It has been some five years since we last cruised into Paso Robles and stopped by its town square for a luncheon break to plan our adventures among some 110 local wineries. We had first visited in the 1970s when the area around Templeton and Paso Robles gained early recognition for the quality of their Zinfandel wines. A few visionaries had started planting Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon but they hadn’t established a reputation for quality.
In the 1980s, viticulturists and experienced winery owners, including those from France, saw the promise of Rhone varietals for the limestone-laced hillsides. Today, the area has experienced significant growth on the wine scene. Wines are made from more than 40 separate varieties at some 180 wineries. You can sample 100 percent varietal wines and classic Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec) and Rhone blends (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre), plus newly popular combinations pioneered in Australia (Cabernet-Syrah) and elsewhere.
For foodies, the town of Paso Robles has seen recent additions of restaurants serving fine French, new-American, Asian and other cuisines, several within a few blocks of the town square. For those seeking more than local food and wine adventures, the town is just 40 miles from San Simeon to the north, home to Hearst Castle. The picturesque fishing village of Morro Bay is just 30 miles away to the south.
For weather, the average temperatures in Paso Robles are four degrees warmer on the high side and four degrees colder on the low side than Napa. The website of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, the marketing organization for the region, notes that the region experiences “the largest swing between high daytime and low nighttime temperatures of any region in California as a result of the cool marine air that flows east through the Templeton Gap and south along the Salinas River Valley from the Monterey Bay.” Summer temperatures typically go over 100 during the day but can drop 40 to 50 degrees because of a cooling marine layer.
The rolling hillsides, wide curving canyons and slopes face in all directions so catch vital sunshine at many angles. This creates different exposures for the vines and microclimates that make some areas better for Bordeaux-style varietals, others for warmer weather Rhone varietals and some vineyards cool enough for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The limestone, calcareous shale (similar to Burgundy, formed in the Jurassic era) and thin soils in some areas intensify the fruit and add hints of terroir. Changes in elevation also impact the character of the wines. The town square in Paso Robles is about 750 feet above sea level. Vineyards east of the Salinas River range from 700 to 1,200 feet in elevation while the West side vineyards are from 850 to 2,000 feet.
The area has seen much growth of late – geographically and organoleptically. A majority of the 180 wineries has regular tasting room hours. Most are family owned and your guide could very well be the founder of the winery, a spouse, offspring or the winemaker. The alliance site is one of the more helpful we’ve encountered. Select the wineries you want to visit, plug them into a program, and the site creates a map with directions for navigating the small back roads in search of new discoveries.
Our wine adventures started on the west side, with visits to Adelaida, Kukkula, Peachy Canyon, Tablas Creek and Thacher. Time didn’t allow other visits, but other stars scattered throughout the west side include: L’Aventure, Chronic Cellars, Chateau Margene, DAOU, Justin, Oso Libre, and Vines on the Marycrest. Here are notes from the west side visits, with east side coverage to follow shortly.
The winery has 145 acres in the Adelaida District and is planted with some 20 varietals. Most of the wines are estate grown, organic and dry-farmed. Elevations range from 1,400 to 1,800 feet. The vineyards are planted on calcareous shale with shallow soil throughout (less than 8 inches on those with 30 degree slopes). It has four vineyards designated to regional varietals: HMR, Burgundy; Viking , Bordeaux; Michael’s Vineyard, dry farmed Zinfandel; Anna’s Vineyard, Rhone. For winery style, they avoid using new oak in their barrel aging to allow the fruit to shine through.
The HMR Vineyard has its origins in the first Pinot Noir plantings in the area in 1964 by Dr. Stanley Hoffman, at Hoffman Mountain Ranch. In 1973, Hoffman hired Andre Tchelistcheff, legendary winemaker from Beaulieu Vineyard, to advise on adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Adelaida has an excellent tasting room with well-trained staff to lead you through the dozen or so wines available each day. Bring picnic fare and enjoy the serenity and beauty of the hillside vineyards and stands of oaks and other trees silhouetted against the sky. Of the many fine wines we tried, these three ranked highest:
· 2011 HMR Vineyard Chardonnay (out of stock). Rumored to be from the classic Wente clone. Clean Chardonnay fruit in the nose; peaches and nutmeg; good acids; almost Chablis-like. Perfect with shellfish.
· 2009 HMR Vineyard Pinot Noir, $40. Just one ton per acre from almost 50-year-old vines. Light stemmy, cherry nose, like a wine from Pommard or Volnay; mid-body; good balance of acids and tannins; will round out more in the next five years. Fine food wine; red meats, lighter sauces.
· 2010 Syrah, Anna’s Vineyard, Block 6 Reserve, $55. Big mint, pepper and wood nose (30 percent new oak in the barrel aging); big fruit; strong tannins; long finish; a little hot. For those who like bigger style wines.
Kukkula, which means hill or height in Finnish, is just up the hill from Adelaida as the crow flies, but about five miles to retrace your route on Adelaida Road and then turn right up the hill on Chimney Rock Road to find Kukkula on the far west edge of the Paso Robles AVA (Justin is near the intersection of Adelaida and Chimney Rock Roads and has a restaurant, so can be part of your West side itinerary).
Kevin Jusilla, owner and winemaker, is a former full-time financial advisor from Topanga who advanced from zealous hobbyist to committed winery entrepreneur in 2004 when he and his family bought 75 acres of walnut trees on Chimney Rock Road, with one lonely acre of Cabernet Sauvignon. He now has some 19 acres of estate vines planted to Zinfandel, Cabernet, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Petit Sirah, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne.
In 2012, all his red wines will come from estate vineyards planted on soils similar to those at Adelaida — heavy cl
ay and limestone. Kukkula also has seven varieties of olives, mostly of French origin, on eight acres. His goal is to have the entire site planted with grapes by 2016, so all wines will have estate designation.
His estate vineyards are dry-farmed and organic. He aims for intense fruit concentration and will drop fruit to lower yields and increase flavors. Grapes are hand-picked. He uses 50-50 new and one-year old oak puncheons.
Kevin opened a new winery and tasting room in 2010. The winery is partially dug into the hillside and encased in Gabions, which are galvanized steel baskets filled with rock. The tasting room sits on top of the winery and has a section for tasting foods with the wines (Highly recommended: the sandwiches and salads — a great match for some of the richer blends).
Kevin says he aims to make flavorful artisan blends of the type found in Chateauneuf du Pape. The blends have proprietary names. Some reflect his Finnish heritage (Sisu) and others his financial background (IPO, In the Red). Our favorites from a tasting:
· 2010 Vaalea (43% Viognier; 29% Rousanne; 28% Grenache Blanc), $22. Stone fruit (apricot) and mineral nose; big fruity style on the palate. With appetizers or picnic fare.
· 2009 Paso Robles Sisu (51% Syrah, 27% Grenache; 22% Mourvedre), $40. Big Syrah nose (ripe grapes, mint, spice; 16% alcohol); mid-big body; long, fat, fruity finish. For heartier beef dishes.
· 2008 In the Red (Cabernet, Syrah blend), $36. Our favorite of the tasting. Complex berry, wood, smoky and earthy nose; good structure; balanced tannins; smooth finish like an older Cabernet.
Peachy Canyon was started by Doug Beckett in 1988 when he made several hundred cases of Zinfandel from purchased grapes in a small facility next to the Beckett’s home on Peachy Canyon Road, hence the name. The family purchased a nearby winery in 1999 and moved their tasting room the same year to the historic 1886 Old Bethel School House at 1480 N. Bethel Road, Paso Robles, one mile west of 101. The site includes estate vineyards and a picnic area.
New winemaker, Terry Culton, formerly of Adelaida, Calera and Wild Horse, led us through a tasting, including barrel samples. He said vines struggle under the dry farming techniques that predominate on the west side, which results in lower yields and more intense fruit in typical years. The winery produces about 65,000 cases of wine a year. This includes Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Petite Sirah from 100 acres of estate vineyards. They purchase Merlot, Viognier and Sangiovese from select local growers. Our favorites from the day:
· 2011 Chardonnay, $25. Fermented in custom concrete tanks. Green apple, citrus, mineral nose; crisp acidity. Shellfish wine.
· 2010 Vortex Zinfandel (90% Zinfandel, 10% Petite Sirah), $38. Prunes and berry jam nose; peppery; brambles; mid-big body; long fruity finish. Will stand up to ribs.
· 2011 Mustang Springs Zinfandel, $38. Darkest purple; smoky, peppery, oaky nose (American and Hungarian oak); tight, tannic; good fruit; needs time.
Tablas Creek Vineyard is one of the best-known operations in the area because of its old world classic approach in the new world. It is a partnership of the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, longtime importer and founder of Vineyard Brands. They purchased a 120-acre property in the Las Tablas district of west Paso Robles in 1989 based on its similarities in soil, terrain and climate to the home of Chateau de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape, in southern France and grew from there.
The partners imported the traditional varietals from the Perrins’ estate, including Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Counoise for reds, and Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc for whites.
As with most west side growers, Tablas Creek practices dry and organic farming. Varietals are blended to achieve winery style. Winery practices include selectively hand-harvesting the grapes and aging in neutral French oak so the character of the variety and terroir shine through.
Its signature red wine is the Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel, which is a blend of the four Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise) to add different nuances, from spice, to minerals, to tannins and acidity. Our top three wines during our tasting:
· 2009 Espirit de Beaucastel Rouge (40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah; 27 Grenache; 5% Counoise), $55. Third drought year in a row; lowest yielding harvest to date. Mint, spice, chocolate, berries and jam nose; mid-body; balanced tannins; long, lush finish.
· 2010 Espirit (45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache Noir, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise), $55. From the highest yielding harvest to date. More flowery and sweet on the nose than the 2009; softer finish. Needs time; improved with more aeration.
· 2010 Mourvedre (100%), $40. Earthy, minty, peppery nose; mint, herbs and jam on the palate; distinct style.
Sherman Thacher, winery founder and winemaker, started in the beer business after graduating from UC Davis. He was brew master for the Los Gatos Brewing Co. for 16 years in Los Gatos, California. He began making wine professionally in the Santa Cruz Mountains and moved to Paso Robles in 2004 to start his new winery at a former horse ranch, Kentucky Ranch. He made wine at other facilities until he completed his wine
ry and tasting room in 2008, next to the classic Kentucky Ranch Barn, which is used for weddings and other events.
The winery has five acres of Zinfandel and Petit Sirah planted in spring of 2007. Thacher buys grapes for his other wines from dry farmed and head trained vineyards on the west side and also in Southern Monterey County. He keeps lots separate and then “plays with different ratios to figure out the ultimate blend,” he said. He ages the reds in Russian and American oak for up to 22 months. In the brew master tradition, he enjoys making different types of wines, from light fruity white wines, to big reds, to a Port-like Petite Sirah dessert wine. Current production is about 2000 cases and Thacher anticipates increasing to 3,000 soon, with increased distribution throughout the Southland.
Our favorites from the tasting:
· 2009 Central Coast GSM (48% Grenache; 36% Syrah; 16% Mourvedre), $38. Just 200 cases. Complex berries, oak, mint nose; mid-big body; nice style with hints of wood, berries; good fruit, finish. Beef and barbecue wine.
· 2009 Paso Robles Controlled Chaos Red Wine ((39% Mourvedre; 37% Zinfandel; 16% Grenache; 8% Petite Sirah), $35. Like a classic old world field blend meant to go with hearty foods. Berry and bramble nose; mid-body; decent tannins, but soft ones.
· 2011 Paso Robles Grenache Blanc, $26. Clean, melon and spice nose; mid-body; tight, good acids; fruity finish (Whites are fermented in stainless steel, bottled in April). With appetizers, cheeses.