Paso Robles AVA
The latest rising star from Paso Robles wine country.
OK, raise your hands, how many of you have ever fantasized about quitting your job and starting a winery? You and your family, and maybe some extended family too, would move to the wine country, buy a piece of land, refurbish the old house, convert the barn into a winery, plant some vines and you’re living your dream.
Although it’s not even remotely close to being that simple, you can now live vicariously through members of the Hartenberger family who are experiencing your dream at this very moment. “I would not have started this winery without the help of my kids,” assures owner and founder Bob Hartenberger. “I did it for the lifestyle, but I knew the task was too great without their help, and besides, I wanted them there.”
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take a lot of convincing for family members to exchange their briefcases and commutes in the car, for shovels and rides on the tractor. In fact, if anything, it was Bob’s sons, Rich and Mike, who encouraged Dad to take the plunge and start a winery in the heart of Central California’s wine country (specifically, Paso Robles).
“Years ago, I made a half-serious comment to my Dad when we were visiting Napa that he should start a winery when he retired, and my wife, Michelle, and I would run it!” recalls Rich Hartenberger. That must have been a catalyst of sorts because it was only a year or so later that things were rolling and the kids got the call. Rich promptly quit his job in Chicago as a product manager for a medical supply company and his wife, Michelle, gave up her job as a biochemist. Their eldest son, Mike, not only followed suit by leaving his career as a salesman for an electronics firm, but also paid the ultimate price by relinquishing his Chicago Bulls season tickets!
The family purchased a 160-acre plot located on the West Side of Paso Robles in 1994, and the first order of business was to turn the old horse barn into a winery and the barley field into a vineyard. Easier said than done – the barn required extensive refurbishing to retrofit the stainless steel tanks, French and American oak barrels, water treatment systems and hundreds of other devices.
After planting just 450 vines of the planned 11,000, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out they were in for a long haul. “Sure, it was expensive and it’s hard work too!” says Bob Hartenberger. “But we started this with one idea in mind: to create the best wines possible and wines we can be proud of. We’re not about to cut any corners.”
In 1996, they planted about 18 acres of the potential 100-plus suitable acres. Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were the first varietals to be planted. Additional acreage of each, along with Cabernet Franc, has since been added, and today the planted area totals about 30 acres. While these initial vines were maturing, the Hartenbergers secured first class grapes from other local area well-known vineyards to begin the winemaking process.
As a home winemaker in Chicago for many years, Bob knew the fundamentals. To help ensure success with their first commercial releases, though, they called upon the expert guidance of Nick Martin of nearby Martin Brothers Winery. With Nick’s help and the assistance of a handful of neighboring wineries, the first releases of Midnight Cellars wine were a hit - all earned medals at wine competitions throughout the state and country. With now over sixteen years in the vineyards and winery, Rich Hartenberger still enjoys the role of family winemaker.
Over 990 wineries existed in California when they started and today there are over 3,000. So, the Hartenbergers know full well the importance of maintaining a high quality reputation. “We have to have the very best wine,” says Rich Hartenberger.
So far so good. Year after year Midnight Cellars wines have won a plethora of competitive awards in the State, as well as across the nation.
Map of the area
The Art of Fine Wine
A vibrantly colored watercolor painting done by Barbara Sowinski, a well traveled artist who has studied and painted all over the world.
About the Vineyard
The renowned wine country of Paso Robles is located on California’s Central Coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Established in 1983, and expanded in 1997, then again in 2009, the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is California’s fastest wine growing region and largest geographic appellation.
The territory encompasses more than 26,000 vineyard acres and more than 200 wineries, located among diverse landforms that range from river bottoms to rolling hills, and flatlands to mountains. With major temperature swings, distinct microclimates, diverse soils, and a long growing season, Paso Robles is truly a unique wine region blessed with optimal growing conditions for producing premium and ultra-premium wines.
Midnight Cellars is specifically located on Paso Robles’ west side in the sub region known as the Templeton Gap. This area benefits from the flow of cool marine air from the Pacific Ocean, dropping nighttime temperatures lower than other regions of Paso Robles and creating a typically longer growing season. Grapes from the Templeton Gap are known for bright fruit flavors and excellent natural acidity, so necessary for producing world-class wines.
Midnight Cellars’ estate vineyard is planted on the hillside and hilltop of their 160-acre ranch, in shale and limestone-rich soils, with elevation changes of 500 feet. The southwest sloping hills face the Pacific Ocean, influencing a temperature swing of 40-50 degrees from daytime to nighttime. This setting is an ideal home to the Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Chardonnay planted there.
Rich Hartenberger - Winemaker
Rich Hartenberger, a former hospital bedding salesman from Chicago, Illinois, is Midnight Cellars’ famed winemaker. Under the careful direction of a consultant, Rich began carrying out all winemaking duties for the family winery from the get-go and went on to learn necessary skills from winemaking books, practical experience, college chemistry courses, and from helpful neighboring winemakers.
Rich enjoys spending time in the Tasting Room as well (which his wife Michele manages), introducing visitors to his latest achievements and taking guests into the barrel room for private sampling.
Rich, Bob & Mary Jane Hartenberger
It wasn't until Bob Hartenberger began traveling extensively in the 1980's that he became interested in wine. "It was a gradual appreciation that grew out of many business dinners and meeting people with varying degrees of wine knowledge," recalls Bob. "I became more and more intrigued with not only wine itself, but with the scientific aspect and finally started making wine in the basement of our home in the Chicago area."
The Hartenberger family was living in Chicago by way of St. Louis where Bob grew up. He attended St. Louis University in the 1950's, earning degrees in both Chemistry and Law. A brief and dissatisfying stint at Shell Oil immediately after college led to locally headquartered Monsanto Corporation where Bob found his career niche. Using his educational background in both chemistry and law Bob was hired as a Patent Attorney in 1962.
Bob stayed at Monsanto for 11 years before moving to Chicago to become Chief Patent Lawyer for American Hospital Supply Corporation. For 17 years the Hartenbergers lived in Chicago, during which time the company was bought by another company, Baxter Corporation. Then in 1990 Bob was transferred to Glendale California to become General Counsel at a new corporate location.
Four years later, Bob retired the corporate life and decided to take on a completely new challenge. Even though he was already keenly interested in wines and was still making wine on a very small scale at home, something must have hit a chord during a trip to Napa that year. Bob and Mary Jane met son Rich and his wife Michele in the northern wine country for weekend of wine tasting. As millions of people do each year, the Hartenbergers thought of how great a lifestyle it would be to own and operate their own winery. "The thought grew on me for an entire year before finally taking the plunge," recalls Bob.
To Bob and his family, it seems longer than the twenty-three years that have flown by since buying their 160-acre plot of land in the heart of Central California’s wine country. Bob’s due diligence took him to every section of California’s wine producing regions before choosing to locate in the Paso Robles area. He had looked everywhere from Napa and Sonoma to southern California’s Temecula, but settled on the Central Coast, believing it had just the right balance. Land was far less expensive than in Northern California, yet it was renowned for producing premium wines. The Paso Robles area was the logical spot to land.
“What’s appealing too,” Bob notes, “is that the area still has the unspoiled beauty and charm of real wine country with a feeling of close-knit cooperation among our friends and neighbors.”
The Midnight Cellars tasting room exhibits this rustic charm as well, located adjacent to their 10,000 square foot opener winery on Anderson Road. The large space has a long tasting bar looking out behind the winery to a grassy lawn where visitors can relax, sip wine, and take in the clean country air. Bob and Rich are also known to offer spontaneous barrel tastings, as they enjoy showing off their latest blends and recent efforts to enthusiastic guests.
Today, the Hartenbergers are proud to say that their dream became a reality, and they are living it each and every day.