Frank Arciero, Paso Robles vintner, developer and one of San Luis Obispo County’s more colorful characters, died Wednesday in an Orange County hospital after suffering an aneurysm two months ago. He was 86.
The arc of Arciero’s life is one of rags to riches, a realization of the American dream. Born in the grapevine-studded hills of St. Elia, a small town 75 miles south of Rome, Arciero and brother Phil emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. They were barely teenagers and had no formal education and little money, according to accounts of his life that have been chronicled from The Tribune to the Los Angeles Times.
Although the brothers had no education and initially couldn’t speak English, they were smart enough to parlay ditch digging into manual labor jobs, which led to construction work, and finally into the brothers becoming one of the largest concrete contracting outfits not just in Southern California, but the world.
Timing, as they say, is everything, and Frank Arciero’s was perfectly on point as post-World War II Southern California was on its way to being paved over.
The Arcieros were a big part of that push. Parking garages at Los Angeles International Airport, buildings on the Cal State Fullerton campus, shopping malls, as well as sprawling housing complexes were all built under their purview. They became multimillionaires.
Always interested in racing, Arciero put together a generation of teams that included Indy legends such as Al and Bobby Unser, Parnelli Jones, Michael Andretti, Phil Hill and Roger Penske. His sons Frank Jr. and Albert also raced and helped build the Arciero Racing Team into a juggernaut on a variety of circuits.
However, although he was a successful businessman and entrepreneur, Arciero told Tribune reporters over the years that he really didn’t feel as though he was “somebody” until he owned a winery. And that’s where Arciero Winery was born.
Arciero discovered Paso Robles on his way to the Laguna Seca Raceway just east of Monterey. The tawny rolling hills reminded him of his Italian hometown’s countryside, so he started buying land around Paso Robles in the early 1980s. At the time, there were maybe 15 winery-vineyards in the region.
By 1986, the Arciero brothers had amassed some 700 acres east of Paso Robles and went to work on building their iconic winery. As Tribune staff writer Phil Dirkx noted in a 1986 story, “When they made up their minds to go into the winery business, they decided against starting out small.”
The winery, located on Highway 46 about six miles east of town, is as robust and larger-than-life as Arciero’s gusto and breadth of vision. Built for $10 million, an amount that would be $21 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, the Italian-Mediterranean-style winery with rock facade has about 1.5 acres under one red-tiled roof; its tasting room alone is 6,000 square feet. The winery soon became one of the top producers in the county, with one vineyard stretching for two miles along Highway 46.
Although the winery earned international recognition for some of its varietals, it struggled, and in 1996 Arciero & Sons Inc. revamped its approach to making and marketing their wine. Its new name was EOS, in honor of the Greek “Goddess of the Dawn.”
EOS produced 13 varietals, but was best known for its zinfandel, petite syrah and late-harvest moscato. It was sold in 2007 to Sapphire Wines of Tennessee for an estimated $35 million.
In the meantime, the Arcieros opened the La Quinta Inn and Suites in Paso Robles and continued developing with their Fallingstar Homes company, while Arciero continued to commute weekly from his real estate development company in Irvine to Paso Robles. He lived in homes in both places.
Although he’d captured the American dream, at heart Arciero was a winemaker. As he said in a 1996 Tribune interview at the newly re-christened EOS: “If you have a vineyard like this in Italy, you’re a big shot. They call you ‘mister’ when you get up in the morning.”
Arciero is survived by sons Frank Jr. and Albert; five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Angie.
Services will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, 2046 Mar Vista in Newport Beach.