Saturday, March 29, 2008

Paso Robles

Paso Robles.
This ain't your father's Paso

I hesitated with that sub-title, because in that statement, I am the

Since my college days in San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles has changed from a
sleepy little community of cattle ranches, grain farms, western shops,
what seemed like a disproportionate number of fishing boat shops, and
probably 3 wineries. Now, you can count over 200 wineries in the Paso
Robles area. The downtown was recently described as the next Headlsburg.
That is almost spot on. Paso now boasts several nice restaurants, places
to go for a bite to eat, hang out, have a great glass of wine or beer,
and even a few microbrewery pubs.

Everyone is always tempted to separate wines and wineries into
categories, by their style, their varieties of grapes, the viticultural
or enological processes that they employ, their value, or their
perceived quality. These classifications help us to compare wines or
wineries with others we might feel are similar. Sometimes, it is not
obvious in advance, what group one will fit into because what causes the
wine to have the determining quality is not obvious. But, as we began
tasting our way around Paso Robles, a distinction became apparent. We
quickly noticed that there was an obvious geographical boundary between
two distinct categories of wine in the area. Looking at a map, that
geographic boundary has a label, US interstate 101. The freeway runs
north-south through the middle of town and divides the Paso Robles AVA
into two haves. Comparing the topologies of the two areas, they are
equally distinct.

The east side of the AVA is flat, warm, sunny and arid. In many ways, it
is not too different from the central valley, and their resulting wines
are reminiscent of the wines of the central valley. Higher volume,
higher brix and therefore higher alcohol, less color, less aroma, and
less varietal character. That is not to say that there were no stand out
wines. We enjoyed some from the eastern half of the area, but they were
fewer and farther between. Eberle winery was one of those stand outs.

The west side of the AVA is very different from it's eastern half.
Starting at the freeway and moving west, you quickly move into the
hills. Flat vineyards give way to steep slopes, much less land plantable
with vines, more trees. The fog from the coast, just over the hills,
hangs around in the mornings. The temperature is noticeable cooler, the
soils are different. Where the other side was much sandier, the west
side is much more solid. Limestone and granite make the vines work a bit
harder for their nutrients and water. I am sure it makes the winemakers
work harder for each gallon of juice too. The yields are much lower on
this side, where the east side cal easily pull 4-6 tons of grapes per
acre, one winery on the wast said he was getting less that a ton per acre.

Will the area be divided into two areas, east and west? That subject
never came up while we were there. It may be that the area is keeping
any internal divisions from becoming obvious to the public. Probably a
good move to work together and get name recognition for the area.

A few other observations that we found interesting, huge blends or non
traditional varietal blends were common. A blend of 4 or more different
grapes was common. One wine maker had put together a blend of 7
different varietals. It is hard to believe that this wine was the result
of a methodical and meticulous sampling to find the "sweet spot" where
any change of percentages in one direction or another would diverge from
the optimum blend. It seemed more like it was the result of going
through your refrigerator at the end of the week to find out what you
can put into the pot for a stew to use up what you have on hand. That
kind of blend had no identifiable character.

Many wineries gave their wines "pretty names". These were things like
"Renegade", "Sundance" and "Radiance". This was probably because of the
extensive blending, not allowing them to use varietal names like "2005
Sarah", and a name like "Eight Completely Random Wines Mixed into One
Bottle" doesn't roll off the tongue.

The other interesting aspect of the blending, many winemakers were
blending Bordeaux and Rhone varieties together like Cabernet and Syrah,
or even red and white wines together. Some worked, some didn't. Our
favorite winery of the weekend, L’Aventure. I got the impression that
the owners and winemakers made the wines the did because that was their
choice of wine. Well though out and excellently executed.

Our weekend down there coincided with Zinfandel Festival. That brought
in a lot of tourists. But staying to the
smaller wineries off the beaten path kept the crowds down.

A trip to Paso Robles from the bay area is a short 3 hour drive. Well
worth it. Make a long weekend out of it