No region in California has come so far, so fast, as Paso Robles.
Four years ago, I called it, “a case study of a region that’s reinventing itself, looking for relevance, willing to take risks.”
In many respects, Paso Robles has now become the most exciting appellation in California. A young generation of winemakers—often having Napa Valley roots—is moving there, lured by a sense of freedom they didn’t find elsewhere.
“We don’t care about traditions,” says Matt Villard, owner/winemaker of MCV Wines. “We want to find our own style.”
Adds ONX winemaker Brian Brown: “It’s freeform here. We have no preconceived notions.”
That sense of individuality is what drew Amy Butler. The owner/winemaker of Ranchero Cellars had a good career going in Napa, where she’d worked at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Schramsberg. But it was to Paso Robles she came.
“I just fell in love with it,” Butler says.
The Paso Robles renaissance did not spring up overnight. An early generation, typified by wineries like Eberle and Wild Horse, sparked a small boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, when producers like L’Aventure, Linne Calodo, Saxum and Tablas Creek attracted acclaim. They were pioneers in a region long dominated by commodity wines.
The world took notice, and investor money followed. And, as Brown points out, “winemaking talent follows the money.” The tipping point arrived between 2007 and 2010, when most of these wineries started up.
Here are six new faces of Paso. Each is taking risks, and contributing to Paso’s current resurgence.
Owner/winemaker, Clos Solène
This 34-year-old, born to a winemaking family in France’s Languedoc, came to Paso Robles in 2004.
“I wanted to see what was going on with newer wine regions,” he says. “And it’s never easy working for your family.”
After a stint at L’Aventure, he decided to make his own wine.
“That was always my dream,” Fabre says.
He launched Clos Solène (named after his wife) in 2007, with the release of a Roussanne, an homage to his youth.
“Roussanne was my first wine to drink, when I was 6 years old,” he says.
The focus is on Rhône-style blends, as well as a Syrah-Petit Verdot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend called L’Insolent. Production averages just 400 cases.
Fabre has “a full vision of where I would like to be in five years: unique and intimate, with a small cave.”
For now, that will have to wait. In the meantime, Fabre is selling all the wine he can make in local restaurants, through his mailing list and Paso Underground, a collective tasting room he shares with three other wineries.
92 Clos Solène 2011 L’Or Blanc Viognier-Roussanne (Paso Robles); $65.
92 Clos Solène 2011 Essence de Roussanne (Paso Robles); $65.
90 Clos Solène 2010 Hommage à nos Pairs Reserve Syrah (Paso Robles); $95.
Owner/winemaker, Aaron Wines
Jackson made his first Petite Sirah at the tender age of 22.
“I was one of the youngest winemakers in the country!” he says.
Jackson, now 30, grew up as a surfer kid west of Paso, where he’d watched the wine region struggle with an identity crisis.
“They didn’t know what they wanted to be, but I saw great potential,” he says.
The better wineries were experimenting with Rhône varieties, “but I wondered how come they’re not excited by Petite Sirah,” says Jackson. “I knew it could really sing in Paso.”
Jackson sources his Petite Sirah from various vineyards in the Templeton Gap, which funnels in cooler, maritime air through the hills.
His next project, a brand called Aequorea (Latin for “of the sea”), will focus on Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Riesling from the chilly far San Luis Obispo coast. Production of both brands totals 700 cases.
Jackson could be speaking for his younger Paso buddies when he says, “My generation thinks the biggest thing in the wine business is lack of authenticity. My whole goal is to stand apart from the crowd and make wines I believe in.”
91 Aaron 2009 Petite Sirah (Paso Robles); $32.
Owner/winemaker, Ranchero Cellars
Despite a promising career taking root in Napa, Butler longed for something more, something she would find in Paso Robles.
At first, Napa interested her, but the wealth and flamboyance eventually weighed her down.
“I’m just a simple girl,” Butler, 37, says.
Her turning point occurred when she realized, “I didn’t want to be living in a shared apartment in Calistoga with no roots.”
Her mom suggested Paso.
Butler moved there in 2002, “with no job and very little savings.”
She tried her hand at every winery job she could find: from forklift operator to temporary harvest work at Peachy Canyon. Butler finally got her first winemaker stint at Edward Sellers, which she left in 2010 to focus full time on her own brand, Ranchero Cellars.
“My main striving is to figure out how to get the expressions of Viognier I like,” says Butler, who crafts a range of wines.
Ranchero, with only 700 cases produced annually, doesn’t yet pay all her bills, so Butler consults for other wineries. She’s also developing another brand, Brouhaha, which will be a Vinho Verde-style wine with a low alcohol level and slight effervescence.
89 Ranchero Cellars 2010 Old Vines Colombini Vineyard Carignan (Mendocino); $30.
88 Ranchero Cellars 2011 La Vista Vineyard Viognier (Paso Robles); $30.
87 Ranchero Cellars 2011 Chrome La Vista Vineyard Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles); $28.
Owner/winemaker, MCV Wines
Villard’s path to his own winery sounds like the libretto from some grand opera.
A degree in comparative literature with a minor in philosophy led improbably to an internship at Quintessa. That led to a job at Justin, a failed application to be a Gallo enologist, and a blown-out knee, which effectively sidelined the 31-year-old’s lab days.
“So, in 2009, I came back to Paso because I had friends here,” Villard says.
With the economy in shambles, he decided to try making his own wine.
“I found some high-end Petite Sirah and figured out it wasn’t that expensive to start up, so I bought the grapes and contracted for a custom crush,” he says.
In addition to a single-vineyard Petite Sirah, Villard produces two red blends and a rosé. Those wines don’t yet pay the bills, a situation he hopes to correct when he can boost prices, possibly next year. Meanwhile, he also works as a substitute teacher.
When he’s not making wine, Villard can be found reading or surfing near his home, in Cayucos, on the coast.
“It’s scary starting a winery,” he says, “but I’m doing what I want to do.”
91 MCV 2011 Rosewynn Vineyard Petite Sirah (Paso Robles); $36.
90 MCV 2011 1105 (Paso Robles); $36.
88 MCV 2012 Pink Rosé (Paso Robles); $16.
At ONX, Brown crafts several fancifully named blends—Moxie and Red Crush, for example—from wildly unrelated grape varieties, like Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. There’s also a Sauvignon Blanc-Viognier dubbed Field Day.
“You’d never see these blends outside Paso,” says Brown, 34.
“It would be easy to put a varietal on a bottle, but you have all these other attributes from other varieties,” he says. “So it’s about creating the most complete wine possible.”
The grapes come from ONX’s large vineyard, on the western side of the appellation.
Brown literally grew up all around the world, as his father, a hospital administrator, moved frequently. He was introduced to wine in Australia and has fond memories of “the garden-to-table lifestyle” enjoyed Down Under.
“When it was time to decide what to study in college, I knew I wanted to make wine,” says Brown.
He previously worked in Napa at Trefethen and Napa Wine Co. (where he was exposed to the likes of Screaming Eagle and Bryant). Brown continues his association with Napa Valley as winemaker at Round Pond.
91 ONX 2011 Field Day (Paso Robles); $25.
91 ONX 2010 Moxie (Paso Robles); $40.
91 ONX 2010 Praetorian (Paso Robles); $40.
Nicholas R. Elliot
Elliott, 31, could have remained in the Central Valley town of Coalinga and been a general contractor, like his father and grandfather before him.
“But I wanted to get away, to be my own person,” he says.
He moved to Paso Robles, “where I BS’d my way into a cellar job” at a local winery.
One thing led to another and, in 2009, Elliott launched Nicora. He traded his labor to an existing winery in return for use of the facility. He produced 100 cases, which sold by word of mouth.
With his 2012 production at 800 cases, Elliott is looking for a bigger space. He plans to add a Viognier-Roussanne blend, and hopes eventually to level out at 2,000 cases.
“Paso is on the upswing,” says Elliott. “The quality of wine is improving, because we share information. There are no secrets.
“The people here,” he says, “are always trying to step it up.”
92 Nicora 2010 Buxom La Vista Vineyard Syrah-Grenache (Paso Robles); $48.
91 Nicora 2010 Euphoric La Vista Vineyard Grenache-Syrah (Paso Robles); $48.
91 Nicora 2010 G-S-M (Paso Robles); $48.