Paso Robles Besides the Rhône
A young wine region such as Paso Robles allows opportunities to experiment, as imaginative winemakers explore the different possibilities the area affords. There are over 40 grape varieties grown, including Zinfandel and Spanish and Italian varieties, besides the Rhône blends Paso excels at. There is also a major brewery which makes an eclectic range of beers, as well as a distiller and a producer of Port-style wines. It all makes for a fascinating region to explore, not just for wine and drink but for food too, as there are some excellent restaurants.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the few Paso Robles wineries were mainly producing Zinfandel. From the blisteringly hot days, the wines were big and robust, the wines of cowboys and outlaws. The grape has now largely been uprooted by Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdre and Grenache, but wineries are still making some Zinfandel with mixed results.
The Lone Madrone Bailey Ranch Zinfandel 2011 ($37) is a superb example of Zinfandel at its most expressive. From a dry-farmed vineyard and head-trained vines, this is a proper, perfumed Zin: violets and roses, blueberries and damsons, oak and vanilla. Likewise on the palate, with a savoury, peppery kick to the finish, with juicy fruits and high acidity, with some dried fruits coming through as well. Lone Madrone also produce another powerful wine with some Zinfandel in the blend. The Will ($45; 47% Grenache, 33% Petite Sirah, 20% Zinfandel) has an upfront fruity nose of raspberries, cherries, and blackberries; the palate is more interesting, with pepper and liquorice, vanilla and oak, gripping tannins, and a fresh, high acidity.
Pomar Junction also produce an expressive, serious Zinfandel (Zinfandel Reserve 2011, $54), with ripe fruits on the nose overladen with perfume; on the palate, it's a toasty, oaky, meaty wine, with a subtly spicy finish. Less successful is the J. Lohr Gesture Zinfandel 2011 ($25), which is too much like strawberry jam. Although the oak balances the jamminess on the palate, this is too much of an old-fashioned Zinfandel where it's all about the fruits and too little about the structure of the wine. The Eberle Zinfandel 2011 ($28) is better; still too fruity, it does have a cocoa, black pepper backbone to it.
The Spanish name of Paso Robles suggests a town with a heavily Hispanic influence. Only one winery, though, specialises in Spanish varieties, as well as a few Portuguese. These wines were good enough to suggest that more wineries should follow the example of Bodegas Paso Robles. I tasted two whites, Galicia 2013 ($25; 100% Albariño) and Garnacha Blanca 2013 ($27), the latter having appealing citrus fruits and an almond, almost bready finish. Many of the reds are Tempranillo based, though winemaker Dorothy Schuler is not afraid to experiment with lesser known varieties such as Graciano. The signature red is ¡Viva Yo! 2010 ($29; 90% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon), an earthy, gamey wine with an engaging mixture of red and black fruits, and a savoury, spicy mouth. The Iberia 2005 ($45; 33% Tempranillo, 31% Touriga Nacional, 25% Graciano, 11% Tinto Cão) is a mature blend of Spanish and Portuguese grapes, with a smoky, leathery character to add to the plums and blackberries. My favourite wine was the Vaca Negra 2009 ($33; 43% Mourvèdre, 36% Tempranillo, 21% Garnacha). This combined all the best of Paso Robles - Rhône grapes, albeit with a Spanish influence, and imaginative blending.
I am yet to be convinced that the great Italian varieties Sangiovese and Nebbiolo work out of their Tuscan and Piemonte homelands, but one wine I tasted disproved that theory. The Eberle Sangiovese 2011 ($24) is a good wine, with red fruits, oak, and liquorice, but a little simple. The Lone Madrone Bollo 2007 ($60) is something else though, and one I would love to taste alongside a Barolo or Barbaresco. It has a very floral nose of violets, roses, and irises, with strawberries and cherries: with its garnet colour and inviting perfumes, this is very Nebbiolo. The palate delivers too, with big, heavy, powerful tannins washed with high acidity. For a wine from 2007, it's still going strong. This is a big wine that still has delicate red fruits; complex, maturing, but lively.
For such a hot, barren, wild area, one would expect a healthy supply of beer to whet away the still days. Lone Madrone make cider, a tradition which has sadly been usurped throughout California by winemaking. I only got to taste one, the Bristols Original Cider ($9, 7.5%), which was an intense farm cider, with bitter apples and a juicy acidity. Nine ciders are made in total.
The main brewery of Paso Robles is Firestone Walker, who make a series of imaginative, and slightly difficult, beers. They made their name with the Double DBA (12%), an intense dark beer with coffee, caramel, toffee, and dark chocolate, which has the overall feel of vanilla ice cream and the dried fruits of a Pedro Ximenez sherry. Two complex saisons are made; the Opal (7.5%) has a slight sourness to it, with a gentle farmyard, countryside nose, with sour apples and pears and cinnamon. The LIL Opal (5.5%) is a proper stinky beer, with oranges, tangerines, and marmalade adding to the brett and mushrooms. Despite all those strange flavours, it's extremely refreshing on the palate, with high acidity and a lightly oaky spiciness. Two beers only available at the brewery are the Hefeweizen (4.7%), an outstanding wheat beer which has won awards in Germany, and the Stickee Monkee 2014 (13.4%), a one-off beer that's been aged in Bourbon barrels and had brown sugar added to it. It has sweet whiskey flavours of oak, coconut, and leather, as well as molasses from the brown sugar (I would have guessed it had been aged in rum barrels). The high alcohol and sweetness are balanced by the spicy flavours of pepper and anise. Not a beer to drink a lot of, but much to appreciate.
Many of the wineries I've visited throughout California are keen to stress their sustainable practices. Villicana Winery take this concept a step further by reusing the left-over juice from pressing to make grape-based spirits, under the Re:Find label. There is a vodka, which has a nice citrus, spicy character, a cucumber vodka, and a gin, made with seven different botanicals. Not being a huge vodka fan, it was the gin I found most interesting with lots of citrus aromas from the coriander, lemon and orange peel botanicals, and delicate floral aromas from the lavender and orris root, finished off with a bit of spice from the grains of paradise.
Visiting Re:Find was a reminder of the US's bureaucratic laws towards alcohol, distant off-shoots of Prohibition days. In California, only grape-based products can be sold on-site; all other products must be sold through a third party. Therefore, the distillery could only sell the two vodkas and the gin in bottles labelled as "brandy" - legally so, as they are grape-based. In sites elsewhere in California, the bottles are labelled vodka and gin - which is what they actually are.
"Portuguese Style Dessert Wines"
The road up to PasoPort is a steep dirt track lined with the labels from the winery's bottles, all of which feature distractingly glamorous portraits of 1920s women. Opened only in 2008, the winery is still a ramshackle affair, but the wines are interesting and beautifully packaged. There's a pot still on site which is used to make the base spirit for fortification, and they hope to start producing liqueurs and grappa. A mixture of Portuguese and international grapes are sourced to make port-style wines; in the tasting room, the term "port" was used quite liberally, but the wines are labelled "Portuguese style dessert wines." One is made from Zinfandel ($35), but it's the more traditional Violeta (2006 $40, 2009 $36), made from the Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional, Tinto Cão, and Souzão, that worked the best. Violets on the nose, with blueberries and blackberries; deep, rich fruits on the palate, with chocolate, cocoa, and black pepper.
places to eat
Paso Robles is a small town, but there are plenty of good places to eat. For lunch, Bistro Laurent is perfect: a small patio that catches the afternoon breezes serving delicious salads and a light onion soup. In the evening, La Cosecha has seriously good food, with a relaxed, lively atmosphere. Buona Tavola is a laid-back Italian restaurant with fresh pasta dishes. When you're done eating, Pine Street Saloon is a great place for a beer and live music.
All in all, Paso is a wonderful area to visit: an up-and-coming wine region still discovering itself and willing to experiment, with plenty of other drinks to try when you've had enough wine. Everyone is friendly and helpful, and at the end of the day there's good food to be found. If you ever make a road trip along the California coast, Paso Robles is a must stop.