks Melville). The couple met in Manhattan Beach where they both lived, and became close friends. But after two years their relationship became romantic. “She finally quit her awesome advertising job in L.A. to move here, and we were engaged shortly thereafter,” Chad explained.
Before proposing to Mary, he asked if she was interested in making a barrel of Syrah together. If it all worked out, he planned to pour the wine they made for guests at their wedding. While the wine aged in barrel, they planned a vacation in Montana snowshoeing, a favorite getaway, and he stowed away a bottle of Champagne Jacques Selosse Rosé to toast his upcoming proposal to Mary. Enroute, he carried the engagement ring in his pocket and worried she might discover it when he went through security. But it was a random couple on the plane who almost gave it away, when they said: “You guys are about to get engaged, huh?”
Atop the summit she sat on a bench, which he “scoped out” on previous trips, and he got on his knee and proposed. “Then our friends came out of their hiding spots and celebrated with us, taking photos, the whole deal,” he remembered. “Once things calmed down I mentioned to her the whole idea behind making that barrel together and it all made sense to her.” They decided to bottle the wine, handing some out as gifts to their guests, and saved some to celebrate every anniversary, with two magnums to celebrate their 10th and 20th anniversaries. “The wine is great, but to be honest, I think we would drink it even if it were garbage—at least sip a little. We named the wine ‘Waina Ka Aloha,’ which means ‘wine of love.’”
Finally, I called on Gary and Teresa Burk, winemaker and owners, respectively, of Costa de Oro wines. Their tasting room sits alongside Hwy. 101, directly across from Costco, in Santa Maria. They produce consistently good Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs. The couple met in Los Angeles while they were living there in the 1980s. While they were dating, Gary invited Teresa to camp out with him at the Pismo dunes. Born and raised in Santa Maria, he stopped at his parents’ home to borrow their camper and grabbed a bottle from their wine rack for the occasion.
“I didn’t know what I had grabbed. Neither Teresa nor I were big wine drinkers then,” Gary remembered, adding that they prepared lamb chops for dinner and afterward he played his guitar. “We were just starting to get into wine and when we tasted the wine I had grabbed I thought it was the most sublime wine I’d ever tasted. As we enjoyed the moment it dawned on me: This is the girl I’m going to marry.”
Once they became more knowledgeable about wine, he chuckled, they realized they had no clue about that wine they’d shared during that important night in their relationship. Although he didn’t propose to Teresa until later, they saved that empty bottle, which they still have 18 years later.
“It was a cheap $4 French Vin de Pays D’oc [a step above ordinary table wine]. Wine is meant to be consumed while dining with people you care about. And it just goes to show that even a $4 bottle can make it a magical moment. Nowadays, we prefer premium-quality wines.” ∆
“A good wine, like a good act, shines ever in retrospect.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson 1850 -1894
You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at email@example.com.