Don't fear wine: Winemaker Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines aims to alleviate your worries

When I want straight talk about wine, I head straight for Larry Schaffer.

Whether attending a Santa Barbara Vintners event, a Rhone Rangers tasting, or visiting his Tercero wine tasting room in Los Olivos, I can always count on this fervent wine guru for a lively discussion and his occasionally provocative perspective.

click to enlarge Don't fear wine: Winemaker Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines aims to alleviate your worries
LEARN FROM LARRY: Any visit with winemaker Larry Schaffer, in his Tercero wine tasting room in Los Olivos, is compelling.

Schaffer has a message for anyone who has ever felt fearful of wine.

“For the most part, American consumers are scared of wine, and we don’t do a good job making them less scared of wine,” Schaffer said of the wine industry, which, he added, is a good example of why the craft beer industry is growing in popularity. “People are not intimidated by beer. They’re intimidated by wine. There’s a lot of misinformation in our industry, and not a lot that’s being done to change that. So if I can do it one person at a time …

“I think people take it way too seriously! If you were in a little village in Italy, you’re given the choice of a carafe of red or a carafe of white. There are no labels, no scores, no intimidation.”

He starts by throwing out the rulebook. Take the much maligned, low-price-point white zinfandel, the sweeter pink wine bought by many Americans.

“White zin is one of the three most popular wines in our country,” Schaffer said. “Go to Des Moines; go to Omaha; but not only that, go to California. … If that’s what people want with their steak, they’re not wrong. And yet they’re led to believe that they’re wrong, that they’re inferior—and that’s just wrong!

“People will come in here and say, ‘Do you have any sweet wines?’ They’re embarrassed,” and they shouldn’t be, Schaffer said. “There’s an old adage in the wine business that people ‘talk dry’ and ‘drink sweet.’ I think that is probably 90 percent of people, that would prefer to have a little sweetness in their wine even if they’re not calling it sweet.”

click to enlarge Don't fear wine: Winemaker Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines aims to alleviate your worries
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY RHONE: Roussanne, a white Rhone varietal, produced by Tercero Wines, has been called the 'red-wine-drinker’s-white-wine.'

The UC Davis-educated Schaffer quizzes his customers so that he can pinpoint what their palate will find palatable.

“The first question I like to ask somebody when they come in the tasting room is how they drink their coffee,” Schaffer shared. “It’s a good question to ask because people are not intimidated by coffee. Getting a conversation started is a good thing. It’s a fun thing to do. I want people to feel comfortable drinking whatever they drink.”

But then he backs it up with science, and it begins to make sense.

“‘Do you use cream or not?’ This comes from food research at Cornell University. It doesn’t hold 100 percent of the time, but if you drink your coffee with cream—unless it’s cultural—you tend to do that because you want to cut the bitterness. Sugar doesn’t cut bitterness, but cream does,” Schaffer said.

“If you need cream in your coffee, you don’t like bitter things; you tend to have more bitter taste buds. So if you drink coffee with cream, you’re going to be drawn to sweeter things and not savory—overall sweeter chocolates, not unsweetened, bittersweet chocolates. Tonic water, you will not like. Things like beers, you’ll like lighter beers, not IPAs or bitter beers. Brussels sprouts and asparagus, generally you’re not going to like them unless they’re covered in bacon or sweetened. So, those people tend to like smooth wines in general. Don’t give them brut champagne; they’re not going to enjoy it. They’ll tend to enjoy whites that have more barrel fermentation and roundness to them. Same on the red side; they’re not going to like rough edges.”

He drinks his coffee without cream or sugar, therefore, he pointed out, his mouth is a fan of bitter tastes.

click to enlarge Don't fear wine: Winemaker Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines aims to alleviate your worries
DRINK WHAT YOU LIKE: This sign in the Tercero wine tasting room encourages visitors to feel confident drinking wine that tastes good.

“I drink my coffee black with a couple shots of espresso, not because I need the caffeine—you know that I’m a naturally hyper person. I have less bitter taste buds; I need more ‘bitter’ to excite my taste buds, and I need more acid. I have yet to have a red wine that is too tannic and I’ve yet to have a white wine that’s too acidic.”

Schaffer, formerly the enologist at Fess Parker Winery, started his own wine label in 2007, Tercero Wines, focusing on Rhone grape varieties sourced from many fine Santa Barbara County vineyards: Larner, Tierra Alta, Thompson, Camp 4, and Vogelzang, among others. 

“My goal with every wine I produce is to have it be a transparent look at that vineyard, that vintage, that variety, or that blend, and my level of knowledge, expertise, stupidity, whatever it is, at the time that I’m making it,” he said.

Super for summer sipping, the Tercero mourvedre rosé ($22), with fruit from the Happy Canyon AVA, brings out passion fruit and papaya.

“I want this to be a food wine,” he said. “It’s a wine I’m really, really proud of!”

Verbiage Blanc is Tercero’s white Rhone-style blend: 40 percent roussanne, 30 percent grenache blanc, 30 percent viognier.

“I love roussanne! I wanted to show off the richness of roussanne. The viognier gives it an acidic backbone,” he explained.

The Outlier is Tercero’s aromatic gewürztraminer, which finds the balance between sugar and acid, “giving you the perception of sweetness,” he said. “I make this wine specifically to go with Indian food and Thai food. It’s a completely selfish wine.”

Don't fear wine: Winemaker Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines aims to alleviate your worries
TASTE WINE: The Tercero wine tasting room is located at 2445 Alamo Pintado Ave., Suite 104 (entrance on San Marcos), Los Olivos. Hours are Thursday through Monday, noon until 5 p.m., or by appointment. Call 245-9584. The winery’s website is Find wine events at,, and

On the red side, Schaffer also handcrafts grenache, syrah, mourvedre, and red Rhone blends.

Schaffer travels tirelessly, meeting with consumers and avidly promoting his wines and the Santa Barbara County wine region that he holds so dear.

He will be pouring Tercero wines June 27 at the annual Santa Barbara Wine Festival at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum ( and July 11 at the Garagiste Festival in Los Angeles ( and creating new fearless tasting fans and friends, no doubt.

Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell never stops learning. Contact her at [email protected].

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