Paso Robles has become a hot spot for wine tourism. With eleven new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and the 2013 title of Wine Region of the Year one might expect crowds, busy tasting room staff, and high prices.
What I discovered were down to earth people, easy access to wineries, wonderful restaurants, and reasonably priced, delicious wines. Set your tastes for an exciting range of varietals – Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundian and of course California’s most deeply rooted varietal – Zinfandel! Three nights was enough time to explore, although I was planning my return trip during the flight home.
Paso Robles is on the central coast of California midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you finish your tasting wish list, doubtful since there are 200+ wineries, Hearst Castle and the Pacific Ocean are less than an hour by car. The nearest airport is San Luis Obispo. I saved money flying to San Jose and renting a car. Travelers tip: The car rental one mile from the airport was a significant savings versus renting at the airport. However you arrive, bring an empty suitcase. You will not leave empty handed after tasting Paso’s award winning wines at prices that do not require bank loans.
I spent most of my time on the west side of downtown There are also terrific wineries on the east side. It is possible to divide your time, even on a short trip. Lodging downtown allows easy walking to shops, restaurants and “urban” tasting rooms plus quick drives to explore vineyards in all directions. When planning your trip valuable resources can be found at http://www.pasowine.com/
Zenaida Cellars proved to be a fantastic place to stay and taste wine. There is no substitute for waking up in a vineyard, but choosing Zenaida as a home base was worrisome at first. I was concerned about finding it in the dark and wondered if dining would be convenient. I declined after dinner drinks with colleagues downtown. “No,” I said. “I better not. I have to find this vineyard.” My GPS had me there in 5 minutes – a very easy, straight shot down one exit on the 101.
In my room I found soft music, a fluffy bed, and a bottle of wine with a personalized welcome note. The morning greeted me with quiet – wine country quiet. I started with coffee on the deck overlooking the vineyards. Downstairs I met Eric and Jill Ogorsolka who own and operate Zenaida. Eric has a penchant for barrels and proudly showed off his collection while explaining their impact on the wine. Wanderlust, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre is a dream for food pairing. This wine really grows on the finish which Eric attributes to the barrel. The Estate Zinfandel smells of floral, clove, pine, vanilla plus Zinfandel’s trademark mix of blue, red, and black fruit. Missing is the “knock out” alcohol and super jamminess. Because Zinfandel clusters ripen unevenly some raisined grapes go into crush, raising sugar levels. At Zenaida the raisins are picked out and fed to the birds, resulting in a more balanced wine. This wine also benefits from high end barrels normally reserved for Cabernet Sauvignon. The result is a Zinfandel nice enough to meet your parents but naughty enough to party. Finally we tasted Fire Sign, an uncommon blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel. This blend includes Eric’s favorite estate barrels each aged 20 months in 100% new French oak.
Jada Vineyard and Winery
The tasting room at Jada Vineyard and Winery takes full advantage of the best decor – vineyard views. Standing at the bar or seated on the open air covered patio guests enjoy a land that winemaker David Galzignato knows intimately. Although Jada is not certified, David uses biodynamic practices to put “a figurative microscope on the vineyard when farming each vine.” He uses the North American Maria Thun Biodynamic Calendar marked with flower, fruit, root, and leaf days to time vineyard and cellar activities. Special biodynamic preparations are sprayed on the vineyard which help to position the leaves upright along with creating brighter green foliage. In their second year of using biodynamic practices, Jada is noticing more ladybugs on the plants, worms in the soil, and natural wildlife in the vineyard.
“Our mechanical tilling opened the vineyard up and I could see and feel the vineyard take a breath,” David explains. Picking is done overnight beginning at 3 a.m. “when the earth wakes up.” Maybe it is biodynamics or maybe David is a “grape whisperer”. He says “ I could not sleep at night unless I was using all practices available to me to make the best wine possible.” Be sure to try the WCS – Wine Connoisseur Series. Each year David selects lots from Jada’s Rhone, Bordeaux, and/or Tannat programs that express vintage and terroir and showcases them in WCS.
When planning my trip, I knew I wanted to visit Oso Libre. This vineyard and winery has a 0% carbon footprint, supplying all energy needs with sun and wind. The vineyard “crew” includes free range chickens, Black Angus, and Olde English Babydoll Sheep. It was the Babydoll Sheep that hooked me. It is too much fun to enjoy a glass while watching small fuzzy sheep hard at work as the world’s cutest weedeaters. This family run winery is known for community involvement through Oso Libre Por Vida Charity Foundation whose causes include cancer research, child abuse prevention and animal rights. Oso Libre grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Mourvedre. One of my favorite wines this trip was Querida – Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a lower elevation where cool air settles. It is full of red fruit and spicy cedar cigar box flavors. Finding wine to love is not difficult at Oso Libre. Last year Oso Libre won 25 gold medals from prestigious events including the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition. Most of their wines also boast 90+ scores from Wine Enthusiast. Oso Libre serves up Angus burgers and wine on select Saturdays in the summer and fall. If it fits your schedule, that would be a fun time to visit.
Brecon Estate is the new kid on the block, open a little over a year. Damian and Amanda Grindley are already making their mark updating the vineyard and facilities. Their tasting room design was so spectacular that Brecon was nominated for an international interior design association award. The awarding agency claimed the building once looked like “Taco Bell on steroids.” Today it has a natural wood and charcoal color scheme with materials more appropriate to the California landscape. Inside are rotating artists displays, concealed doors for a seamless appearance, and loungey sofas. It is, however, not at all stuffy. In fact, the outdoor tasting area with cushioned furniture and umbrellas feels like a spot for a pop up party. The day I visited someone generously arrived with a cheese platter to share. Damian sat outside and chatted while kids and dogs ran around. The tasting bar opens to both inside and outside tasting areas. The weather is so mild that outdoor tasting is almost always an option. Damian, who has a Masters in Winemaking from the University of Adelaide in Australia plus years of experience, has very quickly racked up wine awards for this new venture – including high Wine Enthusiast marks for his Albarino and Petite Sirah.
Adelaida Cellars is one of the pioneering vineyards/wineries in Paso Robles AVA and the Adelaida District. Their plantings date back to 1964 when Pinot noir was planted on what is now the HMR vineyard. These 50 year old, own rooted vines are the oldest producing Pinot noir on the central coast. Drinking Pinot noir standing amidst these historic vines was the highlight of my trip. We piled into the cab of a pick-up and off – truly up – we went. The ascent to HMR made my ears pop and I could smell the calcareous shale soil through the cracked windows. The sun was setting soon and the slight “hurry to the top” aspect made it even more exciting. A chilly breeze blew in from the Pacific. HMR is 10-15 degrees cooler than the surrounding areas making it surpassingly good for Pinot noir. The vines were thick and gnarly with age, yielding only a little fruit. As I sipped, I thought I could taste their story. This activity is called Tour, Taste and Tailgate. The entire tour lasts 2 hours and also includes visits and tastes in estate vineyards Viking, Anna’s and Michael’s. Adelaida grows Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Rhone varietals.
Peachy Canyon Winery
No matter where you live you have probably seen Peachy Canyon on the shelf. Distributed to 49 states and internationally, Peachy Canyon is big business. It surprised me to learn they are a family winery run by former teachers, Doug and Nancy Beckett, and their sons Josh and Jake. When I say “Peachy” you say “Zinfandel.” While Zinfandel dominates their label, they also produce Cabernet, Merlot, and even a varietal I had never heard of – Caledoc. Total production may be 60K+ cases per year but many of their labels are under 400 cases. There is a high level of touch involving hand harvest and processing. Truly, they are a big little winery.
If you have enjoyed the Peachy Canyon wines you can get at home, a visit to their “Old School House” tasting room affords a chance to taste smaller bottlings of Rhone and Bordeaux varietals. The tasting room was once the historic Old Bethel School House (circa 1886). Label names like Ms. Behave hint that someone may have stayed after school on occasion. The tasting room is bright and open with shelves lined with interesting gifts and kitsch like signs reading “Love the wine you’re with.”
Whether it is one of their many expression of Zinfandel or something earthier like the Old School House Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (36 months in barrel), Peachy Canyon’s trademark is “high end party wines.” Their goal is accessible, meaningful, wildly enjoyable wines. As they say, “we don’t make sad poetry.”
If you are traveling with a group or large family, Peachy Canyon rents a 2 bedroom 2 ½ bath house. The daytime view includes the Beckett’s home, a gardening shed with chickens, and acres and acres of vines below. Nighttime views are just stars.
This is just a sampling of the wonderful opportunities to visit and taste in Paso Robles. Look for articles on some of my adventures on the east side of town at Tobin James Cellars and Still Waters Vineyards.