Paso Robles Trip Notes: West of Paso
This was a trip my wife and I had planned with another couple months in advance. None of us had spent any time in Paso before, and the anticipation was very high indeed. It seemed the more I read about the area and its wine scene, the more I gained the impression that the West side of town (from just north of Tablas Creek down south to the 46) was a place very much on the rise but still in the process of gaining wider acclaim, though that wider acclaim seems all too near, as most of the better wineries we visited were already sold out of their 08’ vintages and had their 09’s, many just bottled months ago, making up their tasting menu’s.
Being used to visiting the Napa Valley area, and often with older folks, I had memories of past trips where visiting three wineries in a day was a bit of a stretch. So the tentative plan was to catch a tasting in Santa Barbara on the way up Friday afternoon, then to visit three wineries Saturday, and two on Sunday with an olive oil tasting on the way out. If we could squeeze in another one or two that would be great, but luckily our travel companions were all up for seeing as much as possible and by the end of it, we wound up visiting ten wineries, plus the olive oil tasting and other random stops in between for animal petting, cider tasting, and the excellent sandwiches of Farmstand 46 in Templeton.
As for the wines themselves, more than 80% of the wines we tasted were from 09’. In a way, it was almost like a follow up to an en primeur campaign, with most of the wines seeing no more than a few months bottle age. In that way it was a bit of a challenge for me to form impressions on wines that were so young, but it was a great opportunity all the same. The wines were very fresh, showing good acidity, and noticeably less oak than you’d normally find in Napa or Sonoma. In fact, I’m not sure we had a flabby, fruit bomb or anything over oaked on the whole trip. The level of consciousness here in making balanced wine is definitely high, and there seems to be sense of community between the wineries, or at least there was a good spirit and energy to the tasting rooms we visited.
Besides the quality of wine, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the town and the beauty of the surrounding vineyards and farmland the area has to offer. Perhaps early winter was a good time to visit, as the fields and vines were various shades of brown, orange, green, and yellow, making for some great scenery.
With Paso being unreachable for us on Friday, we had a tight window to make a tasting in Santa Barbara before dinner in Buellton. Luckily, everything went smooth enough for us on the way out of LA and we managed to get ourselves up to Santa Barbara by 4:30, which was just in time to drop in for a tasting at Jaffurs, a pretty safe spot to taste a menu of good tasting and well-made wines.
Jaffurs: As luck would have it, we dropped in as they were bringing in tanks of fermenting fruit, but they were happy to welcome us in for a tasting, and we got to talk to their winemaker as well as tasting room manager. The wines showed well as usual. Everything they pour to the public seems to be of good quality and hovering around 90 points.
2009 Grenache Blanc, Thompson Vineyard: In limited experience, this varietal, at least in CA just doesn’t stick out to me.
2009 Viognier, Santa Barbara County: The nose on this is stellar, and was probably the most fragrant wine we smelled all trip. Not as much kick to the palate, with the vanilla notes of the oak sticking out a bit, but still this set a tone for the whites and was a good reference point for Viognier blends we would taste later.
2008 Grenache, Santa Barbara: Such a nice Grenache, they somehow make this a little more dramatic than most, almost approaching a cabernet drinker’s Grenache with a showy nose, and pretty dense berry flavors framed with lively acidity and structure.
2009 Syrah, Santa Barbara County: Slightly more dense than the Grenache, but maybe with not quite as much finesse, this Syrah is showing well, and would make for a good companion with or without food.
2009 Petite Sirah, Thompson Vineyard: Unsurprisingly, the biggest wine of the tasting with plenty of tannic grip and more bold black fruits mixed in with the red. Cries out for a steak as they say, but I prefer the Grenache and Syrah, at this stage anyway.
Saturday presented many possibilities, as I still wasn’t sure where we’d go first up until breakfast, when I called in to Booker Wines to make sure they were open. Luckily, they were…pouring 3 wines for $5.00
This was a good way to start off… with only three pours consisting of a white, rose, and a red, it doesn’t overwhelm the palate right out of the gate. The tasting room is on the small side, but the girls pouring were very friendly and everyone enjoyed the tasting. Of course, Booker is significant due to their prized real estate, which Justin Smith and Saxum use to make one of their labels. It’s been told (or rumored) to me that Justin Smith (winemaker @ Saxum) also helps Booker make their wines in exchange for gaining some of Booker’s fruit, but all they would confirm in the tasting room is that the wines are made by owner Eric Jensen and that yes Saxum does get some of their fruit each year. Their website also confirmed that Eric helped Justin Smith of Saxum make wines for 5 years, and with Steve Asseo (of L’Aventure) for 2 years before making his first vintage with Booker in 2005.
It’s important to note just how big of an icon Saxum and Justin Smith are in this town. He’s pretty much larger than life, and any affiliation with Justin almost ensures success, and we would definitely not be hearing the last of Justin Smith’s name at Booker. On to the wines…
2010 Booker White, $50.00 - (75% Rousanne, 25% Viognier)
This was one of the standouts of the trip, right out of the gate. This wine is very soft and also un-filtered, with an off-dry, or is it off-sweet palate? Not sure, it’s right in a sort of sweet spot, featuring flavors of lemon lime, peach, and nectarine. The fruit and mellow oak do a lot of talking here with some crisp acidity as well. Update: Also served this on thanksgiving, with another excellent showing. It’s a bit temperamental in that it needs to be served on the colder side, but it’s unusual and it’s very good. 92 points.
With the majority of their reds already sold out, their Rose and 09’ Oublie were the only other two we were poured, and though both were competent wines, neither were very memorable.
Caliza, and their loud, haphazard logo were just down the road. I had heard good things written about them so we decided it was worth stopping by. It happened that so did Herman Story, who was there with his wife buying some wine, and apparently showing his appreciation to other wineries who helped him sell out his wines through recommendations. I’ll have to pay a visit to his tasting room next time, as I’ve heard good things about his wines through a number of different people and places.
2008 Azimuth, $45.00 - (39% Syrah, 34% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache – 260 Cases)
Very well balanced and precise with good red fruits and mellow coffee notes on the palate. Well integrated oak and fine tannins. Passes the written test, but not so much the visceral one. 89-90 points.
2008 Companion, $45.00 – (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Syrah, 12% Tempranillo – 90 Cases)
There’s a lot going on here… medium plus bodied, pretty heavy tannic grip, with bold fruits and seemingly going through many changes on the palate. Perhaps a little heavy on the oak, but it fits the wine. 89 points.
This turned out to be perhaps the most forgettable tasting, and though the Azimuth is a pretty good wine at a relatively fair price, I really don’t care for the name, or much of the intangibles going on with this winery. There's so much to see in Paso, and though i'm not saying I wont revisit this place, it's just not high priority for the time being.
As we later found out, Neil Collins, winemaker at Tablas Creek, also owns and makes wine for his own label, Lone Madrone. This tasting room also features a big yard with a sort of cat farm, a little square pen of chickens, and another with a couple goats by the car park. Very family oriented, or if you have a wife without much interest in wine, but much interest in animals (like mine), this could be a must stop. The wines if anything were slightly bending towards fruit forward than the other wineries visited. All well done, though I didn’t find any “wow” wines, but I’ll list a few notables…
This place is also known for “just because pours”, which is an awesome concept, and really underscores the vibe at Lone Madrone. Animals in the yard, free flowing atmosphere in the tasting room, with all kinds of trinkets inside to pick up or look at. They really have a culture here which I think people gravitate towards, even if the wines aren’t great, they don’t really have to be.
2005 Cabernet Sauvignon:
Very nice effort here with bold red fruit, earthiness, and good acidity. Good mid-palate of raspberry, plum, and cherry. Medium + finish. 90 points
2008 Tannat: “Just Because” They opened a bottle of this at my request, which was cool.
Sweet sour red fruits, some lime, with fine grained tannins. Kind of simple with just two notes, but enjoyable. 87-88 points
2009 Points West White – (42% Rousanne, 27% Viognier, 22% Picpoule Blanc, 9% Marsanne)
Similar blend to the Booker white, but less precise and with less impact. Soft flavors of lemon lime, peach, and a mellow oak influence. 89 points
2008 The Bad Shepherd – Dessert Zin, from old vines
Musky, mineral nose. Cherry liquer, butterscotch on the palate. Sometimes the dry wines you try to like, and the sweet wines you just like without thinking about it. This is one of those you could get a novice drunk on pretty quick. 91-92 points
I tried to plan the day around being at Tablas for their 2pm tour. Even though we showed up at a little after 2:15, we noticed the group gathered outside the tasting room and asked if we could join up with them, and luckily it was no problem and also complementary. While it wasn’t the greatest tour, I think we all appreciated taking a break from tasting and learning about some of the history of the winery, and of Paso. With the property bought in 1989, they imported vines from France in the 1990, but it took them three years to pass through the FDA’s quarantine before they were available for multiplication in 1993. Obviously, today the winery is thriving with 15+ vintages under their belt. They recently built and opened their new state-of-the-art tasting room earlier this year in January, and the winery is solidified as a true pioneer in Paso.
The wines: They’re definitely making French style wine, with relatively lower alcohol coming out closer to 14% than the 15 or 16% other wineries may lean toward, but it seems to go deeper than that. It was further testimony to my hypothesis that sugar contributes as much or more to the difference between tasting a low alcohol wine and a higher alcohol wine. Because the Tablas wines were very different from the rest, from clean to cleaner, fresh to fresher, and from judicious oak to almost no oak at all. I was pretty well convinced that I could taste that rocky, limestone soil somewhere between the thorough acidity, earth, and under ripe fruit. The whites were even less yielding, as I could get almost no impression from the nose, and slim to none fruit or oak on the palate, save for maybe the Rousanne which I had become familiar with from earlier tastings. The flavors of the reds came through a little more, but still held well in check.
2009 Tannat $40.00 - (90% Tannat, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)
This was my favorite of the reds, showing very active tannins, but as I read elsewhere from redguy on CT, they’re the kind that melt in your mouth. I took a couple bottles home with me, and decided to open one for thanksgiving dinner, so I had a little more time to sit with it the other day, but all of my impressions of their reds were validated. When I first opened and splashed it into a decanter, I thought it was going to be too much for my guests and for the turkey. However, after removing the wrapping from my backup selection (bought in Italy), the wine looked like it was probably cooked with some red showing all the way through the cork on the top. So TC tannat it was, and it wound up doing a solid job after all.
There’s a strong acidic backbone to this wine, which leads the palate fronted by stone, granite, red-green fruits, roasted peppers, wood and spice. The tannins did mellow over the course of the dinner and almost completely gave way 3-4 hours after opening.
Other wines tasted:
2009 Espirit de Beaucastel Rouge, $55.00 - (40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise)
We wound up buying a half bottle of this and opened it while we ate sandwiches curbside after the tour and group tasting (we had picked up sandwiches on the way to Tablas from Farmstand 46, highly recommended btw), and this was definitely a highlight of the trip as it was twilight, nearing around 4 in the afternoon, and we could take everything in from the wine, food, and scenes, and just relax a bit.
Much like the other reds, the taste was something like a watered down watermelon jolly rancher. Maybe that short-changes it a bit, but I’m not going to rate these yet since they’ve been in bottle such a short time, but I will say the drinking experience is still enjoyable, even with how closed they are now. Everything’s so clean and fresh, with limestone, acid, and the beginnings of red fruits, and just a touch of wood and earth.
I’ve heard that the 08’ version of this wine was especially strong, so I’ve ordered a Magnum for some time in December. One thing to note about this wine is that their asking price seems to have risen from $45 to $55 with the 09’ release.
2009 En Gobelet, $45.00 - (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache)
Really like the concept of this wine, but similar to the Espirit and other reds, it’s just too closed to give an impression other than the generalities I’ve already outlined.
I’m glad we wound up stopping here, as I thought their lineup of 09’s were probably the most impressive of the trip, perhaps because they were pouring their full lineup minus their flagship “Avenger”. Their 2009 - 100% Grenache opened things up, and showed a little more structure and complexity than other single variety Grenache we had tasted, similar to the Jaffurs but showing more refinement, even if a little less on the nose. The Willow Creek Cuvee also showed pretty well, but was a little closer to the average red we had tasted overall.
Their 2009 High Road James Berry Vineyard $60.00 - (50% Syrah, 50% Grenache) was a candidate for the wine of the trip, and probably was. It features co-fermentation and the use of whole clusters, and if I may borrow from IWC to be quoted below, “flavors that just won’t let go” on a very dry and persistent, mouth staining finish. The lore of the James Berry Vineyard is pretty straight forward, as the 2007 Saxum James Berry Vineyard (GSM Blend) won Wine Spectator’s prestigious Wine of the Year honors in 2010. But even before then, the James Berry Vineyard has been known for producing some of the best wine in all of Paso.
From Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar: Villa Creek 2009 'High Road,' James Berry Vineyard
Glass-staining ruby. A complex, highly perfumed bouquet evokes candied red and dark berries, incense, cola and vanilla, with suave floral and Asian spice notes gaining strength with aeration. Lush and deeply concentrated but energetic as well, offering sweet black raspberry and boysenberry flavors and a blast of candied flowers on the back end. The spicy quality repeats on the finish, which refuses to let go of the palate. Incidentally, the 2007 version of this wine, which I retasted with Cris Cherry this fall, is flat-out gorgeous, with enough complexity to justify drinking it now but the balance and depth to age well into its second decade.
So I took one of these home along with an 2009, Syrah based “Avenger” for $42.00, though after reading this IWC review and the memories of the tasting, I’m wishing I had bought more of it.
This stop wasn’t without controversy however, as the tasting room was located in a warehouse, and there was quite the gnat population hovering about, with our 2nd lady getting the worst of it. Our friends also didn’t appreciate the air of pretention in the room, as Villa Creek is very much at the center of the younger, hipper, West Paso scene, and also in the friends of Justin Smith, friends of Saxum family, along with Booker and Epoch, to a lesser extent. I would say Villa Creek plays it the most flagrantly though, from the artwork to the tasting room. The winemaker/owner, Cris Cherry was also there in scruffy facial hair and orange vest, and we had a brief encounter with him, asking about the cement barrels (yes, many wineries age their fruit in cement!), it’s supposed to be somewhere in-between stainless steel and oak, though logic would have it closer to stainless steel. Anyway, Cris was nice enough to speak with us on a few things and asked where we were staying and dining that evening. On the way out I asked him which of the wines to drink first, and unsurprisingly he said the Avenger, and to wait on the High Road a couple years.
After Villa Creek it was dark, and a little after 5. We went back to the hotel where I napped for over an hour before appetizers at the Villa Creek restaurant, also where a bunch of industry types were making noise in the bar (we saw the girls from the Booker tasting room there, but there were more from what we heard later), and also where I tried the glass of 07’ Priorat.
This will have to wait as this writeup is taking longer than expected. Wineries visited were Epoch, L'Aventure, Terry Hoage, and Zin Alley
Paso Robles Trip Notes: West of Paso
- Reply by dmcker, Nov 27, 2011.
Very good writeup, Jon. Thanks for sharing.
Regarding your Italian Thanksgiving 'backup' wines, the wine rising up the neck to the top of the cork may not be from cooking, but rather pressurization changes during the flight back. I've had that happen several times in bringing Californian or European wines back to Japan. Especially with slightly crappier California corks, back in the day. Even with stains dribbling all the way down to the label, the wines in almost every case were fine, however. Those closures jusn't weren't designed for large pressurization changes, I guess. Makes me wonder how a Stelvin might react in those circumstances.
Anyway, would be interested in hearing how those Italian wines do at home, too.
- Reply by Fenderbaum, Nov 27, 2011.
Great write up Jon, thanks! And I'm certainly not opposed to a hint of jolly rancher in some wines..
- Reply by EMark, Nov 27, 2011.
Very interesting report, Jon. Thank you, very much.
It is heartening to hear about the improvement in winemaking from all the various regions. I love visiting Napa and Sonoma, but the Central Coast is moving in the right direction in everybody's estimation.
We'll be visiting an old friend in Los Osos after the holidays. We have an annual wine tasting event, which is more of an excuse to meet up, catch up, eat good food, and pontificate on any number of topics--the wines that we bring, politics, opera, other friends. Based on your report, I think we'll also try to visit some of the places you mentioned above. Farmstand 46 sounds like a winner. I'd be interested in any comments (yea or nay) you might have of any other eating establishments.
I, of course, look forward to your report on the Sunday events.
- Reply by Richard Foxall, Nov 30, 2011.
Thanks for that, JD. I'm way overdue to get down that way, but we're hoping to do a bit of wine tasting combined with a vacation to San Simeon in the not distant future. I sympathize about the pretentious crowd that can congregate at some tasting rooms. On the other hand, it's great just to have the chance to taste, since some of my favorite wineries don't (or rarely) open for tasting at all, specifically Roar in Santa Lucia Highlands.
- Reply by D9sus4, Dec 1, 2011.
Jon, wonderful detailed account of your trip to Paso Robles.
I just came back from my first visit to the Santa Barbara wine country over Thanksgiving and was considering writing an account of it for Snooth. But I didn't keep anywhere near the great notes that you did, so perhaps I'll save it for a future visit when I'll take better tasting notes.
- Reply by JonDerry, Dec 2, 2011.
Thanks for the good words everyone, the trip wound up being quite a revelation, and with most wine regions, part of its brilliance is its location, half way inbetween Los Angeles and San Francisco, and pretty well tucked away from big cities. Haven't found time to finish off the notes on Sunday, but hopefully soon.
D, thanks for mentioning that about my "backup" wine. Didn't think about the pressure, and it's quite a relief to hear that it's probably going to be fine, along with my bottle of Flaccianello, and other treasures from Cassis and Bordeaux from a wine shop in Nice that came back with me on the same trip.
Mark - Looking forward to hearing how your trip goes. Would definitely recommend visiting L'Aventure, and Terry Hoage in addition to Tablas Creek and Villa Creek.
Fox - To be fair I didn't find the pretension to be that high anywhere. My crew, sort to speak, had more of a problem with Villa Creek than I did, as priorities vary. Still, sometimes the intangibles are what make or break tastings.
D9 - Would be interested to hear what you thought of the wineries in SB, even though I live relatively close, I still haven't visited very many. Don't worry about notes so much, memory is usually what counts anyway.
- Reply by napagirl68, Dec 5, 2011.
Excellent write-up and gorgeous picture, JD!!! Thanks for sharing, I, for one, really appreciate the input. Sounds like a great time was had by all. I, personally love, first and foremost, the paso white rhone blends... There is only one outside the region (in CA) that I like better... it is the Lavender Ridge (murphys, ca) Rousanne. It is one of my fav Rousannes overall.
- Reply by dmcker, Dec 5, 2011.
D9sus4, good to see you back here, after what seems like some time. Would be great to see your reflections on your Santa Barbara jaunt. Don't worry about competition with Jon, I'm sure your insights will be interesting. ;-)