It’s a sunny Wednesday morning in Montecito. And in a home nestled off a quiet tree-lined street, a bunch of wacky guys are making wine.
They call themselves Los Cinco Locos. The five crazy guys. Five retired gentlemen who now spend harvest season acquiring grapes from some of the Central Coast’s top vineyards and then turning them into Bacchus’ nectar.
“Once we start with top grapes, all we do is shepherd them through the path to fine wine,” says John Van Atta, one of the fab five. The others are Louis Weider, Dick Shaikewitz, George Primbs and Howard Scar.
Their adventure began a little over a decade ago when Lou and Dick, both of Montecito, met overseas on a tour through Europe. They began talking about Lou’s 500-acre vineyard in Paso Robles where his grapes sold to local wineries. Lou and Dick then decided to make wine from Lou’s vineyard. Upon their return, they convinced a trio of friends to join in the winemaking effort.
As luck would have it, Howard was in the midst of renovating a small horse stable at his Montecito home and it was easy to coax him to transform it into a winemaking facility instead. And after the purchase of several barrels, all French, and some basic chemistry equipment, the Los Cinco Locos wine dream began.
Their first vintage wines, 1998, were made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes from Lou’s Paso Robles vineyard. Later, they began making some delicious Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills grapes.
Because these guys are home winemakers, they can’t sell their liquid creations. So they each keep about 40 cases of every vintage, with the rest donated to charity auctions. Doug Margerum, the former owner of the Wine Cask Restaurant in Santa Barbara who is known for his regional wine selections, bought a whole bunch of it at the 1999 Santa Barbara International Wine Auction.
So I found myself among these guys on this particular Wednesday. Their friends had come to help press some Pinot Noir. Perhaps they were lured by the noble idea of helping friends make wine. Perhaps it was the bottles of Merlot they were promised for their efforts.
These Pinot Noir grapes had been sitting in vats for two weeks, undergoing their initial fermentation. After periodic sugar and pH tests, they were finally ready for the next step: bucketing them to the small water-run bladder press to separate wine from skins, pulp and seeds. The wine is then funneled into a French oak barrel where it will continue to age for the next nine months.
This is a tough manual labor, yes. But what’s work without play? We take regular breaks to congregate around the picnic table a few feet away, which is adorned with five different cheeses, a surplus of French baguettes and samples of Los Cinco Locos Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir.
And aside from the wine, the conversation flows. But wine talk soon becomes the conversation and the Locos answer questions about their wines, the number of cases they produce (250 this particular year) and the medals they’ve won in competitions with other home winemakers (gold for Pinot and Cabernet, silver and bronze for the others). There’s also a lot of “When can we come back and help you again?”
At the end of the day the Locos began to slow down. “This Pinot Noir is the best we’ve made to date,” says John. George is giving me a history lesson on Santa Barbara winemaking. Lou’s cracking jokes as Howard flirts with his wife. Dick is still working, hosing down the ground that’s sparsely littered with grape seeds and spilled wine.
Content, I soon bid adieu. But I get called back to collect my fee. George and Dick are waving their hands high, each holding a bottle of wine.