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A toast to SLO Coast: Local wine expert helps bring a new format to Roll Out the Barrels 2021 

click to enlarge KEEPING IT COOL San Luis Obispo County's coastal wine region spans 5,000 planted acres with 20 grape varieties, led by chardonnay and pinot noir. Marine conditions create the state's coolest vineyard climate and one of the world's longest growing seasons.

Photo Courtesy Of Slo Coast Wine Collective

KEEPING IT COOL San Luis Obispo County's coastal wine region spans 5,000 planted acres with 20 grape varieties, led by chardonnay and pinot noir. Marine conditions create the state's coolest vineyard climate and one of the world's longest growing seasons.

The executive director of the San Luis Obispo Coast Wine Collective lives and breathes wine—and worms.

While Kathleen Naughton is working round the clock to help bring the region's annual Roll Out the Barrels event to fruition after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she also raises and sells worms at local lakes and bait shops.

"My worm farm is currently at about 50,000 worms," she said. "I grow red wigglers, European night crawlers, and Canadian night crawlers."

"My sisters and I raised worms when we were kids," she explained. "We would try to sell them to our neighbors for their gardens, but I think we were a little ahead of the times."

Fast forward to 2020, when Naughton started raising worms for fishing. Currently, she is transitioning into vermicompost because it's what she said she's most passionate about.

"Teaching people all the interesting things about worms and how they can accelerate the composting process—and making it fun for kids and families—is pretty special," she said. "I would love to grow my operation to be able to support local farms or wineries, but I am stretched pretty thin right now, so that will have to wait."

click to enlarge SUPERWOMAN When not working at SLO Coast Wine Collective as its executive director and only paid employee, Kathleen Naughton is immersed in the animal kingdom, raising pets—including her 6-year-old horse, Piper—as well as worms. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COAST WINE COLLECTIVE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Slo Coast Wine Collective
  • SUPERWOMAN When not working at SLO Coast Wine Collective as its executive director and only paid employee, Kathleen Naughton is immersed in the animal kingdom, raising pets—including her 6-year-old horse, Piper—as well as worms.

Being stretched thin is an understatement, as the SLO Wine Collective gears up for its annual barrel-tasting event, slated for June 24 to 28.

Due to lingering COVID-19 sensitivities, and despite California lifting most of its masking rules on June 15, the main event will move from its traditional Mission Plaza location to individual participating wineries. The collective will also kick off its first-ever online auction.

Previously, Roll Out the Barrels centered on a grand tasting event in downtown San Luis Obispo with wineries pouring their latest releases.

This year, however, "We've put safety at the top of our list by shifting all of our events to the individual tasting rooms, with the happy result of everyone having a better chance to connect," Naughton said.

Additionally, the event will include a virtual auction of exclusive wine lots curated by the winemakers, explained Stephen Ross Dooley, president of the collective's board, and owner/winemaker of Stephen Ross Wine Cellars.

"Anyone can take home our stellar selections of vintage pinot noir, chardonnay, albariño, grenache, zinfandel, and more," he said.

Among the lots are large-format bottles from Tolosa Winery, Biddle Ranch Winery, and Stephen Ross Wine Cellars; vertical collections from Talley Vineyards and Timbre Winery; mixed assortments from Croma Vera Wines, Absolution Cellars, Autry Cellars, and Saucelito Canyon; plus some unique bottles and limited releases.

Helping to coordinate the event, now in its 21st year, is no small feat, but Naughton is equipped to handle the pressure, given her extensive wine background.

Raised in Modesto, Naughton majored in psychology at nearby California State University, Fresno. In 2006, she launched her career as a beverage distributor for Tustin, California-based Young's Market Co. Three years later, she uprooted to Washington, D.C., and worked for Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Maryland. When an opportunity presented itself to move back to the Central Coast in 2013, she didn't hesitate.

"I've always loved this area and envisioned myself ending up here," Naughton said. "When I was offered the opportunity to open Law Estate, I had to take it. It's been the best decision I could have made."

click to enlarge TASTE TEST Activities at participating wineries during the four-day Roll Out the Barrels event range from barrel tasting and library samples to live music and oyster shucking. Reservations are required at most venues. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COAST WINE COLLECTIVE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Slo Coast Wine Collective
  • TASTE TEST Activities at participating wineries during the four-day Roll Out the Barrels event range from barrel tasting and library samples to live music and oyster shucking. Reservations are required at most venues.

Naughton managed direct-to-consumer sales at both Law Estate Wines in Paso Robles and Hearst Ranch Winery in San Simeon before joining the SLO Coast Wine Collective, first in a part-time capacity, then as its executive director in 2020.

"Kathleen is wonderful, she gets things done," Dooley said. "Until we interviewed her for the position, I did not have a good understanding of her background. She's worked many different jobs in the wine industry, including sales, marketing, distribution, and direct-to-consumer in Washington, D.C., and California.

"As the board president, she has made my job much easier. She is well-organized, professional, well-spoken, very willing to tackle new tasks, engaging," he added, "and she has a great laugh."

Naughton has also achieved level 2 certification with the wine industry's Court of Master Sommeliers as well as a Cicerone certification in the beer industry.

In her new role at the collective, her primary goal is to continue to grow awareness for local wineries.

"We've been in the shadow of Santa Barbara and Paso Robles for decades," she said. "We're at the point, and have been for the last five to eight years, where we are making some really incredible award-winning wines. So it's getting that information out there and making sure that people know that we aren't just a drive-through from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles wine country; that we're worth the stop."

In addition to the collective's seven-member board, Naughton is supported by integral volunteer committees ranging from marketing and finance to viticulture and consumer engagement.

The collective's 32 member wineries work to elevate brand recognition and establish the SLO coastal region, ranging from Arroyo Grande in the south to San Simon in the north, as a producer of premier wine, according to Dooley and Naughton.

click to enlarge ASSISTANT VERMICULTURIST Kathleen Naughton shares her Paso Robles property with two horses, Piper and Chief; two longhorn cows, Ruby and Toffee; and her 14-year-old golden retriever Olly, seen here tending to the worm farm. - COURTESY PHOTO BY KATHLEEN NAUGHTON
  • Courtesy Photo By Kathleen Naughton
  • ASSISTANT VERMICULTURIST Kathleen Naughton shares her Paso Robles property with two horses, Piper and Chief; two longhorn cows, Ruby and Toffee; and her 14-year-old golden retriever Olly, seen here tending to the worm farm.

Next up for the collective is the establishment of the San Luis Obispo Coast American Viticultural Area, a years-long push that's nearing fruition. The federal designation "better identifies our appellation both locally and nationally," Dooley said.

"As for the presumptive AVA, the thinking is that the growing conditions for grapevines on the ocean side of the mountains are much cooler, leading to longer hang times, lower alcohol, and more flavor development," Dooley explained. "The wines are not as big and flashy as those made over the hill in Paso Robles, but they're extremely food friendly and work really well with the locally grown produce and seafood we're so lucky to enjoy here."

In the short-term, as wineries navigate the post-COVID-19 consumer market, Naughton has more humble aspirations for the collective.

"If we can make it through this year, maintaining all of our members, making sure everyone stays open and is able to continue making wine, I would call that a successful year," she said. Δ

Flavor writer Cherish Whyte digs worms. Reach her through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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