Touring Paso Robles

By / Wine + Drinks / February 16th, 2011 / 3

When in Rhône

Perhaps the reason why I want to pronounce Paso Robles in the familiar French fashion (and not “passo rowbles” like its residents) is because of the wine I was drinking there. Rhône varietals prevail and in some cases, meet up with Bordeaux, but in brash, bold ways that would send the French into apoplectic fits — after they finished the bottle and licked their lips.

El Paso de Robles (its Sunday name) is a smallish, wine-centric town in California’s Central Valley about forty miles from the coast, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area) is quite vast (roughly 875 square miles), and really very new (est. 1983). Encompassing 26,000 vineyard acres, it has grown over the last decade from 35 to 180 bonded wineries. Artist Judy Lyon is amazed by the change. “When I came to Paso in the 1970s, there were only five wineries … now there are hundreds.”

My first stop was at one of the newcomers. Like 95 per cent of Paso wineries, Anglim Winery is family owned and operated. Steffanie and Steve (Anglim) started making wine in their Los Angeles garage a decade ago, but now use a local shared facility with their own equipment and barrels since moving to the area in 2005.

Their tasting room, close to the park in downtown Paso, is in the beautiful 123-year-old wooden train station, and on the day I met them their young daughter Sofia joined us.

As Steffanie pulled the cork from their 2008 Grenache Blanc — a new wine for Anglim sourced from the Red Cedar Vineyard on the far east side of Paso Robles — Steve, the winemaker, told me about his philosophy of aging their wines longer in barrels and not releasing them until perfectly ready to drink. As a result of this practice, they are currently selling about 14 red and white wines from 2005 through 2008.

They don’t grow their own grapes, but partner with growers instead to buy fruit from premium vineyards. That way, they take advantage of different micro-climates, soils and elevations, then make wines in their own suave style. Although most are very local, vineyards range as far south as Santa Barbara County.

Produced in years when Steve thinks it really works, their Best Barrel Blend — a 2005 and the oldest wine they offer — is a mix of classic Rhône varietals Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache. Smooth with supple tannins and rich fruit flavours, this wine is lovely, and ready to drink now with a flavourful beef casserole or a hunk of Gouda.

Roussanne, an unusual white Rhône varietal, is dubbed the Pinot Noir of whites because it starts and ripens late. The fresh Anglim 2007 Roussanne is rich with honey flavours as well as loads of tropical fruit. Like all of their white wines, this one is as sophisticated as a Chanel gown.

Beyond their Rhone blends, Anglim produces a stellar Cabernet Sauvignon. Their 2006 Starr Ranch smells like dark chocolate and is smooth and soft in the mouth with a little spice. Steve uses 100% new French oak barrels for this wine and does not rack it for the last two years to “resolve the herbaceousness.” He explains, “Cabernet is a game for me, so when it’s ready, it’s ready.” This one is ready for a steak.

I also enjoyed their 2007 Zinfandel, St Peter of Alcantara, with its jammy, plummy, spicy flavours and steadying acidity. Both restrained and exuberant, it comes from low, head-trained vines grown in sand-clay-loam-rock-shale soil. Zinfandel, initially planted more than a hundred years ago, is the heritage grape for the Paso Robles AVA, and I found it at all of the wineries I visited.

Then I was on to Castoro Cellars, a family winery outside of Paso Robles, which has two Zinfandels and a Primitivo on their list of 17 wines. My favourite of their two Zins is the 2006 Cobble Creek with its jammy nose and easy-drinking nature. The grapes used for this wine are from the organic vineyards surrounding the tasting room.

Niels Udsen says he and his wife Bimmer started making wine under their own label a quarter-century ago using borrowed equipment. As their wine sold, they gradually built the business from a few barrels to 25,000 cases. Niels says, “Everything had to fund itself along the way.”

The Castoro Cellars name and beaver logo with its “Dam Fine Wine” slogan is visible as you walk up the arboured pathway. This is a pretty spot, and several people sit at tables in the shade. Inside, the room has a homey feel — right down to the cat stretched out on the sofa.

Castoro uses a broad range of grapes from Fumé Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier to Barbera, Tempranillo, Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon and Petite Sirah. The house style, crafted by veteran winemaker Tom Meyers with team members Niels Udsen and Mikel Olsten, has “noticeable imprints of oak.” Very light acidity makes their wines as friendly as the cat, who woke up to purr and lick my hand.

Just down the street, the Zin is very different. The 2008 Biker from Four Vines is a massive, over-the-top clobber of concentrated colour and flavours, and as big a Zin as they come. The grapes grow in western Paso on rocky hillsides, so yield is low and flavours are super concentrated. The addition of some Mourvedre to provide “an extra kick in the mid-palate” means that this wine rocks from dark mystery in the glass to a final blow that fades slowly. The wine is pretty irreverent, but so it everything else at Four Vines, including Christian Tietje, whose job title is “Winemaker, ZinBitch.”

Four Vines is a hip, ultra-modern winery. Situated in Templeton, the tasting room is behind Farmstand 46, a lovely pizza and take-out restaurant with a large patio. Four Vines’ marketing, labels, wine names and catchphrases are deliciously cheeky, but their wines, while mammoth, are well made.

I worked my way through most of their 15 offerings. A few highlights: 2007 Peasant GSM is a very pleasant blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise and Tannat, while 2007 Monarchy Malbec Blend is a huge, dark, lord-it-over-you-with-ripe-fruit wine with bright acidity and 14.5 per cent alcohol. 2007 Monarchy also contains “a fair amount of pomp and circumstance,” according to the label.

The 2007 Loco Tempranillo gets fruit from aptly-named Tres Cojones Vineyard. Lots of angst; big chewy tannins. Demands a side of Toro ribs. 2008 Heretic Petite Sirah is an inky monster nicknamed “The Velvet Hammer” by the staff. Hit me again!

Four Vines’ offerings are representative of the exuberant, expressive, extroverted style of some Paso wines. Fruit is concentrated by daily vine-wilting heat and a very long growing season, with enough hang time for bunches to fully ripen, while cool night breezes ensure that acidity is not lost. These grapes make blends with the subtlety of an oncoming freight train, but their wow factor is unmistakable.

Although Cabernet Sauvignon has been the leading varietal in the ground since it was first planted in 1989, Rhônes have increased dramatically as more wineries focus their attention there. Many, however, embrace both the Bordeaux and the Rhône varietals. L’Aventure Winery does so very well.

Of course, one of the reasons is owner/winemaker Stephan Asseo. After 17 vintages in Bordeaux he wanted to adventure beyond the confines of French AOC law, and sought property that would afford him an opportunity to be more innovative. He found it in the rolling hills of Paso Robles, “where Bordeaux meets the Rhône,” to use his slogan. Actually, his wines are unlike anything French.

L’Aventure Optimus 2007, their flagship blend, is 45 per cent Cab, 40 per cent Syrah and 15 per cent Petit Verdot. Intense colour and flavours as well as gripping tannins follow with a lasting finish and a balanced acidity. This wine is happy to share the table with rich foods.

Its brother, Estate Cote a Cote 2007, is a super-extracted Paso Robles-style wine that is almost opaque. Dense and intense, it has layers of flavours with soft tannins and acidity. This is a brash blend of 40 per cent Mourvedre, 40 per cent Grenache and 20 per cent Syrah that goes down surprisingly easily.

My favourite, their Estate Cuvée 2007, is a blend of Syrah, Cabernet and Petit Verdot. Another blockbuster, its inky purple-red colour and lasting fruit combined with strong tannins make it a wine for winter’s heavy stews. A glass (or two) guarantees contentment.

Where French wines have the elegance, finesse and sexy allure of Catherine Deneuve, Four Vines and L’Aventure wines have the unrestrained passion (and muscle) of a winning Superbowl quarterback. The blends are Rhône/Bordeaux, but the grapes are all-American.

For visitors, Paso Robles has a lot to offer beyond unique wines. Artisan, a family-owned-and-operated restaurant, comes well recommended by local foodies (order their fondue), as does Villa Creek. Both offer local wines by the glass and a knowledgeable staff to help with wine choices to complement their dishes.

Thomas Hill Organics should be called Thomas Hill Orgasmics. My THO Burger with grass-fed beef, bacon, Cambozola, caramelized onions and Romesco sauce was the best I’ve ever eaten. My partner’s Vietnamese BBQ pork belly sandwich was equally delicious; both sandwiches had a wonderful combination of flavours and textures. Even the field green salad, an afterthought at most places, was fantastic here with its organic greens and strawberries from THO’s farm. The owner, Susan Thomas, is usually on the premises chatting with newcomers and regulars alike.

For friendly faces, art, music, well-crafted food and wine, and a refreshing, easy-going attitude, Paso Robles is ideal. After a glass of Paso-style Rhône/Bordeaux wine, you’ll smack your lips and say, “Magnifique.”

Travel Snapshot

Get there: Drive 2.5 hours from LA or San Francisco on Hwy 101.
Stay there: Paso Robles Inn has a long history, individual hot tubs supplied by hot spring water, and a fantastic location only a short stagger from tasting rooms, restaurants and the park.
Weather: Hot summer days and cold summer nights benefit grapes, but make dining alfresco chilly in the evenings. The region sees daily 50°F temperature swings. Take a jacket. And sandals.
Wine: Everywhere! And it’s great.
Eats: Lots close to the square. Local fruit and veg (much organic), fish, meat, cheese and wine are the basis for many resto menus. Two Little Birds Bakery has yummy cinnamon buns.
Treats: Local olive oils. Lavender farms and a festival in July. An artists‘ community with a workspace on the square. Wine festivals galore. Friday night free music in the park — take wine and a picnic (visit Vivant Fine Cheese).
Wild west: Frank & Jesse James’ uncle, Drury James, was co-founder of the town of El Paso de Robles and co-owner of La Panza Ranch, 40 miles east. Jesse visited his uncle in 1869 to recover at the hot springs from lung problems due to his gunshot wounds.
The best: Paso Robles has a laid-back charm and a total lack of pretension. Easy to love, hard to leave.
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Brenda McMillan is thrilled by new sights, sounds, aromas and flavours, and old buildings, barrels and friends. She travels at the drop of a corkscrew and is always "just back" from somewhere.

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