HOPE FAMILY SHOWCASES THE BEST OF PASO ROBLES

On a recent press trip to Paso Robles, sponsored by Hope Family Wines, our host Austin Hope set the tone for the visit when he said it was his goal to show us the diversity of the region, not just his wines. I welcomed this, not only because Hope’s wines have long been among my favorites but also because I had been to Paso twice before and was eager to see how the region has developed.

 

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 visits to the area, I think Paso could just be short for “passion.

Austin Hope oversees Hope Family Wines (www.hopefamilywines.com), a family-owned and -operated enterprise encompassing five brands: Liberty School, Treana, Candor, Austin Hope and Troublemaker wines. Austin’s father, Chuck Hope moved his family from the Central Valley to Paso in 1978 to plant wine grapes pioneering families of the region. After growing grapes and developing vineyards throughout the eighties and early nineties, the family became convinced Paso Robles was capable of producing world-class wines and began producing their own wines.

 

They joined a handful of other pioneering families who helped promote the region, not just as a source of fine quality grapes but also as a complete wine travel destination. Today, Austin and Hope Family Wines also epitomize Paso Robles’ reputation for being on the cutting edge, a reputation Austin has fostered by experimenting with Rhone-style blends and multiple vintage wines.

At a tour of the Huerhuero Vineyard, a longtime source for entry level Liberty School wines, on the Eastside of Paso Robles, and of the nearby Hope Family Wines winemaking facility, we learned from General Manager of Vineyard Operations Suhky Sran, Winemaker J.C. Diefenderfer, and Assistant Winemaker Samantha Taylor about the family’s role in developing vineyards throughout Paso Robles and how they work with over 50 family-owned vineyards to produce fruit for the Liberty School wines. The brand had bee created in the 1970’s by the Wagner family of Napa’s Caymus Vineyards and the Hopes collaborated with the Wagners since the late 1980’s to supply cabernet sauvignon grapes. He Hope’s then took over sole responsibility for the brand in 1996.

 

Today, there is a range of varietals that deliver consistent quality for the money and are regularly recognized as a “Good Values” and “Best Buys.” Look for Cabernet Sauvignon (2010, $14), Chardonnay wines (2011, $14), Pinot Noir ($20), and Liberty School Merlot ($16). The wines are made in a more restrained, food friendly style with forward fruit, good varietal character, and moderate alcohol.

 

The Hopes then established Treana Winery in 1996, to produce high-end Rhone-style blends from Paso Robles and Central Coast fruit. JC explained to us the name Treana symbolizes the trinity of natural elements – sun, soil and ocean – that make Paso Robles and the Central Coast exceptional for growing wine grapes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To give us a flavor for what this means, we toured the Mer Soleil Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands near Salinas (our only stop outside of Paso Robles). This Monterey County-based vineyard is the long-time major source for Treana White, one of the first white Rhone-style blends and still one of the most highly regarded. The current vintage (2011, $23) is a blend of equal parts viognier and marsanne. Floral and tropical aromatics precede ripe pear and honey flavors combined with a lush texture and balancing acidity.

 

The Treana Red (2010, $45), which Austin considers his flagship wine, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. It combines the depth and structure of a Cab, with the fullness and class of syrah. It is a perfect example of Austin’s willingness to work outside-the-box. Not many wineries were combining Rhone and Bordeaux blends when he created this wine almost twenty years ago.

The Hopes also own a vineyard on the Westside of Paso Robles planted primarily to syrah and grenache, with some mourvedre. Austin crafts wines inspired by the Northern Rhône Valley from this estate grown fruit. Known as the Hope Family Vineyard, it is located 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean in the Templeton Gap district of Paso Robles. The site’s rocky soils of clay and limestone make it ideal for the Rhône varietals to which it is planted.

 

At this site, we were given a fascinating overview of the sustainable farming practices – certified by Sustainability in Practice (SIP), www.sipcertified.com – employed in the vineyard. Beth Vukmanic Lopez, Sustainability in Practice Certification Manager explained how for over 15 years, SIP has helped growers, vineyards and consumers rethink their approach to sustainability. As Beth said, SIP Certified sustainable vineyards and wines is about looking at the whole farm and considering “people, planet and profit.” In this sense, SIP is complementary to organic practices, not necessarily a replacement. Of course, a winery needs to make a profit to stay in business but that is closely tied to the quality of the wines, which depends on the quality of the grapes, which is connected to healthy vineyards. But SIP practices also consider the well being of the vineyard and winery workers, an often over looked factor. An important element to the success of the program is the third party certification SIP provides using independent auditors.

 

At the winery and tasting room on site, we enjoyed a barrel tasting of 2012 vintage Austin Hope Syrah and Grenache. Austin told us he uses traditional Côte-Rotie as his benchmark in making his syrah. But, being in California, he added he likes his wines to taste like the old world wines “but with a little bit more.”

This approach showed through the current vintages we tasted. The Syrah (2010, $42) displayed a balance of savory and fruit elements. Aromatic, intense and full-bodied, it also was elegant with pure berry fruit, licorice and earthy complexity. The Grenache (2010, $42) revealed characteristics of dried red fruits, earth and spices with good concentration, firm acidity and soft tannins.

 

The Hopes haven’t stopped to rest on these successful brands. Another label, “Candor” was created in 2008. These multi-vintage wines, a Merlot and Zinfandel, are crafted from specially selected fruit from a variety of Central Coast vineyards. They exhibit excellent varietal flavor at a reasonable price. We tasted the Zinfandel Lot 4 ($20) and Merlot Lot 3 ($20), which I found notable for their true varietal flavor and fresh, bright fruit.

 

Finally, the newest label in the Hope Family stable, “Troublemaker,” places Austin Hope’s creativity and willingness to challenge convention on full display. Troublemaker Blend 6 ($20) is a multi-vintage montage of 50% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 10% Mourvèdre, 10% Zinfandel and 10% Petite Sirah. Its profile reflected its name with brash fruit and lively texture.

While it was great to learn about all the Hope wines, the trip was made really special by the inclusion of visits to some of Paso Robles most notable artisan producers and restaurants.

 

Villa Creek (www.villacreek.com) has long been a destination restaurant for Paso Robles.

Artisan (www.artisanpasorobles.com) grows some of its ingredients at a local organic farm and showcased a distinctive wine on tap program.

Thomas Hill Organics (www.thomashillorganics.com) is a casual market-bistro that serves spectacularly fresh food, not surprising since most of it comes from their own organic farm.

Il Cortile Ristorante (www.ilcortileristorante.com) features exceptional homemade pastas, fresh seafood, and top-quality meats.

 

All of the restaurants craft dishes as much as possible from seasonal, locally grown ingredients from small producers, much of it organically or sustainably farmed. At these restaurants, farm-to-table is not just a marketing slogan. They live it every day. I will say without hesitation these places are as good as the best restaurants in any city in the nation.

 

And as if that wasn’t enough, to give us a sampling of the top quality artisan products being produced in the area we also toured two special places.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A visit to the Kiler Ridge Olive Farm (http://kilerridge.com) with founders Audrey Burnam & Gregg Bone was eye opening. Although it is just minutes from downtown Paso Robles the hilly, picturesque location transports visitors to another location, specifically Italy. Kiler Ridge uses sustainable farming practices and currently maintains 2,500 olive trees – varieties originating from Italy and Sicily.

 

Gregg and Audrey were gracious hosts. Gregg provided us with an extensive overview of his production process and explained in amazing detail why most of the “extra virgin” olive oil we buy in the supermarket isn’t really, regardless of what’s on the label.

 

It was particularly enlightening to me to actually taste the difference. The Kiler Ridge oils were noticeably fresher and displayed distinct grassy and peppery flavors. Greg explained this is because his oils have much higher polyphenol content – he even said, “I’m a polyphenol producer, not an olive oil producer.” Polyphenols are strong antioxidants with many health benefits. Bottom line, though, the oils were delicious but admittedly might be an acquired taste for some consumers used to blander commercial oils.

 

And they presented us with the most eye opening taste sensation I have hade in years: vanilla ice cream topped with sea salt, my choice of Kiler Ridge olive oil and balsamic syrup. All I can say is “wow!” It was delicious with all the savory and sweet elements melding together beautifully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also took a refreshing break from winetasting for a tour of the Firestone Walker Brewery (www.firestonebeer.com) with Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. Firestone Walker (named for owners Adam Firestone and David Walker) has been brewing since 1996 but moved from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles in 2001. Firestone Walker and Brewmaster Brynildson are one of the nation’s most awarded breweries and are particularly notable for their use of barrel fermentation for several of their ales.

 

I wholeheartedly recommend the next time you are considering a vacation to wine country, make Paso Robles your destination. The number of wineries has grown from about forty 25 years ago to over 200 (mostly small and family-owned) today. But that is only the beginning of this region’s story. Passionate, dedicated artisan producers with a commitment to sustainability are to be found everywhere in the region.

 

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.