Paso Robles (April 12, 2012)
Paso Robles is the Rodney Dangerfield of California wine. If you are unaware of this winegrowing region situated roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, you're in good company.
In February of this year the Liquor Control Board of Ontario published a colourful 40-page booklet entitled Casual California, replete with bottle shots, recipes and maps. The map for the Central Coast had arrows pointing to Livermore Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey â€“ but no mention of Paso Robles (which is immediately south of Monterey). If I were one of the two hundred winery owners in Paso Robles I would be shocked and appalled to say the least, because this region in San Luis Obispo County with its 26,000 acres under vine is the largest contiguous AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the United States.
Grapes were first planted here by missionaries in 1797, even earlier than in Napa â€“ the region that gets all the attention, even though it produces only 4 per cent of California's wine. And as the commanding presence on the world wine stage, Napa's vintage report every year is taken as gospel for California as a whole â€“ much to the resentment of Paso producers, who have a totally different climate to contend with.
Paso Robles is like a large rectangle, twenty-five miles long and thirty-five miles wide. The western boundary of the AVA is a mere six miles from the Pacific Ocean, whose cooling breezes moderate summer's daytime temperatures that can reach 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The precipitous drop of the mercury at night causes a dramatic diurnal difference of 50 degrees in temperature. The heat of the day creates sugars in the grapes; the cold nights preserve their acidity. And high sugars in the grapes at fermentation mean potentially high alcohol in the wine.
Another benefit of the region is the strong wind that blows from the ocean protecting the grapes from rot and insects. This means that the grape bunches can hang for a long time on the vine: two weeks longer for the RhĂ´ne varieties than they can in the RhĂ´ne Valley itself and ten days longer for Bordeaux varieties than they can in the MĂ©doc. This extra hang-time means the berries reach maximum ripeness in terms not only of the fruit but also of the pits and seeds that impart tannin to the wine.
Paso Robles as a wine region is divided in two by the Salinas River. The western side begins on the inland slopes of the Santa Lucia coastal mountains. The steep hillsides are cut through by canyons that allow the morning fog to flow in, cooling the vineyards. This area has high rainfalls, one inch more rain for every mile you travel west from the river. Here the RhĂ´ne varieties flourish in clay and limestone soils. East of the Salinas River are flat lands and gentler rolling hills, ideal for growing Bordeaux varieties. It is also the home of Zinfandel, which locals say is more than a grape â€“ it's a heritage.
The frontier spirit is alive and well in Paso Robles; it's a home for mavericks and misfits. Take for example Stephan Asseo, a Frenchman who learned his winemaking in Burgundy. In 1982 he established Domaine Courteillac in Bordeaux and with his family subsequently purchased ChĂ˘teau Fleur Cardinal in Saint-Emilion and ChĂ˘teau Robin in the CĂ´te de Castillon. But over the years he felt hemmed in by the rigor of France's appellation contrĂ´lĂ©e regulations. In 1996 he went looking for a suitable terroir where he could pursue his highly individual winemaking style. He travelled to South Africa, Lebanon and Argentina, ultimately landing up in Napa. The price of land deterred Asseo from settling there. Instead he went south and immediately fell in love with the unique terroir of Paso Robles.
Asseo called his winery L'Aventure. He now farms 127 acres, which he densely planted (2,100 vines per acre) to a mix of Bordeaux and RhĂ´ne varieties â€“ Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Grenache Blanc. He's known locally as "Mr. Low Yield"; his wines are amazingly concentrated. He told our group of visiting Canadian wine writers and sommeliers that his yields are so low he gets only one bottle of wine per vine and that he treats his vineyards as if they were First Growth Bordeaux. So richly extracted and intense are his wines as a result â€“ they get up to 16.5 per cent alcohol â€“ that we all left with black tongues after the tasting his blends Optimus, Estate CuvĂ©e and L'Aventure CĂ´te Ă CĂ´te.
Other Paso wineries worthy of attention by wine lovers are Eberle Winery, Halter Ranch Vineyard, J. Lohr, Justin Vineyards, Tablas Creek Vineyard, Treanna & Hope Family Wines, Turley Wine Cellars and Victor Hugo Winery. Let us hope that the LCBO discovers where Paso Robles is.