As promised, here's a more detailed run-down of my recent Paso Robles trip. Since my girlfriend and I don't know the area that well, this is not an ideal cross section of the region. We focused on tasting rooms on the west side of the 101 freeway, which is generally cooler than the east side of the appellation, but Paso doesn't exactly divide up neatly into an east-west dichotomy. Moreover, the location of a winery and the source of its grapes are often two entirely different things. Our tastings were a combination of a desire to taste wines from cooler vineyards as well as the necessity to make our visits in a geographically logical order. Also, we generally avoided wineries with mostly Zinfandel and Syrah because often times producers of these varietals aim for high alcohol fruit bombs. I have no doubt there are myriad exceptions to the rule, but without knowing any specifics, we just skipped those wineries. There's always next time!
The first stop was at Red Soles Winery. Red Soles is owned by Randy and Cheryl Phillips who have been growing wine grapes in Paso Robles for about two decades. Only in the last several years have they started making their own wine, though they still sell most of the grapes to other larger wineries. Randy was pouring in the tasting room and was incredibly enthusiastic about his new enterprise (and wasn't shy about mentioning his displeasure with certain corporate wine manufacturers who had previously purchased his grapes). Although there were a few varietal wines like a Viognier and a Cabernet Sauvignon, the wines covered the spectrum of whites, rosés and reds with just about every permutation and combination of blend possible from Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Cabernet. If you're looking for a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier, this is your place. A 50-50 Syrah-Petite Sirah mix? Yup. Syrah cofermented with a bit of Viognier? Again, yes. All four reds together? No problem. At a certain point it became difficult for me to differentiate the blends that differed by about 20% of one varietal or the other. But the wines were uniformly delicious in a very fruit forward way generally without seeming too heavy or alcoholic. I'd also bet that the owners/growers/winemakers know which vineyard blocks work best for them, and sell off the rest of the grapes to other producers. The whites were around $25, while the reds were generally pushing $40 per bottle. At these price points, you're not looking at great value and the only real question is whether the wines perform. If you like their style, I'd say the answer is yes.
Wines of note:
2008 Flip Flop - 50-50 Chardonnay-Viognier. Crisp and floral with good balance.
2008 Viognier - Orange creamsicle, summer white peach, nectarines. Thick, good weight.
2007 Petite Sirah - Bacon, berry and banana. Smooth and tannic.
2007 Achilles' Weakness - 50-50 Syrah-Petite Sirah. Tannic, dark and sinister. Bigger and masculine.
Stop number two was at Dark Star Cellars. Dark Star is a small entirely family-run operation that focuses on Bordeaux varietals with some Zin and Rhone varietals mixed in for balance. Aside from a rosé, Dark Star produces only red wines in the $2o to $35 price range. Perhaps it was palate fatigue carrying over from Red Soles, but the first several wines poured weren't that exciting. These included their Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah. But these were also priced closer to $20 than $40, so perhaps expectations should not be excessive. Regardless, these wines were good, fruit-driven offerings, but just not all that nuanced. Their Zin, however, did show lively acidity and were a bit more intriguing. The tasting picked up with their blends: Ricordatti (40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc, 5% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot), Soft Shoulder (60% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvedré) and Left Turn (60% Zinfandel 30% Syrah, 10% Mourvedré). The blends were around $35 and delivered with more complexity, depth and structure. Again, I wouldn't say there are any great values, but the better wines were worth the price.
Wines of note:
2005 Ricordatti - Big fruit, rich, viscous and tannic. A little tar and pepper.
2006 Soft Shoulder - Lighter body, but not thin. Funky, earthy bouquet and spicy finish. Certain Pinot-like qualities.
2006 Left Turn - More bramble-berry. Higher acidity and good depth of flavor.
Windward Vineyards was next on the trip. Windward produces only estate Pinot Noir, which is somewhat surprising even in the cooler confines of the Templeton Gap. It appears they have a secret to succeeding: they really know what they're doing. They've selected four "old" clones of Pinot Noir, including the clone used by Paso Pinot Noir pioneer Hoffman Mountain Ranch. Trendy "new" clones such as the Dijon 115, 667 or 777 less ideally suited for their terroir are not planted in their vineyards. Since they've been making Pinot Noir for nearly two decades, their experience has resulted in consistent, elegant and multi-faceted wines. While one might expect their wines to be bigger and fruitier than cooler-climate Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, the exact opposite is true. I tasted their estate "Monopole" and "Gold Barrel Select" wines from 2005, 2006 and 2007. The Monopole is a blend of all four clones and is a more floral, feminine wine. The Gold Barrel Select is richer, more tannic and more fruit driven, and represents only 2 or 3 of the clones grown on their estate. It's worth noting that the 2007 vintage was particularly good in Paso Robles according to more than onme winery we visited and the Monopole from that vintage compared favorably to the '05 and '06 reserve bottlings in terms of its concentration. At $36 (versus $60 for the Barrel Select), the Monopole (regardless of vintage) is the better value, though perhaps the reserve version is better structured for those interested in aging their wine. Once again, whether the price is right comes down to one's personal tastes. Unfortunately, $30 to $40 seems to be the going rate for most Pinot Noir with a designation more specific than Central Coast.
Wines of note:
2005 Monopole - Woodsy, earthy aromas. Perfumey. Lighter body with a long finish.
2005 Barrel Select - No Pommard clone. Fuller, rounder with more fruit on the nose, but still earthy. More tannic.
2007 Monopole - Forward earth, slightly funky. Darker color. Very round fruit flavor. Less earth on the finish. Similar to '05 and '06 reserve bottlings in intensity.
Based on the recommendation of Randy Phillips at Red Soles, we stopped at Terry Hoage Vineyards. Terry Hoage is a former NFL safety who starred for the Philadelphia Eagles during the late 80's when the team's defense was historically good. His wines reflect his background as a football player with names like "46," a reference to Buddy Ryan's famous defensive formation, "The Hegde," an homage to his alma mater The University of Georgia, and "The Pick," in honor of his most vital interception. Additionally, though these wines are produced by a safety, I'd label them as "linebacker wines" because they tackle your mouth. (The 46 defense required aggressive play by the defensive backs, thus the distinction between linebacker and safety is a blurry one in that context.) The majority of the wines are dominated by Syrah, and as a result they are generally full bodied, mouth coating wines. For my palate, they are a bit heavy and seem high in alcohol, though The Pick, which is mostly Grenache, is more elegant. With most of the wines priced around $40, this is the only winery where value is not a taste-based judgement call. High octane Syrah is pretty readily available for $25 if not $15, and at least for the '06 vintage wines, the extra degree of balance isn't there to justify the price for me. On the other hand, this is a popular style, and a lot of people would probably like Terry Hoage's wines more than I do.
Wines of note:
2006 The Pick - 55% Grenache, 27% Syrah, 11% Mourvedré, 6% Counoise. Candied cherry, caramel, earth/brush. Thick, round attack. A little heat on an earthy finish. Yum.
2006 The Hedge - 100% Syrah. Clove, bacon-berry. Thick, powerful, viscous. High ABV?
The final tasting room of the day was Martin & Weyrich Winery. Their selections are largely Italian and significantly more budget oriented with prices in the $10 to $30 range with a few outliers at higher price points. The wines largely fall into the "good for the price" category. They are not life-changing, but are fairly priced. The Paso Robles Cabernet, for example, has a nice disposition of bright cherry fruit and good tannic structure, but otherwise didn't stand out. Their Pinot Noir was similarly varietally correct, yet not as polished as a really good Pinot Noir. I did enjoy their Nebbiolo, and it was interesting that they were pouring both their 2003 Reserve Nebbiolo and 2004 Nebbiolo. Though I don't have a real reference point in terms of high-quality Piedmont Nebbiolo, Martin & Weyrich's offerings do have the intriguing aromatics and acidity that are typical for the varietal. I wouldn't bet on them aging like a Barolo. But for about $20, what wine does? All in all, they're worth a stop for the less familiar Italian varietals and the possibility of picking up a few bottles of wine that won't force you to declare bankruptcy after you see the credit card bill.
Wines of note:
2004 Nebbiolo - Leather and spice. Acidic and tannic with a little heat.
2003 Nebbiolo Vecchio Reserve - Tobacco and kitchen spice. Tannic.
2005 Sangiovese - Earthy, floral and herbaceous. Good acidity, but also some heat and noticeable sweetness.