In the summer, we learnt, Paso Robles gets really hot. The average daytime temperature stays over 300C (870F) for four months, from June through September, often reaching beyond 400C (1040F). Hardly any rain falls in those four months. Paso Robles is much dryer than, for example, the Napa Valley: the annual rainfall is just 326 mm compared to 518 mm in Napa.
Defying expectations of jammy, over-ripe wines, typical of the hot climate, many of the wines we tasted demonstrated finesse, grace, and restraint. Incidentally, most were Rhone blends, made by wineries holding Southern Rhone appellations, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as their role model. The following three wineries – and their wines – were the favorites on our tour.
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Named after a small local creek, Tablas Creek Vineyard by no means disguises its identity. At the entrance, a signpost points in the direction of Domaine de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and there are a few native French speakers in the tasting room.
The Perrin family of Domaine de Beaucastel are the co-founders of Tablas Creek. Not only did they plant the Rhone varieties on their own 120 acres, replicating the selection of their French property, they also established the nursery and sold cuttings to other vineyards. The family’s efforts much contributed to the increase of Rhone plantings in Paso Robles: from 100 to 2,800 acres between 1994 and 2013.
The Perrins picked the site in Paso Robles for its limestone soils, similar to those in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as well as its 1,500 ft elevation and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which both provide a cooling effect for the grapes. The vineyard is organically certified and mostly dry-farmed. In the winery, native yeasts are used in fermentation, and wines are aged in large, neutral French oak barrels (foudres) to maintain their elegance and a clean, mineral finish.
Despite the French origins and the long noble history of Beaucastel, the tasting room is far from being pretentious, offering a relaxed, laid-back Californian ambiance. Our winery tour guide Derek, a cellar hand, was knowledgeable, personable and friendly. Of the six wines offered for tasting, our favorites were:
Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2011
Modelled after the Beaucastel white, this blend is made of 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc and 10% Picpoul Blanc. On the nose, it has aromas of fresh stone fruit, apples and some spice. Its rich and creamy texture (the wine went through malolactic fermentation) is balanced with a nice acidity, which makes it a great turkey wine at an elegant Thanksgiving dinner.
Esprit de Tablas 2012
The winery’s flagship wine (called Esprit de Beaucastel until 2011) is made of 40% Mourvèdre, 30% Syrah, 21% Grenache, and 9% Counoise. Undoubtedly serious and big, it is in no way overwhelming. Full-bodied, yet fresh, juicy and elegant, it has enticing aromas of cassis, prunes, sour cherries, and plum jam, tempting smoky and meaty tones, and a clean peppery finish. The wine is a great choice for an anniversary dinner, we thought, and bought a few bottles.
Denner Vineyards, like a few other estates in Paso, were founded by passionate (and wealthy) wine-lovers from Colorado. The Denner family earned their way back to California by owning and operating Ditch Witch trenching machine dealerships in several Western states. Once the dream place in Paso Robles was found in late 1990s, the owners engaged well-known consultants to plan and plant the vineyard. They also put a lot of care in designing the winery, which is one of few gravity-flow wineries in California.
The 108-acre vineyard is planted with Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, as well as Zinfandel. Vines grow on calcareous, well-drained soils in a hilly area close to the Templeton Gap, a corridor for the cool ocean breezes. Only 45 acres are currently used for wines under the Denner brand, the remaining grapes are sold to other wineries.
The Denner tasting room has definitely an air of exclusivity about it. To visit, you need an appointment, and to enter, you need a gate code. The tasting room hosts’ enthusiasm was quite muted, however. But it didn’t diminish our pleasure from tasting the wines and enjoying the splendid views from the outdoor patio.
To do our hosts justice, in addition to the five wines on the tasting menu, we got a pour of a limited-production 2012 Ditch Digger Concrete (50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 10% Cinsault, and 5% Counoise). It was also our favorite!
The Denner winemaker, Anthony Yount, seems to be handling oak very carefully. The regular Ditch Digger is aged in a combination of neutral oak barrels, concrete tanks and just 10% of new French oak barrels. The 2012 Ditch Digger Concrete had no new oak influence at all. Fermented 50% whole cluster and aged 6 months in neutral oak and 12 months in concrete, the wine was surprisingly mineral. A very clean, graceful and complex wine, indeed, and a pure expression of fruit and terroir!
Epoch Estate Wines
Upon Denner recommendation, we visited Epoch Estate Wines, located nearby, on steep hills near the Templeton Gap. Epoch Estate used to lease space at the Denner winery before their own facility was completed in 2014. It might not be a coincidence that it also has Colorado connection: it was founded in 2004 by two Colorado geologists, Bill and Liz Armstrong.
When we visited, the tasting area was one big construction site. The historic York Mountain Winery, now part of the property, was in the final stage of being de-constructred. Built in 1882, the winery was unfortunately seriously damaged in 2003 earthquake, and the owners plan to use its original timber, bricks and all salvaged items (above) for Epoch’s future tasting room.
Inside the current tasting room (in a stylish single-wide trailer!), we were met with half-nerdy, half-whimsical approach. Our tasting room host Taylor impressed us with detailed knowledge of everything related to the vineyards and wine-making. To his aid were probably the most detailed vineyard maps we’d seen so far, complete with elevations and clones.
On the whimsical side were the wine names, such as Ingenuity, Authenticity, and Sensibility, and tasting notes, or rather drawings, created by Epoch’s winemaker Jordan Fiorentini.
We were particularly intrigued by 2011 Veracity, a Grenache-based wine (57%, with the addition of 25% Mourvedre and 18% Syrah), “showing the still velvety but also more muscle-y side of the grape… – think Lara Croft and Audrey Hepburn”. Aged 16 months in 25% new French oak barrels, it was a complex, layered wine with a lot of fruit and pronounced minerality. Using Fiorentini’s words, it felt “like you’ve eaten raspberries and licked rocks”.
Rocky soils, elevation, proximity to the Pacific Ocean and large diurnal temperature swings (in fact, the largest in California) are the common denominator for many Paso Robles wines. This alone isn’t quite enough to produce elegant wines, we found. Wines that stay svelte and sophisticated despite the region’s scorching summer heat, come from carefully selected and maintained vineyards and cellars with plenty of concrete tanks and neutral oak barrels.