On September 1st, 1997, JD and I were in Paso Robles trying new wineries. Well, new to us. We were on Route 46 at Anderson Road, and there were 2 small wineries kind of next to each other. We went to the farthest one first. It was Midnight Cellars, and it was in a building that seemed as if it were the owner's house. The wines were young. I remember being not that impressed.
We drove back toward 46, stopping at Dark Star Cellars, a large barn with a counter at the front for a tasting area. There were silly clocks on the wall, and a friendly young woman behind the counter. While we were tasting the red, Bordeaux-style wines, a roly-poly man with curly hair came in behind the counter. After a while, we realized he was Norm Benson, the owner and winemaker. He was funny and cynical and sarcastic, and we fell in love with him on the spot. Within a short time, Norm was pouring barrel samples for us - a first for us - and we were goners. Dark Star had just opened recently to the public. We joined the wine club as charter members, and Dark Star is still the only wine club we have maintained for all these years - and we've gone thru a bunch of other clubs!
Norm makes a gorgeous meritage blend - Ricordati ('always remember'). The blend varies from year to year, but it's always a rich, fruit-forward, well-structured wine that never disappoints. We love his other wines, too, especially the Rhone-styles he's ventured into in the past few years. And it's especially nice to be able to walk into the winery and be greeted as an old friend.
On our first visit, we asked about the clocks on the wall. Norm said that whoever sent him a clock deemed to be silly or special enough to be displayed on the wall would receive a free bottle of Ricordati. Later that year, we found a foam-rubber, bright orange clock in the shape of a lobster - the tail was a pendulum. We laughed ourselves sick when we saw it, and bought it immediately, thinking we'd be up in Paso in May for the wine festival and would bring it with us. Scheduling got a little off, and it appeared that we wouldn't be able to go, so we mailed the clock to Dark Star with our compliments. We didn't hear anything, and were disappointed that no one acknowledged our gift.
Somehow, our schedule opened up, and at the last minute we hopped in the car and rushed up to Paso. Dark Star was having a big party with music and barbecue and general fun. When we arrived, I said we didn't have reservations, but we were members - the Dickey's. The girl at the desk (probably Nicole, Norm and Susan's daughter), looked up and yelled for Norm: "The Dickey's are here!" While we stood there, confused, Norm ran out of the barn and pulled us in to show us the lobster clock, happily ticking away in the center position of honor on the wall! He pulled out a bottle of Ricordati and put in John's vest pocket. We felt we truly belonged after that.
A year or two after that, Norm and Susan threw a dinner party, just for members. I remember RSVPing, and wondering that they didn't mention any cost to us. But we arrived for dinner, and discovered it was a small party, for charter wine club members. Norm and Susan barbecued, wine flowed like water, good spirits abounded.
That evening we had the opportunity to taste son Brian's new wines. At that time, Brian wasn't legal drinking age, but he was already making tremendous wine; very different from his dad's wine. Brian is still making great wines - Brian Benson Cellars - sharing tasting room space at Dark Star. We're big fans, and can't say enough good things about this hard-working young man.
That was the beginning of our love affair with Paso Robles, especially the wineries on the West 46, and the 'far-out' wineries up Vineyard Road and beyond.
Oh, and how did I remember that our first visit to Dark Star was on 9/1/97? Easy. Norm signed and dated the bottle of 1995 Ricordati we bought that day. The bottle is sitting in my living room. We drank it in 2002 (I think), for my birthday, after Norm told us, at the above-mentioned dinner, that it was time to drink it. So we did!