Continuing with our Visiting and Tasting Paso Robles story, Part I: The Story and Part II: The Wineries.

Saxum Vineyards

Saxum's Broken Stones and Bone Rock

Saxum’s Broken Stones and Bone Rock. All Photos: ©2014 Trevor Felch

Nothing symbolizes the poise and power of Paso Robles like Saxum’s 2009 Bone Rock Syrah. It’s a wine of relentless momentum that starts smooth with ripe fig then grows chewier and smoky with a mighty tannin grip on the finish. No need to age here but it will be dominant in 2022. The Bone Rock, from a part of James Berry Vineyard, is at prime time now, rare for such a tannin-rich, dense Syrah. Equally impressive is the 2011 Saxum Broken Stones Cuvée, which is Syrah-based with a good dose of Petite Sirah and Grenache and sports a sleeker, dark-fruit profile than the Bone Rock’s heft and spice.

The 2011 Saxum Terry Hoage Vineyard blends whole cluster Syrah and de-stemmed Grenache for a more subtle expression of dates and earth, with a particularly soft finish. Perhaps the most polarizing wine in a good way is the 2011 Heart Stone Vineyard Syrah-Grenache-Mourvèdre blend. Again, Smith plays with whole cluster Syrah and de-stems half the Grenache and all the Mourvèdre, then ages the wine for a year in a single concrete vessel, and finally racks the in a few neutral puncheons. No wood, anywhere. Lots of tannins on the finish with strong notes of blackberry, rosemary, and spiced beef jerky. It’s a vibrant wine that demands your attention.

And then there’s the 2011 Saxum James Berry Vineyard, easily one of the finest wines I’ve sampled this year. It’s like a Ted Williams swing, so forceful, flawless, and effortless, intertwining a floral nose, mesquite wood, desert spice, and plush blackberry. The pride of Paso Robles.

Saxum's Line-up

Saxum’s Line-up

Law Estate and Villa Creek

Compact rosters full of Rhône impact is how Law Estate and Villa Creek work. Law Estate’s three wines of its debut vintage sold out rapidly. Not a surprise.

I was most enamored with the 2010 Law Estate Beguiling, at 94% Grenache and just 6% Syrah, poised with captivating blueberry notes up front leading to a speckled fragrant, cardamom-laden finish. Of the new vintage, the 2011 Law Estate Audacious is indeed, bold and unique, with beautiful vanilla and red fruit in its fascinating Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, and Petite Sirah blend. Talk about careful winemaking. Law Estate Sagacious, a GSM, strikes as much deeper and savory. Both wines clock in at over 16% ABV thanks to the local limestone soil but neither has any of the ultra-puckery tannins or sharp burn that figure can be associated with. No doubt Law Estate’s wines are some of the most layered and elegant right now in California.

Law Estate's Audacious

Law Estate’s Audacious

Villa Creek’s headliner is the 2012 Willow Creek Cuvée, an eloquent GSM that layers on the fruit and lessens the aggressive texture towards the finish, kind of reverse of the usual. The 2010 Damas Noir, all Mourvèdre (!) harnesses enormous bacon fat and rosemary into a trim, zesty body. Most unique is the 2010 Gathers No Moss that glows with a nighttime hue as dark as you’ll see.  Its 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah grapes are 50% whole cluster fermented, all from the iconic James Berry Vineyard. It’s graceful and exotic, boasting notes of coastal California olallieberry and violet. More restrained without the Syrah with ripe, clean raspberry-tinged character is the 2012 Garnacha, sourced from 3 sites including James Berry.

Villa Creek's Willow Creek Cuvée

Villa Creek’s Willow Creek Cuvée

Denner Vineyards

Denner’s wines crafted by Anthony Yount (Kinero) show the heft and power of neighbor Saxum with more of a grittiness in texture and gripping aromas. After all, Denner is right across Willow Creek Road from James Berry Vineyard. There is nothing subtle or reserved in the wines, much like the spectacular estate itself. The 2011 Ditch Digger GSM with elaborate fruit and a pleasant savory herb finish and Mother of Exiles, a Bordeaux blend, showed excellent capability in covering a range of French blends. As much as I’ll rave on Ditch Digger and 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and others do for the Dirt Worshipper (a Syrah not available during my visit), the most impressive wine I sampled was Denner’s 2012 Viognier, effortlessly tying citrus with crispness in a strong body. It was a sincere ode to an often neglected grape.

Denner's Ditch Digger

Denner’s Ditch Digger

Booker Wines

Tasting the 2013 vintage in barrel with Eric Jensen, Booker’s wines jumped out to me about their subtle spice and smooth palate at this maturing age, highlighted by The Ripper, 100% Grenache aged in ½ French New Oak for a plusher, rounder body dotted with hints of strawberry, peppercorn, and cedar plank.

Both barrel samples of Fracture, a Syrah, were polarizing in a positive way. I agreed with Jensen that the new barrel version showed “too much wood” and a significant amount of sweet fruit. Its used barrel counterpart exercised restraint and a more traditional puckery spice narrative.

Oublié, a classic Châteauneuf inspiration of Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise presented the most heft, a dark violet body that starts sharp and savory before venturing into a smooth finish with blackberry and anise.

Vertigo presented another juxtaposition, this time between stems and no stems in fermentation for a pair of GSM’s. The 10 year old vine version will age gracefully but right now is a big, prickly affair with tannins asking to be settled down. The stemless example also is picked with the blackest fruit the vineyard has, what Jensen deems “his bastard child.” Despite such overripe fruit, the wine’s enormity is in flavor, not size. It’s a small, tightly wound wine with notes of Bourbon, blueberry, and Coca Cola—wacky, different, and light.

Booker Wines

Booker Wines

Thacher Winery

Outside of the Rhône varietals, Zinfandel is the grape to pay attention to in the region. Thacher’s 2011 Triumvirate Reserve Zinfandel is indeed a triumph and absolutely at the pinnacle of its life right now. Paso Robles has a delightfully high number of worthwhile Viogniers and Thacher’s 2011 edition is near the top with exciting ripe fruit and ash up front. The 2010 Syrah had good red fruit with a subdued body, a 2011 Central Coast GSM was very pleasant and boasted a solid medium body and slightly less rustic character than some of its peers, and the 2011 Controlled Chaos is a good description for the Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, and Grenache blend with green chile on the nose then brown sugar on the full finish.

Thacher's White Wines

Thacher’s White Wines

Turley Wine Cellars

On the subject of Zinfandel, Turley’s winemaker Tegan Passalacqua certainly knows how to handle the temperamental grape. One of the stand-outs of my past year was the 2011 Ueberroth Vineyard, a local vineyard indeed owned by the chairman of the 1984 Olympics, Peter Ueberroth. It is a poised, spicy, and balanced Zinfandel expression. Note the reasonable Juvenile Zinfandel series that has become a bargain darling throughout California. As for the Turley White Zinfandel, I appreciated it but still found it too light and sweet to captivate.

Turley's Ueberroth Vineyard Zinfandel

Turley’s Ueberroth Vineyard Zinfandel

Halter Ranch

After sampling Halter Ranch’s Ancestor Cabernet Sauvignon blend at Artisan in town, I knew something might be up in terms of the winery’s work with the grape. It’s true, Halter Ranch is the little outpost of Bordeaux in Rhône country. The 2011 Ancestor, 49% Cabernet Sauvignon with lots of Petit Verdot and a little Malbec had a smooth, grand vibe with plenty of pork fat and tangy barbecue kept in check by sarsaparilla and cacao nib. It’s a riveting one.

The same can be said for the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2011 Syrah, the latter with a full, layered body that had an autumnal stuffing finish instead of the customary dotted spice. Outside of the Ancestor, the 2011 Côtes de Paso is the unique wine to know, boosting a GSM with the quirk of 6% Tannat. On the lighter side were a lovely, crisp 2013 Côtes de Paso Blanc with mostly Grenache Blanc and the 2013 Grenache-based Rosé that is of the salmon colored, creamy guava on the palate, mineral finish category.

Halter Ranch's Ancestor

Halter Ranch’s Ancestor

AmBythe Estate

Status quo is not an AmBythe Estate trait. When did you last see a Sangiovese-Tempranillo blend? Possibly never. Hart thought his idea was an original until a trip to Tuscany he learned that some older Chianti vineyards are planted with a few Malvasia Nera (another term for Tempranillo) vines and have been blended with Sangiovese then for ages. Anyhow, his 2010 Venutas (79% Sangiovese, 21% Tempranillo) is a dark, tannin-filled wine, masterfully bringing smoke and herbs together.

AmBythe Estate’s 100% Marsanne is a highlight of stone, ripe berry, and balanced minerality, while the Priscus Amphora struck me as textured and bright, not unlike a Manzanilla Sherry. The 2012 Rosé Amphora hits the right strawberry and floral pitch, based mostly on Grenache. The most “Paso Robles” wine is the 2010 ReVera, an MGS blend with a dash of Counoise that has high amounts of rustic herbs and spice in a light body that calls for aging.

AmBythe Estate Line-up

AmBythe Estate Line-up

Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek’s 2012 Grenache Blanc has been a personal favorite for a while and I’d gladly line up the 2013 Rosé against anyone’s. It’s creamy with the seafaring note of brine and zesty sweetness of orange rind—now available in the Edible Garden at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark AT&T Park. Who needs beer at a ballgame when you can have superb Rosé? Summer doesn’t get any better.

I wasn’t too enthralled with the Roussanne-based 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, a little neutral and subtle on the minerality, but rave about the Grenache-based 2012 Côtes de Tablas that is a pitch-perfect balance of calm tannins, meaty character full of strawberry up front and vanilla on the close. A 2011 Tannat was too butterscotch and ripe for me. Both 2010 and 2011 Esprit de Tablas Mourvèdre- based were hits. The 2011 certainly had detectable barbeque and ash from the Syrah and the 2010 has hit its stride with a darker, denser personality nicely blending the berries and bright spice. Classic Rhône aim and mission accomplished.

Tablas Creek's Picpoul Blanc

Tablas Creek’s Picpoul Blanc

Terry Hoage

Terry Hoage’s line-up is one of the area’s more extensive, from the more savory than your average 2013 Bam Bam Estate Rosé the GSM 30-30-30 and 10% Cinsault 2011 5 Blocks Syrah Cuvée. The 2011 The Hedge Syrah was fuller and less intense of spice and smoke than the typical with a great, soft finish. The 2012 Syrah Three-Four gets more new oak, completed by a meaty wood-fired and sage character, closing with leather and tobacco. It tastes like the muscular Syrah you’ve grown to know.

Terry Hoage "Skins" Grenache

Terry Hoage “Skins” Grenache

The Terry Hoage tasting’s highlight was arguably the winery’s most popular selection, a muscular 2012 “Skins” Grenache with 90% of the grape that sports excellent notes of bacon fat and plum jam. It was closely followed by “The Pick” Grenache Cuvée with a little Counoise added for an espresso edge to the burnt earth and raspberry. Don’t forget about the whites—the 2012 “The Gap” Cuvée Blanc based on Grencahe Blanc glows with a slight orange hue and some mint, pineapple salsa, and wet stone.

Ultimately, I left Paso Robles thinking about a grape that never gets any love. Ever. O.K., maybe the Picpoul Blanc from Tablas Creek and Terry Hoage’s Pik Pool (from Tablas Creek’s vineyard) won’t make much noise next to the horsepower of any Booker, Saxum, or Law Estate Syrah-based bottling. But it’s a fun Rhône grape with a delightfully funky waxy, lean character, full of lemon pith and toasted bread. Think dipping a baguette into olive oil (no vinegar!).

Picpoul Blanc will have its moment soon, just like how Paso Robles’ combination of exemplary terroir and envelope-pushing winemakers is hitting its prime right now as the New Rhône and a defining California wine region.

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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