Rhone Rangers Research Expedition, February 2015

Elise Modrovich Blog

“It’s all in the name of… Research.”

Rhone Rangers Research Expedition, February 2015

DAY ONE

46 EAST AND TRAIN DEPOT
If you’re going to drive from the Kern Valley to Paso Robles only once a year, do it when wildflowers are in bloom. Along the 46 West, after the 33 junction, was an Impressionist’s Dreamscape. Swaths of goldenrod, tangerine orange, blue and lilac purple were like brush strokes over bright green hillsides.

HEARST RANCH WINERY
We stopped at Jack Ranch, just past the James Dean Memorial Intersection to carb load before hitting East side of Paso. Is this a Michelin star restaurant? Um, no. But the burgers were decent and filling, which is what we needed. But I digress. The new feature here is really the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room, recently opened next door. Their tasting room used to be waaaay out yonder, so we were thrilled they’ve made it so easy on us lazy folk that just wouldn’t make that trip. We were fond of their Chardonnay, and their Three Sisters Cuvees (both white and red). Their tasting room staff was friendly and super helpful. If you’ve never tried Hearst Ranch, it’s worth a pit stop.

CLAUTIERE VINEYARD
What we were really looking for to start our trip was Clautiere. We’ve heard of their wines and their Mad Hatter style tasting room, but had never experienced it. You take a left off the 46 at Union Road when you see Tobin James, but keep going, past that horrible Rockin R (but that’s another story), eventually turning left onto Penman Springs Road and there it is. A bit of a jaunt, but worth it!

Based on the name I had thought the owners of Clautiere were a couple of French transplants, but when Claudine and Terry (hence, Clautiere) made the decision to move to this ranch/vineyard in 199 and started making wine, Terry admits they “had no idea what we were doing.” At first, he just made the wine for friends. Then he got serious, worked at a couple of wineries and have been releasing commercially since 2002, opening their beautiful tasting room in ’03. They must be doing something right, because there are gold medals hanging from wine bottles all over the place. Terry and Claudine are just the nicest people. Their chef (they were preparing for a private event) who helped us in the tasting room was helpful, informative, and great at cheese pairings (and we got to try the fresh Bouie right out of the oven)! The entire atmosphere is super fun, the wines are delicious, and go into the next room – try on some hats and wigs for the hell of it! But wait, you may be thinking, how were the wines? Glad you asked.

2013 Sparkling Viognier made from 100% Estate grapes. A Sparkling Viognier??? Yes! Sent to Napa to be made in the traditional Methode Champenoise. Light and crisp, like a burst of bubbly springtime in your mouth. If you like a good sparkler, give this one a try. At $34 a bottle, we thought it was pretty reasonably priced to boot.

2012 Viognier made from 100% Estate grapes. Honeysuckle wafts into your nose. This is a very light Viognier, doesn’t even need food, a perfect easy drinkin’ nice backyard summer wine. If the viscosity of a traditional Viognier turns you off, this one is for you. We had it with a honey chevre. Bright and fresh, this would be amazing with oysters, clams, mussels, calamari (so, basically, sea food and fried foods). Won the SF Chronicle medal for “Best In Class.”

2012 Estate Mon Beau Rouge. A beautiful GSM made from 50% Syrah grapes, and the remainder from Mourvedre, Grenache and in a move we’re seeing a lot of winemakers employ these days – Counoise to round out the blend. So I guess you could say it’s not really a GSM. More like a SMCG. Raspberries and red fruits on the nose, cardamom, sage, star fruit and bright blueberries round out the palate. We tasted with a Bella Vitano Raspberry. Great all around red table wine that would pair well with a variety of different foods.

2 Cocky Sisters NV Red Wine. Of COURSE we had to try this one, are you kidding? Super affordable ($16/bottle!), light, great table red of mostly Counoise with Malbec, Mourvedre, Viognier, Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne, Cab Franc… basically whatever they have leftover that year all rolled into an easy drinking blend. Yes, we bought it. And the matching shirts, too. Cuz that’s how we roll.

2012 Reserve Grenache. Terry called it when he said, “it’s like a Rhone Pinot.” We absolutely LOVED this wine, aromas and flavors of red plums, some currant, juicy, rich and smooth. But at $44 a bottle, we knew it’d be a bit pricey for many.

2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. No, it’s not a Rhone, but we’re at a new winery, they made a spectacular Cab, so we tasted it. So there. Berries and herbs, forest and fig, bright fruit with a hint of leather and oak that produced a beautiful marriage of fruit and earthiness, medium tannins for structure, smooth and long finish. We tasted with a SarVecchio cheese, which was all right, but if we did it on our own, we’d probably go with the standby Dubliner Cheddar.

2006 Sweet Roussanne. A Roussanne desert wine? Yup. Caramel and crème brulee on the nose, Pineapple upside-down cake on the palate. Did we buy it for the tasting? You bet your sweet bippy we did.

Thank you, Claudine and Terry! We will be back!

HUG CELLARS/BODEGA DE EDGAR
Next, we backtracked a bit and then kept going on Union till we hit up an old favorite of mine, but unknown to many of our friends: Hug Cellars. When we pulled up I was thrilled to see Hug now shares their tasting room with Bodega de Edgar. When we were doing “research” for our Spanish tasting, I looked up Bodega de Edgar, but they didn’t have a tasting room at the time. Turns out, as the lovely tasting room lass informed us, Edgar Torres is the winemaker for both labels. Augie Hug/Hug Cellars decided to keep the focus on Rhone varietals and blends, while Edgar experiments with Spanish varietals for the BDE label. Rhone and Spanish in the same tasting room? Yes! And it works! We felt that the tasting lineup provided a seamless transition between the Rhones and Spanish varietals, and we like the medium price point on all their wines.

2013 Bodega de Edgar 100% Albarino. DE-lightful. Refreshing, crisp, a perfect wine for a day by the pool. Or the lake. Or the river. We know our friend Roberta loves the Martian Ranch Albarino, and we decided this is going to give the Martian a run for its money. Only $18/bottle! Perfect offering for the Lounge, yes?

2012 Hug Cellars “Aborozo Y Besos” (Hugs and Kisses) Rose. This Grenache/Mourvedre blend is full of cherries, light but bold, and would hold up to a lot of foods. Only $18/bottle!

2012 Bodega de Edgar 100% Garnacha, Cedar Lane Vineyard. For those who don’t know, Garnacha is just what they call Grenache in Espana. Wild blueberries, cassis on the nose, with Ranier cherries on the palate. Medium acidity, nice finish.

2010 Hug “El Maestro” GSM. Okay, here’s where I start getting excited. I have always been a sucker for Hug’s Rhone blends, including El Pape and El Maestro. This could really be called a Grenache Blend, because it’s 80% Grenache, 10% each of Mourvedre and Syrah. It was so smooth and rich it was ridiculous. Dark berries, black cherries, mild tannins, bold and complex, good finish. And… $30 a bottle. What’s not to love?

2010 Hug “El Chico” Syrah from La Vista, Cedar Lane and Estrella Farms vineyards.
Black plums and black cherries, mild pepper, mild-medium tannins, and like most of the Hug offerings I so adore; it was deep, rich and smooth. Sigh. We want to carry this in the Lounge.

Abrozo Y Besos, Augie and Edgar.

ANGLIM WINERY
After quickly getting settled into our lovely Motel 6 (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it – super reasonably priced AND dog friendly), we hightailed it over to the old train depot on Pine to get to Anglim before they closed. Made it! And so glad we did.
The tasting room had a lovely, inviting atmosphere, and Steffanie Anglim matched it. There’s a kids play zone. Some amies from France just happened to stop by. Steffanie offered her husband up to come for a winemaker dinner at the Starlite. After tasting their wines, you bet we’ll be taking her up on that. The Anglims source the majority of their grapes from the best vineyards around, and prefer to focus on single varietals (although they do the occasional blend). Which leads me to…

2012 100% Viognier from Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County. Oh, I’ve heard of Bien Nacido, so I was hoping their great grapes would result in great wine and it did. Super fragrant honeysuckle and white peach on the nose and a soft vanilla undertone on the palate, combined with a lovely (but not overwhelming) acidity and minerality. Would pair beautifully with sushi, halibut, roasted chicken or any number of creamy cheeses. Just. Heavenly. We decided this HAD to be our Viognier selection for the Rhone tasting. And Wine Enthusiast gave it 90 points!

2011 Viognier-Roussanne from Hastings Ranch Vineyard. We also liked this co-fermented Rhone blend, but knowing our folks as we do, we really felt the Viognier was the better choice for the Rhone tasting. Having said that, if you’re fond of Roussanne but sometimes feel it can be a bit petrol for your tastes, try this. The Viognier smoothes out the rough edges to create a nice Asian pear, kiwi, spice and kind of smoky blend that would go great with oysters!

2011 Paso Robles Syrah from the Templeton Gap district. 2011 was a cool year, which shows in this lovely and lighter than expected Syrah. Raspberry, black cherry and anise on the nose and palate with just a hint of mango on the back end, and has plenty of body to hold up to a variety of foods. We were thinking a pork or chicken dish. Got 93 points from Wine Enthusiast and was named “Editor’s Choice.”

2011 Mourvedre from Hastings Ranch Vineyard. Another 93 point “Editor’s Choice” from Wine Enthusiast, and we could taste why! Creamy boysenberry and plum on the nose, following through with an earthiness Mourvedre’s known for on the palate mixed with the purple fruits (I mostly got loganberry and boysenberry), and cedar. Would be great with things like beef short ribs, lamb, or a truffle risotto. One of my favorite reds of the day.

D’ANBINO VINEYARDS AND CELLARS

Joann and Carmine are just the nicest people. In. The. WORLD. Our first visit here was after a horrific experience at Rockin R (yes, it’s still another story) when we were in search of wines for our “Rock N Roll” tasting event. Joann talked us off a ledge that day, and the entire experience at D’Anbino restored our faith in winemanity (it’s a word if I say it’s a word). This place is truly a blend of great music, great people and great wine (and the food ain’t bad either)! Come for the wine, but stay for the Blues, or Jazz, or whatever musical delight may be playing that night. While there, don’t be shy – feel free to gawk at all of the Emmys and Grammys and fun mementos from their time in “the biz.”

2007 Syrah. Since we just served up D’Anbino a few months ago, their lineup was still pretty fresh in our minds and we weren’t really looking to add them to the Rhone Rangers tasting, but after revisiting this gem, we had second thoughts. Instead of laying it down, this extremely approachable Syrah is ready to drink NOW through the end of this year, latest. And at less than $20/bottle, it’s a huge value! Don’t worry; we bought a case for the Lounge.

2011 Quadraphonic. A blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (83%), with Syrah, Merlot and Cab Franc to round it out, is one we served at the Rock N Roll tasting and is still hitting on all cylinders. Full-bodied, balanced and smooth with a lingering finish. A perfect food wine.

2011 Orchestration. I saved my best for last. 65% Syrah, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petite Sirah creates an enticing blend of bright plummy and cherry fruit, some smoke, some woods, pepper, spice and even a hint of black tea. Balanced acidity, mild tannins and a smooth lingering finish. I just dig it.

And, after a long drive and productive first day, we are toast. Time to get some well-deserved Zzz’s and reboot for tomorrow!

DAY TWO

FAR OUT, ADELAIDA ROAD and DOWNTOWN PASO

First up, carb loading at Margie’s Diner on Adelaida. Great food, nothing fancy, huge portions – perfect pre-tasting fare.

TABLAS CREEK VINEYARD

Anyone familiar with the history of Rhone grapes in California knows we simply could not do a Rhone Rangers event without Tablas Creek, the birthplace of California Rhone. Tablas Creek is the product of the combined efforts of the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, and Robert Haas, founder of Vineyard Brands, who, since they first joined forces in the 1970’s, believed that California’s Central Coast climate was ideal for growing Rhone varietals. In 1987 they started the long and arduous process of bringing cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate to the Paso area, and thus, California Rhone was born.

Read more about their history here: http://www.tablascreek.com/story/history

Now, on to the wine!

Eveline, our lovely French Tastress, guided us along. Since we were starting a rather long day of tasting, we really wanted to stick to the Rhones, and at Tablas Creek, the Rhone blends they’re really known for. Tablas Creek believes in following the CdP tradition of blending varietals rather than sticking to single varietals, to produce complex, balanced and richer wines. They also stick to the Old World tradition of using native yeast and mainly large neutral oak French barrels to preserve the grape’s character and not give it too much oak influence or scientific interference.

2013 Cotes de Tablas Blanc. 100% organic estate grown fruit. A stainless steel fermented blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne, it had notes of stone fruits (mostly peaches), white flowers, a mild creaminess and soft minerality that helped it stay clean and fresh. We’d pair it with mussels, scallops or perhaps a nice ceviche. Antonio Galloni gave it 90+ points. If we hadn’t already bought and loved the Anglim Viognier, this would’ve been our pick for our Rhone Rangers white.

2012 Cotes de Tablas (Red). Both of Tablas Creek’s Cotes de Tablas wines are meant to be lushly fruity and appealing, and much more approachable (as in ready to drink now) than some of their bigger Esprit de Beaucastel wines. This blend of
60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Counoise and 5% Mourvedre is also from Tablas Creek’s 100% organic estate-grown fruit, aged in a combination of stainless steel and neutral French oak. This had a beautiful nose of black cherry, spice and a hint of licorice, followed by plums, cherries, balsamic, spices and a bit of leather and mild tannins for a nice finish. We’d love trying this with meat, meat and more meat. Think steak, short ribs, spicy sausage or pasta with meat sauce. Antonio Galloni, Tanzer and Wine Advocate all gave it 92 points.

2012 Patelin de Tablas. A blend of 53% Syrah, 23% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre, and 2% Counoise, Tablas Creek made the Patelin (which translates loosely from the French to mean “in the hood,” cool, urban) to be a “drink it now” table wine, but gave it enough structure that you could hold it for several years. Unlike the Cotes de Tablas wines, these grapes were sourced from three limestone-rich regions in Paso to provide structure, acidity and minerality and Syrah from the Estrella District, known for producing juicy, dark fruit. They weren’t kidding. Juicy and dark plums and berries, with spice, a little pepper, and medium tannins, it would pair really well with grilled meats, a burger, meaty pizza – good casual food. It was a huge value (this line of wines is designed to be) at $20, and with the great reviews (everyone gave it 90-91pts), we thought it would be a great fit for our Rhone Rangers tasting.

STARR RANCH VINEYARD AND WINERY

We said goodbye to Eveline (who confirmed the correct pronunciation of Mourvedre is MOO-VEHD), and headed up the long and windy road to Starr Ranch. If you’ve ever been way out to Justin, it’s the same path, only you turn right on Chimney Rock Road, rather than left, to get to Judy Starr’s little slice of heaven.

First, let me warn you. You have to WANT to get here, but trust me, it’s worth the haul up and up and up the dirt road to the winery (it’s the barn area BEHIND the house – don’t go knocking on her front door like us yokels almost did). Second, you need to know that Judy is a true farmer. She grows and makes all her very small production wines, in addition to harvesting persimmons and walnuts from her very own orchards (and she sells them from her tasting room, too – they’re delicious)!
I first found out about Judy from my friend Mighty Linda Yee, who brought me some of her Tempranillo, and from that moment I was hooked. We’ve served her Rose at a previous tasting – that year it was a Rose of Tempranillo, but usually she does Rose’s from her beautiful Rhone or Bordeaux varietals.

2013 Estate Viognier fills your nose with white blossoms, followed by summer stone fruit in the mouth and a lovely balanced finish. Spring in a glass.

2013 Gypsy Rose is a mostly Grenache GSM blend, and it’s beautiful pink color is followed by berries on the nose and palate. A beautiful, fresh summer sipper. Judy told us she had just barrel sampled her next Rose, coming in Spring 2015, which will be mostly Mourvedre, and that it’s just fantastic. We can’t wait!

2012 Reserve Grenache. Rhone’s answer to Pinot. A rich, clean earthiness with a touch of dried strawberries, cherries, berries and minerality. Judy told us her 2011 Grenache reminded her of Grace Kelly, but the 2012 was more Natalie Wood in West Side Story – a bit sexier, more youthful exuberance, an earthier beauty. Wowza! As with any truly good Grenache, it doesn’t require food, but would go beautifully with a cheese plate, chicken or pesto pasta dish. We loved it so much, we bought it for the Rhone tasting! Only 95 cases produced of this gem.

2011 Supernova GSM blend of mostly (50%) Grenache (yes, the Grenache I just raved about) followed by the spicy Syrah and earthy Mourvedre. Lovely deep fruit with a slightly smoky overtone.

2011 Tempranillo. If we weren’t focusing on Rhones, we would have bought this to share with the class – well we sort of did (buy it for the Lounge, that is). Beautiful red fruit, smooth, full flavor, medium body, earthiness and just a touch of minerality. It made me harken back to my time in Espana, and I longed for paella to go with my glass (although this Tempranillo would pair equally well with a gumbo or risotto).

After buying myself some Viognier, Rose and of course, Tempranillo (along with some of Judy’s delectable dried persimmons), it was with a sigh that we left her beautiful grounds to venture towards… more beautiful grounds.

KUKKULA

Pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable (think, “Kukkula, Fran and Ollie”), the name is from the Finnish meaning “Hill” or “High Place.” Kevin Jussila started out as a garagiste winemaker, sourcing grapes and making wine for his friends. Then he took a trip to France, met the Beaucastel family, learned about their involvement in Tablas Creek, and fast forward to 2004, he bought a walnut farm and vineyard, moved his family from Topanga to Paso, made the first vintage in 2006 and the rest is… Kukkula. This ultra modern, energy efficient tasting room just opened in 2010 is on a hill on the other side of Chimney Rock Road and beee-u-ti-ful! The tasting room staff was friendly, fun and informative, AND another great thing about Kukkula – as long as you’re way out there for the day, they offer up great sandwiches, salads and general nosh on the weekends – you can plan your lunch stop around it.

2011 Vaalea (meaning “Bright” or “Luminescence”) is a Rhone blend of equal parts Grenache Blanc/Viognier/Roussanne. Like the name implies, it’s light, bright with a mild acidity. Lovely.

2013 Rosie is a rose of Zinfandel/Grenache/Counoise/Syrah, so you’d think with all those varietals, it’d be a really dark rose, but with only minimal skin contact, it’s a light, dry wine. In fact, it didn’t quite have enough of a fruit impact for me, so not my personal favorite.

2009 In The Red, a 50/50 blend of Cabernet and Syrah. A perfect Bordhone (yes, a term I coined over the weekend, thank you very much), you could really smell and taste the elements of both varietals. The bold dark fruit and pepper of a Syrah meets the forest and backbone of a Cab. This was one of my favorites!

2010 Pas De Deux is another 50/50 blend, but this time it’s their dry-farmed, Estate Syrah/Grenache. Bing cherry, black berry, black plums gave lots of jammy fruit on the nose. Deep, rich, complex on the palate with medium tannins for a long finish.

2011 Lagniappe (a French Creole word meaning “Unexpected Gift”) was my absolute favorite at Kukkula, and I made an unexpected gift to myself by taking a bottle home. An Estate dry-farmed blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Grenache /Mourvedre /Syrah /Counoise, it’s like drinking a dark berry cobbler. You will have to experience this one for yourself. But get your own bottle. This one’s mine.

2012 Sisu (meaning “Patience”/”Persistence”/”Stamina”, it’s a word used to describe the Finnish people) is another Estate blend, but this time a Rhone GSM. Like a deep bowl of black fruit compote, it had a rich and juicy mouthfeel and presented a lot like a Petite Sirah. I would’ve bought a bottle of this as well, but it was set-aside for club members only. Thwarted!

2010 Aatto (pronounced like “Otto”) it’s an unusual blend of mostly Mourvedre (47%) with 40% Counoise and 13% Grenache. Earthy, spicy and herbaceous with hints of brambleberry and cassis. Super food friendly – would work well with Italian and Mediterranean fare.

Hyvästi, Kukkula! Until we meet again on the far out back roads of Paso.

THACHER WINERY AND VINEYARD

Once back out at the junction of Adelaida and Chimney Rock Road, we took a quick turn South on Vineyard in order to hit up a winery I’ve loved for years, Thacher Winery, on the grounds of the old Kentucky Horse Ranch. The Thachers met while working at a brewery in 1992, and in fact, Sherman was an award-winning brewmaster for 16 years before turning to wine full time, and we’re so grateful he did. His small lot wines are lovingly made with juicy, rich fruit. Love, love, love.

2012 White Paso Robles is a white Rhone blend of 74% Viognier, 26% Grenache Blanc. Found it interesting that with just a third of the blend coming from Grenache Blanc that it would have such a big impact on the outcome. I am a fan of Grenache Blanc, and I really enjoyed this very dry white with a lot of minerality, but it would be a bit too dry for a lot of our friends.

2011 Vin Rouge Paso Robles is another Rhone (but this time red) blend of 73% Syrah and 27% Grenache. Unlike the white, where you felt the impact of the minority grape, this one packs a big Syrah punch. Dark fruits, mild pepper and medium tannins so typical of a great Syrah, made me think of pairing it with roast pork, ribs or a nice grilled steak.

2011 GSM Central Coast. This was the first GSM we had the whole weekend that really kept close to the classic percentages: 42% Grenache, 35% Syrah and 23% Mourvedre. The result was juicy, rich, black cherries and plums and one of my favorites of the trip, but at $42 a bottle, we knew this would be a bit pricey for most of our clientele.

2011 Estate Cuvee Kentucky Ranch Vineyard. Okay, if you LOVE Paso Zin (39%), and you’re a fan of deep, dark Petite Sirah (61%), this blend just might make you do the happy dance, like it did for my sister. If it weren’t for the non-Rhone Zin, we would’ve bought a case for the Rhone tasting. Black fruit, rich, deep, dark and mysterious, this one you will want to hoard for only a lucky select few. We both have bottles. What will you do to get some?

2012 Zinfandel Paso Robles. 100% Zin grapes sourced from the Estate and three other vineyards including Osgood, Bailey Ranch and Wills Hills, which is a vineyard with over 40 yr-old dry-farmed vines. What’s the big deal about old, gnarly vines that have to struggle to get only the water Mother Nature decides to bestow? The harder the journey, the richer the fruit, that’s what. That’s damn fine wine, and we WILL be carrying it in the Lounge.

With reluctance we left Thacher and headed back up to Adelaida Road in search of the perfect Syrah or Petite Sirah to round out our Rhone Rangers tasting.

LONE MADRONE

We knew about Lone Madrone but had never made it there before, but since they’re a card-carrying member of the Rhone Rangers, we thought we had to stop in. It is possible that among their many offerings (half of which were whites, there were some wonderful wines. But unfortunately those were possibly the ones we didn’t taste this day. The staff was super nice, but the wines were… meh. Sigh.

2010 Syrah, 100% from limestone terraced Glen Stone Vineyard. Their notes described it as smelling like “bad ass blueberry.” I just thought… well, let’s just say barnyard on the nose, and heavy stems on the palate. Bummer.

2011 Calon, a bio-dynamically farmed blend of Mourvedre, Counoise, Grenache, Sangiovese and Syrah. I didn’t get a whole lot of fruit, but I did get a whole lot of tannins.

After trying and being underwhelmed by their 2011 Barfandel (Zinfandel, Barbera and Petite Sirah blend) and 2011 Sheep Camp Zinfandel that got a puzzling 93 pts from Wine Enthusiast, we decided to hightail it out of there and hit up our next destination.

We were going to hit up ADELAIDA, but the Syrahs they were featuring this day were all their high-price point wines (we’re talking around $50/bottle). Eek! We love you, Adelaida, and we will not only be back, but will carry you in the Lounge. But we are on a mission after all, with no time to waste.

MCPRICE MYERS/BARREL 27

We’ve been a huge fan of Mac’s Barrel 27 lineup for years. He comes from a blue-collar background and his super affordable Barrel 27 wines have consistently impressed us. He’s always saved his pricier wines for his “side” project, McPrice Myers. Now that he’s moved from his original location on Union Road (used to be next door to Hug) to a big rustic winery and tasting room on Adelaida, it seems he’s changed things around a bit. Now the focus is McPrice Myers and soon his Barrel 27 will be brought into that fold as “Blue Collar Label.” We’ve served the Barrel 27 Right Hand Man Syrah at a previous tasting so we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and tried the McPrice lineup.

2011 Cremant de la Cote. Wait a minute. Mac did a BUBBLY? It’s his first, and only – so far, but there was scuttlebutt in the tasting room that Mac and Ryan Devlot will work together to bring us an “All Sparkling Project.” After tasting this 100% Grenache Noir no dosage (no added sugar) Sparkler made in the Methode Champenoise style, we can’t wait. In the mean time, we’ll be carrying this in the Lounge for your bubbly-sipping pleasure.

2012 Larner Vineyard Viognier was beautiful, light, bright with honeysuckle and a refreshing acidity. But we already had a Viognier for the tasting, and at $32, it was a bit pricey for a white, so we moved on.

2012 Terre Blanche is a 50/50 blend of Roussanne and Viognier, and while it was a lovely representation of both varietals, the big presence and viscosity of the Roussanne might put some people off unless you’re a singular fan of that varietal.

2011 L’Ange Rouge Grenache. I fell in love with this amazing, deep and rich 100% Grenache. But, we already had a Grenache for the tasting, and we know most of our clientele won’t want to spend $42 for a Grenache.

2011 Altas Vinas is what I would call a MGS blend of 36% Mourvedre, 32% Grenache and 32% Syrah. Lovely plums on the nose, and with the earthiness of the Mourvedre taking the lead, this Rhone blend would be amazeballs with a mushroom risotto or truffle fries.

Okay, okay, but we’re looking for a Syrah. We asked our Tastress if there was a chance she could open, say, a Barrel 27 Head Honcho? To our delight, she obliged.

2010 Barrel 27 Head Honcho. It’s a Syrah, it’s affordable, and we really wanted to love it, but the heavy whole cluster/stem inclusion in this wine made it super green and stemmy. Maybe after a few years it would calm down and get more fruit, but for now, it just didn’t float our boat. Blast. And now back to the McPrice Myers lineup.

2012 Les Galets Syrah. This Syrah was just bottled in August and has no business being this good yet. Deep, dark fruit, medium tannins – if it’s this smooth now, how ridiculous will it be in 5-10 years? As with most of the McPrice Myers label, it is a bit McPrice-y for our crowd, but we love this so much we’d like to carry it on a “Reserve” list at the Lounge. As we wrapped up for the morning, we paused to pose a query to our Tastress, “With what would you pair this?” (Because I only use perfect grammar at all times.) Her reply, “It makes me think of meat.” Nuff said.

VIVANT FINE CHEESE

We have been a fan of, and have featured Vivant Cheese selections at many of our tasting events, so after meeting up with our friends who had just arrived in town, we took them here for a hearty nosh before hitting up the afternoon/evening wineries downtown. Unfortunately, we just happened to hit up this small establishment at the wrong time. They were slammed with a very large table of half-drunk (on their way to becoming full-drunk) ladies, and the small staff was overwhelmed. We made it as easy on them as possible, only ordering a few Panini’s and a cheese platter to share, and it still took forever. Next time, if we were to walk into Vivant and encounter the same, we would move on – unless you’ve got a lot of time to kill and you’re not famished and in need of immediate hearty nourishment. Having said that, Vivant is still a wonderful establishment, they’re super knowledgeable about all manner of cheeses and cheese/wine pairings and have a great selection. You should check them out – unless they’re slammed – then come back later.

DOWNTOWN PASO ROBLES

Refreshed and refueled, we made the short jaunt to visit some old favorites and new tasting rooms (at least to us).

HERMAN STORY

My history with Herman Story goes back a long, long time. Way back in the early days of my wine tasting forays to the Santa Ynez/Los Olivos area, I happened into the Los Olivos Wine Merchant – a great place to taste wines from places that don’t have their own rooms – and discovered this amazing wine with a fun story and a kooky proprietor. Russell From started out with his friend McPrice Myers at Barrel 27. But Russell wanted to forge his own path and not follow anyone else’s rules, so he first started Herman Story (Herman’s his grandfather – buy his wines and you’ll hear the tale) as a side project and became addicted to doing his own thing, so he and Mac parted ways. When I first came to Paso, I knew I just HAD to find Russell/Herman Story, so I kind of stalked him – just a little – and tracked him to a sort of wine distribution center in a out of the way industrial park where he graciously met me and my friends and shared his wines. His amazeballs, kick ass wines. These are NOT wines for the meek or the timid. These are bold, in your face, usually lay down for 2-3 years wines, but if you’re patient, they are the smoothest, richest Syrahs, Grenaches, Viogniers and blends I’ve ever experienced. Russell’s wines ain’t cheap (average around $48/bottle), but compared to some of the stuff going in the $60+ range, these wines are really a bargain. Now we fast forward to present day, Russell has a tasting room on Paso Robles Street (next to a tire store), and you can ONLY get his limited production wines from his wine club (which has a wait list) or by visiting his tasting room. So, what are you waiting for? Visit already!

2011 Late Bloomer Grenache, from Alamo Creek Murmur, Santa Barbara Highlands, Terra Bella and Vogelzang vineyards. Held in 25% New French Oak for 34 months, as usual, Russell’s Grenache is big, juicy and rich. Lay it down for 2 more years, then pop it open and impress your friends.

2012 Casual Encounters Rhone Blend. Casual Encounters is one of Herman Story’s perennial blends, one of my personal favorites, and this one is no exception. 41% Syrah, 37% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre, 4% Tannat (a Rhone varietal used mostly for blending purposes in France, it’s found it’s way to the Paso region and is now making its presence known at a lot of wineries in California. With 55% New French and aged 22 months, this is a juicy, dark delicious blend that will age beautifully.

2012 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah. Russell is the reason I know about White Hawk and Larner vineyards, down in Santa Barbara County. And why I’m a fan of their grapes. 65% New French for 22 months, so again, will age wonderfully and I’d recommend laying it down for 2-3 years. Deep, complex, dark fruit, some pepper, medium tannins.

2012 Bolt Cutter Bordhone Blend. 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Syrah, 20% Petite Sirah, 6% Petit Verdot in 70% New French for 22 months. Most of Herman Story wines let the Rhone varietals lead the charge, but this one is different. Cabernet Sauvignon takes the lead with a lot of that dense earth and forest, medium – heavier tannins, but you still get that deep dark juicy fruit from the Syrah and Petite Sirah.

Russell’s wife Vailia used to sell her label, “Desperada” out of the Herman Story tasting room. I found out on this visit that she’s gotten her own digs! So, after getting the 411 and making a call to go visit Sunday morning, we left Herman Story and ventured a few blocks away to Grizzly Republic and Chateau Letteau, both located on 13th Street, just west of Pine.

GRIZZLY REPUBLIC WINES

I’d never been to Grizzly Republic before, but thought, why not? My sister and I were still in search of that elusive delicious yet affordable Syrah and/or Petite Sirah for our Rhone Rangers tasting. The owners at Grizzly were lovely people and the wines were decent, but you need to know that the original owner/winemaker sold to these folks about 4 years ago, moved back to France and stopped making their wines about 2 years ago. I’m always nervous when a winery changes ownership and even more so when they change winemakers (cases in point: Justin and Four Vines). So, jury’s out on how Grizzly will fare down the road. I go where the good juice leads.

2009 Gypsy Rose from Paso, a Rose of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah and Cinsault. I got pomegranate, light red cherries, super fun and easy drinkin’, and at $16 a bottle – a bargain.

2006 Tempranillo from El Dorado County. This Temp won Best in Class in the San Francisco and Los Angeles International Competitions. Had blackberry, tobacco, plum and cranberry on nose and palate, and a vanilla creaminess that really softened the tannins. Just lovely. One of my favorites here.

2007 Tempranillo, also from El Dorado, this wine won Gold at the SF Chronicle competition. ’07 was a drier year than ’06, so I’d expect more dense fruit, but instead this presented with less, to me at least. It was good, but I preferred the ’06.

2006 Shiraz from Napa County, aged in new French barrels for 24 months. Dark, dense with blackberries, truffles, black pepper and medium tannins for a long finish. I loved this wine, and we considered getting it for the Rhone tasting, but at $45/bottle, it didn’t qualify in the “affordable” category for our tasters. Dammit!

I tried both their ’08 and ’09 Petite Sirahs and wanted to love them, but neither one floated my boat. The ’08 in particular smelled like charcoal and ash to me. Felt like I was licking a BBQ pit. Not that I have a habit of doing that, you understand….

2006 Amador Zinfandel Port Style Wine. Okay, if we were serving up a non-Rhone dessert wine, this would’ve made it back to Kernville with us. Four different vintages aged in old French barrels (old used barrels is how you’re supposed to age a Port), raspberries and clove on the nose with cinnamon and a fantastic Zin Port. Wow.

CHATEAU LETTAU

Right next door, in practically adjoining tasting room are Chateau Lettau and Ron Nodder, owner/winemaker, a real charmer. He and his wife are so open and welcoming, we felt like old friends the minute we stepped inside. They have live music on Friday and Saturday nights – the band was setting up while we tasted. A real fun atmosphere, but, you may ask, how were the wines? Well…

2013 Albarino, sourced from Monterey, the cooler climate up there keeps the crispness, Lovely, smooth. On the nose, orange blossoms, creamsicle, lime zest, and on the palate, lemon lime, some minerality and acidity, but not heavily acidic.

2012 Diva Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley. Love! Cherries and blueberries, with a hint of smoke and mocha, it really felt like a cool climate Pinot to me (which is a good thing, in my humble opinion). We had and recommend it with a “Ewenique” cheese.

2012 Rockstar Bordhone Blend. 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot and 5% Grenache made this an unusual, really nice blend for me. I felt the earth of the Cab and fruit of the Syrah made for a great food wine. Try it with a Primadonna Forte Cheese.

2012 Stiletto from Bella Colina Vineyards. “These grapes wanted to be blueberries when they grew up.” Plums and blueberries on the nose blend nicely with the forest elements and medium tannins on the palate. A long finish. Delightful. Try it with Manchego.

2010 Rendevous GSM blend of 50% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 25% Mourvedre. Ron used his “secret stash” of reserve Syrah to make this blend and it’s fantastic! Blackberries, and raspberries give a super rich jammy nose, with pepper and Herbs du Provence, medium tannins to round out the palate for a nice long finish. Try it with Reggiano Stravecchio, a 3-yr aged cow’s milk cheese.

2011 Tannat – so now that Tannat has started it’s rise in popularity amongst Central Coast winemakers, we’re seeing this traditional Rhone blending grape as a single varietal in quite a few wineries. This Tannat won double Gold at the SF Chronicle competition, and let me tell you, this sucker is Strong Like Bull. Blackberries wrapped in leather. Not for the faint of heart. Try a Reserve Havarti and hold on.

So, did we like Chateau Lettau? Yup. We liked so many of their wines (and with the exception of the Tannat , which was $50 – eek, all their wines are priced right around $30/bottle) and we liked Ron and his wife so much that we’re thinking of having them up to the Lounge soon. The only bummer here was that they didn’t have that elusive Syrah and/or Petite Sirah we still needed for our Rhone tasting!

We came out of Chateau Lettau as the sun was setting, which meant that most tasting rooms were closing down for the evening. But wait! There’s always…

PASO UNDERGROUND

Started as a little communal tasting room “collective” between four independent wineries in need of a place to sell their wares, finding the entrance to this place off a back alley on Pine Street is like venturing to a speakeasy. Knock twice, say the password, and get in there for a fun venture into the world of truly independent, Garagiste winemakers.

EDMOND AUGUST

I am a big fan of this former English teacher turned Garagiste. He’s one smart cookie, as displayed by his choice of winemaker: Jacob Toft. If you’re not familiar with Jacob, you soon will be. It’s almost impossible to get Jacob’s private label wines, so if you want a taste of his magic, go to Edmond August. Edmond August wines are Rhone-inspired, sourced from Westside Paso vineyards, are fruit-driven and intense.

2011 Inference – usually this is a white Rhone blend that includes Viognier, but in 2011 an early frost took all of it, so this year it’s all Roussanne from the famous Caliza vineyard. If you’re not a fan of Roussanne, you won’t dig it, but if you ARE, this is a beautiful example of the varietal.

2012 Inference – no frost, so this time we have a blend of 76% Roussanne and 24% Viognier, again from Caliza. Very sweet on the front, but there’s actually no residual sugar so it is not on the back, which I found interesting. Like a lot of these Rhone whites, it would be great with spicy Thai, Mediterranean, Moroccan or even Indian food!

2011 Anthology is a Rhone blend of 69% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 8% Tannat and 7% Cinsault from Cocavin and Hearthstone vineyards. Super easy drinking, very accessible, this medium-bodied red would be fantastic with a variety of foods or on its own.

2010 Soft Letters. Ed told us 2010 was one of the best growing years they’ve had in awhile, so they got a lot of nice Mourvedre (55%) and Grenache (45%) from the Caliza vineyard. I really enjoyed this blend that had a lot of great earthiness from the Mourvedre, softened by the fruit of the Grenache. Just lovely.

2009 Indelible. I liked this primarily Syrah (85%) GSM blend all sourced from the Caliza vineyard so much, I bought two bottles, in spite of the fact it was the priciest wine in their lineup! Deep, rich, fruit forward, with an earthiness that lent structure. Just makes me happy.

2010 Indelible is their new mostly Syrah (84% this year, with 12% Grenache) blend, but instead of Mourvedre, the last 4% comes from Viognier, which resulted in a lighter and brighter wine than the ’09 version, and with a touch more acidity. Whether or not you prefer the ’09 or ’10 depends on you and your taste buds.

TURTLE ROCK WINES

I walked about three feet to get to Turtle Rock and Claudia Burns, the lovely co-owner and Tastress this evening. Last time I was in I really liked their Rose, so I was happy to see it was back on their tasting list.

2013 Willow’s Tickled Pink is a dry, primarily Grenache Rose with a hint of Mourvedre. The stainless steel fermentation process helps keep the delicate nose and flavors in the forefront. I get passion fruit, strawberries and a touch of watermelon. Crisp and bright, would go great with a chilled seafood dish (like Oysters on the half shell, ceviche or maybe an ahi tuna crudo) or a creamy cheese.

2011 Westberg Zinfandel. Funny, when we got home and were sorting our wine purchases, my sister asked me, “when did we visit Westberg?” We didn’t, but Turtle Rock used their family label for this beautiful Zin from the Westberg and Dove Pond vineyards. Raspberry and white pepper on the nose and palate, soft tannins, mild acid, complex, elegant, balanced, great with a variety of foods and cheeses, but it made me think of lamb and Thanksgiving meals. So easy drinking, you could certainly enjoy it without food. Wow. Ridiculous.

2012 Turtle Rock “Maturin” is a wonderful blend of 54% Syrah and 46% Mourvedre. They employed an interesting process in making this wine, co-fermenting with 50% whole clusters, and barrel aging for 24 months in new French barriques, which are smaller than normal barrels, to give more oak influence. The result is a full-bodied wine with rich blackberries, cassis and licorice on the nose and palate layered with a kind of meatiness. I think primarily due to its heavy oak influence, it needs to lay down for 2-3 years, but this wine will age beautifully and should be just amazing three years down the road. It reminded me a lot of a Herman Story, Booker or Samsara in depth and structure.

AARON / AEQUOREA

I have it on good authority that Aaron’s about to move his operation to the new “Paso wine ghetto” on Limestone Way, but for now, he’s still at the Underground. Last time I was here, I fell in love with and bought one of his Pinots, so was excited about tasting the new batch.

2012 Aequorea Pinot Noir from Spanish Springs Vineyard in SLO County. Only 44 cases produced of the beauty, so if you want some, better buy it now (I did). Bright cherries and white pepper from this cool climate vineyard Pinot. Just lovely.

2011 Aaron Petite Sirah. This blend of 90% Petite Sirah and 10% Syrah from Paso grapes was fantastic. Looking back at my notes, I don’t know why we didn’t buy a case of this for the Rhone tasting, because it has a reasonable price point of $38. But the tasting room was packed, things were getting loud and hectic (and let’s face it, people were getting a wee bit tipsy), and I think it just got lost in the shuffle. But it’s a great wine, rich and dark and juicy like a good Petite should have, with just a hint of meatiness and structure from the Syrah.

Looks like I’m going to have to follow Aaron to Limestone Way when he relocates.

DILECTA WINES

Since Clos Solène already moved to Limestone Way (more on that later), Dilecta has taken the final spot at the Paso Underground. Completely new to me, I was intrigued and excited to try owner/winemaker Orion Stang’s fare. He got his start at Booker from ’07-’11, and if you’re a fan of Booker wines, you know those were damn good years, then he made his first vintage as an assistant winemaker at Law before branching out to do his super small lot wines on his own. As Orion stated, he’s “in it to win it.” I like that attitude.

2011 Unorthodox Syrah is a 100% Syrah sourced from the Caliza and Alta Colina vineyards. Aged in 60% new French oak barrels, it’s a deep, dark, meaty Syrah.

2011 The Tiller Grenache (64%) and Syrah (36%) blend sourced from Russell Canyon and Caliza vineyards. Delightful, fruit forward, smooth, but with a backbone. We both got a bottle to take home.

That’s all Orion has to offer at the moment, but please, do go see him. He’s a doll. And he makes damn fine wine.

At this point, we were d-o-n-e DONE. Walked over to one of our favorite downtown Paso restaurants, Villa Creek, where great food, great service and even a smidge more great wine was enjoyed by all before heading back to our delightful Motel 6 for a well-deserved rest from the very long day.

DAY THREE

We still didn’t have our Syrah/Petite Sirah. The night before at Villa Creek, we mulled over our options and decided on a “go-to” winery for us, Vines On The Marycrest. They always come through, and they had a Syrah and Petite Sirah on their release list, so we planned to go see them and cross our fingers.

But FIRST, I ventured south to Limestone Way to see Danielle Shaw, assistant winemaker to Vailia Esh and Desperada!

LIMESTONE WAY/PASO GHETTO

Let me first talk about what’s happening down in Limestone Way. South of Paso, you have to take the 101, get off like you’re going to the 46 West, but instead take a left, go under the freeway, turn right onto Ramada Drive, then left on Marquita, then another left on Limestone Way. Still with me? Good. When I drove up, Danielle came out with a cuppa Joe and a smile. It was 10am on a Sunday after all. Wine for breakfast? Sure. I told her this area reminded me a lot of those first few wineries I visited in the fledgling Lompoc Wine Ghetto, and she said that’s actually what her fellow winemakers had sort of modeled after. Make no mistake: this WILL be a new destination in Paso. Clos Solene has already set up shop, Aaron is following, Brian Benson is relocating here, across the street is Barrel House Brewery (craft beer, anyone?) and Danielle said there’s also a distillery around the corner. And then, of course, there’s…

DESPERADA

Remember I told you about visiting/stalking Russell in that weird industrial park to try his lineup for the first time. Well, back in the warehouse, this young little pixie lass was climbing up racks and pulling down cases and you cold tell she was a mighty force in a small package. Who was she? Vailia Esh, Russell’s girlfriend, now wife and fledgling winemaker. As I said earlier, the last time I was in Herman Story’s tasting room, she was sharing it with her very first releases on her own Desperada label. Now she’s on her own, with her own digs and her own methods and she just kicks all kinds of ass. Unlike Russell/Herman Story, who offers big bold you’re your face wines, Vailia/Desperada has that softer, feminine touch, refined and delicate. Currently, her tastings are by appointment only, but they rolled out the red carpet for me, and if I hadn’t been in a time crunch, I would’ve stayed longer for a tour of the facility and who knows what else. I will definitely go back next time I’m in town, and if you’re planning a trip, Desperada is worth a stop.

2013 Wayfinder 100% Chardonnay from Spanish Springs Vineyard in Edna Valley. Aged in 67% new French oak for a year, sur lie with bi-weekly stirring, unfined and unfiltered. What does all this mean? Buttery, vanilla and lemon curd. If you like this type of Chardonnay, you will LOVE this. They’re getting the 2014 ready, and this one is from the Bien Nacido vineyard down in the Santa Ynez area. Can’t wait.

2014 Sauvignon Blanc from the Presqu’ile and McGinley Vineyards. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had a Presqu’ile Sauv Blanc, but I have and it is some fantastic fruit. But here’s where Vailia shows her stuff: she aged it in equal parts stainless steel, Acacia (What? You heard me.) barrels, newer and neutral French oak barrels and Terra Cotta pots imported from Italy! They did a lot of barrel stirring during the aging process which made this white so soft and approachable, lemon zest with just a hint of jasmine, a nice minerality and very mild acidity for a beautiful finish.

2014 Rose of (wait for it) Nebbiolo and Sangiovese from White Hawk and Luna Mada Vineyards. Watermelon Jolly Rancher, strawberries, guava and orange. As Danielle appropriately put it, “It’s summertime in a glass.” Yay!

2013 Suitor 100% Pinot Noir from Solomon Hills Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. This is the last vintage of Pinot Noir Desperada will make, and it’s a shame, because this one, aged in 100% neutral French oak, 50% whole cluster, has a beautiful earthy cherry and white pepper nose/palate and I found it to be just rich and lovely. But Danielle explained that the cost of Pinot Noir grapes has skyrocketed (high demand = high price), which forces them to then sell this for $50 a bottle. Desperada likes to keep their wines to $34 across the board, and it’s just too cost prohibitive and there are so many other people doing great Pinot’s, they just would rather focus their energies elsewhere.

2013 Borderlands is a 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 25% Syrah and 25% Grenache Bordhone blend. I know I just coined that term on this trip, but I’ve noticed a LOT of wineries choosing to go this route with their blends. What it means is that you get the earth/forest/structure from the Bordeaux with the deep dark, soft fruit and spice from the Rhones to create a beautifully food-friendly wine that will age exceptionally well. Only 97 cases made, so get it while you can.

All of the new Desperada releases will be ready March 16. Go get ‘em!

COWGIRL CAFÉ

It’s been in Paso forever, but our first time venturing in, and glad we did! Great food, fast service, friendly atmosphere, reminded me a lot of something you’d see in Kern Valley. After a hearty breakfast of omelettes, bacon and hash browns (gotta pay attention to the ol’ stomach lining), we headed back up G14, turn right on Mustard Creek to Vines on the Marycrest.

VINES ON THE MARYCREST

How much do we love Jennifer and Victor Abascal? THIS MUCH!!! And their wines? Fugghedabout it! Like many wineries/winemakers we’ve discovered along the way, Victor started out with a day job, making wines as a hobby that turned into a full-blown passion. In 2005 they bought 26 acres of steep hills perfectly suited for vines on the Westside of Paso and have been making beautiful, complex, award-winning wines ever since. For years he still commuted from Southern California to the winery on the weekends!

We had a long drive ahead of us, so even though we wanted to taste absolutely everything, we kept it strictly business. Research, remember? Right.

2011 Syrah. Victor told us this is the favorite wine he’s ever made! Big yet delicate, with rich black fruit, some licorice on the nose and blueberries and blackberries on the palate, it has an earthiness that drinks well now but will age beautifully. Victor suggested pairing it with a rich Cassoulet.

2012 Petite Sirah. Okay, now what do we do? Juicy, jammy, bright and intriguing, dark plum with notes of black cherries and licorice, followed by a burst of black cherries, smokiness and oh so subtle tannins. Victor told us he took off the skins halfway through fermentation and let it finish all naked and juicy. Yummy!

But now we’re faced with a dilemma. The Syrah, or the Petite Sirah? And then Jennifer pulled out the…

2012 Syrah. Just released! Oh. My. God. Wow. Awesomesauce. The perfect middle ground between the Syrah and Petite Sirah we just tasted. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. We just found our last Rhone Rangers offering.

But wait! We couldn’t leave without trying the…

2012 My Generation Zin/Rhone blend of 49% Zinfandel, 33% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre and 9% Petite Sirah. Gold Medal winner at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Deep ruby color, aromas of cassis, smoke and a hint of licorice. Dark berries and cola mix with the smoke on the palate. Complex, balanced, rich and a lingering finish. Bought a case for the Lounge. Oh yes, we did.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Victor and Jennifer! You saved the day!

And now, our Rhone Rangers lineup complete, put a fork in us and we’re OUT. At least, until next time.

Some pix from our trip…  Hope you enjoy!!