Munch on terrace

John Munch at his Le Cuvier Winery
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

The irreverent John Munch, Paso’s legendary winemaker will be grilled and subjected to comic heat on October 28 as the featured roastee. The celebration is the 4th Annual Fryers Club Roast  at Terra Mia, a fundraiser for Cancer Support Community. 

Grey hair and scraggly beard give John Munch a wise-man’s look, but the irreverent Munch is anything but. His witty mind  borders on the idiosyncratic and unconventional. With more than three decades in crafting age-worthy wines he is among the handful of local master winemakers and a true Paso pioneer.

Fox Munch

Clay Selkirk, Mary Fox and John Munch


Founder of Le Cuvier Winery in the Adelaida District, Munch is self-deprecating in the best possible way. “Now that I’m no longer a winemaker, they give me the Winemaker of the Year award,” he quipped when receiving the San Luis Obispo County’s 2018 industry leaders award at the California Mid State Fair. Munch recently handed over the winemaking reigns to his assistant winemaker Clay Selkirk but stays involved as Le Cuvier’s self-appointed wine herd.

The Costa-Rican born winemaker is a  throwback to the early 1960s Berkeley hippie days. But his life’s patchwork of adventures have taken him on a circuitous route from Central America to Europe and finally to California, recalled Munch sitting on the tree-shaded terrace of his hilltop winery.

Along the way, Munch studied early West Saxon poetry at Berkeley, worked in litigation in Switzerland and construction business in San Francisco culminating his illustrious experiences with winemaking in Paso Robles. He himself is amused by his long winding and accidental career.

Munch and his late wife Andree whom he met in France moved to San Francisco and then to Paso in the mid 1970s and purchased the 10-acre property on Vine Hill Lane (location of the current Le Cuvier winery), with a plan to restore the house and sell it. Building a winery was not on the radar. Winemaking came by happenstance.

Le Cuvier bottle e1540173626351

Vintage bottles of Adelaida Cellars and Le Cuvier

Through his French wife’s brother, Munch was introduced to a group of French investors from Champagne looking to produce sparkling wine in California for the US market, much like what Domaine Chandon (founded by Möet Hennessy) had launched in Napa at the time. Munch was brought on board to do research and soon got into partnership with them.

“The next thing I knew I was making sparkling wine at Estrella winery,” said Munch with a chuckle. The production of Tonio Conti sparkling wine began in 1982 with a 1,600 annual-case production and grew to 6,000 cases by 1984. Unfortunately, just as the first bottles of Tonio Conti sparkling wine hit the market in 1987, Estrella was forced to file for bankruptcy.  At Estrella, Munch was joined by other Paso pioneers like Gary Eberle, Tom Myers, Neils Udsen and Bill Scheffer.

Between 1981 and the bankruptcy Munch and his colleagues enjoyed the benefits of purchasing bulk Estrella wine in barrel to blend for their individual labels. “Estrella reserved what they deemed to be their the best wines, cabernet was reserved for their own brand.” Munch recalled. “And we could select any of the other lots of cabernet, or whatever wine, and put together our blend.”

But much to Estrella’s displeasure,  Munch added: “The blended wines that we put together were the wines that ended up winning the gold!” They didn’t have to pay for bottling or glass, only for labels and capsules. “We paid for the wine when we took it out the door, for somebody who didn’t have any money, this was a pretty good deal,” he remarked.

Munch and his wife, Andree, launched Adelaida Cellars as a négociant wine brand using Estrella grapes and/or bulk wine beginning with the 1981 vintage  and set up a bonded winery on their Vine Hill property in 1983.  The iconic Adelaida wine label of the two faces was designed by their artist friend Michael Lidbury, who captured Andree’s  reflecting  image.

Munch’s life took another turn when he was approached by Matt Van Steenwyck to bring his Adelaida Cellars label to their property and offered to plant vineyards and build a winery. The Van Steenwyck family had sizable acreage of walnut orchards and had acquired the historic HMR vineyard (planted by the late Dr. Stanley Hoffman in the 1970s) which Munch revitalized and planted the Viking vineyard.

While at Adelaida Cellars, Munch made an agreement with the Van Steenwycks  and continued to produce his own wine under the Le Cuvier label made on Adelaida Road in a rustic farm house. “We were so busy developing the Adelaida brand that we had little time for selling Le Cuvier, so left it in the barrels.” That’s how Munch got into aging his wines. “I liked what was happening to the wines, three years plus in the barrels, wines became unique and different,” he confessed.

Munch left Adelaida Cellars in 1999, ushering in Steve Glossner as his successor. Two years later he entered into partnership with consultant and investor Mary Fox and the duo relocated Le Cuvier’s operation to its current location, building a new winery and tasting room which officially opened in 2011.

Munch who sources all his fruit from prized Paso vineyards is passionate about his intervention-free  approach which includes no yeast, no sulfites, use  of dry farmed grapes and aging in neutral oak barrels for 33 months or longer.

Le Cuvier’s eclectic blends of petite sirah, zinfandel, petite verdot, as well as Bordeaux style wines are available in the tasting room by appointment only and through club membership. Due to its popularity and limited annual production of some 3,000 cases, Munch is running out of wine and the club membership has a waiting list. So now winemaker Selkirk has  launched his own Devil’s Gate Wine Works label available at Le Cuvier tasting room.

Munch’s dedicated approach is evident in the winery’s cellar stocked with old bottles. I’ve taste some of these age-worthy wines dating back to the 1980s, reflecting how well Paso wines can age  crafted by a maverick and a true Paso Pioneer.

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