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Castoro Cellars - Paso Robles
Castoro Cellars, One of California's Best kept Secrets
According to the results of the last five annual World Wine Championships, Castoro Cellars has earned a solid spot among the top twelve "Great Zinfandel Producers" in the country. Other names appear on the list too, like Frog's Leap, Kenwood, Kendall-Jackson, and DeLoach. These are all winery names we have heard of—but Castoro Cellars? Where did they come from?
Frankly, we've had our eye on tiny Castoro Cellars for quite some time. Their tiny 15,000 case winery near Paso Robles, is one of California's best kept secrets. Since starting their winery in 1983, owners Niels and Berit Udsen have been content to slowly increase production just as fast as they could handle selling the wine by themselves. When they began the winery Niels was still working at Estrella River Winery, gaining valuable experience in just about every phase of the business. He would make his own Castoro wine on the weekends and his wife, Berit, would go out and sell it. "At first we just wanted to make a few barrels of wine for our friends and family," recalls Niels. "Everyone thought it was great wine so we started selling to area restaurants and stores. We just kept making more and more each year."
By 1986 things got to be more than Niels could handle on a part-time basis, so he quit Estrella River to devote full time to his own venture. "We had no employees," states Niels. "It was just me and my wife doing everything," he says. Out came a thousand cases, then two the next year, then three the year after that. "We made a little bit of a lot of different wines for a winery of our ," admits Niels. Aside from red Zinfandel which a lot of wineries were giving up on in the mid-1980s, Niels crafted small batches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and White Zinfandel.
Niels owned no vineyard or winery building in those days so he purchased grapes from dozens of different vineyards and leased facilities to make the wine. "I've bought grapes from over 40 different vineyards," says Niels. "It has given me great flexibility in producing a consistently good product every year." And that consistency has paid off for Castoro Cellars. Throughout the 1980s they methodically carved a small but comfortable niche in the wine market.
Niels developed another niche too during that period. He recognized that wineries on the central coast needed "custom-crush" services readily available. A lot of wineries like his were still too small to have their own crushing equipment. And even more wineries did not have on-premise machinery to bottle the finished wine. Consequently, Niels purchased a large Europress for these small wineries to have available to lease. He also developed a mobile bottling line which could be transported right to the winery site. Now, instead of having to transport grapes and/or finished wine to other parts of California, wineries had a local source. With less handling and faster turn-around time a potentially better quality wine could be made.
By the early 1990s there were no facilities available on the central coast that were big enough to house his rapidly growing custom-crush operation and the ever expanding Castoro Cellars wine business. So, in 1991 the Udsens found a permanent facility for their enterprises—an old abandoned winery building located in the same area, situated on 200 acres of land. The land surrounding the building is potentially good soil for establishing vineyards but as of yet none have been planted. Instead, Niels took advantage of yet another opportunity by purchasing two separate vineyards in the area that came up for sale. He knew they were excellent vineyards because he had been buying fruit from both spots for a number of years.
Within a span of a dozen years Niels and Berit have come from making a few barrels of wine for their friends in a rented corner of someone else's winery, to developing a 65,000 case custom-crush operation and a 15,000-case winery. And they are now in their own building, with their own equipment, using grapes from their own 125-acres of vineyards! Quite an accomplishment.
Even now with their own vineyards to use, Niels estimates the fruit will only take care of 15% of his needs. "We're still doing the same thing we always have—buying fruit from a number of different vineyards to ensure a consistently good quality product. Only now, we just happen to own two of those vineyards." His goal is to eventually use his own grapes for at least half of what they need for the Castoro wines.
Currently, Castoro Cellar's principal varietal wines include Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, White Zinfandel and to a lesser extent, Sauvignon Blanc. They also bottle three to four tasting-room-only wines in very small quantities. "We'd like to build up production on all of these wines," admits Niels. "But we'll do it like we always have—by ramping up slow and easy."
After years in the wait, Gold Medal Wine Club is pleased to bring you a taste of Castoro Cellars. Their multiple Gold Medal winning 1992 Zinfandel is an excellent example of the kind of quality wine you can expect from any of their wines if you are lucky enough to spot a bottle somewhere. Enjoy!
1992 Zinfandel Paso Robles
A monster medal winning wine from tiny Castoro Cellars. The critics agree this one is a beauty! Of all Zinfandels entered into the major 1995 competitions, this wine finished fourth overall in the point standings and was by far rated the best value. The wine is full of fruit, ripe plums, raspberries and cinnamon spice. The Wine Enthusiast gave it an 85 calling it “Fruity, with flavors of red cherries, blackberries, pepper. Hefty spice and bright acids enliven smoky black fruit.” Delicious with most Italian foods and any hearty entrée.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Niels Udsen - “dam fine wine!”
"I had no idea what I wanted to do," Niels Udsen candidly says about his career plans. "Until one of my last classes in my final year of college," he continues. At the time, Niels was a student at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, studying Agriculture. That particular course required him to do a marketing project and vineyard feasibility study for nearby winery, Zaca Mesa. "From that point on I knew I wanted to be in the wine business," he says.
Niels was born and raised on California's central coast, in the city of Ventura. His father is from Denmark who in the late 1940s came over with a dream to be an American farmer. "I spent a lot of summers in the field," Niels groans. His father's dream turned into a highly successful business that produced bulk-seeds for use by farmers and packaged-seeds for consumers.
When Niels was a teenager he went to live in Denmark with the family of his father's best friend. The trip proved to be a fortuitous event in Niels life. While he was there he met his future bride, Berit. He also learned to make wine, taught by his father's friend. Not yet knowing the impact that visit would have on his life, Niels returned to California to finish high school and college. He and Berit had kept in touch through the years and when Niels went back to Denmark after college they got married.
When the newlyweds returned to California, Niels was willing to take on just about any job that would get him into the wine business. After knocking on the doors of dozens of wineries throughout the state he was hired by Estrella River Winery. Ironically, it was located very near to San Luis Obispo where he attended school. There he paid his dues as a "cellar rat" before graduating to various other duties. "I did a little bit of everything while I was there," he recalls. "It was a good a way to learn the business," he adds.
And learn he did. While he was there the winery had begun to lease their facilities to independent winemakers who were producing their own private-label wines. Niels figured he could do that as well, so he too began making wine. He stayed at Estrella River for five years, until 1986 when his own winemaking venture required his full attention.
Neils and Berit (or "Bimmer" as her friends call her), live about a half mile from the Castoro Cellars tasting room just off Highway 46, near Templeton. They have two boys, Max, 7, and Luke 10. Oh, and by the way the name "Castoro" is the Italian word for beaver, which was Niels nickname as he was growing up. He learned that fact while on an extended trip in Italy after he finished high school. He always liked the name Castoro and it seemed an appropriate name for his "dam fine wine!"