Ever since the federal government granted Paso Robles producers the right to recognize 11 different sub-appellations last year—a breakdown that I cover in-depth in this month’s print version of Wine Enthusiast—vintners and sippers alike have been wondering what kind of wines will thrive in each of these new districts. While that question will probably take at least a generation or more to answer, some Paso winemakers are already deep in exploration about the distinctions.
Take Kevin Willenborg of Vina Robles, one of the few Paso wineries to own vineyards in multiple districts, including Estrella, El Pomar, Geneseo, Creston, and Adelaida. Willenborg’s resume runs from Martini Winery and Chateau Petrus to eight years at Firestone and two years working for Francis Ford Coppola at his Rubicon Estate. In 2012, he started at Vina Robles, which was founded in 1996 by Swiss civil engineer Hans Nef and is managed by Nef’s agribusiness-minded friend Hans Michel. “My nickname is Franz,” jokes Willenborg.
Aside from making more than 30,000 cases of about 20 different wines, from Rhône blends to single vineyard varietal expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, and more, Vina Robles is also home to a 3,500-seat amphitheater that hosts nationally touring acts. With a grass-lined upper deck, full-service box seats, well-thought out beverage and food options, and perfect views from anywhere, the Vina Robles Amphitheater is one of the best mid-sized concert venues in the country, a reality I learned while watching Ziggy Marley with my family there this past summer.
But before that August show, I met Willenborg in Vina Robles high-ceilinged hospitality center to taste through his lineup. The wines were all solid, as reflected in my numerous blind tasted scores of them from past months, but we were both most excited to dive into the four Cabernet Sauvignons that he had set aside from the winery’s estate vineyards in four different districts.
Farmed exactly the same, coming from similar clones, and pulled from the barrel into bottle in April 2014, these wines gave us a clean slate form which to evaluate four of the 11 new regions. These components currently find their way into estate blends, except for the Adelaida, which was bottled this summer as a single vineyard expression that will be released around Thanksgiving 2016. What follows are descriptions on what we found, mixing my thoughts with Willenborg’s comments.
Jardine Vineyard, Estrella District: About 280 acres at about 800 feet in elevation, this very flat vineyard gets about 12.5 inches of annual rainfall, experiences 40-degree shifts in daily temperature, and is planted 52% in Cabernet Sauvignon. Scents of plum, pepper, grape, strawberry, and cooked cherry give way to balanced tannins and decent structure on the palate.
Creston Valley Vineyard, Creston District: About 200 acres, this hilly property gets even less rainfall than Jardine and sits at about 1,200 feet in elevation. Also about 53% in Cab, aromas are more complex, with licorice, blueberry and minerality. On the palate, Willenborg notes a “uptick in structure,” with lingering and “creamy” tannins.
Huerhuero Vineyard, El Pomar District: This 524-acre vineyard (only a quarter goes to Vina Robles) — at about 900 feet, with 14 inches of annual rain, and planted to 38% Cab — experiences a cooler climate, thanks to “a little bit more exposure to the Templeton Gap,” said Willenborg. That gives way to slightly more green and herbaceous aromas, with lots of black currant and peppercorn. The tannins are more sticky and creamy, which Willenborg believes comes from the gravely and calcareous soils.
Adelaida Springs Ranch, Adelaida District: The furthest west of our tastings, this vineyard is only 41 acres, of which Vina Robles gets about 16. It reaches more than 1,700 feet in elevation just 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, with about 57% Cab. Though furthest west, it is not herbaceous like the Huerhuero. “It’s not necessarily cooler,” said Willenborg. “Adelaida is an island that stays warmer longer, which drives those phenolics. These are very structural wines with great color, acidity, and low pHs. You put them in bottle, and they just go forever.” Indeed, the blackberry and boysenberry aromas as well as the layered flavors are the most complex out of the lineup.
So should Vina Robles and the rest of Paso start blowing up these sub-appellation distinctions? Not quite yet. “There’s got to be a little bit more time before we start doing that,” said Willenborg. “We gotta walk before we can run.”