Discovering New Regions--and New Wines
The Pleasures of Paso Robles
In early May of 2018, I joined a gaggle of wine journalists from Florida on a private tour of California’s Paso Robles wine region, and it was a revelation. Guided by Chris Taranto of the Winegrowers Alliance, we spent four days visiting vineyards and wineries throughout the expansive area, and what a delightful surprise it was. Of course, I was somewhat familiar with this part of California, but an in-depth guided tour, and the opportunity to tastes dozens of wines, was a real eye-opener.
First of all, “El Paso de Robles” (which means the Pass of the Oaks) is located about halfway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, not far from San Luis Obispo. If you’ve ever taken the scenic Pacific Coast Highway drive, just jog inland to Route 101, and you’ll find it. One of the city’s founders was Drury James, who made a fortune during the gold rush of 1849. He also happened to be the uncle of infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James.
Revelation One: Paso has no real “signature” grape, unless it’s maybe Zinfandel. They grow everything out there, not specializing in a single group of varietals the way Napa does, or Bordeaux. They have Rhône grapes like Syrah, there are Italian varietals, Spanish, even some Portuguese. What’s more, the innovative spirit of the vintners leads them to create highly unconventional blends. We didn’t sample many wines that were 100% one grape or another.
We were joined at our dinners by several winemakers, so there was plenty of opportunity for informal chats. Over and over, we heard them say “what’s good for one of us, is good for all of us.” The spirit of mutual support for everyone in the industry was as surprising as it is rare.
As a winegrowing region Paso is vast, and in many ways, it’s still considered the wine industry’s “wild west.” It’s not as polished as Napa, or as compact, so the drive between wineries can be something of a haul, but it’s all worth it. It’s generally divided it into East and West areas, and then into several sub-appellations, each with its own soil and climate characteristics. For example, the Templeton Gap is a passage in the mountain range between Paso and the Pacific that brings cooler days and nights because of the ocean breeze that blows through. All in all, a very varied region, with an extremely varied selection of wines.
There’s lots more to know about this exciting, unconventional area, and we’ll do that in future articles. Meanwhile, I’d like to share some of our discoveries. These wines may not all be available locally, but can be purchased through individual wineries’ websites.
Ancient Peaks Chardonnay Santa Margarita Ranch 2017 ($19) – From one of the area’s coolest regions, this wine is blended from three blocks in the vineyard. Only a small percentage of the total had oak contact, preserving the flavors of tropical fruits, plus pear and peach. There are hints of caramel as well. Very nice. WW 90
Pomar Junction Sidetrack White NV ($24) – Out in Paso, they love to blend. This is a traditional Rhone mix of Viognier, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc that offers notes of peach and pear, along with a hint of orange and white flowers. One of our favorites. WW 92
San Simeon Stormwatch Red Blend 2014 ($65) – A classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and other traditional varietals, this bold blend explodes with rich blackberry and blueberry notes. The two years it spends in new French oak contribute overtones of spice and vanilla. Excellent. WW 95
A wine you need to know
Winemakers who decide to try their hands at making Pinot Noir are crazy in a very special way, because Pinot is known far and wide as the “heartbreak grape.” Unlike Chardonnay, which will grow just about anywhere you stick it in the ground, Pinot thrives only in a narrow range of soil and climate conditions. Second, the grapes themselves are very small, so it takes more of them to make a bottle of wine. Third, if wine grapes can get any disease or malady at all, Pinot grapes will catch it first. And if that’s not discouraging enough, the varietal is known to actually mutate on the vine, so what you plant may not be what you harvest.
But there’s an upside. Of all grapes, Pinot Noir is capable of being turned into wines that are surpassingly elegant, silky, and seductive. Which is why a Pinot such as France’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti sells for upwards of $3,500 a bottle, if you can find it. (A double magnum of the 1996 vintage can be yours for a mere $69,995). So Pinot is an attractive challenge for the winemaker, who, if successful, can create a truly spectacular wine that can be sold for large dollars.
So if Pinot Noir grows well in only very limited areas, where are they? The first, of course, is the Burgundy region in France. Over there, they grow only two grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they are mostly spectacular. They are also supremely difficult to understand, because the Burgundy region is divided up into miniscule subregions, each of which has its own name, character, and winemaking traditions.
Here in the US, Pinot lovers turn to Oregon and California. The most familiar area in Oregon is the Willamette Valley (it’s “Wil-AM-it,” dammit!) though don’t be afraid to sample from the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys as well.
Just as Robert Mondavi put California wines on the world stage, David Lett did the same for the wines of Oregon. In 1979, at an international wine tasting competition, his Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir came in third among 600 wines, beating out a whole lineup of legendary and obscenely expensive Burgundies. It was like the American Olympic hockey team defeating the Russians in 1980. Or the 1968 New York Mets.
The French went, bananas, or bananes, the way they say it. They exclaimed, “Sacre bleu! C’est imposible!” or words to that effect. They absolutely could not accept that an American wine could compare so favorably to the best of Burgundy. So they demanded a rematch. A second blind tasting competition was held the next year. Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir did not come in third. It came in second.
Pinots tend to be extremely variable in quality and style, so my advice is what it always is…drink more wine. Sample widely, and enjoy.