It’s no secret among those who know me or follow my Noozhawk columns that I’ve had a bad case of the blues lately. I know I’m not alone.
While an aura of sunny optimism used to be part of our daily lives in Montecito, the Thomas Fire, the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and debris flows, and the seemingly never-ending mandatory evacuations have most of us struggling to get back to our routines. I’ve been channeling legendary blues king B.B. King, and his soulful rendition of “Everyday I Have The Blues.”
Earlier this month I finally had a breakthrough, which came at perhaps the unlikeliest of places: the celebration of life for a friend, the late Archie McLaren. The philanthropist and founder of the Central Coast Wine Classic died Feb. 20 at his Avila Beach home. He was 75.
“Archie was absolutely the pivotal figure in the evolution of what happened with wine in San Louis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties,” Clendenen said.
Much has been written about McLaren. His humble beginnings; triumphs against bigotry; love of music, fast Ferraris and pretty women; and the juggernaut behind the Central Coast Wine Classic for 32 years will not easily be forgotten.
The Central Coast Wine Classic is a legend in its own right. The money raised from auction items — which included art, cruises and culinary treats such as an iconic dinner at Hearst Castle — was given to local nonprofit organizations close to McLaren’s heart.
The rainy Saturday afternoon did nothing to dampen the high spirits of the huge crowd of friends, channeling McLaren’s famed flare for colorful wardrobes and berets, as well as his love of food and wine.
On the patio of Clendenen’s home overlooking the beautiful vineyard below, cases of fine wine were being poured.
Clendenen held court in his large kitchen, famous for many late-night parties with McLaren cooking jambalaya and making Himalayan sea salt with peppers.
Food stations featured Rick Manson of Chef Rick’s Ultimately Fine Foods, serving gumbo and dirty rice, and Clark Staub of Full of Life Flatbread serving Santa Barbara Ridgeback shrimp boil with spiced flatbread and collared green flatbread. Chef Michael Hutchings was manning the chafing dishes making potatoes crepes with black and golden caviar.
The Hitching Post II provided pulled pork sliders, cole slaw and stuffed mushrooms. Susan Beckman, The Hitching Post II emeritus, presided over a crazy array of McLaren’s favorite desserts.
Everywhere there were colorful photographs of McLaren and his friends, as well as guests from all the years of his Central Coast Wine Classic life. A table displayed memorabilia of his early life, including photos of him as a state tennis champion and an attorney.
McLaren’s friend, artist James Paul Brown, was personally signing a small printed replica of McLaren he had produced. A cardboard cutout of a smiling McLaren in one of his more colorful ensembles, reading glasses perched on his nose, was also there. I just had to stand next to him one more time.
Had McLaren been there — and we all assumed he was in spirit — he would have been dancing with his long-time assistant, Beverly Aho, who helped organize the event with his wine posse, such as Blake Brown.
A series of toasts recounted memories and stories, some too salty to repeat, and laughter and some tears came easy.
McLaren, who reportedly died of cancer, was at peace at the end of his days, and he did it his way, even calling Chef Rick the day before he died to make sure that Manson had “Archie’s Gumbo” recipe correct.
Before he moved back to Avila Beach in October after several years living in Santa Barbara, McLaren and I shared many a meal at D’Angelo Pastry & Bread. He would always remind me that “if you can’t enjoy yourself while you are changing events all around you, you might as well become president.” McLaren was not one to just let life happen.
I’m not ready to start singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but I will remain inspired by McLaren’s colorful attitude and wise words. I find myself humming a Ray Charles classic, “Georgia on My Mind” — another place McLaren stopped along the road of his incredible life.
A biographical collaboration between McLaren and the Wine History Project of San Louis Obispo County will be available in May. For more information or to order a copy of Off the Wall and Ahead of the Game: How Archie McLaren Brought the Central Coast Wine Revolution to the World, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at email@example.com. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.