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Introducing your SLO County ambassador of wine, Archie McLaren

Archie McLaren, organizer of the Central Coast Wine Classic, checks a wine for color in August 1986.
Archie McLaren, organizer of the Central Coast Wine Classic, checks a wine for color in August 1986.

If the Central Coast named an ambassador of wine, Archie McLaren might be it.

He could be the real life version of “The Most Interesting Man In the World.”

For many years, county winemaking was a sleepy field. In the late 1960s, the Vineyard Drive area west of Templeton had only four family wineries.

The next 15 years brought rapid change with vines being planted from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles and new vintners who marketed more expensive corked bottles rather than the former screw-top jug wines.

Some found the change intimidating.

Archie McLaren helped bridge the gap. In 1984 he began a weekly radio program on public radio KCBX called “The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Indulgence.”

His relaxed southern drawl made wine sound friendly and accessible as he interviewed local vintners.

The next year, the Central Coast Wine Classic was launched as a fundraiser for KCBX, and for two decades the two were affiliated.

McLaren now lives in the Santa Barbara area and still is a central figure in the Central Coast Wine Classic, raising money for nonprofits and educating people about the quality of Central Coast wine.

The History Center of San Luis Obispo County is recognizing McLaren’s contributions with an exhibit called “Doing Good and Living Well: Archie McLaren and the Central Coast Wine Classic,” opening during Art After Dark on Friday, Oct. 6, from 6-9 p.m. and running through March 2018. The project is a collaboration between the History Center and Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County.

Dorie Bentley wrote this Telegram-Tribune story Aug. 13, 1986. It has been edited for brevity. Please excuse the pun in the headline.

McLaren helps KCBX a liter bit

Black tam firmly fixed on his forehead, bearded Archie C. McLaren Jr. slowly, almost reverently, held the glass of amber liquid to the light.

The founder and co-sponsor of the KCBX Wine Auction Classic and Tasting, set for Friday through Sunday in Avila Beach, was demonstrating the fine art of wine tasting.

The big KCBX wine tasting, with more than 70 wineries from throughout the state participating, is for everyone, “not just the people with mega amounts of money who want to put wine in their cellar,” said McLaren.

“That’s my baby,” said McLaren, adding he started the event last year. He said he hopes to raise $60,000 for the public radio station. Co-sponsor is Larry Shupnick of San Luis Bay Inn.

There’s more to wine tasting than just swigging down a mouthful of wine, McLaren said, going through the steps for the news media and others gathered in the Bayview room of San Luis Bay Inn.

McLaren, administrator of International Marketing for West Publishing Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, is well acquainted with San Luis Obispo County.

He’s past president of the Central Coast Wine Society and hosts a weekly KCBX program, “The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Indulgence.”

Born in Georgia, he grew up in Memphis and graduated from law school at Carolina State University.

His experience with wine began when he was a university scholar in Tennessee and a friend invited him to a tasting.

An avid wine collector since then, McLaren said he was drawn to the county by the availability of its fine wines. One of his well-stocked wine cellars is in Avila Beach. The other is in Honolulu.

For true tasting, wine glasses should only be one-third to one-half full, said McLaren.

The first step in tasting is to “look,” said McLaren, holding the glass of wine to the light.

“See if there is any cloudiness or particulates … make sure it is clear and pretty.”

Rieslings should look “like straw to a fairly deep yellow.”

Next: “Take a sip, sniff it,” said McLaren, sipping and sniffing.

“Essentially, use olfactory and taste senses simultaneously.” Taste to see if there is anything offensive, such as sulphur.

“Take another taste. Chew it, just like food. Wine is a food as well as being a wine.

“Make sure you fill your mouth.”

Each part of the mouth will experience a different taste, said McLaren.

Fruity wines may have the taste of cherry and cedar, beaches, apricots, but “you can’t taste that by just putting it in your mouth and swallowing.”

For a true taste experience, “Put it in your mouth and roll it around.”

Tasters should start with blush wines such as white zinfandel or dry Riesling, then sauvignon blanc.

From there, “go to the next level”: chardonnay, a heavier white wine, then a lighter style red, beaujolais. From the lighter reds, go to pinot noir, “probably the trickiest of all the grape varieties in the world,” the most difficult to produce, and the most highly prized. One such wine went for $100 a bottle, he said. Finally, sip cabernet sauvignon, a heavy red wine or merlot.

The tasting ends with a sweet wine, such as port.

It’s not necessary to drink the last drop in the glass, said McLaren. After tasting, dump the surplus, and swirl the glass in water.

Responding to questions, McLaren said older red wine can be very soft and delicate, but once exposed to the air, can “go downhill rapidly.” He said the best way to tell is to smell and taste the wine. If nothing has changed, “it can breathe (be open to the air before serving) for quite a while.”

White wine is different, and some over 100 years will still be good. An opened bottle can be left in the refrigerator for a week and still be as good as when it was first tasted.

Can any wine get too old? “Yes, Riesling probably won’t last five years.”

Why is information from a good wine retailer so important?

“Your taste buds evolve with your mind if you use them both together. At a certain point, you can learn to evaluate a wine without having to taste it any further.”

Some McLaren tips:

Champagne goes downhill very fast if exposed to light. “I keep it in a box and dark cellar.”

Cabernet in a case can age 15 to 20 years.

Normally, a regular bottle will age twice as fast as a magnum.

Different conditions, such as light and heat, affect wine. Wine should be stored in a cellar at 55 degrees. Cellars should be dark, cool and with no vibration.

There should be no fluctuation of temperatures in wine cellars.

“Even in a cellar, your body heat will raise the temperature.”

Wine aficionados from Paris to Florida are expected at the tasting but county residents shouldn’t be intimidated by this, said sponsors.“The tasting is for the public at large, to relax, have a good time.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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