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, Napa Valley: the annual rainfall is just 326 mm compared to 518 mm in Napa.
Defying expectations of rich, very ripe wines typical of a hot and dry climate, many of the wines we tasted showed restraint, finesse, and grace. 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 trip.
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. In the tasting room, there are a few native French speakers.
The French Perrin family of Domaine de Beaucastel are co-founders of Tablas Creek, and also trailblazers in planting and propagating Rhone varieties in California. Not only did they plant 120 acres of own vineyards with Rhone varieties, replicating the selection of their French property, they also established the nursery and sold cuttings to other vineyards. The family’s efforts hugely contributed to the increase of Rhone plantings in Paso Robles: from 100 acres in 1994 to 2,800 acres in 2013.
The Perrins picked the site in Paso Robles for its limestone soils, similar to those in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 1,500 ft elevation and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which both provide a cooling effect on 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 elegance and a clean, mineral finish.
Despite the French origins and the long noble history of Beaucastel, the tasting room has 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 spice. The rich and creamy texture (the wine went through malolactic fermentation) is balanced by nice acidity, making it a great wine for 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. A big and full-bodied wine, it is in no way overwhelming. Enticing aromas of cassis, prunes, sour cherries, and plum jam mingle with tempting smoky and meaty tones. The finish is clean and peppery, and the wine is fresh and juicy, tempting one to take another sip. We were really curious about the aging potential (we think the wine can last quite a few years), so we bought several 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 the few gravity-flow wineries in California.
The 108-acre vineyard is planted with Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, and Zinfandel. Vines grow on calcareous, well-drained soils in a hilly area close to Templeton Gap, a corridor for cool ocean breezes. Grapes from only 45 acres are currently used for wines under the Denner brand, with remaining grapes sold to other wineries.
The tasting room hosts were friendly but succinct, which didn’t diminish our pleasure from tasting the excellent wines and enjoying the splendid views from the outdoor patio.
In addition to five wines on the tasting menu, the hosts poured us a limited-production 2012 Ditch Digger Concrete. Made from 50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 10% Cinsault, and 5% Counoise, it was fermented 50% whole cluster and aged six months in neutral oak and another 12 months in concrete tanks. The clean, graceful and complex wine was a pure expression of fruit and terroir, and also our favorite of the tasting.
Epoch Estate Wines
Upon recommendation from the Denner hosts, 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: Epoch 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 the 2003 earthquake. After the deconstruction, the owners planned to use original timber, bricks and all salvaged items (pictured above) for the future tasting room.
Inside the current tasting room in a stylish single-wide trailer we were met with a half-nerdy, half-whimsical approach. Our tasting room host Taylor impressed us with the detailed knowledge of everything related to vineyards and wine-making. To his aid were extremely detailed vineyard maps, complete with elevations and clones.
On the whimsical side were the wine names, such as Ingenuity, Authenticity, and Sensibility, and tasting notes, or rather tasting drawings, created by Epoch’s winemaker Jordan Fiorentini.
We were particularly intrigued by 2011 Veracity, a Grenache-based wine (plus 25% Mourvedre and 18% Syrah), that the winery compared to both 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 denominators for many Paso Robles wineries. This alone isn’t quite enough to produce elegant wines, we found. Wines that stay graceful and sophisticated despite the region’s scorching summer heat come from carefully selected sites and grape varieties, nurtured vineyards, and cellars with plenty of concrete tanks and neutral oak barrels.