On a late Saturday afternoon in mid-August, friends gathered to sample an array of fine rosé wines and enjoy good company and food in what may indeed become an annual summertime tradition! (Last year, the wine of choice was Sauvignon Blanc - see my post from last July.) The only stipulation was that anyone who dared bring a bottle of Mateus or Lancer's would be relegated to an upstairs room to wallow in psychedelic nostalgia from the '70s. Not to worry - no one breached protocol and in fact, of the 19 total bottles rendered for the occasion (including one straight Pinot Noir), there was not a single duplicate, although France definitely dominated. The closest any bottles came to redundancy were the two from Chateau d'Esclans: "Whispering Angel" and "Rock Angel" which was the clear favorite among the crowd.
We managed to open and taste 17 of the bottles and drain 16. I was remiss in neglecting the bottle of "Miraval" from the Jolie-Pitt winemakers, but I promise to make up for it next year. All vintages were 2014 (except one), as rosés are typically meant to be enjoyed in the most recent vintage. As you will see in the list below, there was a wide range of varietals and regions represented, which is an indication of how far rosés have come since the days of sweet pink Portuguese wines.
Thanks to all for your contributions and we'll see you next summer!
1. Gundlach Bundschu, Rhinefarm Rosé, Sonoma Coast, California
2. La Pépie, Domaine de la Pépière, Loire Valley, France
3. Charles & Charles Rosé, Columbia Valley, Washington State
4. Rosé d'Folie, Jean Paul Brun, Beaujolais, France
5. Brut Nages, Costières de Nîmes, France
6. Gris Blanc, (2013), Gerard Bertrand, Pays d'Oc, France
7. Espiral, Portugal
8. Love Drunk, Mouton Noir Wines, Dundee, Oregon
9. Markowilsch, (Zweigelt, Blaufrankisch, Cabernet Sauvignon), Peter Weygandt Selection, Austria
10. Minuty, Côtes de Provence, France
11. La Bastide Blanche, Bandol, France
12. Touraine Noble Joué, Loire Valley, France
13. Whispering Angel, Chateau d'Esclans, Côtes de Provence, France
14. Chateau Revelette, Coteaux Aix en Provence, France
15. Domaine La Blaque, Alpes de Haute Provence, France
16. Rock Angel, Chateau d'Esclans, Côtes de Provence, France
17. Miraval, Côtes de Provence, France
18. Van Duzer, Pinot Noir Rosé, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Friday, August 21, 2015
Whenever "California" and "wine" come up in conversation, more than likely, the first thing people mention is "Napa" - and not without reason. It's no doubt the most famous wine region in the Golden State, if not the entire United States, known for its high-quality and high-priced wines, its fine dining establishments and the busloads and carloads of tourists looking for a day's countrified outing to escape the urban hustle-bustle of the "city by the bay", San Francisco. As any well-informed wine imbiber knows, California is absolutely chock-full of wine regions; yet Napa has come to be synonymous with quality California wine as if no other region is worth paying attention to. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it comes to actually visiting the locale in question.
In the 1980s when I was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, vineyards and wineries in Southern and Central California were very much in their nascent stage. I remember visiting a few in Santa Barbara county - Firestone, in particular - but they weren't taken very seriously by the cognoscenti. Visiting a winery was like an impromptu weekend activity - something to do instead of hanging out at the beach. And Paso Robles? It was a small cow town a few hours north of Santa Barbara that you would pass by on the 101 on your way to Hearst Castle - nothing but rolling grasslands for grazing cattle with an unusual name evoking a distant, mythical past of Spanish missions, homesteaders and rustlers.
Fast forward thirty years, and my, how things have changed! The town is still relatively small with a population of about 30,000, but the wine business has absolutely exploded - from about 5 wineries to over 250 (!), spreading out in every direction from downtown Paso, as the locals refer to their hometown. Needless to say, you'd have to spend months in the area to do more than just scratch the surface in visiting wineries and tasting their wines. Nonetheless, my companions and I took our task to heart and squeezed in as many wine samplings as possible in the limited time at our disposal. We were not disappointed!
What follows then are highlights of our visit with recommendations of particular wineries to check out and an assessment of the wines produced at these establishments which included ones I had earmarked for a visit while preparing for the trip as well as places that we happened upon due to proximity and time constraints (most wineries are only open till 5pm).
Our very first stop was at this small, family-run winery literally just down the road from the Olivas de Oro olive ranch where we were staying (more on that later in a later post). As soon as we stepped into the tasting room, it was clear we were in for some serious wine tasting as well as a good dose of side-stitching humor: the temperature was a chilly 55 degrees F - the perfect temperature for storing and tasting wines, and our host for the tasting, an amiable jokester by the name of JP immediately made a crack about our shivering in the cool climate. (Patrons of Moore Brothers in New Jersey are well aware of their policy of keeping the temperature in their stores at a brisk 55 degrees to maintain the appropriate conditions for storing wines.) JP revealed that he was originally from the East Coast but has been living in California for several years pursuing his career in the wine business. He offered us an impressive selection of syrahs, cabernets and red blends and did not hesitate to join us in sampling the wares. Stanger is especially strong in the syrahs and I could not resist selecting one of the reserves for the trip back home.
Indeed it was hard not to bring back a bottle of each wine we tasted, but we'd only just begun our wine tasting adventures and had to save money and space for the wines that lay ahead of us.
The cozy tasting room was full of Western style bric-a-brac as well as a number of oversized bottles of wine in a display case for sale in case you had really big bucks to spend. In the jocularity and enthusiasm of the tasting experience, I neglected to get a picture of the tasting room, but below you will get a glimpse of the beautiful countryside that surrounds the winery and the accompanying guest house that is available for rent. Not a bad place to sit back and enjoy a glass or two!
|The view from Stanger Winery|
|Another view from Stanger Winery|
Right next door, so to speak, to the Olivas de Oro, is very elegant estate known as Chateau Margene. I must say that when I first came across the name of this winery in the local promotional pamphlet, I thought it sounded a bit pretentious. In reality, however, it very much lived up to its moniker, and then some. The gardens, terraces and walkways that lead up to the tasting room (and the guest house) are beautifully appointed and exude an air of sophistication and class. Perhaps because our group arrived shortly before closing time (5PM), we were the sole customers at the tasting room and as such benefited from extended explanations of the wines and the estate by our server, and furthermore, were treated to additional tastings from special reserve cuvées. The wines, (Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab based blends), were of exceptional quality - rich, luscious, complex, full-bodied, marked by dense red fruit flavors, smooth tannins and harmoniously balanced. The price points of these wines reflect the quality and expertise that go into crafting them - typically in the mid 50s and above - yet they also produce a more affordable label, El Pistolero, in both red and white. I snapped up a 1.5 liter pouch of the Meritage blend (see picture below) for about $37 which is a real bargain for such a superior Bordeaux style blend. This a must visit if you find yourself in the neighborhood. You may even want to book a room there!
|Garden terrace at Chateau Margene|
TURLEY WINE CELLARS
I had been reading about Turley wines for some time, notably in the Wine Spectator which has consistently given them stellar reviews, so I was especially keen on visiting this winery to sample their highly touted products - they are notoriously hard to come by unless you are fortunate enough to be on their restricted mailing list or live in the Paso area. Turley was founded by Larry Turley in 1993 after making a name for himself in co-founding the highly regarded Frog's Leap in 1981. In establishing Turley Wine Cellars, he wanted to focus on just a few varietals - Zinfandel and Petite Syrah - sourcing them from top vineyards throughout California. (Larry Turley was hailed as the "Zin Master" in the Wine Spectator's June 2013 cover feature http://www.winespectator.com/issue/show/date/2013-06-30 ) As such, Turley Wine Cellars is different than most Paso wineries since the majority of its wines are vinified from grapes originating outside the Paso wine region. Over 30 different vineyards are sourced to produce the wines, most of them resulting from single vineyards and all are either organic or in the process of becoming certified organic, and only natural yeast are used. Not surprisingly, the care and attention spent on ferreting out the most distinctive vineyards from which to produce top quality wines, not to mention the limited quantities, do not come cheap - prices for their top tier wines start around $50 a bottle and go up from there, but there are a number of very fine issues at $40 and below that represent a good value. In any event, it is worth a few extra bucks to sample the higher end wines at the tasting room if you can't splurge for an entire bottle.
The winery is appropriately located on Vineyard Drive in the Templeton area south of Paso Robles, just off route 46, and is easy to miss if you're not watching carefully as it sits up above a sharp bend in the road with only a low key sign - T U R L E Y - to alert you. The tasting room is very appealing in its "nouveau" rustic decor, and like many other wineries in the areas, features all kinds of paraphernalia and gifts to purchase in addition to the wines.
As for the wines themselves, they are typically very rich, smooth, plush, dense and full-bodied and among the most potent you're liking to come across with alcohol percentages easily exceeding 15 % and even 16%. Yet they are so finely balanced by the tannins, fruit and acidity that you will easily delight in their lusciousness without being way laid into an alcoholic haze. This is a must visit for lovers of Zinfandel as the range of flavors, structures and mineral notes is bound to impress.
|I was especially enamored of this single vineyard Zin ($40) from the Paso Robles region.|
A few miles east of Paso Robles along highway 46, you will find Eberle Winery. Established in 1979 by Gary Eberle, the "Godfather" of Paso Robles, this winery specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone style wines, and in fact, was the first in California to produce a 100% Syrah. Eberle, whose name means "boar" in German - you'll find bronze boar statues and insignias throughout the winery and on the wine labels - was instrumental in creating Paso Robles' AVA (American Viticultural Area), and college football fans as well as Pennsylvanians will be interested to know that this winemaker originally hails from a small town in the Key Stone state and attended Penn State on a football scholarship, before eventually ending up at the University of California, Davis, to study enology, having caught the wine bug while at LSU. Visitors are very likely to run across Mr. Eberle himself on the premises - in fact, while I was sampling wines in the tasting room, an exceptionally large fellow strolled up behind the serving bar, and proceeded to pour himself a very hefty glass of wine. It was none other than Gary, enjoying the fruits of his vineyards.
Although Eberle features some high end wines, generally speaking, their wines are more modestly priced those of most Paso wineries. Another incentive for visiting is that the tastings are free of charge and you can also do a tour of the caves to learn more about the wine making process. In addition to the Cabs, Zins and Rhone style wines, you'll find other varietals available, including an award-winning Barbera that a friend of mine recommended.
There's a very spacious terrace adjacent to the tasting room and winery, overlooking the expanse of vineyards where you can enjoy the view while having a picnic lunch and sampling the wines.
|Bronze Boar Statue at Eberle|
|Picnic Terrace at Enberle|
|Vineyards at Eberle|
TABLAS CREEK VINEYARD
At the extreme northwest of the Paso Robles AVA are two of my favorite wineries whose wines never fail to impress, delight and dazzle, and consistently garner accolades from the most discerning wine critics. The first one we visited, Tablas Creek, is the result of a collaboration between one of the most celebrated families of French wine makers, the Perrins of Chateau de Beaucastel fame, and wine importer Robert Haas. For almost 30 years, the Tablas Creek Vineyard has been producing top quality Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blends from varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Mouvedre, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, as well as many others. A unique feature of the vineyard is their on-site vine nursery - the only one in California - which over the years has provided millions of cuttings of high quality cuttings to Tablas as well as hundreds of producers up and down the West Coast. We were fortunate during our visit to benefit from a very personal guided tour of the immediate vineyard surrounding the winery delivered by a very enthusiastic employee who was eager to share her knowledge about the history of the vine cutting operation as well as the many other functions of the wine-making process. Her breathless enthusiasm extended to the tasting room where she offered us a number of special reserve wines and other rarities that went beyond the standard list of samples.
Organic vineyards, largely dry-farmed, indigenous yeasts, stainless steel tanks, neutral French oak barrels and a hands-off approach to wine-making combine to produce terroir-driven wines that allow the subtleties and characteristics of place to express themselves. In addition to receiving high ratings for its wines from any number of wine magazines and writers, Tablas Creek Vineyard recently was honored with first place among the top 101 wineries in the United States as selected by a panel of experts cobbled together by the Daily Meal. Check out the link below to browse through the other 100 that made the cut. Many you may be quite familiar with; others are hidden gems, off the beaten path.
Tablas Creek offers three major tiers or series of wines:
- Esprit de Beaucastel/Esprit de Tablas (the high end selections, starting at $45 for whites)
- Côtes de Tablas (mid range wines between $27 and $35)
- Patelin de Tablas (good value wine listing for about $20)
The main advantage of visiting a winery, of course, is the ability to sample wines that are often not available at retail stores. All three series are available to some degree in the PA-NJ-DE area, but to truly experience the breadth and depth of Tablas Creek's production, you just have to make the trip to the winery. In addition to these 3 series, Tablas also produces a number of single varietal wines, such as Mourvedre, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, etc., which I had not seen at stores back East. For this reason, I purchased a varietal I've heretofore only had from France and Uruguay: Tannat. Exhibiting typical characteristics of the grape, this wine is of a very deep purple-black color, has a nose of blue, black fruit, smoke, mineral, potent herbs (sage, juniper) and spice. The rich palate offers flavors of dark cherry, smoked meat, bittersweet chocolate and powerful dense tannins with a long, smoky finish. It retails for about $40.
I invite you to check out their website which is chock full of information about their wines and winemaking techniques and is fun to read without being overly technical.
JUSTIN VINEYARDS AND WINERY
At the far end of a long, winding, rolling country road where you're feeling a bit lost and just about to give up (GPS is not terrible reliable in these parts, so just put it away and enjoy the views!), an oasis of sophistication, elegance, fine wine and dining - not to mention a comfortable inn - rises above the surrounding vineyard to assuage your thirst, sate your appetite and offer a respite to your weary traveling bones. Justin Baldwin first purchased 160 acres in 1981 in the Paso area, producing his first vintage in 1986 which was only available to friends. A year later, he produced a Bordeaux style blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) which was to become the winery's flagship wine known as Isoceles. The 1997 vintage was ranked number 6 among the top 100 wines in the world in 2000 by the Wine Spectator. Needless to say, their portfolio of wines has increased substantially over the years, although they are still primarily know for their Cabernets and Bordeaux style wines.
At the tasting bar, we were fortunate to be in the very capable hands of a tall, distinguished host/server who obviously delighted in his job and, having determined that his customers were well-versed in the language and tasting of wines, was all too keen to pamper us with a number of special cuvées which were not on the official tasting list. As a special perk, I was able to snatch up one of the few remaining bottles of the 2012 Justin Savant - a luscious blend of Syrah, Cabernet and Petite Sirah - at the Club Member price (about $45). (It pays to schmooze your server!)
The redesigned and renovated tasting room opened just a few years ago, and as at several Paso wineries, you have the option of tasting wines inside or out. Adjacent to the inside tasting is the Restaurant at JUSTIN which features "farm to table" local cuisine paired with wines from their own cellars, of course. Be prepared to splurge!
Parting thoughts ......
This post has offered just a "taste" of all there is to discover and experience in the Paso Robles wine region, but I hope it will be incentive enough to start seeking out the excellent wines of this burgeoning AVA and to make the trip there yourself one day. Delights in both taste and sight await you at every turn!
For further exploration of all the wineries and other places/events of interest in the area, check out the following website: