EXPLORE: From Politics to Pinot

Posted on Jan 31 by SEASONS Magazine

Erika Maldonado of Runway Vineyards. Photo by Wendy Thies Sell.

Erika Maldonado of Runway Vineyards. Photo by Wendy Thies Sell.

On hiatus from the capitol scene, former California Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado has hung up his conservative suits and ties, at least for now, in favor of blue jeans and boots, more suitable for working on his Santa Maria Valley ranch. “Back in my element again,” a tanned and exuberant Maldonado says. “I love it!”

He has spent his life growing berries and broccoli, and, most recently, serving a dozen years in the state legislature. Now he’s unveiling a new venture with someone near and dear, his 25-year-old daughter Erika. Maldonado made her a deal when she started studying agribusiness at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; they would plant a vineyard and she could run it, if she finished college in four years—which she did. In 2007, they planted 16 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio on the hillsides next to the renowned Bien Nacido Vineyards.

After graduation, Erika spent a year learning every aspect of the business from Santa Maria winemaker Paul Lato, who also happens to be their consulting winemaker. “Three months of insane hard labor in the vineyard, and I’m on that sorting table all morning,” Erika attests. “I don’t let anything get past me. Whatever cluster is in that bin is pristine.” In September, they released their first wines—a 2011 Pinot Noir and 2012 Chardonnay —under their label, Runway Vineyards (RunwayVineyards.com). The 2012 Pinot Noir debuts in early 2015.

“I really want to make sure the wine showcases the vineyard—that’s the most important thing to me,” Erika says. The Runway logo has double meaning; Maldonado’s a pilot and his daughter’s a fashion fanatic. When Erika turned 21, her dad bought her a pair of black patent leather Christian Louboutin heels with red soles. She took those sexy shoes to their wine label designer for inspiration. Infinitely more important to them is what’s inside each bottle of Runway; wine that represents “place,” a place that’s also near and dear.

“In Sacramento, there’s a saying, ‘Never fall in love with a piece of legislation.’ Well, I have fallen in love with this vineyard,” Maldonado reveals. “And that’s what we’re doing here, and it shows in the glass.”

Wendy Thies Sell

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine, Winter 2014/15.

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