We headed down to Paso Robles for the Jack Creek Winery club party, but made it an extended trip. We first visited the northern San Luis Obispo (SLO) county area in the late 80s, then not returning again till 2006 to revisit western Paso Robles and the coast town of Cambria. We are impressed with the growth of the wine industry in SLO, as well as with the excitement and vintner creativity there. In many ways, Paso Robles reminds us of Sonoma County back in the 1980s – or Napa in the 1970s. The wineries are generally smaller, less crowded, and friendlier … going SLO.
The folks behind the tasting bar are also more knowledgeable than their more commercialized counterparts in Sonoma and Napa. San Luis Obispo wineries are taking off!
“West side” Wineries –
Jack Creek, Tablas Creek, Treanna
We visited “west side” Paso Robles once again for a long weekend this past June 12 – 15, 2009. We stayed at the Canyon Villa, a “bed & breakfast” where we’ve stayed before. B&B hardly describes the quarters – it’s a mini-mansion Tuscan style with 270 degree panoramic killer views of the mountains and accomodates up to 4 guest parties. [quote_left]In many ways, Paso Robles reminds us of Sonoma County back in the 1980s – or Napa in the 1970s. The wineries are generally smaller, less crowded, and friendlier … going SLO.[/quote_left]Jim and Diane Babcock, the owners and hosts, know their way around the local wineries and are a fount of information. Add to that Diane’s terrific breakfasts, the large Jacuzzi-style tubs in the rooms, and, … well, for us, it doesn’t get much better than this! It costs little more than a standard business class hotel, so for weekends you’ll have to reserve weeks in advance.
Jack Creek Cellars
The ostensible excuse for our trip was the annual Jack Creek Cellars members-only pickup party Saturday afternoon. There’s food, music, good company, and lots of wine (including barrel tastings of some of the soon-to-be-released vintages). [quote_left]…the owners went “green” with this wine club party, using eco-chic bamboo plates and napkins. Doug and Sabrina makes some great pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay [/quote_left]Doug and Sabrina Kruse, the owners, are wonderful folks who went “green” with this party, using eco-chic bamboo plates and napkins. This couple makes some great pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay. We particularly liked the 2005 pinot noir and managed to acquire one of the three remaining bottles in their inventory. Watch for the 2008 pinot noir clone and the 2007 syrah. We tasted both from the barrel and were quite impressed.
Doug and Sabrina added a tasting counter this year and it’s open to the public most days. How convenient. Before this addition, tasting was by appointment only and sometimes at the Pasolivo [quote_left]… tasting is inside the winery facility …get up close to the stainless steel tanks, hoses, and aging barrels …that’s mighty fine winemaking[/quote_left]olive oil tasting room a few miles up the road. The new Jack Creek tasting counter is off to one end of the non-nonsense winery facility — it’s a great place to get up close to the stainless steel tanks, transfer hoses, and aging barrels! Nothing pretentious here. Just mighty fine winemaking going on.
But we actually started Saturday’s wine touring at Treanna. This small winery actually produces four labels: Treana, Liberty School, Austin Hope, and Candor. (If you’re looking for entertainment, the url for the Candor label is http://candorwines.com/truth.html.) These are all labels of the Hope Family, producing wine in Paso Robles for over 30 years (according to the web site, anyway). Most of their wines were bigger than we like (more oak, more tannins, need five years in the cellar). But we bought a couple of bottles of the Candor Zinfandel Lot 1 ($20). My notes say spice and blackberry on the palate. Also needs about a year aging. We can wait that long.
After we left the Jack Creek event we went on to Jada Vineyard. Seeing wines named “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Jersey Girl,” and “Passing By”we had a pretty good idea that we’d wandered into a touristy portal to the east coast. Lots of souvenirs for sale here. But we persisted. In general, we found their wines too acidic and tannic for our taste. And with prices upwards of $30 per bottle, we weren’t quite ready to take a chance on most of them. We did pick up a bottle of Passing By (2006, $38 per bottle), a cabernet sauvignon – merlot blend. My tasting notes say plum and black cherry on the palate, slightly tannic, with a very slight herbal aroma. We’re gonna age this one a year, too.
Tablas Creek was our next stop. We’ve visited these folks many times in the past and have always been impressed. Quoting from the web site, “Tablas Creek is the realization of the combined efforts of two of the international wine community’s leading families, the Perrin family, proprietors of Château de Beaucastel, and Robert Haas, founder of Vineyard Brands. They had since the 1970s believed the California climate to be ideal for planting Rhône varietal grapes. In 1987, they began the lengthy process of creating a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style vineyard from scratch in the New World. The Tablas Creek Vineyard Partnership was born, with the Perrin and Haas families as majority partners, and French and American wine loving friends as minority partners.[quote_left]In 1987, they began the lengthy process of creating a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style vineyard from scratch in the New World…looking for a close match to the Mediterranean climate and high pH soils of Château de Beaucastel.[/quote_left]
The partners searched California from the foothills of the Sierras in the north to coastal Ventura County in the south, looking for a close match to the Mediterranean climate and high pH soils of Château de Beaucastel. In 1989, they purchased a 120-acre parcel twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean in west Paso Robles. They named it Tablas Creek Vineyard, after the small creek running through the property.
The property elevation averages 1,500 feet, and the shallow, rocky limestone soils are of the same geologic origin as those at Beaucastel. Summer days are hot and sunny, but the influence of the nearby Pacific cools the nights, and the remarkably Rhône-like Paso Robles climate allows the grapes to mature fully and yet retain crisp acidity.”
M. Perrin brought vines from France including Mourvédre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. As a side note the winery offers vines for sale to the public for $9.95 each.
In any case, Tablas Creek wines are very good. We always enjoy the Côtes de Tablas Blanc (2007, $25) and the Côtes de Tablas (red, 2006, $25). The Blanc blends viognier, marsanne, roussanne, and Grenache blanc. My notes say citrus aromas followed by ripe melon on the palate and a long honey finish. Nectar! The red version blends Grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and counoise. Smoky green pepper nose followed by dark fruit and black pepper. Both are very drinkable right now and are often available at restaurants. The two are always an affordable and pleasing choice when dining out.
The Far Out Wineries – Northwest Paso Robles
We next headed for a region that bills itself the “Far Out Wineries of Paso Robles.” The tasting rooms are all quit a bit of a drive heading northwest from downtown–figure on 30 to 45 minutes.
However, one winery makes the extra driving effort worthwhile: Calcareous Vineyard. (The unusual name will be familiar to geologists. “Calcareous” refers to the limestone formations in which the grapes are grown. Limestone imparts a unique flavor to pinot noir.
Since our last visit, the owners have built a fine new tasting room with walls of glass which look out to this winery’s stunning view of the Sierras to the East. (Their prior tasting room was quite nice, but cozy and can you believe it — didn’t have any windows except into the barrel aging warehouse.!) They also have increased the guest capacity of their picnic facilities which are now extensive, now have nice sun umbrellas, and still all savor the stunning mountain views. This is a great place to enjoy a bottle of wine with your party, but please stay long enough to sober up, cause the drive home is a two-lane blacktop!
With our dinner in downtown Paso Robles Friday night, at Artisan Restaurant, we drank a bottle of Calcareous “Twisted Sisters” blend. At the winery we tasted 2006 Twisted Sisters Meritage ($36 and worth every penny),a wine which evokes all the qualities of a good Bordeaux: aromas of dark fruit, toasty oak and spice. Ripe red cherries on the palate end with soft fruit characteristics. We also noted the 2004 zinfandel ($26 but on sale for $17 per bottle to clear out the remaining inventory as of June 18, 2009). Light strawberry nose, dark fruit and spice on the palate, an excellent representative of the lighter style zinfandel. The 2005 vintage zinfandel exhibits more youthful exuberance and could use a year or two of aging. Finally the 2005* Paso Robles syrah ($34), about which my notes say simply, “Yummy.” (*My notes say this is the 2006 syrah, but the Calcareous web site lists only 2005. I suspect the error is mine.)
Day Trip South to the Santa Maria Wine Region-
Fess Parker, Volk, Cambria, Laetitia
After some indecision on Sunday morning, we decided to head nearly 100 miles down to the Santa Maria region for the day. The drive is pleasant, but we’d advise getting a good map before you head down that way. Freeway exits are erratic and none of our GPS devices seemed to find the places we were looking for. But we persisted.
After a quick stop in the town of Arroyo Grande, next to 101, to pick up a winery map, we headed out Foxen Canyon Road to the Fess Parker Winery. Yes, it’s that Fess Parker.
Buy a coonskin cap in the gift shop/tasting room ($15, a real bargain) and amuse all your friends. We did. But whatever else you do, taste the wine! We were especially impressed by the 2006 pinot noir (Pommard clone). Cloves, smoke, and tobacco leaf nose followed by black cherries, oranges and cranberry. [quote_left]Buy a coonskin cap in the gift shop/tasting room ($15, a real bargain) and amuse all your friends. We did. But whatever else you do, taste the wine! Impressive was the 2006 pinot noir (Pommard clone)[/quote_left] The tasting room hosts $49 per bottle, but it’s listed on the web site at $58. Hey, this is good stuff, but we found ourselves thinking the price was way above our tasting abilities. Far more approachable (and affordable) was the 2006 syrah (Santa Barbara County). At $25 per bottle ($24 on the web site) it’s quite a bargain. A smoky nose is quickly replaced with blueberries and licorice on the tongue. Unique and a pretty good deal. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the 2007 viognier (Santa Barbara County). This time the web site and my notes agree: $24 per bottle. A classic lighter style of viognier without the overpowering aromas seen so often.
The real bargains at Fess Parker may not even be available in the tasting room. The 2008 riesling (Santa Barbara County) is light with a good acid balance often missing from California (and German) Rieslings. The winery’s tasting notes say “Lychee nut, white peach and citrus on the nose and mouth” At $14 a bottle it’s a steal. As is the Frontier Red ($12 per bottle). This wine is 60% syrah. It’s a blend of the leftovers after making the more expensive vineyard appellation and regional-varietal appellation bottlings. And it’s delicious. What with Novy discontinuing their leftovers red — Novy Family Three Mile Creek — we found Fess Parker Frontier Red just in time. (If you try to order from the web site, Frontier is a separate label. Click on the Family of Wines link at the top of the page to see all the labels. Interestingly, one of their labels is Parker Station, a pinot noir we have enjoyed on a number of occasions. At $14 per bottle it’s also a pretty good deal.)
Ken Volk Vineyards
Our next stop was Kenneth Volk Vineyards.* Mr. Volk was formerly the founder and winemaker at Wild Horse (near Paso Robles). He sold Wild Horse in 2003, bought his new Santa Maria region property from Mondavi in 2004 and released his first vintage in 2006. We feel privileged to have discovered him so soon after his new winery opened. (Thanks for the pointer, Diane at Canyon Villas, Paso Robles!) Even if you don’t buy his wines or make the trip to his winery, make sure you check out the website: whimsical and reflects Mr. Volk’s personality.[quote_left]Ken Volk sold Wild Horse Winery in 2003, bought his new Santa Maria region property from Mondavi in 2004 and released his first vintage in 2006. We feel privileged to have discovered him so soon.[/quote_left]
We especially liked the taste of the 2006 pinot noir “Santa Maria Cuvee” ($26). Light, fruity, and perfect for hot summer evenings. The 2005 Santa Barbara County pinot ($30) has more spice on the palate, but is probably too complex for our tastebuds. We also liked the 2006 chardonnay “Santa Maria Cuvee” ($24) which exhibited a nice, straightforward chardonnay character. The 2006 “Jaybird” ($22) is completely unoaked. A little too much citrus for our taste, but still very nice. (Jaybird – naked – get it?)
*If you’re approaching Volk Vineyards and the distant neighbor, Cambria Vineyards, from the south, beware road detours. The maps show a right turn from Foxen Canyon Road onto Tepusquet Road. Don’t do it – there’s a bridge out. Instead you have to continue on Foxen Canyon Road through the town of Sisquoc until you can make a very sharp right turn onto Santa Maria Mesa Road. According to our tasting room hosts work is underway to replace the bridge, so check before you leave. The detour is about 10 miles and the drive is very pleasant, so the detour is not a big deal. (2011 update: an e-mail from the winery has informed us the bridge has re-opened.)
The Cambria Winery was next up the road. We discovered their “Julia’s Vineyard” pinot noir on a trip to Maui a few years back. Looking at the price today, we’d guess a lot of the rest of the world has discovered it since then. The 2006 vintage ($20) lives up to the reputation, with an earthy nose and spicy palate. Cambria makes over 10,000 cases of this pinot and over 100,000 cases of “Katherine’s” chardonnay. Yes, Julia and Katherine are the owner-winemaker’s daughters of course.
But the real surprise of the visit (for us, anyway) were the lower case volume boutique wines, like the 2006 Bench Break pinot noir ($30). Notes of ripe cherry on the nose followed by red fruit and spice on the palate. A soft, creamy mouth feel complements the excellent flavors. We usually find we like the lower-priced version of most wines. Not this time.[quote_left]…the real surprise of the visit to Cambria Winery was the lower case volume boutique pinot noirs…they make single clone pinot noirs …we tasted the clone 2A and 667 side by side[/quote_left]
Cambria actually makes single clone pinot noirs as well. According to the folks in the tasting room there are 140 different clones carefully cataloged by U.C. Davis. Cambria, like Parker and Volk all located in this extremely low rainfall area, has wisely decided not to try producing the entire catalog. The clones they do produce are 115, 23, 2A, 4, and 667. We had the chance to taste the 2006 2A clone side by side with the 2006 667. These are about as different as can be imagined. Clone 2A ($48) has earthy, leathery aromas with a spicy flavor. Clone 667 ($48) is all smoke and cedar on the nose with flavors of mineral and dark berries. The web site describes clone 667 as “dramatic, perfumed, lavish and silky.” Hard to disagree with that.
Luckily for chardonnay lovers, there is a second daughter. The 2007 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($18) is all oak and butter. As with the pinot noirs, we much preferred the step up to the 2006 Bench Break chardonnay ($25). More butter, noticeably less oak and a touch of citrus make this wine very quaffable.
Our last stop was the Laetitia Vineyard and Winery, which is practically right off the 101 freeway exit. Laetitia produces seven different sparkling wines. We started with the 2004 Laetitia Cuvee M ($25). Half pinot noir and half chardonnay. Citrus with a little yeast. Nice, but not our favorite. The NV Brut Cuvee ($22) is one-third each pinot noir, pinot blanc and chardonnay. This one might be a little too approachable. And the 2006 Laetitia Brut de Noirs ($28) lacked excitement. But we really enjoyed the 2004 Laetitia Brut Coquard ($25). Quite approachable, fruity with just a touch of yeast.
Luckily for our digestive system Laetitia also makes still wines. Our favorite was the 2007 pinot noir clone 2A ($32). Berries and chocolate on the nose, very nice fruit on the palate. And, for those who are really into comparative tasting, Cambria also produces a pinot in clone 2A.
All things considered, quite a successful trip. We now belong to the Fess Parker and Kenneth Volk wine clubs and have a couple bottles of Laetitia cuvee in the frig.