The tiny rural Central Coast town of Harmony, located just south of the junction of Highways 46 and 1, has never seen such a crowd. On a warm Saturday afternoon earlier this month, a happy invading force of 500 souls gathered in the hamlet whose green highway sign boosts a population of 18.
The occasion was the first annual Harmony Wine Festival, an event organized by Chuck and Kim Mulligan, owners of Harmony Cellars, the only winery in town that is home to a pottery gallery, glassworks shop and a chapel.
Over 20-tented booths offering beer and wine lined the town’s old brick pathways, some fronting residents’ cottages. Behind the two block-long “downtown”, food trucks from The Hurricane Kitchen, Boni’s Tacos and Harmony Valley Scoop Truck did brisk business while the Bear Market Riot band rocked this suddenly energized town.
Although that sign has read population 18 since 2000, Mulligan is not sure when I asked him if that’s the correct number. He starts to count a neighbor here, a business there and comes up with — “closer to 25.” The unincorporated community is home to mostly large ranches, 150 acres or more, but no vineyards, Mulligan noted.
“The issue here is water,” said Mulligan. “We’re on serpentine rock which is high in magnesium and not good for vineyards.” The veteran winemaker, who worked at such wineries as Estrella and Meridian, founded Harmony Cellars in 1989. He sources fruit from Edna Valley for his whites and Paso Robles for reds that make up the 7,000 annual-case production.
Although it’s the only winery in this community, settled by Swiss and Italian dairy farmers in the late 19th century, winemaking harks back to late 1880s when Kim’s great grandfather Giacomo Barlogio, founder of the old creamery cooperative in downtown Harmony, began experimenting with home winemaking in his basement. Today Harmony Cellars stands on a portion of Barlogio’s original land holdings.
“There were no wineries here and people thought we were crazy,” Mulligan recalled of their decision to set up their winery in Harmony. But the busy Highway 1 corridor offered plenty of tourists, “and it’s a beautiful setting and the weather is great.”
The idea of staging a wine festival in Harmony was hatched as a fundraiser. The Mulligans were keen to support an organization serving the needs of children. They came upon Cambria-based Infant Essentials, a non-profit organization that provides diapers, formulas and other essential comforts to homeless, low income and under served infants in San Luis Obispo County.
The Mulligans corralled support from the neighboring wine industry and got a positive response from such Paso Robles wineries as Robert Hall, Castoro, Still Waters, EOS, Summerwood, Cass and Bodega de Edgar.
“It’s a good event,” said Andy Niner pleased with his participation. “We did it because we like the cause,” he added as he offered a selection of Niner Wines Estate’s chardonnay, a rosé of pinot noir, sangiovese and malbec.
Navigating the intimate festival, I discovered a couple of new wineries to me. Twin Coyotes poured a voluptuous non-vintage white blend of vermentino and verdelho and Arroyo Grande-based Phantom Rivers offered an impressive 2015 pinot noir crafted from Edna Valley fruit and a 2012 zinfandel from Paso.
At the Harmony table, I savored the 2016 raspberry-laced Grandpa Barlogio zinfandel and the non-vintage Aria, a Bordeaux blend crafted in the solera style, wines that were food friendly and approachable.
“We are not into high extracted and high alcohol style,” Mulligan declared. (A few days after the festival, at the Harmony tasting room, I sampled additional 2015 vintages of varieties such as sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec, wines that express a pleasing balance of fruit and acidity.)
From Edna Valley, Chamisal brought a deliciously fresh and crisp chardonnay while the Cayucos Cellars table presented a silky pinot noir also made from Edna Valley fruit. “But we grow pinot in Cayucos also,” informed Paige Selkirk of their total micro production of 400-800 cases annually.
It was a very warm afternoon — by Harmony’s coastal standards — so the beer booths representing Central Coast Brewing, Earth & Fire, Firestone, Libertine and Three Stacks & A Rock found themselves quite busy.
Whites and rosés were also a welcome respite. Red Soles poured a 2017 Heart & Soul, a blend of chardonnay and viognier that came with a little spritz, and the strawberry-tinged 2017 Loose Laces rosé.
So for one August afternoon, Harmony marked itself as a small town with big wines. And Mulligan was pleased with the turn out. For next year, he plans to corral more winery support, get a few more food trucks and increase the attendance. “But we want to cap it to 800 people,” he reflected.
Funds raised from the wine festival’s ticket sales will benefit the Infant Essential organization. Mulligan estimated that donation will be in the range of $18,000-$20,000.