Continuing with Part II of our Visiting & Tasting Paso Robles series, The Wineries:

Saxum's James Berry Vineyard

Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard. All Photos: ©2014 Trevor Felch

Outside of Saxum and Tablas Creek, few Paso Robles’ wineries will be commonly known among wine circles. It’s still a region of small lot, couple thousand case wineries. O.k., J. Lohr and Turley are close to household names in the wine community nationwide.  But neither is fully based in Paso Robles.

Not long ago, Paso Robles wasn’t remotely considered a marquee wine region, let alone in the company of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which has only risen to its current prestige in the last few decades. After a longtime friendship between Château de Beaucastel’s Perrin family and the founder of Vineyard Brands in California, Robert Haas, a business partnership was formed in 1985 and land purchased in Paso Robles’ western hills that seemed (correctly) to them almost identical to the terroir of the real Rhône.

There’s no beating around the bush. Tablas Creek is the American authority on Rhône vines, literally having imported vines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape into California. Tablas Creek’s nursery can be considered the general Rhône nursery of California with clones sent to many of state’s major winemaking names. The wines at Tablas Creek themselves are almost always beautiful, nuanced bottles, from the charming Rosé to the Esprit de Tablas line directly inspired by Beaucastel’s method of blending. Even despite a commercial tasting room that feels more gift shop than wine education center (bonus points for free sustainable water canteens, a touch I’d never seen anywhere), Tablas Creek is a mandatory stop on a visit, way out in the far corner of the Paso Robles’ west side.

Rhône, Which Way?

Rhône, Which Way?

Since its beginning in 2000, Saxum Vineyards continues to be the heavily-lauded MVP, deservedly the winner year in, year out of constant national recognition, thanks to the age old combination of a winemaker in step-for-step stride with meticulous vineyards he’s known his whole life. Quickly you’ll be set straight that Justin Smith is the founder/winemaker and James Berry is the estate vineyard—I used to always get confused. They’re the two most important names to know for the region. In 2010, Smith’s 2007 James Berry Vineyard Blend won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year. Frankly, you could seriously compare the importance of that accomplishment to what the Judgement of Paris did for Napa’s wines. The regions became officially first rate, world renowned from that point on.

Smith creates seven different cuvées, each speaking of tremendous balance and discipline. Saxum’s vineyard sourcing is the envy of any winemaker. Much like how fossilized sea shells from millennia ago provide Chablis’ soil with a distinct flint note and salinity, the James Berry Vineyard resides on an ancient seabed with fossilized shells, shark teeth, of all things, and whale bones, one of which Smith proudly showed me while tasting at Saxum. It’s one thing to see the vines and grapes that go into the wine in your glass. It’s another thing to see the bones in the soil. Now that folks, is terroir. James Berry has always been in Smith’s family, since his parents planted it in 1980 (before Tablas Creek!). It’s home. It’s also what Robert Parker considers one of the five Grand Cru vineyard sites in California. Not a bad front yard.

Of the many GSM blends and the other assortment of Rhône-style wines many of the wineries my visits featured, Villa Creek Cellars and Booker Wines showed the most pronounced intensely rustic and savory characteristics that make Rhône blends so mysterious and beg the drinker to delve deeper.

Villa Creek's Gathers No Moss

Villa Creek’s Gathers No Moss

Interestingly, Villa Creek Cellars is the only winery that directly told me they’re influenced by Rioja and Priorat, not just the Rhône. Villa Creek’s owner and winemaker Chris Cherry and his wife JoAnn sources from some of Paso Robles’ premier vineyards and just started their first estate 13.5 acres of Rhône varietals. Villa Creek began as a restaurant then branched into the winemaking world; something different and feels like what you might find in the Rhône. Don’t even think of using a cell phone in this rural stretch of Peachy Canyon. It’s also one of the many wineries around with a “guard dog” (no, not hardly a doberman pinscher).

Just removed from the tourist sector of 46, Booker Wines’ Eric Jensen served as an assistant winemaker for Saxum and L’Aventure before going on his own with an opening vintage in 2005. Booker’s wines and attitude have fun spunk, refreshingly different from the often buttoned up formal and or distinctly rural ways of the wine industry. It’s a fun place (building a basketball court, you get the idea) with fun wines that have a great combination of texture and nuanced layers. And a rare Tempranillo, a grape that fully approves of the frequent intense daylight here.

Paso Robles’ wineries are usually the opposite of grand châteaux: rustic and laid back. This isn’t trimmed hedges or bocce ball country. Except in a select few cases.

Law Estate

Law Estate

Law Estate wins hands down on the spectacular design. High up on a hill just off Peach Canyon Road, you’d swear you could see the Transamerica Pyramid on the horizon. Sorry to be the spoiler: you can’t. Now after its second vintage, the quartet of wines by Scott Hawley, who also owns his own label Torrin Wines, are triumphs with a startlingly bold edge to them. They are truly deep wines. Law Estate is about as modern a winery as it gets, from the stunning  building that perfectly blends minimalism with style and fitting into surroundings (with the living room of your dream house) to the gravity flow vineyard processing. Law Estate’s biodynamic practices and surreal setting seem straight out of a futuristic movie but the wines are proud and forceful, deeply rooted in Old World style. Careful, respectful, and diligent farming is one of the keys to making the limestone base raise wine quality, exemplified by Law Estate and many of its peers.

Denner does have a bocce ball court and a patio that is the envy of every winery, screaming “the good life.” Owned by Rob Denner, formerly a Denver-based businessman, and with one of the area’s great young talents Anthony Yount as winemaker, Denner’s wines are among the region’s favorites. Though it’s tough for any wine to compete with the setting when tasting at the estate. Like Law Estate, Denner’s winemaking facility is built into a hillside, using gravity-flow. The 108 acres of vineyards planted 15 years ago range from a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to small plots of Carménère and Vermentino. Denner uses 45 of these acres with the remaining going to others like Villa Creek and Linne Calodo.

Denner...Does Have Bocce Ball

Denner …Does Have Bocce Ball

L’ Aventure is Paso Robles’ closest example to a grand French chateau but reflects modern day wineries by following a sustainable path of being fully solar powered, again the new and old. It truly was “the adventure” for Stephan Asseo to create after graduating from oenology college in Burgundy and purchasing property on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. French oak barrels are used as you’d guess and wines are highlighted by Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and red Rhône blends (and red blends of Rhône and Bordeaux varieties).

When it comes to the full all-around experience of an affable tasting room, beautiful wines, and the necessary farm animals watching tasters, Thacher Winery is the name to know. Started in 2008, sprouting from a background in Silicon Valley and brewing beer,Sherman and Michelle Thacher’s wines are calm and full of friendly character (less boisterous than most Rhône blends and Zinfandels produced nearby). Highlights include Zinfandels with all the gusto but not the high octane burn of their regional peers. Those excellent Zinfandels, terrific Rhône blends, and some very friendly cattle on the 52 acre property make for a delightful experience. Plus, a great grasshopper label logo.

Thacher's Triumvirate Zinfandel, 2011

Thacher’s Triumvirate Zinfandel, 2011

Halter Ranch, in the appellation’s western corner next to Tablas Creek, personifies the history of Paso Robles by venturing from a ranch farm for livestock and produce in the 1800’s to the introduction of vines in 1996. An extensive array of vineyards take over 280 of the ranch’s 900 acres, from Syrah near the old Victorian farmhouse, the barns, and the tasting room to blocks of Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache along Las Tablas Creek. The vineyard’s highest elevation hits 1800 feet, for a Syrah plot. Kevin Sass is the winemaker, doing especially exciting work with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

What might be the most unusual winery in Paso Robles? Well, it’s not really even in Paso Robles. On the eastern side of 101 and well south in Templeton you’ll find AmBythe Estate. It’s easy to assume most wineries these days are supremely careful about sustainable, careful farming. AmBythe truly is at the head of the class with dry farmed, organic, and head trained vines on some of the region’s steepest hillsides, garnering the only Demeter biodynamic label in all of Paso Robles (the holy grail of biodynamic marks). Rhône varietals are grown on the three trellis-free estate vineyards plus Sangiovese and Tempranillo (more on those later).

Roughly reflecting the time period rise of the AVA, AmBythe Estate started in 2000 with 2006 as its debut vintage. Phillip Hart is an Orange County transplant who still imports rugs from India and Nepal on the non-wine side. He produces natural wines, unfiltered, full of that racy character both can provide when made with the right touch. Like the wines themselves, AmBythe is whimsical and free-wheeling, from the quirky signs to the location that feels half way to Tahoe.ambythe-gate

Like AmBythe Estate, Matt and Maureen Trevisan’s Linne Calodo looks not just to the Rhône but crafts some intriguing blends, often based with Zinfandel like the Problem Child that also contains Syrah and Mourvèdre. Right by the intersection of 46 and Vineyard Drive, it might have the most prime real estate (in terms of access).

Among the other important names to know: Lone Madrone, one of the area’s pioneers in 1996 and blends (La Mezcla Roja is Cinsault- based with a little Counoise and Grenache) and Adelaida Cellars in the Adelaida District in the northwest corner of Paso Robles. Lone Madrone is one of the few area wineries using Chenin Blanc, too. Near Downtown, Écluse has strengths in estate grown Rhône, Zinfandel, and Bordeaux-style reds. Also on Adelaida Road, Alta Colina has a cult following for its Rhône varietals, mainly Syrah from vineyards in an absolutely stunning hilltop setting.

Terry Hoage's 'Pik Poul,' Picpoul Blanc

Terry Hoage’s ‘Pik Pool,’ Picpoul Blanc

Study up on football and you better not say “Roll Tide” at Terry Hoage Vineyards. Hoage  was a great defensive back for the University of Georgia in the 1980s garnering SEC Player of the Year in 1984 before joining six NFL teams over 13 seasons, including the Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins in 1992.

Winning the Super Bowl is great but it’s even better when you can enjoy your own wine with it (well, the winery came much later). Here’s a rare, if not the only case, of a former star athlete becoming a top tier winery owner …and its winemaker. Literally, he’s making the wine. It’s not symbolic, having learned from the maestro himself Justin Smith. There’s a wide range of wines, all named after football themes. Hoage’s winery is in a gorgeous setting with the tasting room in a refurbished cabin next to a small pond, just off dusty, windy Arbor Road. So, will Tom Brady or Peyton Manning start a winery in a few years? (Manning has a string of pizza franchises.)

Turley's White Zinfandel

Turley’s White Zinfandel

Paso Robles isn’t home to mass production wineries or even labels you’re likely to find on the East Coast. There just isn’t the history. But chances are you know the Turley name from Turley Wine Cellars’ Larry Turley, emergency room surgeon and co-founder of Frog’s Leap Wine, whose quest for California’s premier Zinfandel terroir led him to Paso Robles (and 35 total vineyards around the state). Or maybe from his consulting winemaker sister, Helen Turley.

Justin Winery doesn’t shy away from their quest to be the grand chateau of the Central Coast with opulent reds like the Bordeaux blend Isoceles and the 100% Syrah Focus. You’ll also find a restaurant and appropriately, the Just Inn to sleep. The size and ambition is not too different for Hope Family Wines. Hope Family Wines, just west of town, has the most vast portfolio, with five brands: Liberty School, Treana, Candor, Austin Hope, and Troublemaker.

East of 101 has always been considered the inferior terroir but lately that has been met with much skepticism. Jerry Lohr’s legendary winery of a million cases is there, along with Monterey Count and Napa Valley. The ten year old RN Estate also resides on 101’s eastern side and six miles north of Paso Robles in the Estrella River Valley. In addition to Bordeaux and Rhône, RN sources from the coast for Pinot Noir. Add Burgundy and you’ve got the trifecta covered.

Denner Vineyards

Denner Vineyards

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the tiny producers specializing in one or just a handful of varietals, borrowing space from other wineries for making their own bottles. Anthony Yount, Denner’s winemaker, crafts Grenache Blanc and Roussanne (from James Berry Vineyard) for Kinero.

Mark Adams, the assistant winemaker for Smith at Saxum, now makes gorgeous Syrah under his Ledge label. Brian Benson Cellars’s namesake winemaker makes his wines at Denner’s facilities, ranging from “Neopolitan Pussycat,” a co-ferment of Grenache, Syrah, and Roussanne aged in 80% new French oak to 100% bottlings of James Berry Vineyard Syrah and Arbor Creek Vineyard Primitivo, plus some distinct blends of Rhône and Italian varietals.

Let’s not forget dessert. Paso Port is one of the rare fortified wine-centric wineries in California (they also make regular wines ranging from Albariño to Pinot Noir to Bordeaux blends). Late harvest selections include Gewurztraminer and botrytized Pinot Blanc. Ports include a Zinfandel Port and a “California- style” Ruby since we are indeed far from the Douro. Still, there’s nothing better to sip with dessert at any of the area restaurants. I wonder why everyone saves this tasting room for last…

Next, Part III: The Wines

About Author

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Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Trevor is the chief content officer for the social neighborhood mapping program Urbane, a restaurants writer for SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner. He’s doing his best to be a world traveling meets joie de vivre combination of Hemingway, Bourdain, and Cary Grant. If you really want to charm him, serve a full, earthy Oregon Pinot Noir or a slick Sauternes, and pair them with 80 % or above dark chocolate.

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