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Paso Robles wine castle’s woes fade into medieval history

By   /   Friday, June 19th, 2015  /   Comments Off on Paso Robles wine castle’s woes fade into medieval history

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Rob Murray, a longtime vineyard owner who has moved into winemaking with Tooth & Nail Winery, shown with Direct to Consumer Manager Jo Armstrong.

Rob Murray, a longtime vineyard owner who has moved into winemaking with Tooth & Nail Winery, shown with Direct to Consumer Manager Jo Armstrong.

The former Eagle Castle Winery, a Paso Robles wine country landmark overlooking Highway 46 West, has emerged from its version of the Dark Ages with a more modern look and visitor-friendly improvements after sitting vacant for 18 months and being sold while under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Now the home of Tooth & Nail Winery, the medieval-style castle has undergone extensive remodeling that aims for the feel of a French chateau. Gone are the suits of armor, swords and heraldic banners that adorned the imposing white citadel guarded by a moat. Massive wooden doors at the entrance have been scaled down, a shaded seating area has been added outside the entrance, and furnishings and fixtures have been updated throughout.

Rob Murray, a longtime vineyard owner and manager who has moved into winemaking with Tooth & Nail, has a long-term lease on the castle property owned by Covelop, a San Luis Obispo real estate development company.

When Eagle Castle Winery sold in July for $4.86 million, it became the largest winery transaction in the Paso Robles viticultural area in 2013 and 2014, according to the real estate firm Pacifica Wine Division. The sale included 25 acres with an 11-acre vineyard, the 7,900-square-foot events building and tasting room, a 13,000-square-foot winery and two residences.

The property was sold while under Chapter 11 protection that headed off a trustee’s sale. Eagle Castle tasting room closed in 2013 and the property was vacant until Tooth & Nail opened in November.

Murray and Direct to Consumer Manager Jo Armstrong showed me the extensive tenant improvements at the winery, beginning with a large paved parking lot replacing a surface of finely crushed rock and a driveway lined with newly planted trees.

The castle ramparts and the moat (part of a fire suppression system) remain as prominent features. The exterior look has been softened by adding large planter boxes with trees and shrubs. A sturdy wooden pergola shades a comfortable outdoor seating area with couches and modern lighting in place of torch-style fixtures.

Inside, the tasting room has been remodeled from medieval to contemporary. The stone fireplace now has a simple metallic facade and the long tasting bar echoes that with a raw steel top fronted by wood staves that were once used inside large metal wine tanks to add oak influence.

Opposite the tasting room is the Amor Fati room, which can seat 150 for dinners, receptions and other events. Up a graceful staircase, there are two outdoor terraces behind the ramparts, one for wine club members and the other for special events. Both offer expansive views of surrounding vineyards and wineries.

Tooth & Nail is one of four brands produced by Rob Murray Vineyards, the winemaking arm of the business. Force of Nature, which retails at $20 to $22, is the largest production brand and includes cabernet, zinfandel, tempranillo, pinot gris and chardonnay. In ascending price order are  Tooth & Nail blended wines, Stasis pinot noir and chardonnay, and limited production Amor Fati, which retails in the $40 to $50 range.

I asked Murray if pouring four brands is confusing to visitors. “It’s a little intimidating [but] we’ve gone to events and nobody seems to care, they love it,” he said, noting that the mix offers something for everyone.

Murray and his partners went back and forth  about which brand to choose as the winery’s name. Tooth & Nail labels feature public domain artwork by John James Audubon depicting mortal struggles in nature. One label shows birds of prey fighting over a rabbit.

“I’ve grown grapes in a lot of places. Paso Robles is really difficult to grow grapes,” Murray said in explaining the brand name. “…In the middle of July, we can have a week of 65-degree weather and then the next week it’s 100-degree weather, and it’s just really difficult to manage that. So it’s all about that tooth and nail, that struggle for survival.”

The wines are made by Mike Bruzus, who formerly worked at Chamisal Vineyards. Murray weighed in on decisions, especially on blended wines.

Murray’s Reserve Vineyard Management owns three vineyards in Paso Robles and one in the cooler Santa Maria Valley where pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah grapes are grown. Most of the fruit from 1,000 acres of vineyards is sold to clients including Constellation, J. Lohr, Justin and Wild Horse. Out of 5,000 tons harvested last year, Murray retained 500 tons for his wines.

Murray began selling wine commercially in 2012 with 3,500 cases and has expanded rapidly to where he expects to be in the 40,000 range this year. After that, he will hold annual growth to 10 to 20 percent.

“I think I’ve bitten off enough for myself,” Murray said. “We really want to be able to put our hands around what we’re doing so it doesn’t get out of control.”

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