Paso winemakers are blending their way to the top.
Paso Robles has always felt a little like comedian Rodney Dangerfield. It didn’t get any respect.
Napa Valley and Sonoma County monopolized the public’s fancy for fine wine. Paso, by contrast, marked the halfway point on the freeway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Conventional wisdom ran that it was too hot for wine. The area’s cowboy traditions didn’t exactly burnish its reputation as chic wine country.
But things are quickly changing.—Steve Heimoff
The Templeton Gap Effect
Some years ago, people began to seriously explore Paso’s wide-ranging terroirs and microclimates. Granted, Paso’s northern and eastern reaches tend to be ovens in the summer. But vintners increasingly took advantage of a weather effect caused by the region’s notable Templeton Gap—low passageways in the coastal hills that permit cool maritime air to penetrate vineyards within its influence. Particularly in hilly western Paso Robles, these temperate areas have proven successful for more balanced, nuanced wines.
Vintners discovered something else: If they made a wine from one particular variety, it could be a little one-dimensional, with “divots”—deficiencies in aroma, color, texture or flavor. By blending in different varieties to fill in the divots, winemakers discovered they could create more complex, complete wines.
As Tablas Creek’s general manager, Jason Haas, notes, “Why do we blend in a world where varietals reign supreme? Because blends are better than component pieces.”
Mixing It Up for Today
A younger generation of winemakers, less encumbered by the traditions of the past, has wholeheartedly embraced the blending phenomenon. Matt Villard, the owner/winemaker at MCV, tinkers with everything from Petite Sirah and Grenache to Tannat and Petit Verdot in his “1105” red wine. “I’m a big fan of blends,” he says. “You get a more interesting wine, with a broader spectrum of everything available.”
Brian Brown of ONX says of his unique Zinfandel, Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, “You’d never see this kind of blend anywhere outside of Paso.” He feels that Paso’s traditional weakness—an absence of high-end winemaking—has been turned into its strength. “A lot of winemaking elsewhere is done by convention. Even in Napa Valley [where Brown used to be winemaker at Round Pond], I don’t think Cabernet Sauvignon necessarily makes the best wine. But that’s what sells.”
“It’s no-holds barred down here when it comes to blending,” observes David Galzignato, winemaker at Jada Vineyard. “The culture is more artistic and experimental than other places I’ve worked,” which include stints at Charles Krug, Lewis and Paraduxx, all of them in Napa Valley.
More Success Brings More Talent
Success breeds success. As Paso Robles has upgraded its image in the past few years, outsider investors have noticed and moved in. As Brown puts it, “More interest from the public brings more capital in, so more folks want to invest. And talent always follows the money.”
Besides the wineries referred to above, others that are producing interesting red (and sometimes white) blends from Paso Robles include The Farm Winery and Bonne Niche. As The Farm’s co-owner, Wally Murray, notes, “After many decades of effort in California, I think we now have a pretty good idea of how to make good wines—and that requires blending!”
If you do visit Paso—and it’s well worth a few days—you’ll hear about the great restaurants that have sprung up around the old Town Square. The Old West way of life is still alive and well, but the new wine culture has arrived with culinary deliciousness. Try Villa Creek, Bistro Laurent, Buona Tavola and, a winemaker favorite, Artisan.
Master Blending: Justin Vineyards and Winery
One of the vintners responsible for Paso Robles success is Justin Baldwin, founder and former owner of Justin Vineyards and Winery.
In 1981, Baldwin, a banker, bought 160 acres of pristine land in the western hills and began planting grapevines. He focused on Bordeaux varieties—an audacious proposition at a time when the Napa Valley had the lock on that style of wine.
Wine lovers initially resisted (some say shunned) Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. But by the 1990s, opposition began to crumble. Suddenly, Justin was in demand; as its popularity soared, so too did that of Paso Robles overall.
Justin’s winemaker since 2012, Scott Shirley, is a Napa Valley veteran (Opus One, Hess Collection) who decided to make the move south. “Paso Robles is such an exciting appellation, with ideal ripening conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon,” he says.
The winery has broadened its portfolio beyond Cabernet and Bordeaux blends (under the Isosceles and Justification proprietary names) to produce a stylish Syrah-based blend, Focus, as well as a Cabernet-Syrah proprietary blend, Savant. All the red wines show a signature Paso style of ripe, exuberant fruit, soft tannins and a smooth, lush mouthfeel.
The winery owns considerable vineyard acreage, both east and west. Shirley appreciates having a variety of sources from which to choose his grapes. “It’s nice to hedge my bets in terms of cooler and warmer vintages.”
With its picturesque hillside setting, Justin is a great place to visit. Its new owners recently completely remodeled The Restaurant at Justin as well as the upscale, three-suite B&B, dubbed the Just Inn. Both sport a luxe-contemporary look that’s distinctly Californian.
Don't Miss: Vina Robles Winery
Swiss businessmen Hans Nef first fell in love with Paso Robles in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, he started planting vineyards to produce wines in the European style, under the Vina Robles label.
This was a bold thing to do: Paso was hardly known for fine wine. Nef decided to focus on wines that would allow the terroirs of his various vineyards to express themselves.
One of those vineyards, Adelaida Ranch, sits 1,700-feet high in western Paso Robles. The well-drained limestone soils result in intense, tightly focused wines. At Adelaida, Nef focuses on Bordeaux varieties. Perhaps the winery’s best bottling is the Mountain Road Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which winemaker Kevin Willenborg calls “our highest expression of Cab, balanced now yet structured for years of aging to come.”
Yet Vina Robles also embraces the varietal blending movement, crafting innovative mixtures—both red and white—that are complex and balanced. Their 2011 White4 blend, a compound of Viognier, Vermentino, Verdelho and Sauvignon Blanc, is probably unique in the world, and defines to perfection the blender’s art.
Also unique along California’s Central Coast, Vina Robles’s new Amphitheatre opened in the summer of 2013. From May to November (winter comes late to Paso Robles), visitors can enjoy live concerts, with music of all genres along with gourmet food.
Paso Robles' Top Varieties
Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends
From Paso Robles, the wines are fruity and balanced, with a younger generation of winemakers bringing exacting standards.
Syrah and Rhône-style red blends
Among the best in California. Heady, rich wines often exhibit spice, cocoa and currant note
Coastal valleys boast pure and ageable Pinots. Arroyo Grande Valley’s are big and deep.
When grown near the coast, the wines are packed with savory acidity, frequently exhibiting tropical fruit flavors.
Unoaked Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Grigio and others from Edna Valley are some of the best in California. They combine acidity and fruit-driven power.