Oso Libre: Winery Fights County for Renewable Energy, Wins!

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch
Oso Libre Winery, which means "free bear" in Spanish, is a small boutique vineyard and winery located in the heart of Paso Robles. The winery gets 100% of its energy from renewable sources, an achievement that played out like a Bobby Fuller song and even required the Sierra Club to get involved.

Chris and Linda Behr (pronounced like bear) purchased the homestead, located on Paso's somewhat-controversial west side, back in 1996 and began planting in 2000. While the Behr family never had grand designs on being an eco-friendly winery, a simple wind generator changed their perspective when its installation was met with opposition by the winery's NIMBY neighbors.

"It got us into the eco-mode because the Sierra Club came to defend us, the bicycle riding committees, all of them," admits Chris. Working closely with these clubs made the Behr's a lot more conscious about their environmental impact.

The pesky wind generator. Photo via Oso Libre

While some of the neighbor's concerns were more or less common, quite a few were down right odd--like proving the windmill would not deter cyclists, or kill firefighters!

"One winery said we don't think the Behrs should be responsible for the death of our firefighters in a helicopter, if it hits [the windmill]," says Chris Behr of the ridiculousness he faced. "So I had to say, well, look, it's eight feet lower than our home. So that helicopter's in our bedroom before it hits our wind machine." Of course, both of those scenarios would surely suck.

Chris Behr of Oso Libre. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Cruel Summer

The winery is situated in the Adelaida region of Paso, like some other eco-favorites of ours, including Halter Ranch and Tablas Creek. With the region's high temperatures and long summers, the winery fulfills its remaining energy needs using a 1500-kilowatt solar array; the panels were installed without objection! The extra energy is not stored but directed back to the grid.

Only 15 acres of the vineyard's 90 are actually farmed. The Behr's grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Primitivo, Grenache Blanc and Viognier. The area's late harvest, which happens late October or early November, gives the grapes an extended hang time and a lot more residual sugar, making Oso Libre wine some of the most fruit-forward you'll find in the area.

Their 2008 Nativo is a prime example. The wine is lush, dripping with strawberry jam and subtle notes of lavender and anise. It's quite versatile but I suggest you try it as a dessert wine. It held up nicely to the grilled strawberries I paired it with. The wine is 76% Primitivo, 24% Petite Sirah and 100% yummy!

Green Acres

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Oso Libre uses two kinds of sheep to tend to the grounds: baby doll sheep, which are short and husky, and suffolk sheep, which are quite taller. They feast on the beneficial cover crops grown in between the vines, such as legumes, grasses and clover, and help reduce soil compaction caused by tractor usage. And they leave fertilizer everywhere while doing it! Black Angus cattle also chip in with the eating and fertilizing.

"We leave [the cows] in for two hours because we realize they eat beautifully. They take that grass down that the sheep can't keep up on. As long as you get 'em out after two hours. After about two hours they start to rub themselves on your vines [and destroy them]," says Chris.

And while the sheep are primarily for vineyard maintenance, the cows aren't so lucky.

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

The remaining 75 acres are untouched so that there is "natural buffer zone around the entire vineyard and winery." You'll find two streams on the property, one perennial and one annual. Owl boxes are scattered throughout the property making the rodent population about as fortunate as the cows.

Oso Libre currently produces 2,000 cases of wine each year and the Behr family has every intention of keeping the winery the way it is: small and natural.

"We'll be at three next year. We'll get to five in the next year and a half or two. But we'll always be small. So five will be it," says Chris.

Free Bear!

The winery is SIP (Sustainability in Practice)-certified through the Central Coast Vineyard Team. The same program that certified Halter Ranch and Robert Hall. Eco-friendly wineries in the area seem to favor SIP over being certified organic as the standards go beyond the grapes. For example, SIP certification recognizes such efforts as worker benefits and living wages.

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch
Oso Libre wines are available both at the tasting and online. Most bottles are under $40 and usually price in the mid-twenties. We love the 2008 Nativo, as we mentioned above, but some other favorites include the 2008 Primoroso. It's swimming with blueberries and followed by some wonderful flavors like vanilla and cardamom. The wine is made up of 34% Zinfandel, 30% Cab Sauv, 28% Syrah, 4% Grenache, 3% Mourvédre and 1% Petite Sirah -- basically every variety they grow.

If you happen to be visiting the winery during the summer, pick up the 2009 Volado. It's 100% Viognier, refreshing and very crisp. Half of the wine was aged in oak and the other in stainless steel to maintain the grapes more tropical notes. And it works.

You'll be doing the Hula by the time your glass is empty, possibly before.

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Oso Libre Wine Pairings
Grilled Strawberries Over Vanilla Ice Cream
Grilled Plums with Ginger-Balsamic Glaze
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