The historic York Mountain Winery partially collapsed into a pile of bricks during the 6.6 magnitude San Simeon earthquake in 2003. Walls that were left standing at the Central Coast’s first winery looked like they might come down anytime. The landmark west of Paso Robles, built in 1882 by Andrew York, rested in ruins for years.
A visitor to that site today will see the old winery morphed into an airy, modern tasting room, but with historic DNA of the original bricks, stones and redwood pillars. It’s the new tasting home for Epoch Estate Wines. Owners Bill and Liz Armstrong, who acquired the historic property in 2010, opened the tasting room just before Christmas — the culmination of a meticulous restoration project.
“Our tasting room is, in fact, the old York Mountain Winery,” Bill Armstrong said in a phone interview from the offices of his oil and gas drilling company in Denver. “It is the footprint, material and everything from the old winery.”
The bricks were fired on the property in the 1880s. The pillars and beams are from a Cayucos pier that was dismantled and transported by York to his winery. The bar top in the main tasting room is redwood from a York Mountain Winery fermenter. Mounted on steel rails overhead, in view of wine tasters, is the wooden press used by the York brothers to crush grapes and send the juice to the main floor by gravity.
The heavy wood pillars have new concrete footings, they are in their original positions, making an authentic statement in the expansive room. Wall-size glass forms part of the building’s front where bricks had tumbled down in the quake.
During my recent visit, tasting room manager Kristen Darnell pointed to a stone wall that was painstakingly restored. The original wall in the old winery’s barrel room was built into the earth, bowing from the weight of a road that was above it.
“We had a mason come out, chalk outline it, number each rock and take a picture,” she said. The wall was dismantled, a retaining wall was built “and then he came back and rebuilt this rock wall, putting each rock exactly where it was originally,” she said. That barrel room, next to the long tasting bar, is a working historical display where a small part of Epoch’s wines will be aged.
The tasting room is not the only piece of Paso history at Epoch Wines. The Armstrongs replanted a fallow vineyard in the Willow Creek District that was originally owned by acclaimed Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski in the 1920s. Paderewski grew zinfandel and petite sirah on his 2,000-acre Rancho San Ignacio, and his wines were made at Andrew York’s Ascension Winery, later renamed York Mountain Winery.
Armstrong said he and his wife loved the idea of resurrecting Paderewski’s legacy. “He was a patriot for Poland and he was a world class piano player and he was a raconteur,” Armstrong said. “He was incredibly philanthropic. He was the first prime minister of Poland after World War I. In fact, he even signed the treaty of Versailles. He was an amazing guy.”
The Armstrongs, both geologists, bought 350 acres of the former Paderewski property in 2004 when they were getting started in the wine business with the help of Saxum Vineyards owner Justin Smith. Grapes had not been growing on the parcel for about 80 years. They named it the Paderewski Vineyard and planted zinfandel as a tribute to the pianist, and mainly Rhone varieties, including grenache, syrah and mourvedre.
“It was really fun for us as stewards of the local Paso Robles history to be able to cobble those two stories together and make it live again,” Armstrong said.
The Armstrongs also own the Catapult Vineyard in Paso’s Willow Creek district, and they have planted vines on their York Mountain property near the new tasting room and their visually striking 17,000-square-foot winery completed in 2014. The York Mountain Vineyard is years away from production.
In another bow to history, the Armstrongs are propagating some old zinfandel vines that had not died at the Paderewski Vineyard. They want eventually to offer a wine from the pianist’s plantings.
Epoch wines, made by Jordan Fiorentini, formerly of Sonoma’s Chalk Hill, have earned scores of 92 to 97 from wine publications. Production is at about 7,000 cases a year and the wines are highly allocated and sell out quickly, Darnell said. Epoch’s 2010 Estate Blend of Rhones plus zinfandel and tempranillo was ranked No. 25 in Wine
Spectator’s top 100 list for 2013.
Armstrong, 56, started his oil and gas exploration company when he was 25. He said you have to be a bit of a gambler to be in the oil, gas and wine business, “so from an emotional standpoint, believe it or not, those two businesses are identical twins separated at birth.”
• Contact Tom Bronzini at Tbronzini@verizon.net.