On the Road Again (redux)

And what is so rare as a day in June? Perhaps a midweek March afternoon, winding up a country hillside halfway from nowhere for nine miles to stumble upon an organic farm where a striking 5’9″ Chinese girl touts organic olive oil and tea tree scrubs while ever-so-slightly mispronouncing “bruschetta.” The Mt. Olive Organic Farm wasn’t a scheduled stop or even the point of my trip, but it serves as a paradigm for all the unanticipated discoveries I made during my Paso Robles swing last week.
In terms of winery destinations, Your West Coast Oenophile has been, as I suspect many others are, egregiously Napa/Sonoma-centric for more years than I care to enumerate. There have always been pockets of vineyards interspersed throughout the state, and I’ve happily visited a number of them here and there. But the notion of a concentrated, cohesive, cooperative wine community outside of the aforementioned region seemed a bit unfathomable (even though Sideways had clued me in to the existence of such). So, naturally, I was quite taken by surprise to discover that the juncture of US 101 and Hwy. 46, long seen as little more than a convenient pit stop en route to Los Angeles, had exploded into a major AVA blanketing both sides of the freeway.
Let me end any suspense here and now: during my three day Paso Robles swing, I did not manage to visit all 240 wineries (suffice it to say that such a feat would have lent considerable credence to the Ginkgo Girl’s suspicions of my incipient dipsomania). Still, I did manage to take in quite a selective range of what this vast AVA has to offer.
My first stop in Paso Robles tended to the sustainable component of Sostevinobile, a most informative workshop on sustainable building jointly sponsored by the good folks at PG&E and the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Wonderful to learn of the numerous energy rebates potentially available to our San Francisco flagship site, as well as the requirements for LEED-CI certification. This ever-evolving project continues to take many turns at each juncture. The workshop began with a tour of the Eos Estate Winery, the Central Coast’s first winery to supply 100% of its own electrical consumption. Years ago, I met the Arcieros, former owners of this estate, and introduced them to the forebear of Bacar and the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Eos Restaurant and Wine Salon in Cole Valley—a natural marriage, or so it had dawned on me. But progress is progress, and one would tend to believe that should Sapphire Wines apply the same exacting diligence to their wine operations, their potential will be impressive.

After the workshop, I drifted eastward to the amazingly eclectic Tobin James, a must-see winery that also serves as a counterpoint to Healdsburg’s Dry Creek General Store 1881. In a strange way, my awkward efforts to snap a picture from my iPhone perfectly captures the élan of this place. The quirky charm of the ramshackle place belies the seriousness of their winemaking, which, in turn, exposed a common conceit to which I admit
succumbing occasionally, that being a predilection to correlate quality and price. While I had the chance to sample several of their varietal offerings, including a most agreeable 2005 Sangiovese Il Palio, their standout was also their most economical wine, the 2006 Chateau Le Cacheflo, a proprietary blend of Syrah, Sangiovese and Barbera that retails for a relatively paltry trickling from one’s “cash flow”—somewhere in the vicinity of $11.99.
By no means, however, does Tobin James hold a monopoly on Italian varietals bottled on Paso Robles’ east side. Poised at the intersection of the two main thoroughfares, Martin & Weyrich, a longtime favorite, featured a number of traditional Italian wines and esoteric blends, including their signature 2005 Insieme, a
mind-boggling mélange of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Barbera, Pinot Nero and Petit Verdot (please don’t suggest they add Graciano—that’s reserved for blending in their 2002 Flamenco Rojo)! Still, I found myself particularly enticed by their well-rounded 2004 Nebbiolo Il Vecchio, a worthy rival to any Barbaresco priced even double the $22 it commands.

Martin & Weyrich also produces a wine they label Etrusco, not really a Super Tuscan so much as a Cabernet rounded out with Sangiovese. Some dominazioni purists may regard such a blend as heresy, but the folks at Martin & Weyrich are in good company. Across 101, L’Aventure commits similar apostasy with their artful marriage of Bordeaux and Rhône varietals. Yes, mes amis, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah can happily reside in the same bottle, as their aptly-named 2006 Optimus attests. Conventional Cabernet and Rhône GMS (Grenache-Mourvèdre-Syrah) blends are well represented in L’Aventure’s library and offer quite the sophisticated counter to Paso Robles’ rustic perception, while their new Syrah-based 2008 Estate Rosé will by no means remind anyone of White Zinfandel.
I spent my final day in Paso Robles scouring the westside hills, on a loop that took me to Adelaida Cellars, Justin Vineyards, Tablas Creek, Halter Ranch and the geologically-imbued Calcareous Vineyard (would that the folks at Linne Calodo have been remotely as accommodating in their response to my inquiry)! My first stop, Adelaida, is a winery that embraces a wide swath of the viticultural terrain: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, and Piemonte, as well as the obligatory homage to the local signature grape, Zinfandel. Their 2007 Viognier inarguably lived up to its billing as a balance of crisp minerality and aromatic fruit, a subdued expression of this somewhat haphazard varietal. Similarly, the 2005 Nebbiolo brought an unabashed smile to my face. I of course delighted in their 2005 Viking Reserve Cabernet, as strong a $75 Bordeaux blend as any of its Northern competitors, but, as per usual, found myself most intrigued by the 2006 Version, a jam-packed blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Counoise.
Leave it to Tablas Creek, however, to tantalize me with a 100% Counoise bottling. The 2005 Tablas Creek Counoise came about, as it has in occasional prior vintages, when their estate pantings yielded more fruit than needed for their Esprit de Beaucastel and Côtes de Tablas. This is a rare expression of this grape for California and a wondrous d
elight. Tablas Creek also poured me their 2006 Tannat (an 88% blend softened with Cabernet Sauvignon) again a rarety on the West Coast and again an amazing discovery. 2006 Roussanne, 2006 Grenache Blanc, 2006 Mourvèdre—I could wax ad infinitum—Tablas Creek, along with Alban Vineyards and Qupé, has always represented the holy grail of Rhône-style wines from California to me, and this visit exceeded my expectations. That their 120 acres of plantings are all organic certified only enhanced my appreciation.
I would be quite remiss if I did not acknowledge Monica, whose splendid hospitality and individualized attention truly made my Tablas visit thoroughly enjoyable. Her counterpart at Justin, Sara Lutsko, was equally delightful and could have even tempted me to…but I digress. Justin is a winery that also features one of Paso Robles most acclaimed restaurants. Judging by the hairpin turns and utter remoteness of the setting, diners would be wise to book a room at JUST Inn, their onsite bed & breakfast. Justin takes a decidedly Pythagorean approach to their labels, and indeed their blends often do sum up a² + b² to produce a decidedly synergistic c². Case in point, their 2006 Justification, an atypical blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, or the 2007 Orphan, a Cabernet Sauvignon + Syrah combination. I joked that they ought to pair their 2006 Savant (another Cabernet & Syrah hybrid) with a wine labeled Idiot (cf. Rainman for the reference), and they came close with their 2007 Obtuse, a port-style dessert wine made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. My kudos, as well, for their 2006 Tempranillo Reserve (mistakenly priced, one would hope, at $312.50! on their website) and their distinctive 2006 Petit Verdot. And did I mention the 2006 Isosceles, their justly-famed Bordeaux meritage?.
It seems that many of the attendees at the Green Building Workshop beat me to Halter Ranch, a small, unimposing venture that both Jill Whitacre and Kira Costa of the Central Coast Vineyard Team highly touted. Their judgment makes me wish I could have followed up on all their recommendations. As one of the first Central Coast wineries to be certified for Sustainability in Practice (SIP), Halter Ranch put forth a lineup of estate grown varietals and blends of both Bordeaux and Rhône clones, distinguished by their 2007 Viognier and their 2005 Cabernet Franc.
By now, everyone knows that bombastic scene, with Leonardo Di Caprio, arms spread back like an erne, perched atop the Titanic’s bow, proclaiming “I am King of the World!” Yet that is exactly the feeling one gets from the panoramic loft that houses Calcareous Vineyard’s new tasting facility. The grandeur of this setting, with 270° views sweeping across the entire valley, is impossible to depict with the constrictions of HTML text, but it should become an obligatory stop for any Paso Robles tour. Against this commanding backdrop, one could easily luxuriate in their 2004 Reserve Zinfandel, the 2006 Twisted Sisters Chardonnay, a York Mountain 2006 Pinot Noir or the 2006 Petit Verdot. Still, I have to confess a fondness for their 2006 Très Violet, a GMS blend that veers from duality of Grenache or Mourvèdre predominance and allows Syrah the upper hand.
I drove back to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway as a coda to my revelatory visit. As I passed through Soquel, I detoured to Bargetto Winery in the hope of finding a final touch of Dolcetto to round out my excursion, but, alas, they were sold out and I had to settle for a taste of their 2002 La Vita, a proprietary blend of Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and Refosco from their Santa Cruz Mountain estate vineyards. It is a hard life I lead…

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