With a town of only 1,200 people, one would not expect a local brew pub to generate any kind of excitement. Dunbar Brewing has not only done that, but the college, and 20-something crowds from San Luis Obispo, have been making the 15-minute drive to Santa Margarita, Calif., for one-of-a-kind micro brewed beers for years.
Self-taught, Chris Chambers began his brewing career in Los Osos, the original Dunbar location founded in 1997, for three years. However, a six-year stint in the military probed him to think about settling down, and a dry town made the perfect landing spot.
“We came to Santa Margarita to become involved in a small community,” Chambers said, “and Dunbar is a neighborhood pub: a place for folks to meet and build community together.”
Chambers has done more than that. He bought a house with his wife, Lauren, and three girls, near the Irish-themed brewhouse, which reopened in 2009, and cycles to work every day.
“From the beginning, I wanted to become involved with community projects–to pour back money into the community who has given me so much,” Chambers said. “We became involved with the 4th of July Parade and helped build a basketball court in town. I love being involved as one of the ten local businesses in Santa Margarita.”
Chambers creates five different beers, plus seasonal creations, always having at least two varieties on tap each day: English Style Ale, Brown Porter, IPA, Scottish Heavy or Oatmeal Stout. In fact, a couple of years ago, he served the special Guinness T-250 anniversary stout in an Imperial Pint glass to celebrate the great Irish brewery. The news of Dunbar carrying the special stout at $5 per pint glass brought Guinness lovers to the brewery from as far south as San Diego and north from the Bay area.
On this occasion, I taste-tested his two beer on tap: Scottish Heavy and Oatmeal Stout. The Scottish Heavy was fantastic. The malt was earthy, peat-smoked flavor with a dry, crisp finish. And the Oatmeal Stout? Well, let me say, I love my oatmeal in the morning and I was blessed to drink oatmeal in the late afternoon. Chambers said he uses eight grains to provide texture but I definitely enjoyed its chocolate and coffee overtones. Plus his beers are on nitrogen taps. Like he told me on a previous visit, his beers are “smooth and silky,” much like the classic Irish brews.
While Chambers said he does not go out and try a lot of other craft brews on the U.S. market, he did say his last trip to Portland did result in a positive Oregon experience, giving a shout out to Burnside Brewery. Yet he remains strongly convinced and vocal about his microbrewery.
“No disrespect to anyone else out there, but I have the best beer… period.”
While creating craft beer from scratch is his passion, Chambers also made sure I made note that while his pub is small, it is a place people come to visit, talk and hang out without loud music.
Of course, the music has also made its impact on the brewery. Johnny Cash is the only music playing over the speakers, but it’s a cash-only pub as well.
Chris Chambers can be found behind the counter at Dunbar Brewing 3-10 p.m. Wednesday through Thursdays; 1-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 1 to 9 p.m on Sundays. All 20-ounce pours are still only $5 and served in Imperial pint glasses. Growlers can be purchased for $45 and $20 for refills.
While a tavern at the other end of town now makes two Santa Margarita, CA beverage establishments, Chambers said a different kind of patron visits his local competition. Each has established a niche and there is plenty of room for both.
Please return for the next installment of TalesoftheCork: Part II of “Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor,” August 9. (Note date change) Read as Mike overcame his great loss and accepted a new challenge at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita, Calif. His wife, Cheri, and Mike still produce Sinor-LeVallee wines and continue to be leaders in the Edna Valley winemaking community.
While Mike was raised in the center of agriculture in the State, his father, Bernie, an avid pilot, sold heavy construction equipment as owner and operator of Sinor and Sons Equipment company. Bernie gave young Mike plenty of opportunities to work on the job sites or at the family-owned Fresno junk yard. Mike spoke fondly of his father’s staunch commitment to his business, working hard but taking time to play hard with the family.
Bernie and Mike often went hunting together, and while it did not often include big game, father and son hunted doves in the foothills of Madera. And like many Central Valley residents, the family made numerous trips to Cayucos which is where Mike’s love of the beach began.
But working for Dad was not a part of Mike’s plan. College and the Central Coast beaches lured the high school graduate. The teenager ended up in San Luis Obispo; Mike enrolled at California Polytechnic State University [Cal Poly], ready to become the first college graduate in his family (Mike’s sister, Teri LaFleur, is now a 3rd grade teacher in Woodlake).
“I was ready to go out on my own,” Sinor said. “My dad taught me my work ethic: to work hard and throw myself into it. So when I wanted to go to college, I had his blessing but I had to pay for it, work for it.”
Sinor’s upbringing, like many from the Central Valley, brought a love for the coast; Cal Poly was a natural choice. The Sinor family encouraged Mike to take responsibility for his education at an early age but expected him to pay for college. He entered Cal Poly hoping to become a high school shop teacher; however, upon meeting his future wife, Cheri, in a Chemistry 101 class, that dream changed: a love for each other and the wine-making journey was born near the beach in 1991.
Mike did more than just put in time at local wineries. He became a part of their families, including Bill and Nancy Greenough’s at Saucelito Canyon.
“We had previously lost a daughter when Mike showed up to work at our vineyard,” Nancy said. “While I had college kids around to be a positive influence to our youngest (Margaret and Tom), Mike Sinor lived out his time with us like their older cousin. Besides working that first harvest with us, there was not a job he wouldn’t do. Mike is an extremely positive person, has clear values, hardworking, and enthusiastic. He always did a job well.”
Whether Mike picked the kids up from school or punch downs three times per night, Nancy said Mike found joy in whatever task he undertook. She never felt awkward about asking him to do the “crappy job” or the worst job at the winery. Mike had a Valley Boy reputation: always hard working. No job was beneath him.
“Mike was like a Junk Yard Dog,” Bill Greenough said. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix: from tractors to wine equipment. Actually, I don’t know why he initially wanted to become involved with wine but he was so curious.
He always wanted a better way to do things, even if it involved the worst of jobs. He always volunteered: ‘I’ll do that…no problem.’ He willed himself to learn the wine process. He was so attuned to sensory changes to wine, juice, the smells, fermentation, pressing, barreling. His nose was always busy. He keeps an eye on stuff; his senses became like a hound dog sniffing, sniffing it out.”
Sinor not only had time for the wine business and babysitting the kids, but the Greenoughs said Mike took so much pride in completing even unusual tasks.
“We had this VW wagon sitting on our property; it had been parked for 10 years,” Nancy said. “Mice had moved into the camper: a 1966 Volkswagen Westfalia. Mike took it completely apart, got rid of the mice and put back together. He always brought out the best in people. The kids loved him.”
Today, Mike no longer wears a pony-tail under his baseball cap, something that Bill jokingly chided him for while Sinor lived in a house in the vineyards. Sinor, while living out a ‘Rush Limbaugh work ethic in the morning and country music in the afternoon,’ has given back to the Greenoughs. He has helped mentor Tom Greenough as he took over as Saucelito Canyon’s winemaker.
“I discovered myself because of them,” Sinor said. “They introduced me to my livelihood and I became so close to them; I not only worked by day, but I occasionally took care of their kids in the evening. Not only do I love my career but I also love the land and the people I am indebted to for my success. I love this community; it raised me.”
Sinor’s background and passion for the land and vineyards also increased as he made two trips to France to study French winemaking processes with a focus on the vineyards and domains of Burgundy. These trips became even more personal as he married Cheri while on a trip to Beaune, Burgundy, in 1996. A year later, Cheri and Mike started their own label: Sinor- LaVallee Wine Company. Their name is a ‘marriage’ of their two heritages: Sinor-Spanish and LaVallee-French. Their focus? Like that of their shared love: 300-400 cases of Pinot Noir.
Sinor worked with Byron Vineyards and Winery until November of 2000; he had seen production quadruple, a new winery built, and hundreds of new acreage planted. He left Byron after four years for his first winemaker position at Domaine Alfred [Chamisal Vineyard] in the Edna Valley and never looked back, despite what he gave up.
“It was very emotional for me to leave Byron after working with incredible people and the Mondavi family,” Sinor said. “No one could believe I was willing to give up the private jet excursions from Santa Maria to Napa for lunch or trips to Burgundy to learn more about winemaking. Why would this little guy from Visalia give up drinking with the Rothschild family?”
Domaine Alfred had been a small winery renewed by owner Alfred “Terry” Speizer. He planted the dormant vineyard with the latest French clones, including six Pinot Noir and five Chardonnay clones, in the mid 1990s. Speizer made Sinor his winemaker in November 2000.
“I felt a need to change,” Sinor said. “There is never a perfect time for change. I knew personal growth comes from uncomfortableness. So I risked and Terry gave me control over 80 acres of vines and the winemaking. We made a good team.”
The two worked the vineyards to near perfection for five and a half years, expanding and tinkering with the vineyards.
Sinor’s mantra is passionate: Wine done well will transmit its environment.
“The message is the place, the messenger is the wine,” Sinor said.
As a winemaker from a world class winery, Sinor led the Central Coast into notoriety. Sinor joined Brian Talley and a group of vintners who pioneered a new organization in 2001: The World of Pinot. He served on the board of directors for 10 years. Countless others in the industry kept him busy for interviews and consulting. Mike and Cheri’s Sinor-LeVallee wine label continued its own success in the Edna Valley and all seemed right. All seemed right to everyone except Mike and Cheri.
“Even before Wine Spectator came out and gave our pinot the high score, I was already thinking my time at Domaine Alfred was coming to an end,” Sinor said. “I knew a major grow of the brand was coming; we built a new winery and would need to hire more people to support the increased production. Both Cheri and I knew we didn’t want to stay much longer. I had lots of offers to leave but nothing seemed right. It was time to explore another level and personal growth but I didn’t want to do a job I have done before.
“Some people said I left [Domaine Alfred] because of the accident. But I had been thinking about leaving since the fall of 2005, months before the high score and our time of grieving.
The Sinor family’s direction changed forever, Jan. 13, 2006. On a routine flight back to Visalia’s Municipal Airport, Mike lost his dad, Bernard “Bernie” Sinor, his stepmother, Betty Ann, and his stepsister’s two children. The plane crash claimed all their lives and reshaped Mike’s next steps.
Please check out A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II. Read as Mike overcame his great loss and accepted a new challenge at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita, Calif. His wife, Cheri, and Mike still produce Sinor-LeVallee wines and continue to be leaders in the Edna Valley winemaking community.