Several years ago I stopped at a couple wineries in Paso Robles on along Highway 101 on my way to Santa Barbara. The terrain seemed interesting and as I passed through I made a mental note to myself, “I’ve go to come back here.” So, with a three day weekend at hand I decided to spend the 4th of July weekend in Paso Robles, tasting the wine and exploring the vine covered rolling hills.
This past year in my enology studies at Las Positas College, I’ve learned that knowledge of a wine country’s history is important to understanding its character, the people and the wines they produce. Most people have become familiar with Napa, Sonoma and because of the movie Sideways, Santa Barbara. But few are aware of the great wines let alone the history of Paso Robles.
Paso Robles (full name: El Paso de Robles which means “Oak Pass” or “The Pass of the Oaks”) is in San Luis Obispo County, California. The population is about 32,500 and it still feels very much like a cowboy town. The city streets and down town area are rustic. Paso Robles is located at approximately halfway between the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco on what is known as the “Central Coast”. The elevation of Paso Robles ranges from 675 to 1,100 feet, but the majority of the main downtown area of the city sits at about 740 feet above sea level.
The topography of the area consists of oak tree and vineyard covered rolling hills on the eastern half of the city, and foothill peaks which rise in elevation to the Santa Lucia Coastal Range on the west. “Paso” sits on the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Coastal Mountain Range which run in a North-South direction, starting at Monterey, then runs down South all the way down to San Luis Obispo. If you are traveling to Paso heading south on Highway 101 just before you arrive you will pass through a mind boggling ocean of vineyards.
The town is on the border where northern San Luis Obispo County and southern Monterey County meet, and is situated roughly 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean. On Saturday July 4th I went for an early morning job along the beach at Moro Bay along the foggy shore and then was greeted by the sun peering through the clouds and vieyards and I drove back over the hill ridge into Paso Robles. It was absolutely beautiful! The climate of Paso Robles is unique. Part of it is a semi-arid, dry, steppe-type climate and other portions are is the typical, coastal Californian and very Mediterranean.
Paso Robles has a long wine history. Wine grapes were introduced to the area in 1797 by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries. Spanish explorer Francisco Cortez had encouraged settlers from Mexico and other parts of California to cultivate the land, the first of which were the Padres of the Mission San Miguel. Their old fermentation vats and grapevine artwork can still be seen at the Mission, north of the city of Paso Robles.
Commercial winemaking was introduced to the Paso Robles 1882 when Andrew York, a settler from Indiana, began planting vineyards and established the Ascension Winery at what is now York Mountain Winery. York found that the climate and soil were suitable for vineyards and within a few years he found that the vines were yielding more than he could market so he built a small stone winery. Following Andrew York’s early success Gerd and Ilsabe Klintworth planted a vineyard in the Geneseo/Linne area around 1886. They sold jugs of Zinfandel, Port, and Muscatel, as well as white wine made from Burger grapes. The Casteel Vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted just prior to 1908. Cuttings from the old vines provided gave birth to other vineyards and today they still producing grapes in the area.As the popularity of wines began to grow, so did the Paso Robles wine region. Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli purchased their vineyard at the foot of York Mountain in 1917. Their Templeton Winery was the area’s first to be bonded following the repeal of Prohibition.
There was a lot of growth in the area in the early 1920s when several families immigrated to the area to establish family vineyards and wineries. Sylvester and Caterina Dusi purchased a vineyard in 1924 and their old head-pruned Zinfandel vines are now owned and cultivated by their son, Benito. The Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Bianchi vineyards were also established around this time.
The Paso Robles wine region gained more notoriety when Polish statesman and concert pianist Ignace Paderewski visited Paso Robles and decided to plant himself along with Petite Syrah and Zinfandel on his Rancho San Ignacio vineyard in the Adelaide area, a 2,000 acre estate.
Following Prohibition, Paderewski's wine was made at York Mountain Winery went on to become award-winners establishing Paso Robles’ reputation as a premier wine region.
Today the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is one of the fastest growing premium vineyard and winery regions in California, with the number of bonded wineries and vineyards in the area of Paso Robles more than doubling between 1993 and 2002. More than 25 different varieties of grapes are grown in the Paso Robles Wine Country and there are over 250 bonded wineries. But, in my opinion, the area’s greatest strength is in its production of Rhone varietals such as Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre.
If you are a Rhone Ranger fan, this is the place to be!
I left my home in Castro Valley on July 3rd, Friday morning, around 7 a.m. and arrived in Paso Robles at around 10:30 a.m., just as wineries were opening their doors for the day. My first stop was at Adelaida Cellars. The winery is surrounded by oak trees and their vines are just around the corner over the hill ridge firmly planted in rocky limestone soils and calcareous shale on the west side of Paso Robles on California's Central Coast. The winery, which originated in 1981, is located 14 miles east of the Pacific Ocean at an elevation of 1,800 feet in the Santa Lucia mountain chain.
Adelaida wines come from produces its own Estate vineyards as well as a select group of contracted vineyards on the west side of Paso Robles. Amongst its holdings are the two estate properties: Viking Vineyard which produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah planted in 1992 and HMR Vineyard which was planted in the early 1960’s.
My first taste of wine for the day was a white Rhone blend, the 2007 Pavanne 2007 (47% Roussanne, 34% Grenache Blanc, 13% Chardonnay, 6% Viognier). The wine offers a refreshing complexity of flavors, particularly tropical fruit flavors, pineapple, kumquat, quince and grapefruit with both a full mouth feel of rich and contrasting tart flavors with a crisp mineral finish. This is a great wine for only $22 so I brought one home.
My second wine was another white Rhone blend, the 2007 “Version” from the Glenrose Vineyard 2007 (58% Roussanne, 42% Grenache Blanc). This wine has fine bouquet of grapefruit, lime, pear with a subtle hint of honey. It is refreshing, clean on the palate, has great minerality, crisp acidity. It is a fine wine for $27.
My first red was the 2006 Anna’s Estate Syrah ($28). This is an extremely dense purplish unfined and unfiltered fruit forward wine with notes of blueberry and a distinct smoky character on the nose. On the palate the nose is confirmed along with additional spice and leather on the finish.
My second red wine was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is deep garnet in color, fruit forward on the nose and a mouth full of black currant, raspberry, cedar, spice and graphite pencil shavings. A fine representative of a Paso Cabernet that rivals many fine Cabs in Napa for a lot less money at only $32.
My third red wine was the 2005 Cabernet/Syrah Chelle Mountain Reserve. Fresh cherries and black currant on the nose, along with supple tannins, nice acidity and mouth filling blackberries o the palate. A bit steep at $50.
My final sample from Adelaida was a return to a palate cleansing and refreshing white wine, the 2007 Glenrose Vineyard Viognier (58% Roussanne, 42% Grenache Blanc) milder representative of this varietal, with and attractive and not overbearing floral bouquet followed by citrus such as grapefruit and lime along with pear and just a touch of honey. A really nice wine at $27.
Halter Ranch Vineyard
A little further down the road and over the hill along Adelaida Road on the west side of Paso Robles was my next stop, Halter Ranch Vineyard. The ranch property dates to the 1880s, when it was part of a 3,000-acre ranch owned by Paso Robles pioneer Edwin Smith. When I first arrived I roamed the beautiful Victorian farmhouse Smith built in 1885 as well as the 900 acres of the original ranch which re planted grapes suitable to the terroir – Bordeaux and Rhone-style, plus Zinfandel, Tannat and Tempranillo.
After taking a number of pictures I ventured into the tasting room behind the farmhouse. My first tasting of wine was the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (96% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Viognier) It has a straw yellow hue and has aromas of lime, pink grapefruit, cut grass, peaches and herbs. On palate, the wine delivers well balanced dry mouth full of lemon, tangerine, peach, a little spice with a lingering citrus finish. A nice wine for $21.
My second wine was the 2008 Rosé (49% Grenache, 38% Syrah, 13% Mourvèdre). This Southern Rhône Valley-style Rosé is very complex dry, pink wine with intense raspberries, cranberries, watermelon, and red cherries. On the palate, nose is confirmed along with a slight spicy finish. This is a fantastic refreshing summer wine at only $14, so I brought two bottles home.
My third wine was the 2004 Ancestor, Estate Reserve (72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 5% Malbec) This is an elegant Bordeaux-style blend with a complex nose of cassis and blackberry fruit followed by red currant, mint, cedar, mild tabacco and cigar box notes with supple tannins. A fine wine but a bit steep at $44.
My fourth sample was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 9% Malbec) This is an excellent vintage, dark (almost black) in color, black currant, black cherry and dark berry fruit, followed by dark chocolate, cedar, black olive and sweet oak contributing complexity. On the palate the fruit and and secondary vanilla oak flavors are well integrated to provide mouth full of fruit along with well balanced acidity providing a prolonged finish. An excellent wine for $25.
My next wine was the 2006 Syrah (76% Syrah, 17% Malbec, 7% Mourvèdre) An intense garnet and purplish hue with a nose cherries, blackberries, black pepper, smoke and brown sugar. The palate fulfills the promise with rich, ripe flavors of blackberry, black cherry, vanilla and smoke, followed by supple and well structured tannins, vibrant acidity and lingering taste of vanilla and a little heat. At 15.5 % alcohol it is a little high, but otherwise a fine wine at $28.
My final wine was a classic Rhone blend, the 2006 GSM (52% Grenache, 33% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah) A ruby red wine with aromas of black plums, red cherries and cranberry, a little smoke, cumin, rosehips and sweet oak tones completing the olfactory picture. On the palate, this is a medium-bodied wine with well-structured tannins with red black cherry, raspberry and pomegranate flavors followed by a classic character of mint, tar, toast and cedar. A nice wine at $28.
Tablas Creek Vineyards
Paso Robles is unquestionably one of the best regions in California for Rhone varietals and Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blends. Of all the wineries I visited over the 4th of July weekend I was most impressed with Tablas Creek Vineyards.
The winery was created two international wine families, the Perrin family, proprietors of Château de Beaucastel, and Robert Haas, founder of Vineyard Brands. In 1989, they purchased a 120-acre parcel in west Paso Robles and named it Tablas Creek Vineyard, after the small creek running through the property. The property elevation averages 1,500 feet, and the shallow, rocky limestone soils are of the same geologic origin as those at Beaucastel. Hot Summer days and cool nights from the influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean provide the vines with an ideal Rhône-like climate that allows the grapes to fully mature and maintain crisp acidity.
My first wine was the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc which is a blend of three estate-grown varietals (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc), propagated from budwood cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate.
The Picpoul Blanc (also spelled Piquepoul Blanc) is one of the lesser-known Rhône varietals. Literally it means “lip stinger,” named for its great acidity. It is one of the thirteen permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is used primarily as a blending component to add acidity. Like the better known Grenache and Pinot, Picpoul has red, white and pink variants, though Picpoul Noir and Picpoul Gris are very rare. Picpoul Blanc is used in this blend to add bright acidity, minerality, and a clean lemony flavor.
The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc well balanced and refreshing white wine, it has a wonderful floral bouquet, followed by lemon drops, honey and a touch of white pepper and the nose is confirmed on the palate with a long, dry, tropical finish.
My second white wine was the 2007 Côtes de Tablas Blanc is a blend of four estate-grown white Rhône varietals (42% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, 21% Marsanne, 11% Grenache Blanc). It has concentrated aromas of stone fruits and minerals followed by dried apricot and herbs on the palate with a full-mouth rich texture, moderate acidity and a long nectarine finish.
My third wine was the 2006 Roussanne (100% Roussanne). The appreciative character of this wine is its subtlety and elegance. It has a very light character of honeysuckle, pear, and pistachio on the nose. Yet it also has a rich, viscous feel on the mid palate, bright acidity with just a touch of oak followed by a prolonged mineral finish.
I then did a vertical tasting of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel. The 2004 is 50% Mourvèdre, 27% Syrah, 17% Grenache, and 6% Counoise. The 2005 is 44% Mourvèdre, 26% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Counoise and the 2006 is 45% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache, 22% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. Of the three I preferred the 2004 and 2006. I had tasted the 2005 twice before in an enology class at Las Positas College last semester, then and now the ’05 seems to be overly earthy on the palate with a touch of rubber glove on the nose that I did not care for.
The 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel was my favorite. It is delicious wine with a complex nose and palate and nose of red plum, cherry, figs and orange peel, and nutmeg with a silky layered mouthfeel.
My final wine was the 2006 Tannat (88% Tannat, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon). The Tannat grape has intense fruit, spice, and is known for its heavy tannins which is why it is traditionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. This wine has a concentrated purple color with some red hues toward the rim. On the nose it has black berries, sage and juniper, chocolate, coffee and tobacco. On the palate it has layers of raspberry, plum, with big-ass ripe tannins (that will hopefully soften with time) and a prolonged finish. A very interesting wine for $35.
The 4th of July!!!
My day began with a jog on the beach at Morro Bay. It was a bit foggy but as I neared the giant rock it began to lift and as I drove back over the hill ridge to Paso Robles, I caught a beautiful array of light shining over the vineyards. A spectacular sight and the perfect way to start the day. After breakfast I headed out to take pictures of vineyards along highway 46 West and stop in for a tasting at a few wineries.
Eagle Castle Winery
My first stop of the day was at Eagle Castle Winery, located two miles west of Highway 101 off of Highway 46 west. Eagle Castle Winery sits among the Santa Lucia Mountains in west Paso Robles. All of the wines are sourced from 750 acres of six separate vineyards from, located on both the west and east sides of Paso Robles.
My first wine of the day was the 2007 Chardonnay (100% Templeton Hills Chardonnay). It is light gold in color with subtle floral scents and apple, pear and vanilla on the nose. This wine is barrel fermented (50% new Hungarian oak, 25% new French oak, 25% new American oak) and so it is little oaky on the palate but it finishes clean with nice acidity. If you like the typical California wine style, this is a fine representative at only $18.
My next wine was the 2008 Viognier ($25). The grapes come from the Fralich Vineyards located on the East side of 101 in the town of Templeton. This is a classic Viognier with characteristic character of floral, spice, and tropical fruit, dried apricot and pineapple on the nose and palate with a little lemon drop on the finish.
My third wine of the morning was the 2008 Syrah Rosé. A bouquet of strawberries, cranberries, watermelon, and a little spice on the nose. The palate is bright and fruity, with a finish that is very refreshing with a pleasing berry flavor on the return. A great summer wine for only $14.
My first red wine of the day was the just released 2007 Syrah (100% Syrah). This is a deep red wine with a bouquet of strawberry; followed by cassis, light chocolate and a hint of coffee. It is an okay wine as this region provides a lot of competition for Rhone varietals. I think there are better representatives in the area for $22.
My second red of the morning was the 2006 Trinity, a blend of 58% Estate Merlot, 25% Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Estate Syrah. They use different percentages of American, French and Hungarian oak barrels for each and then blend them as finished wines. It is violet with red hues toward the rim with black cherries, cloves, vanilla and a little root beer on the nose. It is fruity on the attack with nice round mouth feel in the evolution followed by a dry and yet balanced finish. This is a fine wine at $22 and it was my favorite of the line up.
My next wine in the line up was the 2006 Barbera (100% Barbera). A full bodied red wine with notes of plum, spice and pepper. This wine didn’t ring my bell at $30 a bottle.
My final wine was the 2005 Zinfandel (100%). A deep red wine with an array of cherry, white pepper, sage and dried plums and raisins on the nose. An okay wine for $22, but I’ve have had better zins from Lodi and the Sierra foothills for less money.
Donati Family Winery
A little further down the west side of Highway 46 on the left hand side is Donati Family Winery. They produce the only wine designated by the AVA “Paicines” which is in the larger San Benito AVA, in the heart of San Benito County. The Donatis came to Paicines (pronounced pie see ness), in California’s Central Coast, in 1998 when they purchased land that would soon become home to Matt Donati and his family. Since then, Matt and his father Ron, engaged in planting the family vineyard and planning their winery in Paso Robles.
My first wine was the 2007 Paicines Chardonnay ($20). This is a nicely balanced wine. It underwent 80% barrel fermentation in French Oak and 20% stainless steel fermentation with only partial malolactic fermentation, which gives it a very light buttery feel and yet the fruit remains the chief character. It has tropical the notes on the nose and palate, particularly pineapple, with a little coconut and lemon.
My second wine was the 2007 Paicines Pinot Grigio. It has wonderful fruit and minerals on the nose, is loaded with pear and apple, peach and orange blossom, concentrated and well balanced with body, lively acidity and an elegant finish. A great summer wine for $20, so I brought one home.
My third white wine was the 2008 Estate Vineyard Paicines Pinot Blanc. This wine is bone dry with crisp acidity and a silky mouthfeel. This is a very unique “Old Vines” Pinot Blanc coming from the 35+ year old vines. It has expressive fruit on the nose and palate consisting of bananas, pear, and light floral aromas. A great wine for $20, so I brought one home.
My first red wine was the 2006 Paicines Estate Vineyard Claret. This is their flagship wine, which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. A deep garnet in color, bright cherry and cocoa followed by black plums and blackberry on the nose with notes of vanilla, sage, and cedar. On the palate the wine exhibits a round mouth feel with noticeable tannins followed by a long finish, with lingering flavors of cherries, chocolate and ripe. This is a great buy at $25.
My second red wine was the 2005 Estate Vineyard, Paicines Merlot (92% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot). A lively representative of this varietal, deeply fruity and solidly colored, with a backdrop of subtle smoke and vanilla. The wine spent 22 months on French and Appalachian oak. A really nice wine for $25 but unfortunately it is only available to their wine club members.
My final red wine was named in memory of Ron Donati’s father Ezio. The 2005 Paicines Ezio is a Bordeaux style blend of 48% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. On the nose and palate it displays dark berry fruit, cocoa, black olives, coffee and fresh ground black pepper. This wine is really well balanced with supple tannins and a long lingering finish. A really fine wine, but a little steep at $50.
Justin Vineyards and Winery
My final stop for the trip was Justin Vineyards Winery. If you travel to Paso Robles, this is a “must see” and “must taste” winery! Justin is a family owned and operated winery making estate grown and produced wines. The property was founded in 1981 by Justin and Deborah Baldwin when they planted their 160 acre property to the major Bordeaux varietals and created their Estate vineyard. Their emphasis is placed on making Bordeaux-style blends and single varietals.
My first wine was the 2008 Justin Sauvignon Blanc, Paso Robles ($15). The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc has seen NO oak and spent 5 months in topped up stainless steel. It has a light, translucent hue containing just light straw colored rim. The aroma combines multiple tropical characters including kiwi, grapefruit, fresh peeled tangerine, pineapple and orange zest. The entry is soft and layered, with Meyer lemon, melon and herbal characters that lead into a mid-palate combining bright, fresh acidity with a slightly creamy, balanced mouth feel. The finish is crisp, clean and perfect for warm days, summer nights, or side by side with fresh fish or fruit.
My second wine was the 2008 Justin Chardonnay, Paso Robles. This is NOT your typical big oaky California Chardonnay. Yet it is very rich and crisp. The wine was barrel fermented in 100% French oak (26% new) and aged “sur lies” in barrel, and stirred weekly during its 8 month ageing process. To retain its acidity and citrus characteristic, the wine did not undergo malolactic fermentation. It has aromas of pear, apricot and caramel and toasted oak on the nose. On the palate it is crisp with crisp acidity with flavors of white peach, banana, lemon and hints of mineral and toasted almonds. The wine is full bodied with multiple layers of honey, cream, and a touch of spice from the “lees” stirred French oak. A great value for under twenty bucks ($19.79).
My third wine was the 2008 Justin Viognier, Paso Robles. Unlike the Chardonnay, the wine was barrel fermented in 100% Neutral French oak in order to avoid any influence of the oak and maintain the character of the grape varietal. Fermentations were temperature-controlled at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. After fermentation ceased, the wine was aged “sur lies” in barrel, and stirred weekly during its 4 month ageing process. To retain its acidity and stone fruit characteristic, the wine did not undergo Malolactic fermentation. The 2008 Viognier has a light straw color and transparent rim with peaches, apricot, and orange on the nose. This wine displays classic Viognier characters with layers of citrus fruit, peaches, mandarin orange and cream followed by a crisp dry finish. A nice wine at $22.50.
My fourth wine was the 2007 Justin Syrah, Paso Robles. Purple in color with a light maroon rim. The nose has layers of blueberry, plum, black currant, pepper, slate with overtones of bacon fat and smoke with just a touch of forest floor, caramel and vanilla. The palate is supple on the attack, followed by layers of spice and black fruit evolving into a weighty mid palate and a full mouth feel with supple tannins. A great wine for $26.25.
My next wine was the 2007 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is dark red with a violet hue. It has layers of cassis, cherry, black plum, on the nose and palate with leather on the back end and the finish is slightly chalky. This wine has supple tannins ad is ready to drink now. A really nice wine for $26.25.
My final wine for the day and my entire trip was the 2006 Justin Isosceles, Paso Robles. This wine is inky purple with a slight red hue around the rim. On the nose it has Aromas of blackberry, black plum, leather, mocha and cassis combine with light layers of butterscotch, vanilla and a touch of smoke. On the attack there is loads of . Supple tannins and acidity with a full mouth feel with ample length and weight on the finish. A classic wine for $62 that will undoubtedly score high with the wine critics.