Food & Drink

Wine Notes: Oso Libre

It’s a common practice for new tasting rooms to open just prior to major event weekends so that as many customers as possible are exposed to a new winery and its wines.

As the Harvest Festival approached in Paso Robles two weeks ago, Chris and Linda Behr, owners of Oso Libre, were ready to open their new tasting room for the first time. But being somewhat of a contrarian, Behr changed his mind.

“We had made a decision to open last weekend, over the busy harvest weekend, but then I said, I don’t want to see 40 limos and 120 people who are looking for the barbecue down the road,” Behr explained. Instead, they opened the following Thursday, when all the tourists had gone home, and friends, family and a few lucky passers-by were welcomed into their new winery.

Small decisions like this aren’t the only ways Behr has proven himself to be a bit of an unorthodox businessman. Take, for example, the 27-hole disc golf course he has built on the property. Rather than golf clubs and balls, players compete with Frisbees.

Or consider his method of controlling the growth of grass and weeds on the property: Olde English Babydoll Sheep.

Behr’s 90-acre property on the far west side of Paso Robles is both a vineyard and a working ranch. Along with the sheep, he has a herd of Black Angus cattle, a handful of free-range chickens and a network of owl houses to support his allies in gopher control.

This is a long way from the residential housing tracts of Los Angeles where Behr started and ran his large construction company just a few years ago. When he first bought the Adelaida area property in 1996, it was undeveloped, and he admits he really didn’t know what he was getting into.

“We didn’t know the appellations, we didn’t know the value of our grapes,” Behr admitted, “we didn’t know any of that stuff. We just knew it was greener here than across by Creston way.”

And he didn’t know anything about growing grapes, making wine or raising cattle. But he turned once-skeptical neighbors like Joe Barton, Art Norman, Mitch Wyss and Sherman Thacher into allies and mentors.

“We really listened and learned,” Behr said of his teachers and friends. He also took viticulture classes and read extensively about planting and growing grapevines. In 2000, he planted a 15-acre vineyard with cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, mourvedre, Grenache blanc and viognier.

He also became inspired by his sister, an organic farmer, to get into organic farming and ranching in addition to making wine.

Behr designed and built the barn, winery and home he now has on the property. During the 10 years it took him, he and Linda lived in a trailer while commuting between Paso and Los Angeles. A high priority in the design of the facility and the ranch were the concepts of sustainable farming and renewable energy.

A windmill and a network of solar panels now provide all of the electrical needs for the winery and tasting room. And the sheep, cattle and chickens all contribute to reducing the dependence on energy consumption and pesticides.

Behr hired winemaking consultant Michael Baretto of Sylvester Winery to aid him in making wine and last year lured his stepson Jeff Freeland away from a lucrative software development job in Los Angeles to join the winemaking team. The name Oso Libre, “free bear” in Spanish, is a blend of the Freeland and Behr last names.

Baretta and Freeland made about 3,000 cases last year and hope to expand that to about 7,500. In addition to the fruit from their own vineyard, they purchase grapes from El Pomar, Halter Ranch and a handful of other Westside vineyards.

So far they have enjoyed early success, with gold and best of class medals at the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition and a gold at the Orange County Fair.

They are currently selling their wines only through a handful of restaurants, the tasting room and the Web site. Behr has handed over most of the sales and marketing to Freeland, explaining that is one area he chooses to stay away from. “I did that for 35 years; I’m not going to do that again,” Behr explained. “I’ll work my 12-hour days, but I just don’t want it to be in sales.”

Oso Libre

Owner: Chris and Linda Behr

Web site: www.osolibre.com

Tasting room hours: Friday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Bonus: 27-hole disc golf course

Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at janisswitzer@yahoo.com.

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