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Wednesday Warblings
Travels With Charlie: Paso Robles

By Charles Olken

Ventured down to Paso (that’s what the locals call it) last weekend, with Steve Eliot in tow, for the area’s big Cabernet Sauvignon roundup. Much like Kansas City, Paso is now seriously up to date with its particular collection of new restaurants, new wineries, a whole new energy worth knowing about. Rather than make this column into some sort of latter day travelogue, I hope you will let me simply chat about what I saw and learned and liked in whatever random order those thoughts arise.

• I have always disliked the notion that we, the chattering class, feel the need to compare everything to the Napa Valley. It is a bit like comparing every new car to the top of the line Mercedes or Bentley. Napa is Napa with all of its strengths and over the top weaknesses. No place else needs to be Napa.

• Paso Robles, the City of El Paso de Robles to be precise, is a half sleepy, small town in the middle of agriculture country. One needs to go off the main road to the coast, or a hundred miles north or south to find “city” writ large. Or to put it another way, it amazes me that people with urban routes would choose to live there. But, because they do, and because Paso and environs can support a wine industry, there is a continuing influx of outsiders who are enriching the place with their own brand of culture even as they become integrated into the lifestyle there.

• Paso Robles, as a recognized appellation, or AVA, is quite large; it could fit both Napa and Sonoma within its borders. It is also hot and dry, but all wine country is hot in varying degrees or it would not be wine country. You won’t find much by way of cold-loving varieties in the AVA. It is a place for fuller bodied reds and for Rhone whites. And, while Paso is finding increasing success with its Bordelais varieties, many of which have shown very well of late, those varieties are still a work in progress at the highest end of the success scale.

• Even now, and stretching back for several decades, or more if tales of pre-Prohibition wines are to be included in the conversion, Paso Robles has demonstrated great potential and, lately, has seen plenty of success with bold powerful Rhone reds and big, sometimes powerful and sometimes more mannerly but rarely smaller or restrained versions of Cabernet Sauvignon.

• During our visit, we must have been told ten times if we were told once that Paso in no warmer than Calistoga. There seems to be some sort of scientifically measured reasons for this claim, and I have no reason to dispute it. But, to date, the wines are seemingly riper to taste even if not riper in total alcohol terms. In the red Rhones, this is simply no problem for a large portion of the fans of those grapes. That is why producers like Saxum and Sine Qua Non have become true cult wines¸ and while new, small wineries like Denner and Epoch, to name two we visited and liked very much can sell their Syrahs for fifty and sixty dollars.

• The sheer size of the Paso Robles AVA means that there are widely varying growing conditions. The simple answer to that problem is to further subdivide the AVA just as the Napa Valley has been subdivided. But, how to do it? Therein lies the rub. Folks in Paso now believe that the answer it at hand and expect the “authorities” to approve a much-discussed plan to create almost a dozen smaller, overlying winegrowing areas. Fingers crossed because Paso is subdividing on its own as vintners choose where they want to be based on results and not just on speculation.

• One of the places to be is west of Highway 101. That area is arguably cooler than the more eastern-lying places and offers hillside locations at a variety of altitudes. Near the upper reaches of these “westside” growing areas are now found a number of very special wineries whose names (Epoch, Denner, Jada, Proulx, Adelaida, Daou, Hammersky to name the ones that come to mind at this moment) have already gained widespread fame or are about to.

• Over on the other side of the highway, with wineries like Eberle, Vina Robles, Robert Hall, there are higher volume producers. One only needs to remember how many Good Values have come from these folks to realize that the world needs them as well.

• There are some great wine roads in this world. To that list, please add Vineyard Drive. Not only is it a wonderfully scenic road in the westside hills, with its growing list of successful producers, but it is still largely unspoiled country. If you are looking for something new to do on your wine discovery weekends, Paso is worth the effort to get there, and while you cannot go without exploring both east and west, for us, the tour of Vineyard Drive not to be missed.

• Paso, in part because of the wine touring, and in part because it is becoming a place for folks to get away from the fast-paced city life, is gaining in sophistication. We found the culinary scene there to be quite lively and will be pleased to return to Artisan (a true favorite), Bistro Laurent and Thomas Hill Organics, all of which would be at home almost anywhere.

We went down to Paso Robles to catch up with the progress there. We have come away excited as we watched the continued emergence and maturation of yet another center of fine wine production.


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by TomHill
Posted on:5/2/2013 9:40:02 AM

Charlie sez:"will be pleased to return to Artisan (a true favorite), Bistro Laurent and Thomas Hill Organics, all of which would be at home almost anywhere."


Hmmmm....Charlie....that last restaurant sorta has a nice ring to the name...doesn't it???  :-)

But you're right....those three would do just fine...thank the BayArea.

As for cold-climate grapes, StanleyHoffman did pretty good w/ his Pinots I'd have to say. And if you go a bit further West, out of the Paso AVA, there are some impressive Syrahs and Pinots coming out of BassettiVnyd and StoloFamily/TreViti. If you've not tried any of the TreViti Pinots or Syrahs. you really must make the effort to do so.

Another one you should seek out is RyanPease's Paix Sur Terre wines. Pretty first rate.

As for the WestSide Rhone-style wines and their tendency to big/higher alcohol styles...I think that is primarily a winemaker stylistic choice. TablasCreek makes their Rhones in a more restrained/graceful/elegant/balanced style than anybody else and do a danged good job of it. Least I think so, anyway.



Yes, Liked Your New Restaurant
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/2/2013 10:34:45 AM

Hello Tom--

Denner makes extensive use of Bassetti grapes, and there is reason to believe that vineyards on the other side of the hill, closer to the Pacific, have great potential just as those in western and far western Sonoma County have proven to possess.

Tablas Creek is pretty much an outlier at the moment. Big and bigger has been the order of the day, and because of the elevated acidities that folks ascribe to the calcareous soils, the wineries seem to be able to get away with it. The wines at Epoch, for example, despite being over 16% ABV, were quite well balanced and impressive.

Daou is on the HMR site. There is speculation that the site is now several degrees warmer than it was, although I did not see any data to back up that notion.

Paso is still very much a work in progress. New wineries, new winemakers, new money all are changing the landscape there. On our trip down there, I did hear rumblings from some writers that Paso was going to need to change it spots if it was going to succeed in the long run. I can see some dialing back already going on, but the wineries there are also enjoying plenty of positive attention so there is reason to believe that they are not now feeling much pressure in that regard.

And we surely do not have to have every winery in every part of the state making wines in one style. Let Paso be Paso with all the experimentation, growing pains and independence from mythical norms that being Paso entails.

by TomHill
Posted on:5/2/2013 12:13:49 PM

Yup...totally agree, Charlie. No need to change their spots. Think they're doing just fine as they are and the place is big enough to support a diversity of styles.

   People (or wine geeks) tend to look down their nose at EastSide Paso...but there are some mighty good wines coming out of there.

I'm also excited w/ what Paso is doing w/ Spanish and Italian varietals. We're hoping to hold NEB4 down there this year.



Paso Robles
by Fred Schroeder
Posted on:5/3/2013 1:43:38 PM

Glad you got a chance to go down to Paso Robles and make a report. Don't forget the Zinfandels. New producers like Brochelle and Cypher are making excellent Zins and others are promising. Epoch also makes an excellent Zin.

by Gary Eberle
Posted on:5/12/2013 2:04:44 PM

I can't believe this east/west thing still goes on.  The west has the highest and lowest vineyards, hotest and coldest, wetest and dryist, and the most fractured soil.  The only thing unique about the west is that there is nothing unique about it.  Also 3 of the wineries listed on the west in this article have a larger production than Eberle which is caracterized as one of the large producers.  There are many west side wineries considerable larger than many on the east.

by Ryan
Posted on:1/26/2014 9:41:48 AM

Quality always trumps quantity Gary.  The East side will never match up to the west side.  We have all the good soils and microclimates.

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