Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Rhône Blends Rise in Paso Robles

People drinking red wine
Illustration by Anne Bentley
Rhône blends are produced all over the planet. However, this historically Old World style of wine is starting to make its way onto the Paso Robles wine scene, where bottlings are quickly becoming the region’s rising stars. Our Central Coast Contributing Editor Matt Kettmann had the opportunity to sit down with Ian Adamo, owner of Somm’s Kitchen, to talk about the rise of Rhône Blends in this region and how the different varieties such as Syrah and Grenache bring unique characteristics to the wines.

The Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Matt Kettmann: Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Matt Kettmann, the contributing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, in charge of California’s Central Coast. And in this episode, I’ll talk with Ian Adamo the owner of Somm’s Kitchen in Paso Robles.

Did you know that Paso Robles’s focus on Rhône wines is a relatively new phenomenon? We’ll hear more about that, about what each specific Rhône grape variety can bring to a blend, and we’ll taste three of these red blends from Paso Robles, including the Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas from 2017, the Caliza Azimuth from 2016 and Epoch Estate blend from 2015, all of which scored higher than 94 points. Ian, welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast!

Ian Adamo: Thanks for having me.

MK: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, and what you do at Somm’s Kitchen up in Paso Robles.

Ian Adamo: Yeah. So, I grew up on the East Coast and eventually moved out to the West Coast, Seattle at first. I eventually won the James Beard Award out there, was a restaurant called Lampreia, and then it was time for my next adventure. So, after three years I moved down to the Central Coast, Paso Robles and just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the area, the people and for me in some way it was kind of neat to sort of be part of a community that was growing and changing.

I think when I was studying, it was always me reading about other regions, what happened there, but I saw an opportunity to actually be there while it was happening, so it was kind of neat. And [I] worked for a French restaurant for about a decade in Paso, and then about two and a half years ago I started a restaurant— mine, called Somm’s Kitchen, and each night when we’re open we do seating of 14 people and everyone sits down at once at 6:00 and we usually do about 10 to 15 courses, and then we pair about 10 to 15 wine with each course too.

So, it’s been, it’s been really great. Good following, and just very, very lucky.

MK: So, you arrived in Paso Robles kind of when the Rhône movement was it was in full swing. I mean, the history goes back actually pretty far, you know in 1975, Gary Eberle planted the first Syrah in all of California in Paso Robles at the Australia River Vineyards, and now that Australia clone is actually planted all over the United States, really.

And then it kind of ramped up with Tablas Creek, you know, in the late ’80s they had this idea with the Beaucastel—the parent family of Château Beaucastel, Château Beaucastel in France to really start a really Rhône-focused vineyard in the Paso area.

They looked everywhere and they found some really great soils and climate for Rhônes, and so they started planting in 1994 and they’ve since become kind of the nursery for all of, you know, many of the Rhône varieties found around the country kind of emerged out of Tablas Creek. But it wasn’t really until the early 2000s when the Rhône movement kind of started to overtake kind of the historic Zinfandel and Cabernet world of Paso Robles. So, you came to Paso right around that time it sounds like.

IA: Yeah, it was funny. I remember working at the restaurant when I first got there, and guests would be so proud that they brought in their 1997 Isosceles, which was the most important one at the time [and] a Bordeaux blend from Justin. And that shifted, you know three or four years into it. Everybody started bringing, ‘OK, now we got the Saxon, we got Booker we got all these sort of younger brands at the time getting high scores and getting big exposure and Paso became really known, you know, outside of the area for its Syrah, Grenache, and its red wines. So, it was interesting, yeah.

MK: Why do you think it’s become such a hallmark for the region and what is it about these wines that make, make sense to be grown in Paso Robles?

IA: Yeah. I think that the climate, the terroir, and the area is sort of fitting for it. I know that when Jason’s father Bob Haas was living, he had me out a few times and he would tell me the story about how, you know, the Perrins from Beaucastel had done all the research in the world to be able to go anywhere they wanted to in California. And they did a search everywhere, and just based on the soil and the climate, in particular, they chose to come to Paso Robles. So, for an objective standpoint that seemed to work. But also, I think it’s exciting to come to Paso because I always sort of had this little saying, you know, ‘Come to Paso, taste the world,’ because there’s everything here.

If you read through a Wine Enthusiast and you see the scores, I think you could find Bordeaux varieties are scoring, Rhône varieties, and some obscure varieties—and even Zinfandel sometimes as well. But I think for the most part when people come into the restaurant at Somm’s, they’re always asking for brands that are sort of related to Rhône varieties. I think if you had sort of just identified one or two varieties or blends that are sort of the epitome of the Central Coast from some standpoint, I think it’s Syrah-based, Grenache-based or Mourvèdre-based. I think that we do it a little differently than most in the world.

MK: So, you talk about when you know when people started to kind of bring these wines in and be proud of them—I mean do you remember some of the earlier wines you tried that kind of turned your head into being a little bit more ready to accept the Rhône revolution in Paso Robles?

IA: I remember one of the first wines I said, ‘Wow this is sort of just incredible,’ is—there’s two of them there. One is Terry Hoage’s The Hedge, the Syrah. I said, ‘Wow that’s different—and that’s Paso Robles, right?’ And then I started to get it a little bit. And then someone brought in a guest one time, it was the Alban Lorraine and I said, ‘Wow, this is a wine that has the power that the Terry Hoage had,’ but it was so complex and just so long-lasting and actually can hold up to other wines. Different aromas and different characteristics, but I said wow, this is this is a serious wine. So, there’s those two, and then and many more after that.

MK: Do you find any similarities in old-world places? I mean, I know Châteauneuf makes some pretty big wines these days. But do you see any similarity at all, or is it really kind of its own?

IA: Yeah, it’s fun because living in Paso Robles oftentimes, you hear people say ‘OK, we want to make wine that reflects Châteauneuf-du-Pape in homage. And then you get to Châteauneuf-du  Pape and now they’re making wines for the international market. ‘We want the Americans and so forth to taste our wines,’ and there’s some good examples of them, right? So, they start to sort of become closer in style, but I usually just break it down—especially at the restaurant—just the varieties itself. You know, how can you tell this is Syrah? How can you tell this is Grenache? How can you tell it’s Mourvèdre? Whether it’s from Paso Robles or France is the next step. Which grape is it to begin with, right? And I always usually look for black fruit aromas in Syrah. But I think this structure is what really separates the three of these grapes—at least, when I go through at the restaurant. And I always find it sounds kind of goofy, but Syrah has these sort of chalky tannins. What I mean by that is I think we’ve all had a Cabernet before we couldn’t talk anymore—your mouth becomes super dry. And wow. That’s a really big, big tannic wine.

I think a lot of times Syrah—even if it’s a ripe version of it from, from Paso—sort of has this chalky tannin, and so it sticks like Cabernet tannins, but then it fades away pretty quickly like chalk. With a Cabernet, tannins will just keep sticking. And I think Grenache for me, usually, has sticky tannins, so unlike the chalky tannins, they are not quite as intense, but they stick around longer, they just keep there. So, if you don’t like that sensation in your gums, maybe you don’t like the Grenache. And I always say Mourvèdre has the cowboy tannins, sort of masculine, and leathery, and animalistic and so on so forth. And then if you want to talk about aromas, like I was saying, this Syrah she usually has some sort of black fruit aroma to it; Grenache is usually a little bit prettier, red fruit; Mourvèdre usually has some blue fruit, if anybody ever had a Château Beaucastel, it usually has blueberry notes on it, right? That’s the Mourvèdre, heavy wine.

MK: So you know these wines really stand out in blind tastings that I do for the magazine, because they have the power and they have, you know, great delicious, you know, immediately accessible flavors, and usually the tannins are pretty resolved by the time that they get to me, but are they age-worthy wines? I mean, what do you think about…that’s kind of a measure of—can be a measure of—great wines. I mean, are these like hedonistic wines we should be guzzling now? Or should we sit on them and see how they resolve? I mean, it’s still like we’ve been talking about, a relatively young movement especially in this bigger blended in style. I mean, what do you think? How long are these wines going to last?

IA: Yeah. So, it’s always a great question, because at the restaurant I have a little retail side of the business too. And of course, some people taste wine, that night they bring some home with them. But one of the questions all the time is, ‘OK, when is this ready to drink? How long could we save it for? Will it last?’ Right. And I always fall back to that to the structure again it’s sort of like, okay, if there’s a little tingle in your tongue and there’s acid on the wine—and/or there’s tannins in the wine—the wine will probably age for a little bit. You know, if you’re drinking it now and it’s soft, opulent soft? It’s probably not meant to go for more than another year or two. Neither one of them is good or bad, I think it’s just understanding that.

I think a lot of the bigger, more fruit-forward, more opulent Paso wines are generally made to sort of be drunk between one and five years. There [are] always exceptions. I think the L’Aventures are one of the exceptions that is great—just sort of how long they last. And he’s been here for a while now, so we’re able to taste some of his older wines and say, ‘Wow they’re still really bright and still really sort of connected and put together well.’ So, I think that’s fun. Of course, Tablas Creek among others. And then there’s some other brands that just sort of—they make the wine to be drunk now, and again, I don’t think it’s a good or bad thing. I think it’s just a stylistic thing. But if you have a wine that’s super sexy, big fruit, powerful, opulent, doesn’t really have any tingle in your tongue and no dryness on the roof of your mouth—meaning no tartaric acid—I think that it’s probably meant to be drunk now, enjoyed now, which is fine.

MK: Well let’s—speaking of trying some wines, why don’t we try, try some of these wines here? The first one we have up is the Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas from the Adelaide District in Paso Robles. It’s a blend of 53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise and 10% Mourvèdre. Looks like I gave it 94 points, which is a pretty awesome score, and an Editor’s Choice, which just means that I thought it was extra special. So, let’s give it a taste and see what we think about this.

IA: And right away you can see how much lighter it is than the other three wines in color. So, you’re probably already thinking restrained, but…

MK: Yeah. You get like the red, plum, strawberry, sumac [which] is, you know, a red spice that is kind of a tangy red—I think it’s a tiny little fruit or something like that, and I get that on this wine a little bit. You know there’s a bunch of acid on the palate. It’s got that kind of chalky textural—that maybe a mix of that sticky and chalky, with that Grenache and that Syrah.

IA: Yeah definitely really bright acidity for me; really bright, fresh red fruit. Clean.

Also, some really cool secondary notes, those aromas you’re talking about. I still get a little white pepper on that as well.

MK: Mmhmm.

IA: Spicy.

MK: Yeah. And that can come—I mean, you know, Grenache can be spicy, Syrah can be spicy. It’ll be interesting to see, as you know, these other red varieties that they have kind of come into fruition—if they’re going to mix with these…You know Tablas has a lot of different blends. You know, they have the Côtes, they have the Patelins, they have all these different ones. It’ll be interesting to see how these more obscure red wines kind of work their way into these blends. So, great!

All right, let’s try—the next one is the Caliza Azimuth that definitely gets a little bit heavier. But it’s their 2016 Azimuth, which is from the Willow Creek district. It’s a blend of 40% Grenache, 36% Mourvèdre and 24% Syrah. I also gave this one a 94, another impressive score. What are you getting on this one, Ian?

IA: A lot of oak notes on this one, too. I always think that the French oak has clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla [and] some sort of winter Christmas aroma that gets in part of into it, and this is not an exception. It’s really spicy.

MK: Much darker in color and we’re starting to get—I mean my notes on it from before, and I tend to agree with myself, is that, you know, you’re getting kind of roasted cocoa, nuts, cappuccino, charred beef and then that richer kind of cassis-type fruit on the nose.

It’s, you know—it’s starting to kind of ramp up that power that Paso can do. And they can do it with Grenache too, you know, and a lot of places Grenache remains kind of a lighter grape, but Paso manages to ramp up Grenache in a pretty solid way.

IA: Yeah, I think that Caliza does an excellent job. And Carl does just sort of showcasing the heat in the length of the growing season in Paso, it gets, like Matt was saying, more intense. So, Grenache isn’t always this dark in color or this fruit-forward, but Caliza does a really good job of showcasing the fruit aromas you can actually get in Paso, but also maintains the freshness of the structure. So, this, say, new world fruit and old world fruit structure with Caliza’s wines, because this is sort of — it really does, it showcases how ripe and how pretty these wines can be, but also doesn’t go too far, and sort of maintains some of the structure of the acid.

MK: And now let’s move into the third official wine we all have—we do have a secret fourth wine too we’re going to talk about, but the third official wine is the Epoch. The Epoch Estate’s blend. And so, they make a bunch of different blends; this one in particular is 61% from the Paderewski vineyard and 39% from the Catapult vineyard, so they’re two estate properties. It’s 53% Syrah, 26% Mourvèdre, 13% Grenache, and then veering slightly from the Rhône game, we have 5% Tempranillo and 3% Zinfandel just kind of giving a little bit of extra spice to it.

So, these tend to be, you know, they’re bigger wines, but they always have the structure for me that that seems like they’ll last a while too.

IA: You know, I agree, and I think that Jordan is one of the most technically-savvy winemakers in town, and I always like tasting their stuff. They’re always so well put together. It’s very, very clean, mechanically sound and you’re right, I think it’s kind of fun to get that spice from the Zinfandel. I think it’s kind of fun that they keep it in the blend as well. It’s kind of an homage to the past.

MK: Yeah, and I’m not sure how they—how Jordan Fiorentini does this technically, but, you know, and I see this in the best Paso wines where there is this boldness, there’s just ripeness, there’s this power, and yet there’s still kind of enveloped in this classical structure that  ensures, I think, ageability, and keeps it from being just a big old ripe jamb bomb, you know?

IA: No you’re right. She does a great job of sort of blending five different grapes that are a little bit different from each other—they’re not even the same sort of families—and she takes all those pieces of the puzzle, make this really cool, well-balanced wine. Really bright and you’re right, it’s going to age well. It’s another good example of I think when I first moved to Paso, there’s this huge fruit bombs, and the last seven, eight years in Paso have been so great because now they’re, like I was saying, embracing the fruit aromas but really sort of paying attention to making a wine that’ll last a little bit longer. And this’ll definitely do that because the assets are really bright. There’s some tannins on it, but at the same time you’re not losing the fruit aromas. It’s definitely very there, definitely still from Paso.

MK: Yeah and then there are estates that are on these really—especially the Paderewski estate is on this really chalky white rock. I remember the first time I went and hung out with Jordan, and this is years ago at this point, and she made me lick the rocks that were there. So, I was licking this white, you know, limestone-esque rock and sure enough, you know, it dries your mouth out really quickly and you can kind of almost see that. And then some of the tannins of this wine too.

IA: So, when I came down to Paso Robles years ago for the first time, I was still working in Seattle and I came down for a couple interviews. And part of the interview process was going to the wineries too, to wineries interviewing me for the restaurant somehow, however that worked. Anyway, I was by myself and I had a backpack on back to the airport, and had a bunch of soil samples, because I was so impressed. I was just talking about the sort of chalky limestone characteristic of the area. So, I had to bring this back to my friends in Seattle, right? So, I’m at the airport, you know, and I got pulled aside because I had a backpack full of Ziploc bags of this white chalky substance and they said ‘I dunno.’ They thought it was contraband or, I dunno, they thought it was anthrax, but I was held in there for 1 ½-2 hours with them trying to figure out what it was. I don’t even know if I’m allowed back at SFO these days, but it was funny.

MK: That’s great. And this wine clocks in at 15.1% and I actually gave this one a 96. So, one of the better scores I’ve given in all of ’19. And our last kind of bonus wine, I also gave a 96 to. It’s the Villa Creek Avenger, which actually comes in at our highest: 15.5%, and it is 70% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre and 10% Grenache. And I really just like the you know the kind of impact that this one had on the palate right away on the nose and, you know, it’s a it’s a big-time wine, but I think that Cris Cherry, you know, makes a very balanced style.

IA: Yeah, I mean I pour this at the restaurant now, and a couple of things happen when I pour it. One, those who went to Villa Creek or know Cris, they say how great of a guy he is, and I definitely agree with that. But his wine, right? He’s really, really good at what I was talking about, just sort of showcasing these fruit aromas. And to me this is quintessential Syrah-based Central Coast,  right? It’s just, you know, big black fruit, but his is super clean still and there’s also still a little bit of the savory aromas at the end of it—it’s not just fruit, which is kind of fun, because now you have the fruit from Paso Robles but you also have some of the cool secondary aromas. And then he finishes it, because it’s super well-balanced and high acid. So, it’s refreshing. It’s big but it’s not intrusive.

MK: Be a good wine it to end the night with, and serve with a nice, rich dish. Alright. Well we’ve covered these three wines and—well, four wines now. Any other parting comments, Ian, on the wines you’ve tasted or the trend of Rhône wines in Paso Robles? You see it going on and persisting?

IA: Yeah, it’s great. I love it. I really love the Paso region because we just did, what, four wines here? Each one of them sort of told you a different Paso Robles in the glass but each one of them sort of were producer-driven and stylistically a little bit different from each other, which I love. I think when I go to other regions, I think they’re a little bit more monotone, in the sense that ‘this region is known for this style wine,’ which is great and easy, but I really love living in Paso Robles. There’s so many different styles, market positions, and people. It’s good. Good tapestry.

MK: Alright, Ian, well thank you for coming on the Wine Enthusiast podcast. We get to taste some tasty wines today, so hope it wasn’t too much out of your schedule.

IA: No, it’s easy.

MK: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Wine Enthusiast podcast. We hope you learned a lot about Rhône red blends from Paso Robles, and why they’re all the rage. To recap three recently-reviewed Rhône Reds from Paso Robles that are worth picking up now, please go out and try: the Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas 2017, which I scored at 94 points. It’s just $32. Caliza’s Azimuth blend from 2016 also won 94 points, and it’s $60. And last but not least, Epoch’s Estate blend from 2015 got 96 points, and is $50. But there’s plenty of Rhône red blends to go around in Paso Robles, including that Avenger from Villa Creek that we also tried, so happy hunting!

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Published on September 4, 2019
Topics: Podcast