Monday, October 2, 2017

Paso Robles’ Dynamic Wine Culture is a Standing Invitation to Wine-Loving Travelers

Kukkula, a dry farmed vineyard, is one of many exciting producers I visited while touring Paso Robles.
In early September, I spent several days digging into the Paso Robles wine scene, and I came back feeling refreshed and inspired about the future of this region. I’ve loved Paso Robles wines for many years, but it remained one of the few California wine regions still on my list to visit. So I was excited to go, and rightfully so — Paso is an exciting place.

It boasts a mix of geographical features, varied soils and microclimates, allowing many different grape varieties to flourish. I found a thriving wine culture marked both by experimentation and tradition, individualism and collective cooperation. It’s easy to see why more and more wine-lovers are visiting Paso Robles.

Paso wines have received large-scale attention, high praise, and high scores from major wine critics for a long time (Justin’s Isosceles and Saxum’s Syrahs come to mind). But another thing that’s great about Paso: there are so many intriguing wines flying well under the radar. With more than 200 wineries, and vineyards that grow more than 40 grape varieties, there’s a little bit of everything happening out here.

Geographically located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Paso winelands are intimately linked with the nearby Pacific Ocean. When I got off the plane at San Luis Obispo airport, the surfer in me grew stoked as I tasted cool, salty air streaming in from Morro Bay. In the morning it may be cool and foggy, but when the sun heats up, winds come whipping over the hills. As grapes here ripen, they get plenty of heat and sunshine, and they also receive plenty of cool, fresh air.

Onshore winds from the ocean get sucked into the Paso Robles appellation through the Templeton Gap, basically a crack in the coastal mountain range that separates Paso from the Pacific. This results in a day-night temperature swing of some 40-50 degrees during the growing season, the largest in California. While I was visiting, the mornings were cold and foggy, the afternoons warm and windy, the evenings cool and long.

A whale vertebrae, found in Paso's Zenaida Vineyards.
Also: Soil. Paso Robles is an ancient sea bed, home to more calcareous and siliceous soils than any other appellation in the state. I picked up fossilized oyster shells and crumbly limestone chunks in vineyards, and I ended my days with white dust all over my shoes. One winemaker showed me a huge fossilized whale vertebrae he dug up while plowing his vineyard, and ancient whale bones and shark’s teeth have been found throughout Paso’s soils. (There are tons of great whites in the areas that I surfed, but I don’t want to talk about that, OK!) Anyway, wines grown in these soils have a trademark freshness and minerality that makes them pop. Most wines feature juicy, ripe fruit, but I was surprised by the refreshing acidity, which made me want to serve these wines on my table, with lots of food.

Yes, there are large producers who release mass-market branded wines, but the real heart of Paso lies in the “boutique” winery. About two-thirds of wineries here produce fewer than 5,000 cases per year, and several of the winemakers I visited release just 1,000 to 2,000 cases annually. The wineries I visited (almost unanimously) sold the vast majority of their wine directly to the consumer.

Bordeaux varieties, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, make up a little more than half of the grapevines planted in Paso Robles, and there are lots of Rhone grapes sprinkled around. I found elegant, age-worthy Bordeaux blends from RN Estate, which I think could fool some people in a blind Bordeaux tasting. Syrah, Grenache and blends from producers like Le Cuvier, Kukkula, and Nelle wowed me with their depth, gorgeous fruit, and complex non-fruit flavors. I found a few wines I felt were too hot or oaky, but those were only a few outliers. In my tasting notes, words like balance, freshness, and vibrancy pop up all over the place.

If you love gobs of rich fruit in your red wines, though, you sure have your choice of high-quality stuff. Russell From, of Herman Story Wines, told me, unabashedly, “All my wines are as big as I can get them.” His densely concentrated Grenache 440 backed up that statement. It’s a massive wave-to-the-face of fruit, but it’s also absolutely delicious and, kind of… balanced?

Ishka Stanislaus' dry-farmed calcareous vineyards have been a long-time source of fruit for reputable Paso producers.
Under his Guyomar Wine Cellars label, he produces estate wines of impressive depth and clarity.
While Bordeaux and Rhone blends (mostly red) have been Paso’s calling card for some time, winemakers are trying all sorts of different grape varieties, crafting wines of wildly different styles. Chris and Adrienne Ferrara, the Italian grape gurus at Clesi Wines, produce spicy, tangy wines that could impress fans of wine from Central and Southern Italy. The Portuguese red blends from Passport Wine Co. are vibrant, spicy, and earthy examples of what is out there. And I found plenty of salty Grenache Blancs and crisp Albarinos that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best I’ve tasted from other California regions. And Zinfandel (Paso’s historically dominant grape) can be found throughout the region, made in all sorts of styles.

While visitors may need an appointment to visit many wineries, you’re much more likely to meet the winemaker or owners. You’ll be welcomed in by welcoming people. There must be some clueless tools who work at tasting rooms somewhere in Paso, but I couldn’t find them. I don’t think I saw a single goddamn person in a sports coat, and the drive across the region wasn’t as clogged up by gaudy buildings or corporate billboards. A lot of investment (domestic and foreign) has poured into Paso Robles in recent years, but the place still maintains a work boots and calloused hands appeal. It feels real.

Wine industry folks in Paso Robles told me they’ve seen steady growth in wine tourism, and the
Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance reports the Paso wine industry has an economic impact of nearly $1.5 billion. The word is definitely out, and Paso Robles seems primed for more attention in the coming years.

As I traveled, tasted and ate, one of the things that struck me most was the congenial, collaborative culture of this wine region. There’s a small town vibe, where the local fair is a huge deal, and it seems almost everyone knows almost everyone else. Many winemakers share winery space, vineyard sources, winemaking equipment, interns, knowledge. I’ve heard winemakers in many wine regions discuss the “rising tide that lifts all boats” notion, but in Paso people seem to take that idea quite seriously.

I spent an afternoon tasting wines and doing pump-overs in the winery with Tyler Russell, who produces wine under two labels, Cordant and Nelle. Tyler’s wines are pristine and his tasting room has an artsy, crisp vibe. He is also quite possibly the most relaxed and effortlessly chill winemaker I’ve ever met, so naturally we had a blast drinking and talking about music. His winery is located in Paso’s Tin City, a gathering of warehouses that’s home to a bunch of small winemakers, not to mention a brewery, distillery, art space, restaurant, etc. Tiny City has a walkable, hip atmosphere, and it allows small production winemakers to pool their resources in one area, work together and learn from each other.

Tyler Russell of Cordant & Nelle wines.
“There’s definitely a winemaking culture that’s unique to this area,” Tyler said, as he rattled off names of Paso producers whose wines I should taste. Every winemaker in Paso will tell you about five other wines you absolutely have to taste, and maintaining strong relationships with other wineries seems built into the fabric of Paso’s wine ethos. A winemaker recommendation goes a long way here, because so many producers sell so much of their wines direct to the consumer.

This dynamic exists on some level in most wine regions, but in Paso it seems to happen organically. I looked for signs of outcast or scorned wineries, winemakers who hated each other, pockets of cantankerousness, but I came up with nothing. I found a friendly, warm environment, and it enveloped me quickly.

A lot of California wine regions have a special relationship with their local beer scene, and so does Paso.
Firestone Walker has a large facility here, with a brewery, taproom, bottling facility, and store, and their beers have a large presence in the community. Their blonde ale called 805 (after the local area code), has become the de-facto San Luis Obispo brew — you’ll find it everywhere, and you’ll see the logo on t-shirts and bumper stickers around town.

Firestone Walker does something special with local winemakers, though. The brewery hosts a blending competition every year, where Paso winemakers form pairs and get access to Firestone Walker’s extensive barrel-aged beers. The winemakers prepare blends to be blind-tasted by the entire group, and the winner is released as a
vintage-dated “Anniversary Ale.”

During a dinner at Epoch Estate Wines, I spoke with a team of former winners (Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch and Anthony Yount of Denner Vineyards). They talked about their beer blending trials with passion, intensity, and playful competitiveness — it’s clear they take beer blending just as seriously as they do wine blending trials. It was pleasant to see such a respected brewer so supportive of the local winemaking culture, and vice-versa. And I think collaborative efforts like this one have the potential to create a positive feedback loop for both industries.

Eric Ponce, Firestone Walker's Barrel Program
Manager, samples a few barrel-aged brews.

Lastly, Paso’s food scene is working to keep up, because every wine region needs thriving restaurants. Thomas Hill Organics is a classic farm-to-table restaurant that should be a stop on any visitor’s trip to Paso Robles. Somm’s Kitchen is also excellent. It’s a small space with a semi-circle granite table, which allows Sommelier Ian Adamo to show off his wine, food and service chops to customers in an intimate setting. (My favorite dish of the trip was a wild boar and kale frittata, made by Paula Jussila of Kukkula winery — wow.) I wasn’t able to dig deep enough into the food available here, but I’m sure a conscientious wine tourist can find plenty of great local eats.

If you’re a California wine-lover looking for something different, Paso Robles is worth checking out. I know I look forward to going back in the near future to dig deeper, and to watch as this region continues to grow and evolve.

I’ll have more in terms of tasting notes and information about specific producers in the coming days and weeks, so check back if you’re interested. 


This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

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