Cypher Cracks the Code
Paso winemaker SAM balances art and science
Story by Misty Hall Photos courtesy of Cypher
Whenever women make a name for themselves in male-dominated industries, there’s a lot of talk about glass ceilings. Cypher winemaker Susan A. Mahler, better known by her acronym, SAM, has smashed through a fair few in her life. But the athlete, pilot, scientist, chef, and winemaker never thought much about it.
“I was a tomboy. I didn’t play with Barbies, I didn’t like wearing dresses. My mom just let me be me,” she said. “She signed me up for T-ball.” In sixth grade, the coach called her mom and said she was the only girl signed up for the whole league, but that she could play on the boys’ team. “My mom asked me, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I wanna play ball!’” That pretty much sums up SAM. If she wants to do something, she just … does. What glass ceiling?
SAM’s journey to winemaking was certainly not one she had planned. Growing up in the Midwest, she developed a love for the outdoors, with a lifelong goal of earning her pilot’s license. She did just that in Colorado and began flying cargo planes and co-piloting jets. But eventually, another passion (this one, for science) held greater appeal, and she decided to head West to UC Berkeley to get a degree in earth science.
It was at Berkeley that she met a friend with an interest in starting a wine brand. “I thought it would be fun to do on the side,” SAM said. “On the side” quickly turned into something much larger as she and her business partner built up Four Vines. The Paso-based brand expanded quickly to 160,000 cases and national distribution. SAM found herself so busy in Paso Robles that she “jumped off a cliff and moved to Paso” in 2002.
She put her earth science degree to good use in the Four Vines vineyards. “For understanding microclimates and all of that, the stuff I’d studied was really good background for that.” Her detail-oriented pilot’s brain, meanwhile, helped her stay on top of the business side of things. At that point, however, she left the winemaking to her business partner.
“It was all great — super interesting and fun,” she said. “That’s when Paso wasn’t really on the map yet, even for Southern California … when I first started coming down here, it was pretty sleepy.” But having spent so much time in the vineyards, she saw the incredible potential Paso Robles held. “I thought, ‘Wow, one day it’ll be like Healdsburg,’” in Sonoma wine country.
In 2010, the appeal of actually making wines herself began calling. So, SAM sold Four Vines, and ventured out on her own, creating Cypher Wines. With help from some friends in the area who were also winemakers, she took over the winemaking in 2016. “I had been around it enough — I’d been in the cellar and helped out on the crush pad, and learned the basics. Enough to say, ‘OK, I’ll take it from here and do my own thing.’”
Her “own thing” turned out to be many things — much like the winemaker herself. A look at her wine list shows whites, rosés, and reds alike. “I do a lot of wines! I have more than 12 different red wines because I want to have different (ones) for my wine club.”
The Elemental series offers single varietals, elements from which SAM’s Rhône blends are created. Those blends each feature three varietals, with the exception of Fifth Element and Slayer, which highlight five. Fifth Element leads with Mourvèdre; Slayer, with Cabernet Sauvignon. “They’re a bigger challenge than doing a three-varietal blend,” SAM said. “There’s more complexity. I really enjoyed the challenge behind doing that.”
Slayer is part of her Anime series, which features Anime-inspired labels and Zinfandel blends that each go in “totally different directions,” she said. “But I’m very systematic about what those directions are going to be.” They are especially close to her heart, marrying her passion for martial arts (hence, the labels) and Zinfandel (from her Four Vines days). Her name on social media is ZinPunk — which also happens to be the name of her Zin-Tannat-Petit Sirah blend.
Ultimately, she said, she approaches winemaking from a scientific perspective. “I’m all about the science.” The name “Cypher” is a nod to this, and to the creativity that goes along with it. “Cypher, as in, ‘deciphering the code,’” she said. “Winemaking and growing wine grapes is a balance of art and science. You need both of those things, and you’re cracking the code to get it (the wine) to where you want it to be.”
Now that she’s cracked the code on her 2021 bottling, SAM is turning her focus to another fun project: Dirt Candy. “It’s an old vintage port-style wine,” she said, which will be available in the fall.
And good wine naturally goes hand in hand with food — which is why SAM includes food pairings with each tasting at Cypher’s Tasting Lounge. “I’m focused on very specific little bites that go well with the wine. Flavors, textures, etc. It helps people focus on the wine flavors … I go way into the foodie thing.”
SAM’s large garden includes herbs, fruit trees, hops, “all different kinds of stuff,” from which she can craft these small bites. “In the summer, I’m taking it a step above a white or rosé slushy. I’ve done herbal-infused wine sorbets, wine jellies with herbal infusions from my garden.” One particularly delicious bite featured a matcha tea cookie with a rose and hibiscus jelly, and powdered, dried strawberries sprinkled on top.
And it all comes together in the Cypher Tasting Lounge. Located in Paso’s original train depot built in 1886, Cypher gets a dose of nostalgia as the Coast Starlight train regularly pulls into the station. Folks can get off the train and walk right into the tasting lounge, she said. The space boasts tons of natural light as well as historic charm, with its original flooring and windows intact. She paired that classic setting with a mix of styles and furniture, “So it feels like you’re in my home. Like I’m standing in my kitchen, and I’ve just invited you over for dinner. It’s a very personal, friendly, good vibe.” Much like the winemaker herself.
Find Cypher at 740 Pine Street, in downtown Paso Robles. Visit cypherwinery.com or call (805) 237-0055 for more.