"Temperance, like chastity, is its own punishment."
-- Bill Grant, Four Vines Winery in Paso Robles (with a nod to Ben Franklin)
With more than 170 wineries and growing, Paso Robles, Calif., is no juvenile wine area. Down-to-earth with the light of success and humor flickering in their eyes, the players exude a confident sense of going somewhere fast yet at their own pace. Most wineries are still family-owned and -operated, but even those corporately owned, such as Wild Horse Winery, have kept loyal employees for years. This steadfastness helps produce wines that are inspiration-filled and consistent, an effort reflected in each glass.
But it wasn't easy getting there. Many Paso wineries weathered lean years before people noticed this large grape region centered between San Fran and Los Angeles. The Hope Family, who produces the Treana, Austin Hope and Liberty School labels, started out as grape farmers in 1978 and moved into making wine in 1984 when they sensed the industry's potential. Around the same time, Jerry Lohr, one of the highly respected early pioneers originally from Monterey, set up camp. Jerry and his son Steve built a wildly successful winery, J. Lohr, which now boasts 1,200 acres of grapes birthing an annual 600,000 cases of wine.
And others have made a strong mark on the industry, such as Gary Eberle, a fantastically gregarious and genial man widely considered the wine pioneer in Paso Robles. He introduced the syrah (or shiraz) grape to California in 1980 by bringing over a vine cutting from Chapoutier, one of the foremost syrah producers in the Rhône region of France. Due to his efforts, syrah now thrives up and down the West Coast.
Other Rhône varieties have Tablas Creek Vineyard to thank for their existence in California. According to Jason Haas, third-generation family member, Tablas Creek, along with the Rhône-region Perrin family, introduced grapes such as grenache and mourvedre to California. They believe these varieties thrive in Paso for three reasons: 1) intense heat and the wide shift in daily temperature; 2) enough rainfall to potentially farm without watering; and 3) the limestone- and calcium-rich soils. Their wines, such as the 2004 Côtes de Tablas Red ($20) show loads of fruit, even tannins and deliciously high acids, which leads me to believe they made the right decision.
Across U.S. 101, fifth-generation farmer (and the guy everyone would want as a grandfather) Howie Steinbeck of Steinbeck Vineyards echoes similar sentiments. Although only farming grapes since 1982, he believes the sandy loam soils and the climate of his 520-acre Eastside plot ripen the grapes faster. With his daughter, Cindy Newkirk, leading the educational charge, they strongly believe in the region's possibilities. She recently founded a "vineyardist" school, called the Wineyard, an adjunct facility for California Polytechnic Institute. From soils to leaf management, the courses allow anyone to become a student of the grape. And if you go, don't miss Howie's vineyard tour on Wineyard Willy, a ramshackle Army jeep that delivers a wild ride rivaling any old wooden roller coaster.
In the late '90s, people poured into the region, seeking a piece of Paso's wine action. Clautiere Vineyard, founded by an eclectic, glam couple from Los Angeles who had never farmed before, makes fantastic Rhône varietal wines, such as roussanne, viognier, grenache and syrah. (If you stop by, ask about the wigs.) A Paso zin specialist is Four Vines, who buys grapes from all over the state to ensure they taste full-bodied and delicious. Other inspiring and aspiring wineries to look for: Opolo, Halter Ranch, Sylvester, Adelaida, Orchid Hill and Edward Sellers. Due to their extremely small production (often less than 10,000 cases), their wines might be hard to find, but if you do spot one, grab it and growl.
Eberle 2005 Zinfandel Steinbeck Wine Bush Vineyards $22. Sw = 2. **** 1/2
Opolo 2005 Sangiovese Paso Robles $24. Sw = 1. ****
Austin Hope 2004 Syrah Family Vineyard $48. Sw = 1. **** 1/2
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.