In keeping with Los Angeles’ vibrant downtown scene, Paso pioneer Gary Eberle was feted with much fanfare when he received the 2019 Robert Mondavi Hospitality Award, presented by the Collins College of Hospitality at Cal Poly Pomona at the JW Marriott Hotel on March 2.  

The fundraising event, billed as Hospitality Uncorked, gathered together Southern California’s hospitality industry that supports the Collins College at CPP. The party’s “Alice in Wonderland” saw guests adorned in whimsical hats and bright costumes. But Eberle, true to his love for the casual was dressed in his trademark shorts.

“Have you ever seen me in anything but shorts?” he asked. However, the vintner did pull off a classy look. topping his black shorts with a tuxedo jacket complete with a bow tie, a white shirt, right down to his knee-high black socks and dress shoes. He further accessorized his ensemble with custom-made buttons and cufflinks bearing Eberle winery’s wild boar mascot.

The hotel’s third-floor lobby was transformed into a wine wonderland as guests grazed on delectable appetizers paired with a selection of Paso Robles wines while checking out the silent auction items prior to dinner.

Bottles of Robert Mondavi chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon graced the dinner tables in the glittering banquet room. There was plenty of razzmatazz as colorfully costumed performers danced to renderings of opera and rock from Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” to Queen’s “Somebody to Love Me.” Dinner was followed by a live auction offering lifestyle packages, including a Paso Robles Wine Country Extravaganza that was picked up for $10,000.

Both Eberle and the Paso Robles region have come a long way and now, celebrating his winery’s 40th anniversary, Eberle takes pride in his eponymous winery that produces 30,000 cases annually.

Eberle’s contributions to the wine industry are of such significance that he was honored with the 2015 Wine Lifetime Achievement Award by the State of California. While his collection of awards are special, the Mondavi award has a certain significance and for Eberle, the connection has come full circle. He met Robert Mondavi during his years at UC Davis.

“After our Friday classes, a truckload of graduate students would head to the Mondavi winery in Napa Valley,” Eberle recalled. The laboratory technician would open some bottles for the students and it was at such informal gatherings where Eberle struck up a friendship with Mondavi, who soon told the young winemaker to call on him when he had some questions.

Eberle took Mondavi’s up on his offer and would visit him on his trips to Napa.
“We would go out to lunch and he paid for lunch,” Eberle reminisced.

Little did Eberle know that someday not only would Robert purchase Paso fruit from him but that he would be honored with the coveted Mondavi Award as he celebrates his 75th birthday this year.

In fact, Eberle was surprised when he was approached by CPP last October. “I thought it was a joke,” he said. The award, usually meant for people in the restaurant or food industry, has been given to such names as the late Julia Child and Alice Waters. “I’m the third wine person to get this,” Eberle noted.

The award, a glass form inspired by a wine decanter is designed under the direction of CPP Art Department and personalized to the honoree and theme each year. Collins College launched the award in 1999 and first recipients were Robert and Margrit Mondavi. In 2017 it went to the wine industry’s Gina Gallo and her husband Jean-Charles Boisset.

Among the handful of Paso pioneers, Eberle is known not just for his award-winning wines, but his overall approach to the industry, taking extra care of his staff and the visitors and promoting Paso’s wine region.

“It’s all a part of hospitality,” commented the vintner, who is now more involved in judging competitions and meeting and greeting visitors.

In fact, when at the winery, Eberle’s favorite spot is at the entrance, seated on the patio welcoming guests. This he learned from Mondavi himself, who would greet his guests under the arch of his winery’s entrance in Napa Valley.  

“I stole his idea,” he said. “I didn’t invent it.”

For Eberle, Mondavi was the P.T. Barnum of the wine industry, promoting Napa Valley and California.

“That’s what I do — I market Eberle, Paso and California wines, in that order.”

The Paso pioneer fondly recalled the three mentors in his life.

“My half brother Jim, my football coach Joe Paterno (at Penn State) and Robert Mondavi. Without the three of them I wouldn’t be where I am,” he said with great reverence.