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What's Happening in Paso Robles
By Ed McCarthy
Jun 17, 2014
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Paso Robles is a relatively new major wine region.  It became an AVA in 1983, but as late as 1990, Paso Robles was the home of fewer than 20 wineries.  Now this wine region is growing very rapidly; the Paso Robles AVA today has over 300 wineries.  Situated on the south Central Coast in northern San Luis Obispo County, the region is centered by the quiet town of Paso Robles (Spanish for “The Pass of the Oaks”), population, about 30,000.  The location is ideal for grape growing:  The town is about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and is sheltered by the Santa Lucia Mountain range in the west.  There are many hillsides, with the poor, schisty soil that suits wine grapes perfectly. 

On a map, the Paso Robles wine region resembles a rectangle; 35 miles west to east; 25 miles north to south.  Its western edge is just six miles from the Pacific.  Highway 101 and the Salinas River cross through the town of Paso Robles, which is located at exactly the midpoint between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

When I thought about the Paso Robles wine region in the past, I always associated it with robust red Zinfandels, Syrahs, and other Rhône-style wines.  But after visiting the region recently, I now realize that Cabernet Sauvignon, along with the other red Bordeaux varieties, has become the major player here (although Zinfandel and Syrah are still being made in Paso Robles).

And why not Cabernet Sauvignon?  Not only is the warm, dry climate ideal for growing this popular variety, but Cabernet Sauvignon also out-sells both Zinfandel and Syrah--and all other red wines, for that matter--by a wide margin in the U.S.  The warm, daytime climate changes to very cool nights--to which I can definitely testify.  The day-night temperature change is a plus for slow, even grape maturation, and retention of acidity in the grapes.

In 2012, some of the important Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-variety producers formed an organization called the CAB Collective for the purpose of promoting the Paso Robles AVA as a prime region for producing fine, age-worthy Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-blend red wines.  The CAB Collective launched its first wine fair, called CABS of Distinction, in 2013; I attended the second CAB Collective Fair less than two months ago.

The three permanent founding members of the CAB Collective include the proprietors of two of Paso Robles’ biggest wineries:  Justin Baldwin of JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery, and Jerry Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines.  The third permanent founding member is Daniel Daou of DAOU Vineyards & Winery--one of the more important smaller wineries specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon.

One of Cabernet Sauvignon’s real pioneers in Paso Robles has been Gary Eberle, who arrived in Paso Robles in 1973 and planted 200 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon at his then winery, Estrella River Vineyards.  A few years later, he founded Eberle Winery and released his first Cabernet Sauvignon wine in 1979. 

The true godfather of Paso Robles wines was Dr. Stanley Hoffman, who planted his first vineyards in 1963, and with the guidance of enologist André Tchelistcheff, released his first wines in 1972 at his winery, Hoffman Mountain Ranch.  His first wines included Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.  Today, Hoffman’s vineyards belong to Adelaida Cellars and DAOU Vineyards & Winery.

The CAB Collective winemakers of Paso Robles look to Bordeaux more than Napa Valley as their model for their Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-blends.  To me, the classic Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon style lies somewhere between Bordeaux and Napa Valley.  Paso Robles Cabs show their California heritage in their aromas, flavors and structure, but the wines are generally not as heavy or as overtly tannic as many Napa Cabernet Sauvignons.  And thanks to Paso Robles’ wide diurnal temperature variance--some days as much as 50°F--Paso Robles Cabs and Bordeaux blends retain their acidity much better than Napa Cabs.  No acidification is ever necessary in Paso Robles, but is often needed for wines in Napa Valley’s warmer vintages.

Altogether, 28 different Paso Robles wineries showed their Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, and Bordeaux-blends (including Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec) during the five-day CAB Collective fair.  Most of the vintages I tasted were recent--2011, 2010, and 2009--with a sprinkling of older vintages. 

One trend I noted was more liberal use of Petit Verdot in the Paso Robles blends, more so than in Napa Valley, for instance.  I have observed a similar increase of Petit Verdot in Bordeaux wines as well.  Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety—now being used more frequently in Bordeaux because of warmer, longer autumn seasons--that adds color, flavor, tannin, and body to the blend. 

In alphabetical order, these are the wineries that impressed me most in the CAB Collective wine fair.  I conclude with a focus on three Paso Robles wineries, two of which are members of the CAB Collective:

Adelaida Cellars
Bon Niche Cellars
DAOU Vineyards and Winery
Eberle Winery
Halter Ranch Vineyard
Hunt Cellars
JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery
Opolo Vineyards
Parrish Family Vineyard

In truth, I found good wines at every winery stand; the wineries I mention above stood out for me at the fair.  The two CAB Collective member wineries I really loved--Adelaida Cellars and DAOU Vineyards & Winery--have a great deal in common.  Both are located high up in the Adelaida Mountains, 15 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and both share the vineyards formerly owned by the pioneering Hoffman Mountain Ranch, at sites selected by the brilliant enologist, André Tchelistcheff.

When I first visited Adelaida Cellars in 2008, I was totally impressed with its beautiful location--1900 feet high on Adelaida Road--and its exquisite wines.  I was stunned that Adelaida made both a great Cabernet Sauvignon and a fantastic Pinot Noir.  Since both of these varieties require markedly different growing conditions to shine, I wondered how Adelaida managed to accomplish this until I learned that both varieties grow in completely different terroirs.  Its Pinot Noir grows in the HMR (Hoffman Mountain Ranch) Vineyard, originally planted 50 years ago (1964), the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the south Central Coast.  The vineyard is 1700 feet in elevation.  Adelaida’s Cabernet Sauvignon grows in the warmer Viking Estate Vineyard, planted in 1991 by the current owners, the Van Steenwyk family, when they acquired Adelaida Cellars.  (Adelaida was originally founded in 1981.)

Adelaida Cellars  has two natural advantages in its favor:  It is in the path of a narrow coastal strip of limestone that goes from San Diego to Monterey, and limestone is an especially good soil for grapevines, especially Pinot Noir.  It is also cooled down in summer from ocean breezes traveling through the Templeton Gap--a break in the Santa Lucia Mountain range.

The surprising fact about Adelaida Cellars is that they make so many different wines so well.  Its Pinot Noir, HMR Estate Vineyard, is for me one of the best Pinot Noir wines in the U.S.  The current vintage is the 2011 (only $40!).  The 2010 Adelaida Cabernet Sauvignon Viking Estate Reserve ($75) is excellent, one of the finest Cabernet Sauvignons in Paso Robles. 

Three other very good red wines from Adelaida include the 2010 Michael’s Vineyard Zinfandel ($36); 2010 Syrah Viking Estate Reserve ($65), and the 2010 Cabernet Franc Viking Estate Reserve ($50, the best Cabernet Franc I tasted at the fair).

Two other Adelaida red wines are made in small quantities and are only available at the winery, but can be purchased online.  They are both so good that I must recommend them:  The 2010 or 2011 Mourvèdre, Anna’s Estate ($32), one of the best Mourvèdres I have tasted from California; and the total surprise, 2008 or 2009 Adelaida Nebbiolo, Glenrose Vineyard ($40).  When I noticed Nebbiolo on Adelaida’s tasting sheet, I inquired, “You make a Nebbiolo?”  “Yes,” the salesperson, Cynhia Bowser replied; “We found a little pocket in a vineyard, where it does well.”  Indeed it does.  It actually resembles Italian Nebbiolo!  Because I am a Nebbiolo lover, I was thrilled.  That wine alone made my visit to Adelaida Cellars worth while.

Adelaida is primarily a red wine winery, but it does make two white wines worth noting, a 2012 Chardonnay from the HMR Estate Vineyard ($40), and an outstanding 2012 Viognier from Anna’s Vineyard ($35).

For me, Adelaida Cellars is the most underrated winery in California.  The prices for its wines are extremely reasonable, considering the quality.

The most amazing fact about DAOU Vineyards and Winery is that it was founded just seven years ago, in 2007, and its vineyards were planted only in 2008.  It is seldom that I have come across a winery this good that is so young.  I was immediately intrigued by its name: how often do you see a four-letter name with three vowels?  The Daou brothers, Georges and Daniel, who own the winery, are of French and Lebanese ancestry.  Older brother Georges runs the business end of DAOU; Daniel is the winemaker.  Daniel’s wife, Robin, is also involved in the winery.  It is definitely a family business.

In 2012 the Daou brothers purchased the original Hoffman Mountain Ranch, located 2200 feet up on Hidden Mountain Road, close to Adelaida Cellars.  DAOU, another beautiful winery, shares all the advantages of location that Adelaida has.  The main difference is that DAOU Vineyards is focusing mainly on Cabernet Sauvignon wines in contrast to the large number of different wines that Adelaida Cellars produces.

DAOU Winery is already making some of the best Cabernet Sauvignons in Paso Robles.  I was especially impressed with the depth of its 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($55).  Its premium wine, DAOU 2010 “Soul of a Lion” ($100; 74 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Cabernet Franc, 8 percent Merlot, 6 percent Petit Verdot), is on another level.  Still very young, this perfectly balanced Bordeaux-blend will mature into one of California’s great wines.

Finally, I must mention a winery in Paso Robles that not many wine lovers know about, Caparone Winery--five miles west of the town of Paso Robles.  Several years ago, while I was researching a section of a book I co-authored, California Wine for Dummies, I became obsessed with finding well-made Cal-Ital wines  (Italian varieties grown in California).  I went up and down the state, and was largely disappointed in the wines I tasted.  On a tip from an Italian wine-loving friend, I visited tiny Caparone Winery in Paso Robles.  Dave Caparone and his son Marc run this 2600 case winery; Dave is the winemaker, whereas Marc takes care of sales.  They seek no publicity nor do they receive any.  And yet they have a loyal group of followers who have heard of the winery as I did, by word of mouth.   Caparone makes three Italian varietal wines, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Aglianico (the three most important red varieties in Italy). 

For my palate, Caparone is making the best Cal-Ital wines in the U.S.  Don’t let their color fool you; they are all light in color--as the varieties normally are in Italy.  But they actually have the aromas and flavors of these varieties as I know them from Italy.  Caparone’s wines are a bit rustic, and show some volatile acidity, but not enough to get in the way of my enjoyment of their wines.

On this trip I tasted their three current Cal-Ital vintages, 2010 Sangiovese, 2010 Aglianico, and 2009 Nebbiolo (Dave Caparone makes only about 200 to 230 cases of each annually).  The Sangiovese is showing well right now; it is very light in color, but has perfect Sangiovese aromas and flavors (clearly, for me, the truest Sangiovese wine I have found in California).  The 2010 Aglianico is also excellent, perhaps the least rustic and most polished of the three wines; it needs a year or two to mature, but it is a very correct varietal Aglianico.  The 2009 Nebbiolo resembled a light-bodied Italian Nebbiolo wine, but it seemed a bit closed at this stage in its development. 

Then Marc Caparone opened a bottle of 1989 Caparone Nebbiolo for me.  It was glorious, with all the aromas and flavors I expect in a great Nebbiolo.  A real treat.  Oh, and by the way, the new vintages of these three wines cost $15.  Yes, $15!  No wonder they have a loyal following.  Marc actually apologized to me that they had to raise the price from $13.  My kind of people!  Salt of the earth!  They also make a decent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel at the same prices, but the Italian varietal wines are the story here.

Paso Robles.  Definitely worth a trip.  A beautiful region, with very good wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignons.  And if you are looking for great Italian varietal wines in California, stop in at Caparone Winery.