“Most people don’t know how special we are,” explains Libbie Agran, co-author with Heather Muran of the new book San Luis Obispo County Wine: A World-Class History. “I wanted people to realize there had been a long history of very talented people here, because Prohibition didn’t destroy our wine industry,” she said, pointing to the many pioneer families who still have ties to the region today. “We have a consistency that most counties don’t have.”
The 190-page paperback — which is broken into numerous short but detailed chapters that go from the 1700s to today and are full of archival photographs — is the culmination of years of research that began when Agran founded the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County in 2015. She met weekly with vintners and other experts in the region’s agricultural history for a year; compiled a list of 202 significant people, places, milestones, and events; and worked for two years on a timeline.
“There was an interesting story to tell, and I was surprised that no one had written it, except in fragments,” said Agran. “We had to figure out who had shaped the history and what their footprints were.”
Muran, the former director of the S.L.O. Coast Wine Collective, came onboard in 2018 to help with the histories of South County hotspots like Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. “It’s like detective work,” said Muran, a San Diego State journalism grad whose dad was a detective for the LAPD. “As you start to unravel one story, you just keep going down rabbit holes. It’s hard to stay focused, because there are so many ways you can go.”
Agran sees the book as the first in a series — she’s working on one about the county’s more than four dozen wine-grape varieties right now — and it’s really just a sliver of what the Wine History Project is up to. The nonprofit is producing and/or promoting a number of documentaries both short and long, showcasing the impacts of the Dusi family, Tom Myers of Castoro Cellars, and Tobin James, among others, now available to see for free on their website.
Their office in downtown San Luis Obispo is home to a library of 500-plus books, plenty of tools, old labels, and wine bottles, as well as a growing digital archive that will one day be open to the public. (It’s actually open by appointment already.) In addition to roving displays at tasting rooms around the county, the project is also curating a rotating exhibit about wine history inside the prominent brick building of the Paso Robles Historical Society, located in that city’s central park.
“She’s really done a dynamic job of promoting the region’s history,” said Muran. “It’s coming full circle, being able to tie that knot between the past and the present.”
Agran believes her work can also have impact for the county’s modern wine industry, which is really split between those north of the Cuesta Grade in Paso Robles and those to the south in the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys. “There was more communication between these two extremes of distance than there is today,” she said. “I hope I can help rebuild those connections.”
She’s not planning to stop anytime soon. “There are a lot of stories to tell,” she said. “We would love to tell many more.”
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