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Shaken, and Stirred

Last week, we expounded on the wines from Santa Lucia Highlands, not too far from Monterey. Good juice.

This week, we are moving a bit further south down the Central Coast of California to the delightful agricultural town of Paso Robles, originally known as El Paso de Robles, the Pass of the Oaks.

Situated almost precisely between San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 260 miles in opposite directions to either of those metropolises, when you first see Paso, as the locals know it, you will wonder, “OK, where are the oaks?”

This is big country, not in the sense of Montana, but rather for the vistas towards distant hills (mountains to us flatlanders), and a climate that hearty grapes have loved for a long time.

Something else to love here are the thermal hot springs, which are located not too far below the Earth’s surface. An earthquake in 2002, and there have been many since, opened a fissure in the Earth, allowing at certain times the aroma of sulfur to overtake the entire idyllic scene. It is not an all-the-time occurrence, but during a recent visit, it happened often enough to really catch our attention, every time.

Small price for the nose to pay to be in for such a fine area that is totally committed to ranching and grape growing. Fetch me another syrah, podnuh’.

As with most California wine communities, there was a pretty strong learning curve to fully determine what works best here and it seems most folks have settled on cabernet sauvignon, viognier, grenache, syrah, petite sirah, and zinfandel. You’ll find a smattering of pinot noir, a little merlot, and a bit of muscat, but it’s those big Rhone grape varietals that can stand up to the heavy sun and the lack of rain, the vines rooted in soils that require heavy equipment to break up the crust and get down to dirt.

Lest anyone get the impression that this land is simply hardscrabble and the only people who make it here are winemakers dedicated to difficult projects, this is John Steinbeck country. Read “East of Eden” and you will get a proper impression of this land. Oops, I guess that did not refute my earlier points. OK, so yes, this is a rugged land that to me says Wild West and hearty people.

There are actually a lot of Paso Robles’ denoted wines simply because the AVA is too big. The diversity of types within the Viticultural area is in reality too great to lump together. From various sections of the region, the only thing I can come up with truly uniting these folks is an appreciation of beef tri-tip barbecue.

To the east of Paso Robles is a land of rolling hills, almost completely dedicated to grape agriculture, and not many trees.

To the west of Paso are steeper hills, given over to raising grapes and nuts, and benefitting from the Pacific influence which enters the area through the Templeton Gap, a break in the mountains which separates the area from the Pacific coast, only 20 miles away, as the vulture flies.

The Templeton Gap works by the same marine-driven mechanics as the much-ballyhooed Petaluma Gap in Sonoma, allowing the cool breezes of the Pacific direct access into the area, which means the nights are cooler, and the grapevines can rest, rather than work.

While viticulture here dates back to the Spanish missions in the late 1700s, only recently, the early 1990s, did significant vineyard and winery investment take place.

Today the Paso Robles AVA is home to more than 200 wineries, with 26,000 vineyard acres.

And even more recently has the growth of wine tourism finally achieved important infrastructure improvements, such as fine restaurants, excellent overnight accommodations, and diversions for the family.

The wines from this area very seldom present a soft elegance. No matter what the grape, the wines are bold, often fruit-forward, and hard work is being done here to hold alcohol levels to below 15%, sometimes without success, particularly with zinfandel and syrah. When wines are this big, alcohol only adds to the feeling of weight, not fruit.

But every winemaker I spoke with is acutely aware that the goal is to produce wines that are age worthy, as well as being pleasurable upon release. The vines here are maturing. This is no longer an emerging area but rather is finding what makes the land and the vines “tick”.

One of the growers, the Steinbeck family, no relation to the aforementioned author, is doing great work to assure that the terroir is reflected in the fruit, and they are committed to bringing the best fruit picked at the best time to the winery. That often means picking in the middle of the night with machinery. The new breed of grape-picking machines are gentler, less prone to breaking up the fruit, and thus more whole berries make it to the sorting tables, allowing for better results.

Of equal importance in the learning curve of Paso Robles is the subject of blending. Figuring out what goes with what comes from knowing the vines, knowing the vineyard plots, and knowing how grapes are going to perform under certain conditions.

Fortunately for Paso, the conditions from year to year are pretty uniform. And they have put in the up-front work to determine what root-stocks succeed best and what slope facings work best for the many varietals that can flourish here.

In all, if you are looking for a wine that will force you to sit up and take notice because it is bold, ripe, provides a long-finish, and can pair with a range of cuisine from fresh stream fish to wild game, look around for Paso Robles wines.

In the title of this article, the “stirred” refers to the winemaking practice of stirring the lees, which is what a wine brings to the vinification process in terms of small bits of matter and yeasts; and the “shaken” refers to the regularity of earth tremors that Paso Robles experiences.

I hate to have to explain a title, but I thought it worked and then I had no way to work it into the article. Won’t happen again, I promise. 

Wines of Paso Robles you will want to try:

Eberle – Gary Eberle was a pioneer in this area, and his broad portfolio is typical of the great results that can be achieved in this AVA.

Martin & Weyrich – Their spectacular setting, known as Villa Toscana, houses a modern winery, corporate buildings, and a 10-room B&B. It’s a wedding planner’s perfect setting. The wines are well-crafted across the whole spectrum.

Adelaida – Located in the western part of the AVA, you enter the facility with vineyards on one side of the private drive, and walnut trees on the other. These folks know their way around both red and white grapes very nicely, and the folks at Blue Diamond Nut Company think highly of the walnuts.

Justin – What can be said for this end-of-road,-heading-west estate that has not been noted? The Isosceles is an iconic American brand, and the Justification, a Cabernet Franc blend with merlot, is the “sleeper” bargain of the line.

Turley – Did you know it was located here? Those Zinfandels that wine geeks have been swooning about for years come from Templeton, right outside of Paso Robles. The vines look like bushes, pruned low to the ground. An interesting vineyard and a fine tasting room.

Treana – Also known as The Wine Cellars of Austin Hope, just released a merlot, Candor, that is non-vintage and non-appellation. They not only blend different vintages, but they also blend in grapes that cross appellation lines. Any good? Candor won the very competitive red wine category in the 2009 Central Coast Wine Competition. Now, you be the judge.

Robert Hall – Speaking of the Central Coast Wine Competition, this winery’s Viognier just won the white category, and then went on to be named best wine in the entire competition. Don’t miss this one.

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