Archie McLaren, a charismatic, tireless wine lover known for founding the Central Coast Wine Classic and hosting radio and TV segments on wine, died Feb. 20, from complications due to bone cancer. He was 75.
"We just saw him on Monday," lamented Paso Robles vintner Gary Eberle, noting that McLaren was always such an active, vibrant person, and tried to stay upbeat, even during his last days. Eberle reminisced about racquetball games he and McLaren played, and noted that McLaren was a unique character. "He was an extremely gifted athlete and incredibly well-read and well-spoken bon vivant," he said.
John Niven, one of the principal owners of Niven Family Wines in Edna Valley, echoed Eberle's comments. "I've known [Archie] 35 years, and he was as eloquent as ever when I visited two weeks ago," said Niven, adding that McLaren's unrivaled command of the English language made him a joy to be around.
Born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1942 and raised in Memphis, Tenn., McLaren attended Vanderbilt University on a tennis scholarship. He later taught and coached tennis at Memphis University School while pursuing a law degree. McLaren also pursued post-graduate studies in humanities, English literature and international marketing at various universities. During his years in Memphis, he fell in love with wine and food, often traveling to New Orleans to visit restaurants.
He made his way to California in 1974 to work for legal publisher West Publishing Company. He first lived in Morro Bay, then a friend convinced him to venture south and visit Avila Beach, a quaint coastal town just off Highway 101 outside of San Luis Obispo. McLaren obliged, and made the town his home for the next 40 years, before moving to Santa Barbara in 2015.
He became a fixture of the community, serving as chairman and executive director of both San Luis Obispo's Vintners Association and Growers Association for many years. He was also a member of the Vintners' Club of San Francisco and the Wine and Food Society of San Francisco, and was a president of the Central Coast Wine Society.
He will be perhaps most remembered for cofounding the Central Coast Wine Classic. In 1984, San Luis Obispo public radio station KCBX asked McLaren to host a weekly program about wine, The Wine Drinker's Guide to Indulgence. The next year, McLaren and the station started the Central Coast Wine Classic as an annual fundraiser for KCBX. The event has grown to be one of the most successful charity wine auctions in America, raising money each year for regional nonprofits.
The event has also played a key role in shaping the history and wine industries of Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. "The Wine Classic brought people here," said Eberle, noting that when he started his eponymous winery in the mid-1970s, no one knew where Paso Robles was. "Archie was instrumental in promoting the Central Coast, helping the whole area gain recognition."
"What made him so remarkable was his network," said Niven, adding, "He knew people from all over the world, and his ability to tap into his network and draw resources to help him out with his various charities was incredible." Niven added that while everyone tends to focus on what McLaren did for the coast, he doesn't get enough credit for all the money he raised for the charities.
McLaren also cofounded the World of Pinot Noir event, a gathering of Pinot Noir producers from around the world for two days of seminars, grand tastings, and gourmet meals. McLaren also helped launch charity wine auctions in Washington, D.C., Honolulu, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Mendocino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara.
"He was an innovator and imaginative," said Niven, noting that while many wine auctions of the time auctioned just wine, McLaren was one of the first with the vision to put together elaborate wine, food and travel packages.
A true ambassador of Central Coast wine, McLaren will be remembered for his colorful wardrobe and signature beret, but also for being a pacesetter. "For someone who was not a principal in the industry, he promoted the region extraordinarily well," said Eberle. "He leaves behind a tremendous legacy, and the wine industry is going to miss him."