A weekend in Paso Robles - Part One

Last week, you got a little background on Paso Robles, so after spending Friday afternoon through Monday, driving all over the countryside, I thought I'd share a recap of the adventures. Remember, I don't do wine reviews, as everyones' tastes are different, but I will tell you what we tried, and what I purchased. Since we went to 19 wineries, and tried over 120 wines, this will be a two part recap.

Sculpterra Winery
The long weekend started with the 4 1/2 hour drive from Lake Arrowhead to Paso Robles. There was a nice improvement since my last visit a couple years ago...they have almost completed the additional lanes on Hwy 46 East (coming from Interstate 15) so you won't get stuck behind a semi for 40+ miles. Upon arrival, we checked into the Best Western Black Oaks, which is ideally situated to get everywhere. Since we had to wait for our room, we wandered next door to the Good Ol' Burger, and grabbed a quick bit. Once checked in, we headed out east to our first stop: Sculpterra Winery. As we drove in the gates, the vineyards had been pruned to ready for harvest. Nice, full grape bunches greeted us along each side of the road. As we pulled up to park, large sculptures of cats, fish, and mammoths welcomed us. We tried a mix of varieties and briefly met the winemaker, Paul Frankel. I picked up some of their '07 Statuesque, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Petite Sirah. Next we drove five minutes down the road to our scheduled meeting with Steve Cass, at Cass Vineyard and Winery. Many of our group got here early and had lunch at the restaurant on the property. Steve greeted us at the door, and slapped a Grenache label on our shirts, saying that this day was "International Grenache Day". I was a little skeptical, that there was such a day, but sure enough...I checked it out on line later, and September 23rd is the official day. Thanks to the tasting room manager, Lindsay Dodson-Brown, we were treated to a tasting of nine wines (including two that weren't on the tasting list: '08 Grenache, and the Sparkling Grenache Noir). With the exception of the Cabernet Sauvignon, the wines were all Rhone varieties. Steve walked us through the barrel room, then out back were we met his South African winemaker, Lood Kotze. I didn't buy any wine here (as I have a number of bottles in my cellar already) but I saw a lot of bottles going out the door with our group. As we left, they were preparing for a wedding the next day...what a great setting!

Niner Wine Estate
That evening, twelve of us met at Bistro Laurent, in downtown Paso Robles. It is usually a challenge ordering dinner with this large of a group, but Ian Adamo, the Maitre d'/ Sommelier, suggested we let Chef Laurent put together a dinner for us, and he would pair the wines. This turned out to be one of the most memorable events on the entire trip. Ian took care us with a six course meal, and seven wines. The most unusual pairing of the evening was swordfish and lentils paired with Chinon (Cabernet Franc)...what a surprise! I think they need to add the smoked salmon tart to the menu, as it was excellent. If you've got a large group, or it's just two of you on a date, go to Bistro Laurent.

Saturday morning started with breakfast at Margie's Diner. Be prepared, their breakfasts are huge. They must be using ostrich eggs, because I've never seen "two eggs" deliver so much. At 10:00 our bus drivers arrived at the parking lot of the Black Oaks hotel. I had hired Wine Country Charters to drive us to all the wineries for the day, and schedule appointments at the wineries I had chosen, as well as organize our lunches. Our first stop was Niner Wine Estates. This large, new winery has an impressive facility. The $10 tasting fee included five wines on the tasting sheet, plus one that just happened to be open (the '06 Syrah). The most purchased wine was one that was not on the tasting sheet...Syrah Vin Gris (rose), and a number of people joined the wine club, as the savings on purchases were pretty good.

Yvonne, Robert and Jim at Jada Winery
The next stop was Jada Vineyard & Winery. They were ready for us, with a tasting area set up on the covered patio. Here, the tasting fee was $10 ($5 with a wine purchase), and all tastings included a cheese pairing. The mostly Rhone varieties included one white, one rose, and three reds. I purchased the '08 Jack of Hearts (a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot), which they had paired with Fiscalini Cheddar. Great setting and a friendly staff that made us feel welcomed. After Jada, we moved on to Adelaida. Again, they were ready for us, with a tent set up on the front lawn. Our tasting fees had been waived for the group, and we responded with a lot of purchases here. They served us one white, one rose, and five reds. Included in the reds, was the '08 Zinfandel which was accidentally opened, but a great comparison to the '03 Zinfandel (which was the library selection of the month). I bought the '08 Zinfandel.

Our last group stop for the day was at a small family owned winery known as Windward Vineyard. We were greeted by Marc Goldberg, the owner/winemaker, who escorted us into the barrel room, where he entertained us with stories of winemaking in Burgundy, and sailing. Marc was a great host, and the four Pinot Noirs he served were a real "eye opener". I never think of Paso Robles for Pinot Noir, but Windward has changed my mind. Marc is making wines as close to Burgundian in style, as anyone I've tried in California. What a "find". I bought both his '06 and '08 Pinot Noir "Monopole". If you like Pinot Noir, you need to add this winery to your list.

Close to harvest
We arrived back at our hotel around 5:30. Dinner reservations were made for twelve of us again. This time we met at Il Cortile. Since we had some free time, a group of us wandered around downtown, and found an open tasting room at Arroyo Robles. Here, the tasting fee was $5/person for one white, and four reds. These wines were sourced from mainly east side vineyards, and had some pretty high alcohol levels. I did purchase the '07 Syrah before heading off for an Italian dinner at Il Cortile. The wine list was extensive, and well priced. The food and service were well done. The most popular dish in our group appeared to be the Osso Buco, but I must say, my grilled salmon was perfectly cooked, and the foie gras appetizer was a great starter. Chef Santos, and our server, Ian, made sure our group had an enjoyable evening.

The group portion of the weekend, included only five organized tastings, but we did get to seven wineries by Saturday night. Many in the group took off Sunday morning, but I had a list of 33 more wineries on my "wish list" for the 4-day weekend I had scheduled.

For the continuation of this 4-day weekend, check out the follow-up article at: http://arrowheadwine.blogspot.com/2011/10/weekend-in-paso-robles-part-ii.html
For a short video tour of the weekend, check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJhfj7KbdOY.

Paso Robles

This weekend, I’ll be taking 28 people wine tasting in Paso Robles, so I thought it might be a good time to look at the area, and see what it’s all about.

Red Soles Winery
Paso Robles (originally El Paso de Robles) is Spanish for “The Pass of the Oaks”. The area is located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the wine region known as the "Central Coast". Called "Paso" by California locals, the city sits on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Coastal Mountain Range, with elevations from 675 to 1,100 feet . The actual Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area) has over 26,000 acres planted with over 40 wine grape varieties. Grapes were first introduced into the area in 1797 by missionaries at Mission San Miguel Arcangel, However, commercial wine wasn't grown until 1882, when Andrew York established Ascension Winery (actually now in the York Mountain AVA, adjacent to Paso Robles AVA). As of July 2010, the vineyard is now part of Epoch Wines. It is the longest continuously operating winery in County. In the 1920s, Italian families starting vineyards included Dusi, Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Bianchi, some of which might sound familiar, as they are still being farmed today by the third and fourth generations of the family.

Eberle Winery
Paso Robles is known for the diurnal temperature changes (daytime-nighttime temperature swings, where the difference can be as much as 50°). The primary climate is defined by long, hot, dry summers and brief, cool, sometimes rainy winters. Paso Robles enjoys long-lasting, mild autumns and occasional early springs, giving the region a unique climate suitable for growing a variety of crops. Due to the somewhat close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the marine layer occasionally makes it over the coast range and into Paso Robles, creating occasional fog. The marine layer, and cooling effect from the coast, creates completely different growing conditions on the west side versus the east side. Soils range from weathered granite, old marine sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks and young marine sedimentary rocks featuring calcareous shale, sandstone or mudstone. Most of the top vineyards are located on the west side. These are hillside vineyards planted in calcareous (limestone) and dense clay-based soils. Combine that with relatively plentiful rainfall, and it is possible for some vines to be dry-farmed without supplemental irrigation. Additionally most vineyards are within 10 to 15 miles of the Pacific Ocean. The east side doesn’t have as much of the marine influence, and has more rolling hills, versus the foothills of the Santa Lucia’s. The distinct microclimates and diverse soils of the area, create a wine tasting experience unlike most areas.

Recognizing the area’s unique, yet diverse terroir, the 617,000-acre Paso Robles AVA and adjacent 6,400-acre York Mountain AVA were established in 1983. In 1990, there were fewer than 20 wineries in and around Paso Robles. Today there are more than 200 wineries in Paso Robles AVA. In 2009,  a new proposal was made to break up the AVA into 11 smaller viticultural areas. It has also been proposed that wineries could list the new AVA’s along with the larger, regional Paso Robles AVA, much like what is currently being done in Napa. So we may see wines labeled “Paso Robles AVA, Adelaida District”, or “Paso Robles AVA, Templeton Gap District”.

Paso may be best known as the home of the “Rhône Rangers”, a group of winemakers who promote the use of grape varieties found in the Rhône Valley of southern France.

The main red varieties used in Rhône wine are Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir and Vaccarèse. Zinfandel is also prominent in Paso Robles, this grape variety has origins in Croatia but grows right along with the Rhône varieties, and is an "honorary member" of the club.

The main white varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Picardin, Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Ugni Blanc and Viognier.

Stillwater Winery
Paso Robles used to have a reputation for rustic, high tannin and high alcohol wines. My how things have changed. Paso Robles is now one of the most exciting wine regions in California. While I still find those high alcohol wines, I am finding more finesse and balance in the wines produced. Not all wines are Rhône or Zinfandel based wines either. Many Bordeaux style blends, and numerous Italian, and Spanish, varieties can be found.

When I return next week, I’ll share some of my “finds”, and make some recommendations to try.

Wine Stores

What has happened to the local wine shop? It seems the current economy is reeking havoc on any business in its' path. And, even if the business doesn't go under, they have changed.

I live in a small mountain community in Southern California. Lake Arrowhead has often been referred to as the "Jewel of Southern California". We are only a short 30 minute drive from civilization, but sometimes, it feels like we are a world apart, particularly when it comes to buying wine, and even more so in winter. Just twelve months ago, we had two wine shops located in the Lake Arrowhead area, plus our local grocery stores. Today, those two wine shops have closed their doors, leaving us with grocery store availability. One of the local stores is a gourmet style market, and has an extensive wine selection (albeit quite pricey). The wine manager (Rob) knows his wines, and can make good recommendations, however, his inventory is limited by what his buyer decides to purchase. Here's the problem...I went there last week looking for a nice Meritage to share with some friends, Do you think I found anything? Nope.

Blue Jay Village
Now, my next choice for finding wine is at least 45 minutes away. As I drive down the mountain, and back into the city, I have a few choices. I can go to a liquor store (nope) or I can stop by BevMo, Costco, or the new Total Wine shop. I don't know what it is about BevMo, but I just can't seem to find what I'm looking for, or even find someone who really knows wine. Yes, they have recommendations from Wilfred Wong, but I guess I'm skeptical when their wine critic is hired by them to evaluate the wines they carry. Do you think he'd rate one of their wines as an awful wine? When it comes to Costco, I can find the occasional great buy, but you are really at the mercy of what is available at the time you happen to be there. Now, the new guy on the block is Total Wine. this place is huge, and if you are buying domestic wines, or beer, or hard alcohol, you'll love this place. I just find it hard to shop for imported wines. Yes, I'll find Bordeaux, and Rioja, but most of the time, I'm finding wines from odd importers. Over the years, I have found that certain importers are more reliable than others, as to the quality of their wines. I just don't find those wines at Total Wine.

So where do I buy my wines? Believe it or not, I drive one and half hours to Orange, or Santa Ana. But something has happened to my favorite stores, down there. One store is smaller than the other, and about a year ago, went through a transition. I can still walk in the door, and they know me by name. Tim, one of the managers, asks me what I'm looking for, and makes his recommendations (and a lot of times opens a bottle to taste). This last time in, I had my usual wish list of wines to purchase...all of them Australian. I really wanted to share the different regions of Australia at a wine tasting. I wanted a Margaret River Chardonnay. Nothing. Their selection was very limited. They only had one Semillon on the shelf. This store used to be my "go to" store, but it must be a sign of the times. None of the unusual varieties are on the shelf, and only limited regions are available.

My new "go to" store is in Orange. They have a huge selection of wines, their prices are very good, but when I walk in the door, no one knows me by name (and I buy $400 - $600 worth of wine with every visit). No one asks if they can help me. Even as a Sommelier, I occasionally have questions. Yes, I know my wine, and regions and have a vintage "cheat sheet", but if it is a producer I am unfamiliar with, I want some feedback. When I purchase wine, I ask if there might be better choices than what I have in the cart. This is how I "discover" new wineries.

It seems to me, that selection and customer service are disappearing. Is this the economy? Do retailers want to limit their inventory, and only carry the best selling Cabernet or Chardonnay? Is it a result of the 3-tier system we have, where distributors sell only certain brands, and that is what you get? Maybe I'm an unusual wine shopper. I like variety in the brands and the grapes. I like different regions, and I like to experiment. I like to learn, and to share...maybe I need to open a wine shop.

What are your thoughts?

Planning a Wine Tasting Weekend

In a couple weeks our local wine club will be traveling up north to visit the Central Coast wine region of Paso Robles. This is the fourth year our club has gathered together to do an organized weekend of wine tasting. I organized the outing, and arranged for the tastings. In preparation for the trip, I sent out an e-mail to all 28 attendees, giving them an agenda for the weekend. On that e-mail, I added links to the winery websites. With all that information, I still get the question..."how did you determine what wineries to visit, and what should we expect?"

Well, I thought I might share a bit of the process of organizing a weekend outing, then share a little of the rationale of the wineries I picked.

Barrel tasting in Paso Robles
If you have ever tried to organize any type of event, you know the first thing is finding a weekend that works for the most people. The challenge is doubled when you are also gambling on when the grape harvest will take place. This can be a good and bad thing. Harvest means the winemakers will be busy, and have limited time to spend with your group, but it can also mean a great time to watch the winery in action.  Once your time is narrowed down, do you want everyone driving around in their own car, or pay the extra to have a guided tour, or at least a bus to shuttle your group? I prefer to let the local expert take us around (at least for one organized day of tasting). There are many groups that do wine tasting shuttles, and each one has it's own quirks and benefits. Just make some phone calls, and ask questions. (If you want leads for the Paso Robles or Santa Barbara area, send me an e-mail, and I'll pass along my recommendations.) I choose to have one organized day of tasting. We meet on a Saturday morning, and the shuttle takes us to four wineries, serves lunch, and returns us to our hotel seven hours later. During the bus ride, we have a guide, explaining the local area. Everything for Saturday is in their hands. Since we start early on Saturday, most people will arrive on Friday, some earlier than others. For those that show up early, I have always used my local contacts to arrange a tour/tasting/barrel tasting for the (smaller) early arriving group. Sunday, everyone is on their own, and this has turned in to a day for me to catch up on my "wish list" of wineries to visit.

So how to I go about determining what wineries to visit? I'll use this years' trip as an example...I always try to check out new wineries, that the group hasn't been to. I also talk with winemakers I know, and ask for recommendation, but the biggest deciding factor is that I look for diversity. I want a mix of large and small wineries. I want high, medium, and low priced wines, and I want wineries with a mix of wines. Nothing like going to Paso Robles and only tasting Rhone wines at every stop (unless that is what you like). I want people to discover the diversity of an area, and see how different wineries operate. I want people to understand why one wine is more expensive that another.

Cass Winery
This year, we will be visiting five wineries, as an organized group. My "special" Friday tour will be with Cass Winery. I have never been to their winery, but got to know Bryan Cass at a wine tasting event over the summer. I tried his wines and was impressed with the quality, as well as the story behind the label. There is also a tie to our local community. One of our locals buys his grapes from Cass, and produces his own wine (that he shares with his friends). I thought it would be nice to know where the grapes come from, and possible see more of our local get into winemaking....probably a "pipe dream" as most prefer to drink, and not create.

Niner Wine Estates
Our organized tour on Saturday will include four wineries: Niner Estate, Jada, Adelaida, and Windward. Niner wine Estates has been getting a lot of recognition for its' green, gravity flow production facility, so a tour is in order. Niner is a new winery, producing a mix of varieties within the $15-$60 (most around $25). They also are the largest (in acreage) winery we will be visiting on Saturday. They are known for their "Fog Catcher" - a Bordeaux blend (and of course their highest priced wine). On a side note, I also picked Niner Wine Estates because I know Dick Niner. We used to work together back in the 1990's, when he was the owner of the J.B Williams Company, and I was the Western Sales Director.

Jada Winery & Vineyard
The second choice was Jada Winery & Vineyard. I picked this winery based on recommendations from friends. I had been told by many people about the great wine and cheese pairings the winery presents. Jada is about 1/4 the size (in acreage) as Niner, but also offers a mix of Rhone and Bordeaux style wines. Prices run about $25 to $45 for their wines. They also offer an olive oil tasting.

Adelaida Cellars
The third choice was based on the recommendation of the wine tour company, as well as my own research on wineries that had been receiving some positive press. Adelaida Cellars is located only 14 miles from the ocean, and is about the same size as Jada, but makes a number of different varieties, including Bordeaux, Rhone, and Burgundy style wines, as well as a traditional Port blend and even Zinfandel. Their prices range from about $15 to $40.

Windward Vineyard
The last winery on the list was not even on my radar. Originally, I had wanted to visit a very small family run, Italian winery called Fratelli Perata, but, as fate would have it, they are so small, they could not handle a group our size during the harvest (I guess I'll have to visit them on Sunday when I'm not with the large group). At the suggestion of the wine tour company, we will be visiting Windward Vineyard. I have been told they are also a small family run operation. Instead of Italian wines, they specialize is small lot Pinot Noir. Matter of fact, they only make Pinot Noir. Their prices range from $30 to $60. This is by far the smallest of the wineries we will be visiting. According to their website, they only have 15 acres total..

When we return, I'll give you a full recap of our experience at these wineries, as well as any "finds' we discover along the road. I plan on making it a four day weekend, which means about 20 wineries to visit, and three nights of dinners out in Paso Robles. I have my Sunday/Monday wish list of wineries to visit, but I'll take recommendations.....