‘He was a Robin Hood’: Wine legend Archie McLaren leaves legacy of helping others

Archie McLaren, here in 2005, died Tuesday at his colorful Avila Beach hillside home.
Archie McLaren, here in 2005, died Tuesday at his colorful Avila Beach hillside home. ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Wine evangelist. Tireless philanthropist. Southern son. Anti-segregationist. Archie McLaren was many things to many people; his legacy on the Central Coast is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.

After 75 years of life that saw him go from trying to sell blood to buy Thanksgiving dinner as a young man to driving Ferraris and staying at exclusive European locales, McLaren died peacefully Tuesday evening. His fight with lung cancer was brief, but his longtime friend, assistant and confidante Beverly Aho said he left the world with supreme peace of mind.

“He had everything in order. He took care of everything,” she said. “He took care of his entire life.”

McLaren was born in Atlanta on Sept. 25, 1942, but grew up in Memphis.

James Papp, his friend and biographer, said McLaren earned a bachelor’s degree (in English) from Vanderbilt University and law degree from Memphis State University, now called University of Memphis. While living and working in Mississippi, McLaren fell in love with Georgie Mae Blunt, a half-black, half-Choctaw woman who went on to be his first wife.

When word got out that they planned to marry, McLaren was told “that the (Ku Klux) Klan had given him 48 hours to live,” Papp said.

Eventually, McLaren came out west to visit a friend in Morro Bay. After seeing Avila Beach, he stayed in California for good.

McLaren worked as a salesman for legal publisher West, serving as the company’s representative to California, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii and Asia until 1990. Although the laid back Southern gentleman was one of the company’s top salesmen, his true passions in life lay elsewhere.

There was wine, of course. When he met Paso Robles winemaker Gary Eberle, in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, McLaren was a novice on the subject.

“But boy, did he pick it up fast,” Eberle said.

McLaren traveled the world, visited vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, France, Spain and Germany, but his greatest love was always the wines of the Central Coast.

“He was really important in helping to promote Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties,” Eberle said. “Very few people I have known who were not an active member of our industry did as much to promote our industry as Archie did.”

That love translated into another passion: public radio.

For years, McLaren hosted a weekly show on KCBX called “The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Indulgence,” where “his relaxed southern drawl made wine sound friendly and accessible as he interviewed local vintners,” The Tribune’s David Middlecamp wrote in 2017.

Those two loves, wine and public radio, led to a third passion of McLaren’s — and perhaps the one for which he will most be remembered: The Central Coast Wine Classic.

Started in 1985 by McLaren, KCBX General Manager Frank Lanzone and San Luis Bay Inn’s Larry Shupnik, the Wine Classic has raised millions over the decades for public radio and other charitable causes.

McLaren’s philanthropy, which he focused on exclusively beginning in 1990, extended toward the arts — including Arts Obispo, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council — but also social justice. He has bequeathed some of his estate to benefit the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and hate groups across the United States, Papp said.

At the 2017 Wine Classic, the last one ever, he raised $145,700 for the Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers, which provides assistance to those workers and their families.

Papp, Aho and Eberle said McLaren was indefatigable.

“Archie was able to bring people from all over the U.S. to spend their money here,” Aho said. “He was a Robin Hood.”

“He was such a bon vivant,” Eberle said.

Beyond the Ferraris, wine and the parties, McLaren was a lover of people, Papp said.

Even after a stroke prevented him from holding a Wine Classic in 2015, McLaren “roared back” in 2016 with 18 events taking place over two counties, Papp said.

“This is a man who had just suffered a stroke,” he said.

But for a man who lived life at a breakneck pace, McLaren’s last days were anything but. After receiving his cancer diagnosis, he refused to get chemo treatment, instead opting to spend his final weeks in hospice at his colorful Avila Beach home.

His bed was right by his window, Aho said, “and he got to see what he created.”

Though he never practiced law, she said McLaren was instrumental in pushing for the cleanup of Avila Beach after an oil spill in the early ‘90s.

His home was never empty; in his final days McLaren entertained several visitors coming to pay their respects, even as his health worsened.

“We left earlier than we wanted, but later than we should have,” Eberle said of his Friday visit, the last time he ever saw his friend and former racquetball partner.

But McLaren insisted on allowing his visitors the time they needed to say goodbye, Aho said.

“He just cares so deeply for those people who loved him,” she said.

For Papp, that meant spending Saturday reading McLaren his own biography.

“He was laughing, the rest of us were in tears,” Papp said. “He was still suggesting edits. He was a very tough editor, I have to say.”

That toughness was just part of who McLaren was. Papp said he had an iron spine. Eberle said he refused to take medications that would dull his senses. Aho said he had no fear of dying.

McLaren feared little at all; he had lived his life on his own terms, even when it put his life in jeopardy. Papp recalled something that McLaren was fond of saying: “I never did s--- that anyone told me to.”

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler

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