Sunday, August 30, 2009

Paso Robles: Day 2

This post is long overdue and my notes have been sitting out here for quite a while. Well, here's my wrap up on Paso Robles that began some several months ago.

Stop 1: Denner Vineyards

To be honest, I didn't get a positive impression of this producer from the very start. Their tasting room and winery facility is one of these brand new McChateau style buildings on a hilltop. My most fun tasting experiences have been in smaller, rustic places or even warehouses (think the Lompoc wine ghetto) where the magic actually happens. In an unassuming atmosphere, the wine takes center stage and the servers if not the winemakers take time to engage the customers. Everything else is a facade, a lifestyle being sold at $40 per bottle.

So yeah, that's the Denner experience. You drive up and walk into a gigantic room with a high ceiling and zero acoustic damping because it's all stone and wood--you'd think they'd catch on how loud these places get with a few intemperate imbibers present. But to be fair, their wines are uniformly very good. They're Rhone wines that shade towards the more elegant direction, all with a pronounced minerality. The wines are also spot-on correct, from the hint of gaminess of their Mourvèdre, to the smokey, porky notes of their Syrah, to the oily viscosity of their Roussanne. As much as I appreciate the style, I have to knock their prices, which I have trouble separating from the ostentatious winery complex as one likely pays directly for the other. All the whites are around $30, while all the reds are around $40. If a winery can price its top wine at $40+, fine by me, but there's a bit of gouging going on if they can't offer a solid entry level wine or two in the $20 to $30 range. The quality is there, though, to make $40 seem not completely outrageous if you really like a particular wine.

Wines of note:

2006 Mourvèdre: Floral, red fruit aromas, gaminess. Minerality, smooth, velvety.
2005 Syrah: Tar, crispy bacon and blueberry. Minerality and good tannin balance.

Stop 2: Villa Creek

Villa Creek was more my style. It was at the end of a country road tucked into a canyon. More importantly, the tasting room was a home-bar setup in the shade outside of their winery, which was a functional sort of metal barn/warehouse. Expensive wines, yes, but at least you're not paying for some vanity project. Moreover, they had wines covering a range of price points from the affordable luxury level up to the unaffordable level. Cool, gotta make a livin, right?

As for the wine, best of its style I tasted on this trip and probably in Santa Barbara as well. The majority of their wines fall into the showy 16% ABV with creamy oak camp. As far as I'm concerned, these get expensive for what they offer over $30. But when it comes to quality with this type of wine, the key in my mind is developing that ultra-rich texture without turning the nose into alco-vanilla and truncating the finish with alco-burn. From this point of view, Villa Creek absolutely nailed this style. But their one red that veers furthest from this approach, La Boda, a 50-50 blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre, was my favorite of all the wines tasted on this trip. The oak and alcohol are dialed back down to levels appropriate for a table wine, while the freshness and earthiness are dialed up several notches. It sounded like whole cluster fermentation and less ripe fruit had a lot to do with this, as this was a willful excursion from their crowd-pleasing style more for the winemakers' own edification. Well, they nailed it (again). They made a superior wine in a superior style, while also making top exemplars in the popular, but ultimately less serious style. Win-win!

Wines of note:

2007 La Boda: Complex perfumed, floral red fruit nose with a little earth. Strong minerality with an amazing infinite earthy finish. Good tannin level. 50-50 Grenache & Mourvèdre.
2006 Vulture's Post: 80% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, 5% Grenache. Earthy berry nose, gamey. Full round fruit, tannic finish. Thicker than La Boda.
2006 High Road: 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre from James Berry Vineyard. Floral, blueberry and slightly meaty nose. Tannic. Full Syrah flavor, lot of berries and round, creamy mid-palate.

Stop 3: Tablas Creek

Another Creek-named winery, another big winner. While Tablas Creek does feel a bit more corporate--it is a piece of the Perrin wine empire after all--the experience is so educational and well organized that I must give credit where it's due. In fact, it seems we were so enamored with Tablas that every picture on this post is from Tablas Creek! It certainly helped that the herbs and olive trees intermingled with the vines gave a certain Provençal feel to the winery.

In terms of the wines, your best bet it to share the tasting with a friend or significant other because they will pour anything and everything they have open. By my count, 14 wines came up to taste, and strategic dumping even with two tasters became a matter of survival. Not surprisingly there's something here for everyone. Their entry level Cotes de Tablas wines offer very decent values. If blends aren't your things, there's every Rhone varietal under the sun: Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Syrah and even the non-Rhone tannat. Last but not least are their Esprit de Beaucastel wines, which are their Paso Robles version of a Chateauneuf du Pape. They poured the '06, '05 and '04 vintages of the rouge in succession, which was a real treat. The wines are a deft cross between California opulence and French depth, and the Esprit wines in particular seem built to age into wines of stunning complexity and elegance.

This is simply a must-visit in Paso. The grounds are lovely, the tasting has great breadth, especially if you read the notes about the varietals you're tasting, and the wines deliver across various price levels.

Wines of note:
2006 Grenache Blanc: Green apples. Crisp, clean and fairly round.
2008 Rose: Watermelon, strawberry and grapefruit. Long finish with good acidity.
2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge: Leather, red fruit, a little Brett, floral. More elegant with minerality.

Stop 4: Carmody McKnight

This visit was oddly disappointing. Carmody McKnight produces primarily Bordeaux varietals and most of their wines are priced competitively in the $20 to $35 range. We arrived at the end of the day as they were preparing for a wedding on their idyllic estate. Unfortunately, the servers seemed distracted and the wines were served warmer than I would have preferred. Since we arrived mid-Sunday afternoon, I also wondered how long some of the wines had been open. Regardless, the wines uniformly offered red fruit aromas and hefty tannins on the palate. Whether it was the wine, the serving temperature or the provenance, the wines came across as pretty one-dimensional.

I had tried one of their Bordeaux blends previously and really liked it. So this experience was perplexing. No wines really stood out, and there's nothing I can recommend based at the very least on how warm the wines were served. I can't really give Carmody McKnight a pass, but I'm not ready to write them off, either. Their prices are not unreasonable and I suspect their wines could have shown better.

Stop 5: Caparone Winery

Two words: old school. You drive up a gravel driveway that ends in front of a very utilitarian building that resembles a really big garage. Once inside, you're greeted by a friendly, knowledgeable old winemaker by the name of Dave Caparone. Dave and his son produce Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in a classic style. Extracted, yes, but not overripe or manipulated. They offer the sort of attractive rusticity and character that's all too often missing in Cali wines. In fact, if you've every read Kermit Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route, Dave Caparone is exactly the type of winemaker who seems like he wouldn't be at all out of place in a rural French cellar, except that he's of Italian descent and plies his trade in Paso Robles.

It seems the big thing in blogging these days is getting PR hacks from subsidiaries of wine conglomerates to send you their products as a bribe to write nice things about them. Well, this is what blogging should be about. Multi-million dollar corporations have plenty of mouthpieces already. It's the Caparones of the world that folks need to hear about. And you know what, you don't need to get a free sample, anyway, since each and every one of their wines is $14. Instead of wasting money his money on a McChateau, Dave Caparone puts it into the wine. That's why you taste at a little bar next to the barrels in the over-sized garage/small winery.

I didn't take notes while tasting at Caparone. My bad. But their style is traditional and age worthy with tons of stuffing, good acidity and lively character. No ultra-smooth new oak here, it's just fermented grapes showing what they got. Caparone may well top my beloved Loire for red wine QPR. This is a must visit if you appreciate authenticity.

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