Paso Robles Emerges As World Class Wine, Food, Travel Destination

Five years ago when I first visited Paso Robles I thought the area showed great promise as a viticultural zone. A recent visit as part of a group of journalists assembled by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance showed me how much the area has matured as a grape growing, winemaking and culinary destination. And how much promise there is for even more progress.

Paso Robles is the largest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California. It is also the name of the main town of about 30,000, whose original name was El Paso del

Robles (“Passage of the Oaks”). But, after my recent visit to the area, I think Paso could just be short for “passion.”

From our home base at the elegant Hotel Cheval, just off the square in downtown Paso, we visited a wide variety of vineyards, wineries, restaurants and other food purveyors

Dinner the first night was at Artisan in downtown Paso where Chef Chris Kobayashi (who has cooking credentials from San Francisco and the Napa Valley restaurants) crafts dishes as much as possible from seasonal, locally grown ingredients from small producers.

We were joined by the following “pioneers”:

• Jason Haas, whose father, the respected importer Robert Haas and the Perrin brothers of the esteemed Chateau Beaucastel established Tablas Creek in 1989, kicking off Paso’s journey to becoming a Rhone varietal mecca.

• Justin Baldwin, who with his wife Deborah established Justin Vineyards in 1981and turned it into a popular destination with an elegant inn and gourmet restaurant, while showing Paso can produce great Bordeaux varietal-based wines.

• Steve Lohr, son of Jerry Lohr, founder of J. Lohr, which moved into Paso in 1988 and has grown into one of the area’s largest and most widely available labels, while building a reputation for excellent value.

Continuing the pioneer theme, our tours the next day took us to two of the area’s oldest farming families. We began the day at Steinbeck Vineyards where six generations have farmed what is now 500 acres of vines. Cindy (Steinbeck) Newkirk explained their sustainable farming practices and noted that they sell 99 percent of their grapes to such producers as Eberle, Justin, J. Lohr, and Treana. The family decided to open their own winery in 2005 and now release their own wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, and The Crash made by longtime area winemaker Steve Glossner) with the other one percent.

Cindy also explained her foray into “agritourism” with the creation of The Wine Yard, a classroom in the vineyard offering an historical overview of the region, vineyard jeep tours and viticultural education.

The next stop was a particular treat for the Zinfandel lover (not to mention the Italian) in me: the legendary Dusi vineyard. The Dusi family tradition in Paso began in 1923 when Great Grandparents Sylvester and Catarina Dusi purchased a ranch on the east side of the Salians River (which today roughly parallels Highway 101) and began planting zinfandel vines. This property, farmed for many years by their son Benito and today by his son Mike has supplied the fruit for the celebrated Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandels since 1976. I have fond memories of drinking many of those Ridge wines over the years.

Benito’s brother Dante planted another zinfandel vineyard on the west side in 1945 and can still be seen driving a tractor through the head pruned, dry farmed vines (I have a picture to prove it!). It was here that we sampled several Dusi Zinfandels from new Paso-based wineries in an enlightening tasting that presented examples of the character of the Vineyard – usually bold, dramatic, spicy, intense.

• J. Dusi. Dante’s granddaughter Janell pays tribute to her grandfather and family heritage by adding intriguing Carignane, Grappa and Port to the regular Zinfandel.

• Four Vines. Winemaker Christian Tietje and his partners have cultivated a eccentric image with flamboyant labels that match the flashy wines.

• Grey Wolf. This family-owned winery founded by Joe and Shirlene Barton in 1994 now has son Joe as its winemaker. He makes a wide range of Zinfandels, Rhone-style wines, as well as cabernet-based wines.

• Turley. This has been an iconic name in California winemaking ever since they released their first wines in 1993. There are now dozens of Turley Zinfandels from all over the state. But they thought so highly of Paso, they bought the old Pesenti vineyard and established a winery here. Malani Anderson, representing the company, presented their amazingly pure Dusi Zin.

We followed these tours with lunch at Thomas Hill Organics a friendly, casual market-bistro two blocks from the downtown square that served spectacularly fresh food, not surprising since it much of it came from their own organic farm. Joeli Yaguda of Pasolivo, a gourmet olive oil company, also treated us to a fascinating tasting of locally grown olive oils.

Alex and Monica Villicana joined us to share wines from their Villicana winery. Although Alex and Monica were SoCal folks, their connection to Paso goes back to 1990 when Alex began working harvests there. Six years later, they purchased property, planted a vineyard and in 2002 moved their family to Paso to focus full time on their winery. They make very interesting wines and even share a tasting room with Pasolivo.

Dinner that night was at the home of L’Aventure owner/winemaker Stephan Asseo and his wife Beatrice. Also attending were close friends and neighboring vintners Terry and Jennifer Hoage, of Terry Hoage Vineyards, and Marc Goldberg and Maggie D’Ambrosia, of Windward Vineyard. This was a smart move by the alliance, as these friends amply demonstrated the camaraderie of the Paso Robles wine community. Local chef and caterer Jeffrey Scott prepared the meal, with food sourced from within a 30-mile radius of Paso Robles. Here is additional information about these three outstanding wineries.

• After beginning his winemaking career in Bordeaux but becoming frustrated with the strictures of Bordeaux law, Stephan and Beatrice searched California for a place to locate their own winery. In 1997, they decided Paso Robles was ideal and L’Aventure has become one of Paso’s most celebrated wineries. Asseo crafts some of the most highly sought after wines from the area. His innovative blends – varying combinations of cabernet sauvignon, petite verdot and Rhone varietals.

• After a 13-year NFL career, Terry Hoage and his wife Jennifer, who had been an interior designer, decided on new careers as vintners. They established Terry Hoage Vineyards with the purchase of a vineyard in 2002 and have quickly gained wide recognition for their solely Rhone-style w

ines (of course, all with clever football-related names).

• It’s something you don’t hear much in this region but at Windward Marc Goldberg and Maggie D’Ambrosia produce fine Pinot Noir and only Pinot Noir. Attracted by the success that Dr. Stanley Hoffman and the great Andre Tchelistcheff had with the storied Hoffman Mountain Rnach Pinot Noirs of the 1960s and 1970s, they came to Paso in 1990 to realize a life long dream to make high quality, Burgundian-style pinot.

The next morning showcased Paso’s current claim to fame and what many believe to be the region’s future: Rhone varietals. A panel of nine winemakers/owners gathered at Hope Family Wines to present wines representing the quality and diversity of Rhone-style wines from the region.

• Viognier from Thatcher, whose winemaker Sherman Thatcher, is a former craft brewer who also produces distinctive Zinfandel and Rhone-style wines.

• Roussanne from Kenneth Volk, the founder of Wild Horse winery, who has been committed to Paso since 1981. Although his new, eponymous winery is located

in Santa Barbara, he produces his Bordeaux-style wines and most of his Rhone style wines from Paso fruit.

• Cote du Robles Blanc (roussanne and Grenache blanc) from Eberle. Gary Eberle’s history in Paso reaches back to 1973 and his own winery dates to 1979. Even as attention is paid to the many new Paso wineries, pioneers like Eberle continue to deserve attention.

• A Rhone blend Rose from Anglim, a mostly Rhone focused winery worth your attention, especially the blends.

• Grenache from Austin Hope. The Hope family has been respected grape growers in the region since 1978. Now under the direction of son Austin, the family also produces Treana, Liberty School, and Candor wines.

• “Damas Noir” Mourvedre from Villa Creek. The owners established a popular restaurant in downtown Paso Robles in 1997 and gradually moved into winemaking. Both are worth seeking out.

• Cuvee des Cinc (five Rhone varietals) from Edward Sellers. Ed and his wife Dani left other careers to come to Paso in 2003 and now specialize in Rhone-style win

es, particularly several innovative blends.

• Petite Sirah from Vina Robles. Here is another European transplant, this time from Switzerland, that recognized the potential for great wine from Paso Robles. A Paso resident for 12 years now, Vina Robles produces a wide ranges of wines.

After the tasting, we had lunch outdoors at Farmstand 46, a gourmet deli and the only restaurant (not counting winery cafes) located among the cluster of wineries best accessed from Highway 46 West. This oasis is a collaboration by the owners of Four Vines and the Executive Chef

of Villa Creek restaurant.

Besides location, they really have created a great thing here. The vegetables and herbs come almost exclusively from their own organic garden planted on the property. Most of the meats come from local producers. And the pizzas! We had a delightful lunch of gourmet pizzas cooked in the outdoor wood-fired oven.

After lunch, we made the 45-minute drive to the Hearst Ranch, where about a 1000 cattle graze on the 150,000 acres surrounding the famous Hearst Castle near San Simeon. The ranch is dedicated to producing grass fed beef for its healthier composition, better taste, and its benefits for animal welfare and the environment. And we washed down our juicy samples of beef with wines from the new Hearst Winery.

We finished our day in the seaside village of Cayucos where we enjoyed a special dinner at the gorgeous Cass House Inn & Restaurant. Chef Jensen Lorenzen, who works closely with local farmers and foragers, prepared the meal. We were joined the owners of four of Paso’s newest wineries.

• Co-owner Karl Wittstrom of Ancient Peaks, which was established in 2005 and boasts the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA. The property also includes a working cattle ranch.

• Aram Deirmenjian of Kiamie, who comes from a family of table grape growers, founded Kiamie in 2004 with partner Greg Johnson. Aram believes that blends are the future of Paso wine. So, that’s all winemaker Steve Glosser makes, and he may just prove Aram right.

• Kevin Jussila of Kukkula. Jussila and his family moved from southern California to Paso in 2004. They now produce Zinfandel, Rhone varietals and Cabernet Sauvignon, which soon will be certified organic.

• Neil Collins of Lone Madrone. Neil, who has been the winemaker at Tablas Creek since 1998, has also been making Lone Madrone wine with his sister Jackie Meisinger since 1996.

Surely, Paso Robles has seen impressive winery growth. There were approximately 35 wineries in 1995, 50 in 2000, 100 in 2005, and around 200 today. But that is only the beginning of this region’s story. there are six basic reasons why this region in the Central Coast of California may just be the next great wine destination.

Terroir. There are more calcareous soils (limestone soils highly prized by vintners) than anywhere else in California. It has one of the greatest diurnal temperature swings (often 40-50 degrees between day and night). It has one of the longest, most consistent growing seasons. And there is a wide diversity of soils, topography and microclimates.

Fruit. There is a foundational grape – zinfandel – that has long drawn attention to the region. The region now is emerging as the best source of Rhone-style wines outside of the Rhone itself. And it still produces large quantities of cabernet sauvignon that provides a base for many producers all over California.

Location. Paso Robles is centrally located about half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is just 10-20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, several quaint seaside villages, and the Hearst Castle. It is also a relatively short drive to Monterey in the north and Santa Barbara in the south.

Food. During this visit, we were treated to an amazing variety and quality of raw ingredients – some of the freshest, purest I’ve ever tasted – and some of the most creative cooking. I was impressed by the extent to which almost everyone had embraced sustainable practices.

People. Passionate, dedicated growers and vintners – families who have made Paso their home for generations and who are being joined by a new generation who has chosen to come to this place because of its beauty and potential (see above) but also because of the camaraderie among the producers.

Hospitality. Ninety percent of the wineries make 5000 case or less. They are family run businesses. And you are likely to find one of those family members there when you visit the winery.

For these reasons, I believe Paso Robles may be the next great wine region, if it isn’t already. Anyone looking for a wine country vacation should put Paso Robles at the top of their list.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.