After sitting vacant for a year and a half, the stately castle sprawled along Highway 46 West in Paso Robles opened its palatial doors again in November as home to an up-and-coming new winery, Tooth and Nail.">Just a couple weeks earlier, a stylish new restaurant called
The two ventures, both helmed by vineyard owner Rob Murray, could be seen as an ambitious attempt to make a splashy entrance into San Luis Obispo County’s wine and dining scene.
But to Murray, it was more unfortunate coincidence than master plan. The restaurant had been in the works for years. The castle “just dropped in our lap,” he said.
“It just happened that way. It was tough,” he says of unveiling the projects near-simultaneously.
Even beyond timing, both projects grew more out of circumstance than design, as Murray and his team of investors and employees seized on opportunities, evolved initial concepts and tweaked offerings along the way.
“If you had told me in 2010 that we would have a castle tasting room and be selling 40,000 cases, not to mention owning a restaurant, I would have told you you’re crazy,” Murray says. “It’s just been organic growth.”
The results have been well received so far.
Foremost elicits rave reviews from diners and, just half a year since debuting, was anointed one of Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants in the nation, noted for its farm-focused menu and “fun, hands-on approach to wine and food.”
Tooth and Nail, too, has established a devoted following, driven in equal parts by the unique location, a popular free music series, interesting but affordable wines and striking labels, which Forbes magazine recently highlighted for its annual “Coolest Wine Labels” series.
But first, the wine
Before the castle and restaurant, there were grapes.
Murray’s bread and butter, as he calls it, is his vineyard management company, Reserve Vineyard Management, and the vineyards he has purchased with investors over the years.
Murray grew up on his family’s ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, helping out with the crops, mainly cotton but also corn, grapes, pistachios and almonds, from a young age.
He graduated from Cal Poly in 1989, then spent time working at a large farming company in the valley, for Dole in Hawaii, then managing vineyards in Lodi. But he yearned to get back to the Central Coast and jumped at the chance in 1997 to open a satellite company in Paso Robles.
A few years later, he went out on his own, managing and developing vineyards for small growers and large investment companies. In 2005, he partnered with a private equity firm to buy vineyards and now owns about 1,000 acres, including the Tolliver and Mossfire ranches on Paso’s eastside, and Murmur Vineyards near Highway 101 in Santa Maria, which Murray planned and planted.
The move into making wine commercially was a bit of an accident, he says.
Each year, he’d use some grapes to have a bit of wine made to demonstrate the fruit’s potential and help with sales. After a few years, he realized they had a pretty good product.
“I went to our vineyard partners and said I think we can do this,” he recalls.
Launching in 2011 with 3,400 cases, the winery now features four labels. The biggest is Force of Nature, mostly single varietals emblazoned with striking disaster scenes.
Tooth & Nail pairs dramatic John Audubon drawings with blends sporting names such as The Possessor, The Stand, The Glutton and The Fragrant Snare. Two smaller labels, Stasis and Amor Fati, offer pinot noir and chardonnay from Murmur Vineyards and high-end, small-lot wines.
Murray describes the lineup, priced mostly in the $20-$30 range, as wine for the millennial generation.
“They are looking for value, they are looking for quality, they are looking for something cool and different,” he says.
They seem to have found it, driving the winery’s tenfold growth over just a few years.
“People are surprised that the castle is our first tasting room, but we were already a 40,000-case winery,” Murray says.
Taking over the castle
A castle was the furthest thing from Murray’s mind when he began looking for a tasting room.
He just wanted a small space, without production, which they already had at Center of Effort’s custom crush facility in Edna Valley. But when approached by Covelop, a real estate development company that bought the former Eagle Castle winery in bankruptcy for $4.86 million a year ago, he grasped the potential.
“This could work with our brands,” he says he realized.
Force of Nature labels even depicted medieval castles facing various natural disasters.
But it was going to take a lot of work, both in shaping the space to reflect the brands and figuring out how to use the sprawling property — 25 acres with a 7,900-square-foot event and tasting room building, 13,000-square-foot winery and two homes — to its potential.
“We have this beautiful facility that’s underutilized, so how do we utilize it to its full potential to make it something we’re not just making money from, but to add something to Paso Robles and the west side,” Murray says of his approach.
Bigger properties like Tooth & Nail face challenges that smaller outfits don’t, concedes Visit San Luis Obispo County President and CEO Chuck Davison, but they also have opportunities smaller wineries don’t. One of those is consistency, with tasting hours and events through the week as well as on weekends.
“There’s a great opportunity with some of these bigger establishments to drive people here midweek and in softer season periods,” Davison says.
First up for Tooth & Nail was transforming the stark, gothic castle to give it more of an Old World feel with a hip touch.
“Less knights in shining armor, more industrial meets French chateau,” explains Jo Armstrong, who oversees the winery’s consumer sales.
Out front, they softened the imposing entrance with a large pergola, plenty of comfy seating, smaller doors, greenery and modern light fixtures replacing the ubiquitous torches. Inside, they redid all the ceilings, brought in all new furnishings, replaced the extensive tasting bar and made over the massive fireplace.
And that’s just phase one, says Murray.
“We have a lot of plans for the place, above and beyond just the tasting room.”
More improvements are coming to the event dining room as well as the two rooftop terraces. The winery building is getting new tanks and catwalks, among other modifications, in anticipation of limited production this fall.
The front of that building has already been made over to serve as abride’s room for weddings and green room for bands, complete with a trio of makeup stations. The winery also hopes to host larger concerts, with facilities to support that in the works. The two residences are slated to become bed-andbreakfasts or some other sort of lodging.
Welcoming the masses
It didn’t take long for the castle to find its village.
“We thought we’d have a few months to get all sorted, but we’ve been slammed,” Armstrong says.
In January, once the chaos of opening and the holidays were past, the winery started a catered “burger and cab” night on Fridays to bring people in.
It took off like a cannon shot, and through a fortuitous partnership with Good Medicine Presents — the concert promoters wrapping up their long run bringing music to SLO Brew — has evolved into a series of free weekly concerts featuring noteworthy acts from across the region.
The castle and its stunning terrace views have also proved a popular spot for engagements and weddings.
“They lend themselves to romantic moments,” Armstrong says. “And walking down that grand staircase after the ceremony is just every bride’s dream.”
Tooth & Nail plays host to the typical winery events — educational tastings, corporate gatherings and the like — but isn’t afraid to embrace the offbeat as well. In July, the winery invited the renowned Portuguese street artist GonçaloMAR to “tag” a wall in the back room along with a temporary display of his work.
Cooking up something new
As Murray was busy ramping up the winery with his partners, inspiration for another project struck. He was in a wine bar in the L.A. area with his wife, Nancy.
“We can do better than this,” the pair thought.
And they decided to give it a go.
They cooked up plans for a wine bar and shop, secured space in the Creamery and set about renovations, which took a substantial investment in both money and time working with the city.
It wasn’t until they crossed paths with Julie Simon — a young but accomplished French chef who had recently left Thomas Hill Organics — that Foremost evolved into a fullblown restaurant.
“We connected out of the blue, really hit it off and went in a different direction,” Murray says. “You have to be opportunistic.”
By many measures, the pivot has paid off, earning Foremost accolades as an exciting new spot for foodies with a strong farm-to-table emphasis.
“You get the impression that the entire business is a hands-on operation, much like you would get from a family farm,” says Dominic Tartaglia, executive director of SLO’s Downtown Association. “The owners and staff value knowing their products across the board, the relationship with the farmers that produce it, and how those things translate to a quality dining experience.”
But despite the positive reviews and eager reception from diners, the Foremost team is still tweaking the formula for success in a crowded downtown dining scene.
Lunch service has been dropped, though the restaurant offers brunch on special occasions. Complimentary pintxos — Basque-inspired small plates — aim to lure customers into the front lounge for a new happy hour.
A series of winemaker dinners with the likes of Kenneth Volk, Mike Sinor and Talley Vineyards will probably evolve into more casual, food-driven events, while the wine shop is being de-emphasized and might disappear altogether.
“The food has become the star,” Murray says. The location, just south of the core business district, poses a bit of a challenge as well.
“People have to seek us out,” Murray says. But he’s confident that end of town is growing, with plans for the Creamery and development in the blocks around it, a view shared by Tartaglia.
“The southern side of downtown is up and coming, and the Creamery is certainly a project that I think will reinvigorate businesses down there,” he says. And Foremost, he adds, has carved out a unique niche, something between a full-tilt sit-down restaurant and casual wine bar.
“It pairs local food and drinks with a setting that can be both sophisticated and casual,” he says, “where you can choose to make it an elegant dinner venue or you can meet up with a few friends for a great bar menu and wine list and forego the bar scene.”
Pulling the pieces together
The response to Foremost’s food prompted another change: bringing Simon and her kitchen team up to Tooth & Nail to replace the catering and offer specially selected dishes during the Friday music series and other weekend events.
That move, along with some recent management changes, stem from the realization that the two ventures — run almost completely separately until midsummer — would benefit from a more unified vision as well as overlapping branding and marketing.
"We’re working on a more collaborative nature between the winery and the restaurant,” Armstrong says.
There may be additional changes and refinements to come, but after the whirlwind of the past year, Murray doesn’t expect any more major undertakings.
“My wife said no more projects,” he says with a smile.
Murray still considers himself primarily a grape grower, managing vineyards and selling the vast majority of the fruit grown on his ranches. Watching the vines battle the forces of nature to survive is what inspired his wines, and it’s what inspires him, too.
“Tooth & Nail has always been about the struggle for survival,” he says. “It’s what we’ve stuck to.”
HOME: Arroyo Grande
(Some are owned with investment partners)
Tooth & Nail Winery
Foremost Wine Co.
Reserve Vineyard Management
Rob Murray Vineyards
FAVORITE WINE: El Nido, a Spanish wine
FAVORITE WEBSITE: http://www.surfline.com