After watching his grandmother carefully planting trees and tending to plants in her yard, Jacob Toft entered Cal Poly intending to study landscape design. But when a couple of buddies talked him into taking a viticulture class his freshman year, his life took a dramatic turn.
“I was just hooked,” he said about his first exposure to growing grapes and making wine. “Everything just changed for me.”
He started working at a new Paso Robles restaurant called Villa Creek in 1998 while he was still in school, hired by owner Chris Cherry — now also one of Paso’s most respected winemakers. He worked there for six years, and though he was only waiting tables, he got further hooked on the idea of a career in wine.
“What was neat about it was that it was the hangout for all the winemakers,” Toft explained. It was there he met Dan Paniko of Dover Canyon, who let him make his first two barrels of wine in his winery, and Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure, who later hired him and for whom he still works four days a week.
“When I started working for Stephan in ’05, I kind of treated it as a Ph.D. —a masters course in winemaking,” Toft said.
Though Toft had already made his first vintages at Dover Canyon, he couldn’t understand why they weren’t as good as he hoped.
“How come Stephan’s wines taste better than mine? How do I get closer to what he’s doing? And he just took me under his wing,” Toft said.
After working in the winery as a cellar rat the first year and working in the vineyard the second year, he got his answer.
“What it came down to was farming,” Toft learned. He is now in his sixth year of working for Asseo — now in charge of direct sales. And he is in his ninth year of making his own wine, labeled Jacob Toft.
Now working out of the Denner Winery, he is still small, making only 600 cases this year, but Toft’s name and wines are building a strong following. After getting over 90-point scores from respected critic Robert Parker, he sold out his last vintage in one day.
The lesson Asseo taught him about the importance of the vineyard drives his selection of fruit. He is buying grapes from the most revered vineyards in Paso Robles, including Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard, Booker, Denner, Torrin and Terry Hogue. Justin Smith of Saxum received Paso Robles’ first 100-point score for a wine from his vineyard just last year.
The golden yellow 140-year-old Victorian house on his label is an illustration of his grandmother’s home — a house Toft spent summers playing in and where his parents now live. Toft said the reason he used the house for his label was his deep connection to his family.
“It represents everything for me.” His wines — Sarah’s Cuvee, Tess’s Cuvee, Elizabeth’s Cuvee and Mary Jane’s Cuvee — are named after his sisters and mother.
At just 33, Toft has a long career ahead of him, and his interests include more than just wine. After spending the last three summers in Europe, he is also hooked on exploring the world, and thus doesn’t want to be tied down to his own winery or tasting room.
“This is what I want to do with my life — I want to make wine, and I want to travel.”
Name: Jacob Toft
Address: P.O. Box 1172, Paso Robles, CA
Owner/winemaker: Jacob Toft
Cases produced: 600 this year
Tasting room: None
Available at: Artisan, Bistro Laurent, Cass House, Il Cortile, Villa Creek
Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.