As Hollywood screenwriters have contemplated the meaning of life and death through the years, the occasional nugget of wisdom has stuck in popular culture. How we face death being as important as how we face life is one. Embracing whatever lies beyond as the next great adventure is another. Friends and acquaintances of the late Archie McLaren—the Central Coast first “Wine Ambassador”—would agree he embodied both.
Diagnosed late in 2017 with incurable cancer, McLaren put his affairs in order and took steps to ensure his legacy before toasting the heavens one final time and preparing himself to pass at 3:33p.m. on February 20, 2018. He’d spent his last days moderating his pain medications to ensure clarity of mind while catching up with friends from all over the world. Notably, he was also able to sit with the author of a new biography being published this summer by the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County, Off the Wall and Ahead of the Game: How Archie McLaren Brought the Central Coast Wine Revolution to the World.
Beverly Aho, McLaren’s property manager and executive assistant for the last five years, said, “Archie had been wanting to write an autobiography for years, but he didn’t have the time or maybe the focus recently. He had to rely on [historian James Papp] to finish that for him.” Papp finished the book just in time for a moving impromptu reading of the entire text at McLaren’s bedside.
Although he first became known to locals on the Central Coast in 1974, alternating his home base between Avila Beach and Santa Barbara, McLaren spent his formative years in a segregated American South. Born in Georgia in 1942 and raised in Memphis, Tenn., he attended Vanderbilt University on a tennis scholarship and coached tennis at Memphis University School while studying law. But he never took the bar exam, instead going to work in sales for a publisher of legal texts with a territory on the West Coast. According to Papp, he left for California seeking relief from toxic racism of the era.
“I went back to ask Archie about that quote,” Papp explained. “Did he mean to say he came to escape racism? And he told me, ‘You never escape,’ but he did want to leave the stratification and structure of that culture.”
A descendent of slave-owners, McLaren rebelled against cultural oppression by sneaking away from debutant balls to attend Blues clubs, later teaching at an all-Black high school when he wasn’t coaching at Memphis University, and by not denying who he loved. His first marriage was to a woman of African and Choctaw Native American heritage. In variations of the story he gave to local media through the years (or most recently told Papp), that union was not looked kindly upon by the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK gave him a choice: Either leave town in 48 hours or we’ll give you 48 hours to live.” That threat resulted in assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation who evacuated the couple.
Aho said those details and other driving moral forces in McLaren’s early life were not generally known here on the Central Coast. Instead, people got to know the charming and sophisticated gentleman (who would become the founder of the Central Coast Wine Classic) in others ways. McLaren served for more than four decades in various influential roles, becoming for many, the face of Californian viticulture. He had notable posts as the chairman/executive director of both the San Luis Obispo Vintners and Growers Association and the Paso Robles Westside Grand Crew. He was also president of the Board of Directors of the Avila Beach Water District. Throughout years of travel on behalf of the Wine Classic, McLaren made friends of vintners, learning as much as he could about their work. He would later put this knowledge to work in educational seminars promoting the craft, eventually accruing too many industry awards to list here.
It was through his 12 years of friendship with Libbie Agran, director of the Wine History Project, that work started on an exhibit for the History Center of SLO County titled “Doing Good and Living Well: Archie McLaren and the Central Coast Wine Classic.” The exhibit chronicles the 33-year history of the well-known festival of wine, food, and philanthropy.
“I knew he wasn’t at his best when we started work on it even last April,” she said, adding that it was well before he’d been officially diagnosed. “There was some urgency to get it done,” she added. The book on his life was commissioned for the Project as a way to dig deeper, and, as Agran said, “to explore what it was that made Archie Archie; what made him the person and the leader and educator we knew.”
Planned to be the first in a series of oral history books for the Wine History Project, the unveiling (to be set in the Dallidet Adobe Gardens in SLO) will serve as a third celebration of McLaren’s life, after public events in March and April. Any donations in his memory would be appreciated at: Wine History Project, Archie McLaren, c/o History Center, 696 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 93401
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.