My husband and I have known the Hartenberger family since 1999. We started pouring for them at the Paso Robles Wine Festival about 20 years ago. Midnight Cellars is the wine we measure all others by. We made an instant connection with Richard and Michele Hartenberger when we walked into the tasting room with our daughter, one year old at the time. The first person we saw was 6 month old Hannah, their daughter, in a pack and play playpen. We knew these were our people.
The winery was founded by Rich’s parents, the late Robert (Bob) and Mary Jane Hartenberger. Originally from St. Louis Missouri, they were hardworking people of Midwest stock who came from very humble beginnings and rose to greatness in their careers and with the family they raised. Bob was a patents attorney who retired at the age of 59. Mary Jane was one of only two women in her college class. She had a degree in chemistry. Basically, she was a rocket scientist. After raising four children in Chicago, she was ready to go back to work. When they made the move to California, Mary Jane worked at the prestigious Loyola Academy in Los Angeles. She continued to commute from Paso Robles for several years before retiring and running the back office at Midnight.
They had many interests including travel. When they lived in Chicago, they would vacation in Napa. Over the years, I’ve heard variations of this story, but basically Rich joked to his dad on one of those visits that he should buy a vineyard and open a winery, thinking it would be a nice retirement hobby. Easy and fun, right? Ha ha, who would have thought it would be so much work? But being hardworking midwesterners, Bob and Mary Jane bought 160 acres of an old barley farm in West Paso Robles. They planted 30 acres on their estate of Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Each district is named after one of their 4 children or 6 grandchildren. Bob put Rich to work as the winemaker, Michele worked in the tasting room, and Mary Jane served up her famous meatballs by the dozen.
They were the 29th established winery in Paso Robles. The founders have passed on, Bob in 2015 and Mary Jane in 2018, but their presence is certainly felt at their winery.
In the early days, Rich learned winemaking with the help of consultants. Today, Rich is a consultant himself . in addition to making his spectacular wines for Midnight, he does custom processing in-house including small batch processing for many local boutique wineries. In addition to the varietals grown on the estate, they offer a Sangiovese, an Italian blend called “Capriccio Italien”, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, pretty much anything that Rich feels shows promise, he will bottle.
My favorite wine is Midnight Cellars Merlot. It has a nice balance of smooth tannins and dark cherry fruit. It pairs well with a pizza or an expensive steak with a rich black peppercorn sauce. I have had 18-20 year old vintages of this wine (they pull from the library for their wine club dinners), and it holds up like a champ. Another favorite is the Zenith cuvee, which features the best barrels of wine grown on the estate selected by Rich.
Retail wine prices range from $24 - $75. They take good care of their wine club members with wine discounts, a free pick up party for members and a guest twice a year and a discounted price for their all-you-can eat rib event with Carson’s ribs flown in from their hometown, Chicago (Mary Jane’s favorite).
Midnight is now moving into its third generation of Hartenbergers. Bob and Mary Jane’s grandkids have followed in their footsteps with great accomplishments and that baby that I mentioned earlier, Hannah, is getting ready to graduate Cal Poly with a business degree. We are all very excited to see what the future holds. Please check out my favorite winery, it might just become yours too.