- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Befitting its name, Paso Robles, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, used to be known primarily as a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. No more.

Paso, as locals call it, now is a destination all its own, for more and more wine lovers make sure to stop there because it has become home to some of the states most exciting wines.

Pasos emergence as a source of high-quality wine is due to many things, including substantial investment and newfound ambition on the part of vintners, and the gift of an almost ideal climate. The region experiences one of the greatest day-to-night temperature swings in California, so the vines dont get overheated, even in midsummer.

Paso Robles wine country is quite large. The appellation covers more than 600,000 acres, stretching about 35 miles from east to west, and 25 miles south to north. As such, its boundaries make better political than viticultural sense. (The northern border, for example, is a county line.) Within it, one finds a remarkable array of soil types and microclimates. As a result, Paso wineries produce many different wines.

Not surprisingly, a movement is afoot in Paso Robles to subdivide the region into smaller, more appropriately defined grape-growing regions. A proposal under review calls for 11 such subappellations, each identified by distinct climatic and geological characteristics. For now, though, a bottle of wine made with grapes grown anywhere in the area simply says “Paso Robles” on the label.

Although the Pacific Ocean lies just to the west, most of Paso Robles enjoys a continental climate, any maritime influence being blocked by the Santa Lucia Mountains. The one exception is a swath of rolling land west of the town of Templeton. A break in the mountains there, the Templeton Gap, allows a cool, sometimes downright cold, ocean breeze to flow inland. That difference helps explain why grape varieties that prefer cooler areas can grow well in the same appellation as those that thrive in warmer ones.

Even more varied than Pasos temperatures are its soils. The San Andreas Fault lies just to the east, and many millenniums of quakes and shifts have left some 45 different soil series in the one appellation. To many vintners, the most exciting are the calcareous, limestone-rich soils on the western hills. Limestone, prized for being rich in fossils and nutrients, is rare elsewhere in California. Its presence in Paso helps explain why so many investors have funded so many new wineries.

Commercial grape-growing and winemaking came to Paso in the late 19th century, but it took nearly 100 years for the area to experience a wine boom. Although some enterprising vintners, including Dr. Stanley Hoffman and Gary Eberle (whose eponymous winery now produces many top-notch wines) opened shop in the 1960s and 70s, it wasnt until the 1980s that significant investment came to the region.

During that decade, many large wineries based farther north in Napa and Sonoma counties bought land and planted vineyards in Paso Robles. They used the southern grapes they grew there in various California blends, usually without acknowledging as much on their labels.

During the last 20 years, though, more and more vintners have come to Paso Robles with the goal of growing grapes and making wine right there. No matter whether boutique-sized or global in scope, they proudly call Paso home. Today, about 170 wineries are in operation. Their top wines win plaudits far and wide, and savvy wine enthusiasts everywhere are asking for them.

So which specific grapes and wines should you look for? Cabernet sauvignon remains the most widely planted variety in Paso Robles, and while a great deal of it is still being shipped to wineries up north, some excellent wines are made there. Paso cabs tend to display full fruit flavors, without excessive tannic astringency. Unless overoaked (a worrisome problem everywhere in California these days), they taste luscious rather than muscular.

J. Lohr Estates Seven Oaks Cabernet 2005 ($17) is a good and widely available example of this comforting style. Even better is the same winerys 2003 Hilltop Vineyard Cabernet ($32), an age-worthy wine that certainly outperforms its price.

Two other cabernets worth hunting for are Vina Robles 2003 ($18) and Eberle Vineyard Selection 2004 ($18). Marked by black fruit flavors and a lush texture, they taste true to both the grape and the place.

A few Paso wineries combine cabernet and other traditional Bordeaux grapes to create meritage-style wines, blends in which the whole is said to exceed the sum of the parts. Justin Vineyards is the acknowledged leader with this sort of wine, its flagship Isosceles blend being one of Californias very best. In a slightly less flamboyant style, Justin “Justification” 2004 ($42), a blend of cabernet franc and merlot, tastes intense but supple. It will benefit from a few years of bottle age, but should provide delicious drinking for well over a decade.

While these Bordeaux grapes have a strong foothold in the region, Rhone grapes have become all the rage recently. The most exciting seem to be syrah, mourvedre, and grenache for reds, and roussanne and viognier for whites. If these varieties have a promising future in California, that future is beginning right now in Paso Robles.

On the white side, viognier has gotten most of the press to date. I find, however, that few of the wines manage to combine this grapes telltale floral aroma with anything resembling delicacy or finesse. Viognier is a tricky grape to grow and a tricky wine to make. Finding a good one sadly entails more misses than hits.

By contrast, rousanne is emerging as a real star. This grapes waxy texture and spicy, nutty flavors come to the fore in Paso, particularly when grown in the limestone-rich west side vineyards. Tablas Creek Roussanne 2005 ($27) tastes rich but at the same time lively. Its a wine that will turn heads.

Red Rhone-styled wines are in even greater demand. Syrah does very well in Paso, yielding wines that range in style from fruit-dominated to subtly earthy. Favorites include the meaty Austin Hope Syrah 2004 ($50), the deep but sophisticated Adelaida Reserve Syrah 2004 ($55), and the almost bacon-scented Garretson “The Craic” Syrah 2004 ($30).

Not as many wineries make stand-alone grenache or mourvedre wines, but both of these southern Rhone Valley grapes excel in Paso. You can taste them in some of the regions stellar blends, most notably those made by Tablas Creek, a winery jointly owned by the Perrin family from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and their American importer, Robert Haas. Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Rouge 2004 ($22) tastes supple and smooth, with an earthy edge enhancing its red fruit.

Even better because deeper, longer and more complex (although not necessarily more intense) is the winerys flagship Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge 2004 ($45). Whether visiting California or shopping here at home, it’s definitely something you dont want to pass by.

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