I first met Stephen Dooley back in 2010, when I attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) as a consumer. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but it was my first rendezvous with whom I would eventually learn, was the Godfather of San Luis Obispo wine Country (SLO).
Had I known who he was, I certainly would have approached that first encounter very differently. As it was, I was in a blending seminar at Archery Summit Winery and they had just announced a contest—the group of people who made the best blend out of the five different clones on our tables would each walk away with a magnum of Archery Summit’s Estate Pinot Noir.
Even though I had never blended wine before and had virtually no insight into winemaking, I knew I would win the contest—I looked around the room and quickly assessed the competition. I had this. It was already over.
While I was in the midst of trying to tell all the others in my group what we should do, a random guy stood up and started talking about pH levels, the various characteristics of the several clonal selections at our disposal, and the need to balance out the various aspects of the wine.
In other words, he was being a know-it-all. And ruining my mojo.
Well, it turned out that the interloper was actually a winemaker, that specialized in Pinot Noir, at a winery in San Luis Obispo, Stephen Dooley of Stephen Ross Winery (“Ross” is his middle name, which Steve felt was more “elegant” than “Dooley”).
As it turned out, Steve was an incredibly nice guy (he originally hails from Minnesota, which I believe requires him to be exceedingly kind), and his wife, Paula, was simply enchanting (but also had a bit of a sarcastic streak, which was right up my alley). Not only did I spend the rest of that afternoon chatting with the couple, but I spent a fair amount of time over the next few days in their company.
After IPNC, we stayed in touch, mostly over Facebook (when I say “we” I mean Paula and I—Steve is not really the Facebook type), with Paula periodically encouraging me to make the trip to San Luis Obispo to visit the winery.
Finally, this past Spring, I met up with the Dooleys while in San Luis Obispo on a press trip, and it was there that I learned that Stephen Dooley truly was the Godfather of SLO.
(Not to be confused with the Godfather of SOUL, as I can attest that Steve, like me, is tragically white.)
What makes one the Godfather of SLO? While I am certain this is not an official moniker (and I never saw anyone kiss his ring), Steve started making wine in San Luis Obispo in 1987. While that does not make Stephen Ross the oldest winery in SLO, every single winemaker that I had met over the course of the week was connected to Steve in some way or another.
- Lisa and Bill Cutruzzola of Cutruzzola Vineyards hired Steve as the consulting winemaker.
- Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards, among other connections, went in with Steve on a new vineyard.
- Mike Sinor of Sinor-Lavallee first worked for Steve while Mike was a student at Cal Poly.
The list goes on—in fact, by the end of the week, I was desperate to find someone, anyone, who did not have some sort of connection to Stephen Dooley. Finally, I thought I found my unicorn: Ryan Deovlet had travelled the world making wine before settling in San Luis Obispo at Biddle Ranch Vineyards as the winemaker a couple of years ago.
His first “real” job in wine was with Stephen Ross Wine Cellars back in 2005.
There is just no getting around the Godfather in SLO.
As for his wines? While doing a bit of research for this article, I often found the words “legendary winemaker” immediately preceding “Stephen Dooley” and the wines—all from barrel—that I tasted in his winery the afternoon after the end of the press trip did not tarnish that assessment.
For years, Steve has received 4-5 tons of Chardonnay and 2 tons of Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. That is no small feat (and a testament to his winemaking) as Bien Nacido is largely considered a California “Grand Cru” vineyard and its fruit is allotted to some of the greatest winemakers in the country.
2016 Stephen Ross Chardonnay, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley: Retail $42. Luscious fruit and balance, with a laser-like acidity. There is no doubt in my mind that this wine is going to be stellar. Whoa. Outstanding. 92-95 Points.
2016 Stephen Ross Pinot Noir, Stone Corral Vineyard, Edna Valley: Retail $56. The Dooleys consider this their flagship wine as it comes from their estate vineyard, planted in 2001. All Clone 667. Bright and beautiful fruit, forest floor, clove. Outstanding and another Whoa. 92-95 Points.
2016 Stephen Ross Pinot Noir, Chorro Creek Vineyard, San Luis Obispo: Retail $42. Darker both in the glass and in fruit with more menthol. Earthier with more spice. Outstanding. 90-93 Points.
2016 Stephen Ross Pinot Noir, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley: Really rich with bright red berry fruit, pepper, lavender and a bit of spice. This, in barrel, is an absolute stunner. Whoa. Outstanding. 91-94 Points.
2016 Stephen Ross Zinfandel, Dante Dusi Vineyard, Paso Robles: Retail $36. Tastes like a cool climate zin, even though the vineyard can be quite hot during the day. The key is the diurnal shift—the vineyard can drop down to 50° at night. At 15.3% ABV Steve would like it a bit lower, just under 15% since he contends that when the alcohol is that high, after a few years in bottle, it starts to come off a little hot. Still, good fruit and balance—this is my kind of Zin. Outstanding. 90-93 Points.
I often think back to that first encounter with the Godfather of SLO at IPNC. Our group did not win that contest, and the competitor in me wonders whether I would have walked away with that magnum of Archery Summit Pinot if I had been seated at the winning table. While there is no doubt that magnum would be drinking fabulously now, meeting and befriending Paula and Stephen Dooley was the much, much better prize.