A Santa Maria man born in Communist Poland 45 years ago, who immigrated to North America with not much more than the shirt on his back, has become one of California’s most respected winemakers.
Paul Lato has taken the long and winding road—leaving his birthplace seeking freedom to fulfill his dreams, discovering wine, completing college in Canada, working as a sommelier, moving to Santa Maria to be a winery “cellar rat,” bunking with friends for months at a time, and working 16-hour days to establish his own wine label.
Lato wrote in his winery newsletter: “Many days I had enough gas to get to work, but not enough to drive back home. And every time, someone would show up and ask to buy a bottle or two of my wine. I somehow survived and withstood because I believed in my dream, and so did many other kind people.”
“That is true. Yeah,” Lato recently told me during our lengthy conversation in his rented winery space at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria.
About a decade after starting his label, Paul Lato Wines, he produces gorgeous pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, and Grenache that sell out almost immediately upon release, at prices ranging from $65 to $85 a bottle. His wines earn rave reviews from the industry’s toughest critics.
And it all began with a dream.
“I remember being a child in Poland and telling my parents, ‘I’m gonna move to America when I grow up,’” Lato said. “And my father would always get upset because he was very patriotic and he would say, ‘What’s wrong with this country here? Don’t you love your country? Your family’s here.’”
By 1988, halfway through college, Lato fled his then-turbulent homeland.
“I escaped from a communist country, so to speak,” Lato explained. “Because I left on a trip to Spain and stayed there as a refugee.”
Lato then immigrated to Canada where he continued his college education, changing his major from education to hospitality.
He “trained extensively and rigorously to become a sommelier,” working as a wine expert in Toronto’s finest restaurant.
Then, the unthinkable events of Sept. 11, 2001 caused him to reexamine his life.
“It made some of us think, you know, what are we doing?” Lato recalled. “I wanted to create rather than interpret other people’s wines.”
He already had a masterful palate necessary for winemaking; he just needed hands-on experience working grape harvests and getting his hands dirty in a winery.
So one year later, he packed up his bags and moved to Santa Maria, where seven years earlier he had worked briefly alongside local wine legend Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat fame.
“I arrived in September, and 10 days later I was making my own wine,” Lato said.
He wasn’t only making wine; he was making friends. The list of people who helped him along the way reads like a who’s who of the local wine industry: the aforementioned Clendenen; Qupé’s Bob Lindquist; the late Bob Miller who hired Lato at Central Coast Wine Services and allowed him to stay at the Bien Nacido Vineyard bunkhouse; Bien Nacido’s Vineyard Manager Chris Hammell, who opened his house to Lato; viticulturist James Ontiveros, who then offered his home on the family ranch for about eight months; and Costa de Oro Winery’s Gary Burk, who was Lato’s first mentor and became a great friend.
“There are a lot of very special people here who still have that very West Coast-American attitude … a pioneering spirit of doing things themselves and also helping other people, helping each other to achieve things,” Lato shared.
Two years ago, Lato was able to quit his day job at Costa de Oro to focus entirely on Paul Lato Wines, even hiring two employees to assist in the winery. And no more sleeping on couches; he was able to buy a house in Santa Maria.
Lato buys his grapes from the finest, most unique vineyards between Santa Ynez and Paso Robles—vineyards such as Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, Wenzlau, Hilliard-Bruce, Zotovich, Gold Coast, and Sierra Madre.
Lato doesn’t have a wine tasting room. His highly sought-after, food-friendly wines sell out almost immediately through his winery mailing list and allocations to distributors and fine restaurants, including The French Laundry in Napa Valley. (Chef/proprietor Thomas Keller calls Lato personally for cases of his wine.)
This year, Lato’s wine orders in Japan quadrupled, after one of his chardonnays won a wine competition in Tokyo. He’ll be traveling there for the first time this year.
Dreams continue to come true for this Polish immigrant who has fond memories of watching John Wayne westerns on TV with his dad.
A couple of years ago in his winery newsletter, Lato compared syrah to John Wayne—essentially an old cowboy who is rough on the outside with a heart of gold inside.
Well, lo and behold, John Wayne’s grandson e-mailed Lato telling him he was on his winery mailing list and was a fan of his wines. He set up a meeting and thanked him for mentioning his late grandfather.
“These are special moments. I certainly embrace this country and like it very much,” Lato said. “I think it’s a very special place and there are still great possibilities here for everything—for business and for a good life.”
Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell gives the benevolent Santa Maria Valley wine industry a pat on the back. Contact her at email@example.com.