Food & Drink

Wine Notes: Maloy O'Neill offers plenty of wine choices

If you ask Shannon O'Neill how many wines he makes, be prepared for a long answer.

"I do seven cabs a year, five syrahs, three French blends, petit, merlot, a couple of zins, muscat, four desert wines, and a couple of whites," he answers. Is that it? "Oh, and we have malbec and tempranillo, too."

In all, Maloy O'Neill Vineyards in Paso Robles offers up to 36 wines each year -- all within a total production of 5,000 cases.

Shannon and his wife, Maureen, (the Maloy half of the name) are celebrating the one-year anniversary of their winery and tasting room next weekend with a large party featuring music, food, tours, and, of course, wine.

Although the winery is only a year old, Shannon O'Neill's winemaking history in this area goes back to 1984, when he made his first wine from chardonnay planted on the Paso Robles property his father bought as an investment.

A friend had told his father, an L.A. restaurant owner, "Buy land in Paso Robles -- it's going to be really valuable some day." He followed that advice, and bought 200 acres for $400 an acre in 1979. A year later, Shannon -- then an enology student at UC Davis -- started planting vines with free planting materials he got from one of the professors there. He started making wine five years later, and has never stopped.

Taking a corporate path

O'Neill eventually planted 150 of the 200 acres, and O'Neill Vineyards became a source of high quality grapes for local vintners and wineries in Napa Valley.

But following graduation with his enology degree, O'Neill chose not to go directly into winemaking as a career. Both he and Maureen, also a UC Davis grad, chose the corporate world.

He worked for Chevron Chemical, followed by a job at a Palo Alto biotech company "making enzymes instead of wines." She went to work for Oracle Corp. at the height of the dot-com boom.

In hindsight, it was a smart move for both of them. The proceeds from their savings, the sale of their San Francisco house and her Oracle stock (which she bought at $6 a share and sold at $90) financed the purchase of their 80-acre property on Union Road in 2002.

It is there that Shannon has finally been able to devote 100 percent of his time to winemaking. With grapes from the original O'Neill Vineyards and 20 acres of vines he planted on the Union Road vineyard, O'Neill makes what he calls "big, extracted, inky, bomber-style wines" from about 14 varietals.

"I pick really late, so I go for intense varietal character," he explains, adding, "I like to max it out on everything."

He makes his wines in small lots, averaging only 120 to 180 cases, and in some cases only 30 or 40. And every step is done with his own hands.

"It's handcrafted in every sense of the word." He says. He uses small bins instead of tanks and gravity instead of mechanical pumps, and he fills each bottle with a hand-operated, five-spout filler.

"I use gentle handling throughout the entire process," he says, "It really makes a difference." Judging from the number of awards he's received in the past three years, his wines show it.

A taste for wine

O'Neill's first exposure to wine came at his father's Belgian restaurant, where, as a teenager, he worked as a waiter.

"We used to have contests on who could sell the most wine, and I won every single time," he recalls. After that experience, he says, "I always knew what I wanted to do."

In addition to his sales skills, it turns out O'Neill also had the natural palate for wine. At UC Davis he was classified as a "super taster," and was paid for tasting not only hundreds of wines, but also new food products being tested for companies including Dole and Del Monte.

"It was a pretty cool job," he says. "All my friends were jealous."

O'Neill, 41, lives with Maureen and their two young children in the old farmhouse that sits on the vineyard property. Maureen was behind most of the planning and design for the brand's label, as well as the tasting room.

With a high-beamed ceiling, Venetian plastered walls, and stained glass, the 1,050-square-foot tasting room is reflective of old European style.

"We wanted to have that historical element," Maureen explains, "I really wanted to make it a legacy for our kids."

Now in the middle of harvest, Shannon is working long days, often with his 3-year old daughter tugging at his jeans. But he and Maureen feel all the hard work is worth it.

"You feel like you're the guardian of all this good fortune," she reflects, "so you want to do something really good with it."

Maloy O'Neill Vineyards

Established: 2002

Owners: Shannon and Maureen O'Neill

Case production: 5,000

Employees: one tasting room manager

Tasting room: 5725 Union Road, Paso Robles

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Also by appointment:238-7320