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The Remarkable Rise of Paso Robles

In the course of my work with Tablas Creek, I work closely with winery associations like Rhone Rangers and Family Winemakers of California that bring me into contact with winemakers and winery principals from other American wine producing regions.  One refrain I've been hearing for the last few years has been "Wow, Paso Robles is on a roll".  The follow up is usually either a question like "How did you do it?" or a comment that "I wish that my region could do what Paso has done."

Paso Robles Sign It's not that long ago that Paso Robles was a relative unknown.  When I started selling our wines in the early years of the 2000's, I would routinely meet wine industry professionals who didn't know where Paso was, or even that it was in the Central Coast.  Those who did know it thought of it as a place to grow rustic Zinfandels or inexpensive Bordeaux varieties.

So how did Paso Robles go from backwater to next-big-thing in a decade?  I think that there are six principal reasons that Paso has been able to be as successful as it has.

  • The inherent quality of the terroir.  I'll start with the most obvious.  Paso Robles has a remarkable combination of soils and climate.  These characteristics led us to choose Paso in 1989 as the home for our at-that-time-unnamed Rhone project, even though there were no Rhones in the ground there, it was on no one's list of the next great California wine region, and it had no cachet that would help make the wines more marketable.  All of the below factors wouldn't mean much if the region wasn't capable of making remarkable wines.  Between the notable concentration of calcium-rich soils, the largest diurnal temperature swing in the state, the rainfall in the western hills that permits dry-farming and the long growing season with limited threat of harvest rainfall it's a tremendous spot to plant and grow grapes.
  • The leadership of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  I speak to producers from other regions who point again and again to the work that the PRWCA has done over the tenure of Stacie Jacob as Executive Director.  They launched an annual road show, began regular work bringing both media and key restaurateurs and retailers out to visit Paso Robles, refined the annual series of events in Paso Robles that exposes the region to thousands of consumers each year, and began targeted marketing and advertising campaigns that did a lot to bring the region into the public eye.  What's more, they did it in a way that united the region's growers and winemakers, as well as the wineries large and small, east and west.  In 2005 it was not at all clear that the Paso Robles region would remain a single unit, with work underway for a Paso Robles Westside AVA and real friction between vintners and growers.  By producing clear benefits for all the different constituencies that make up the Paso Robles wine community the PRWCA has managed to have an enormous impact. 
  • The willingness of the major winery players in the area to work to support the region.  The PRWCA's efforts would not, I don't think, have been possible without buy-in from all the major players in Paso Robles.  The leading wineries on the east side (such as J. Lohr, Eberle, and EOS) as well as west side (like Justin, Tablas Creek, L'Aventure) have all participated actively in the Wine Alliance's efforts, and other than us all have served on the PRWCA's board of directors.  Paso Robles is a wine community of joiners with principals willing to work together.  That's rarer than you might think; I know that many regions' associations have trouble even getting their members to attend their events, let alone support the association with funds for coherent marketing.
  • The city of Paso Robles' welcome embrace of wine community.  Justin Baldwin is fond of telling the story that when he moved to Paso Robles, the best dinner in town was the tuna melt at the bowling alley.  By my first visit a decade later, the best food was the Denny's.  In the 1980s and 1990s you didn't go into Paso Robles to eat, or shop (except for groceries) or relax.  Downtown vacancy was over 40%.  It was a dying ranching town, without many prospects for renaissance.  But the wine community's growth, and the tourism that followed, has brought the town back to life.  There are now amazing restaurants, fun shops, and a vibrant downtown park surrounded by the decade-old city hall/library and movie theater.  The continued willingness of the community to embrace the local wineries -- driven in no small part by the relatively recent memories of how depressed Paso Robles was -- has allowed the community to focus on outreach rather than waging the internecine not-in-my-back-yard battles seen in other California wine regions.
  • The rise in wine tourism punctuated by the release of Sideways.  Most people associate Sideways, released late in 2004, with a dramatic growth in Pinot Noir sales and an associated decline in Merlot.  And those effects are indisputable.  But I would point to two other impacts of the movie.  First, it romanticized and personalized the experience of going to wine country to taste wine, which was an important factor in the growth of wine tourism around the country.  Second, it was set in Santa Barbara County, which drove home the point that there was wine in California outside Napa to an audience largely unaware of the fact.  No, we didn't see the busloads of movie-crazed tourists that the Santa Ynez Valley did, but we had perhaps an even better result.  The southern California wine lovers who typically patronized the Santa Barbara County wineries featured in the movie skipped over the tourist hordes and came to the next region north: Paso Robles.
  • Advocacy from key members of the wine media, principally Robert Parker.  With the recent recognition of Paso Robles as the home of the Wine Spectator's wine of the year, it may be hard to remember the impact of Robert Parker's declaration in June of 2005 that "there is no question that a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley".  The media buzz has built from there, with notable contributions from Steve Tanzer and more recently James Laube in the Wine Spectator.  This media enthusiasm led uncounted numbers of wine enthusiasts and collectors to explore Paso Robles, and eventually pulled along the wine trade (typically more conservative than either consumers or media due to entrenched relationships and the sheer inertia of size). A scroll back through our press links will give you a good sense of how consistent the press attention has been over recent years, particularly in the late 2005-mid 2007 period when Decanter, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset and Food&Wine all wrote feature articles about the Paso Robles wine region.

When we bought the land that would become Tablas Creek in 1989, there were seventeen wineries here, and no Rhone varieties in the ground.  This year, there will be over 220 wineries, and Paso Robles has California's largest acreage of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.  And the region has a lot more potential for growth; even in the prime vineyard land out west of town less than one-third the cleared plantable acres have been planted to grapes.  With many of the top vineyards less than 20 years old the future is bright.  In the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You ain't seen nothing yet.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley (sort of): Vermentino

Vermentino Vermentino, with its bright acidity, aromas of citrus leaf and mineral, and refreshing finish, has become a favorite of Tablas Creek VINsiders and restauranteurs alike. Its story, however, does not originate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and unlike most of Tablas Creek’s white varietals, it is a grape that is more commonly seen on its own than in blends.

Vermentino in the Old World
Vermentino is commonly thought to be Spanish in origin. Although it is currently grown in several countries around the Mediterranean, its best known examples come from northern Italy (particularly in the region of Liguria) and the island of Sardinia, where the wines are crisp, citrusy and generally unoaked. It is also the most widely planted white grape on the island of Corsica, where high altitude and hot climate vineyards produce more full-bodied wines with heady floral aromas. On the French mainland (where the grape is known as Rolle), it is found in Côtes de Provence and, increasingly, in Languedoc. Although it makes excellent wine, for many years Vermentino was best known for producing table grapes. The grapes are large with a good sugar/acid balance, making them a perfect choice for sweet snacking.

Vermentino at Tablas Creek
As Vermentino is not a Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape varietal, it wasn't a grape that we and the Perrins decided to bring in with our initial eight cuttings in 1989. However, the Perrins’ French nurseryman had other ideas. He believed Vermentino would thrive in the rocky limestone soils of Paso Robles, and included it in that initial shipment, along with the eight grapes we requested and Tannat. When the cuttings arrived into quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York we were as surprised as they were to see Vermentino. But we decided to see if his prediction would pan out, and in 1993, Vermentino was declared free of virus and released to us.

We propagated the vines in our nursery, and planted about an acre of Vermentino on an east-facing slope near Adelaida Road in the northern portion of the property. As the nurseryman predicted, it has indeed thrived here, and in 2008 we planted another two acres at the western edge of the property.

Small quantities of Vermentino were included in our early white blends. However, we found it too distinctive to fit seamlessly into our blends, and since 2002 we have bottled it on its own. We used the Italian name for the grape instead of the French one because Wild Horse Winery (who bought cuttings from us) registered the grape as Vermentino, and, with the exception of a few varietals which have been grandfathered in, the BATF does not permit multiple names for the same grape.

In the vineyard, Vermentino is one of the easiest varietals to grow. It is a vigorous grower, resistant to drought, and usually ripens towards the middle of the harvest cycle. In the cellar, we ferment it in stainless steel tanks and prevent it from completing malolactic fermentation. Both procedures serve to emphasize the grape’s natural minerality and retain its bright citrus character.

As part of our ongoing research on Stelvin screwcaps, we bottled half of the Vermentino in screwcap and half in cork in 2002. We were so convinced that the screwcap preserved the wine’s aromatics and freshness that we have bottled Vermentino exclusively in screwcap since the 2003 vintage.

Flavors and Aromas
Vermentino wines are a pale straw color and relatively low in alcohol, with crisp acids, citrus-leaf aromatics, and pronounced minerality. In the mouth, Vermentino shows flavors of green apple and lime, heightened by refreshing acidity, good richness and medium body. The wine’s crispness makes it a delicious accompaniment to fresh seafood, oysters on the half shell, or grilled Mediterranean vegetables. The 2010 Vermentino was sent to wine club members in the spring 2011 shipment and a small allocation was released to our wholesalers around the country.

What's that in my wine: tartrate crystals

A few weeks ago, we received the following email from a customer (edited to protect identity):

A couple of days ago we sampled a split of [Esprit de] Beaucastel Blanc at ... in ..., CA.  We enjoyed the wine until the moment we poured the remains of the bottle, and a glob fell into my glass, with a noticeable plunk.  The substance can best be described as several, 1 inch-long fuzzy-looking strands.  I have seen crystalline material and sediment in wine, but nothing like what plopped into my glass.  Needless to say, the restaurant did not hesitate to strike the cost of the wine from our tab.
I am just curious to learn what that substance could be.

Not the most pleasant of emails to receive.  And I'm sure that to the customer who wrote, the surprise at the end of the bottle colored his experience of the wine he'd been enjoying.  I was surprised, though, that the restaurant didn't have an explanation of what he'd encountered, because it's one of the most common things that can happen to a wine.  He'd encountered tartrate crystals that had precipitated out of a wine and settled into the bottle.

Tartaric acid is one of the three main acids found in wine grapes, and along with malic acid and citric acid provides the tartness in both grapes and wine.  Wine grapes are notably acidic; at harvest, their pH is typically between 3.25 and 3.5 at Tablas Creek.  While much or all of the malic acid is transformed to the softer-tasting lactic acid in the fermentation process, tartaric acid is relatively stable and is therefore responsible for the maintenance of a finished wine's pH and its resistance to various kinds of spoilage.  Still, much of the tartaric acid settles out of a wine during fermentation and aging as a part of the lees.

Tartaric acid's solubility is temperature-dependent.  So, when wine is chilled down, some of the tartaric acid drops out of solution as fine white powder or crystals and does not under normal conditions dissolve again.  For red wines, which are rarely subjected to cold temperatures and which may anyway be expected to throw a sediment over time as suspended color particles fall out of the wine, this is rarely a problem.  But for white wines, which are often refrigerated for days or weeks, and in which consumers aren't expecting to see any sediment, the tartrate crystals can be alarming.  We hear occasionally from customers who've seen these crystals wondering if they are shards of glass.  These crystals -- sometimes called, a bit romantically, "wine diamonds" -- are not glass, and are harmless.  In fact, they are largely potassium bitartrate, whose common name is cream of tartar and which can likely be found in your spice cupboard.  Nearly all commercial cream of tartar is harvested from wineries.

Most mass-produced wines are routinely stabilized in various ways, typically through sterile filtration (to eliminate any chance of refermentation in bottle), heat stabilization (for proteins that can cause a haze in a wine if it's exposed to high temperatures) and cold stabilization (for tartrate crystals).  The cold stabilization process typically involves chilling a tank of wine down around freezing for several days shortly before bottling.  This extended chill causes tartaric acid to drop out of solution in tank, and the resulting tartrate levels are then low enough that no more is likely to precipitate out in a customer's refrigerator or a restaurant's wine room.  Of course, like most interventions, cold stabilization has other less desirable consequences, and a lower concentration of tartaric acid in the resulting wine changes the wine's flavors somewhat and can impact its long-term ageability.

IMG00196-20110512-2145 How a wine is stored impacts whether a customer even notices tartrates in bottle.  If a cork-finished wine is stored upside-down, any tartrate crystals typically adhere to the cork and are removed with the cork when the wine is opened.  However, if a wine is stored upright, any tartrates that form are likely to be visible, and the last glass (like the one at right) will show the evidence.  And tartrates won't adhere to screwcaps, so no matter how a screwcap-finished wine is stored any tartrates will be visible in the bottle.

Coldstabilization At Tablas Creek, we prefer not to cold-stabilize the whites that we hope will have the longest aging curve.  These wines -- principally the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, Roussanne and Antithesis Chardonnay -- are also wines that we typically finish in cork.  It should not be surprising to see these wines throw tartrate crystals over time.  Of course, if they're stored upside-down, you may never notice unless you look at the underside of the cork carefully.  Our whites that we intend for earlier consumption, and our Rose -- all of which which are typically finished in screwcap -- do receive a light cold stabilization, like the one pictured to the right.  We would prefer not to have the tartrate crystals floating around in these bottlings, though it could still happen if a bottle is put in a cold refrigerator for a long period.

So, back to our initial customer.  What do I think happened?  I think that the restaurant likely stored the half-bottle upright in their white wine refrigerator for several weeks or longer, plenty of time for the tartrate crystals to settle out.  And neither the customer nor the waiter had seen enough minimally-processed wines to know that what they had encountered was normal.


A first look at the 2010 reds: Wow.

Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, my dad and I spent the last two days tasting through our 2010 reds.  55 lots later, we have a much clearer sense of what the vintage is like.  I'll get into details below, but overall, it was a very impressive tasting.  The Grenaches were excellent.  The Syrahs were very good.  And the Mouvedre lots were the most impressive I can remember tasting at this stage in the decade I've been out here.  All this bodes very well for the 2010 vintage.  The 25 lots we tasted today, lined up post-tasting on the bar:


We have several goals for this initial comprehensive tasting.  The first is to get an overall sense of the vintage.  Is it ready to blend?  Is it overall a powerful vintage or a friendly vintage?  Are there enough good lots to count on making Esprit and Panoplie in normal quantities?  The second goal is to decide which of the varieties are comparatively strongest, and which we might want to start with higher percentages of in our initial Esprit blend.  The third goal is to identify the strongest lots, if possible, and the weakest lots, if any.  The strongest lots will likely point the way toward the Esprit and Panoplie, and any weak lots will be declassified now into the Patelin de Tablas.  Finally, the cellar crew is looking to see if there are specific lots that need attention: wines that are oxidized or reduced, not finished with primary or malolactic fermentation, or otherwise funky.

It became clear relatively early in the process that we weren't going to be able to use this tasting to do our blending.  There were too many lots that weren't quite ready, mostly because they were just finishing up fermentation after the late harvest and cold winter.  It's not really possible to know whether a Grenache lot that is still slightly sweet, full of CO2 and not done with malo is going to be best suited for Esprit, Cotes, or a varietal Grenache.  And if there are more than a few lots like this we can't confidently know where even the finished lots will go.  Even after the first couple of Grenache flights we knew we wouldn't be able to blend off of this tasting, and would have to reconvene after my dad comes back out in October.  Still, it was a valuable tasting.

Each of the people around the table plays a different role.  Neil is usually most critical of wines with flaws, focused on actions that the cellar needs to take in coming days and weeks.  Ryan is typically the most optimistic, judging wines based on how well they've reached their potential (whatever that may have been).  Chelsea holds the wines to a high absolute standard, so a top grade from her means that the lot is both clean and proper for its stage and that it shows outstanding potential.  My dad focuses most on mouthfeel and length of finish, often judging wines more on texture than flavors and looking past stage-related issues like reduction and oxidation.  And I find myself looking for purity and intensity.  I trust that the cellar crew will take care of surface issues and try to look at what the wines are capable of becoming.  I also find that I tend to grade down more than any of the other tasters lots that have overt oak overshadowing the varietal character.  Luckily, there are never many of those.  A brief summary of each of the varieties we tasted, with my scores, is below.  The blog post about blending our 2010 whites has a refresher on how we grade, if you need one.

  • Grenache (sixteen lots; nine 1's, six 2's, one 3):
    Overall, the Grenache was the hardest to be sure about.  Four lots were still notably fermenting.  But the quality of the finished lots was very high; only one lot (and a small one at that) was relatively weak.  A couple of my (very brief) notes will give you a sense of the better lots: "rich & bright" ... "nice, rich, chocolatey" ... "rich, lush and creamy" ... "rich & tannic (in a good way)".  Clearly, there are good lots to work from here.
  • Syrah (thirteen lots: six 1's, six 2's, one 3):
    The Syrahs were all powerful, but perhaps a bit less nuanced than I was expecting.  Given that 2010 was such a cool vintage, I was expecting that Syrah would shine.  And it was good, but not better than Grenache, and not as good as Mourvedre.  Several lots were somewhat reduced, which is common at this stage and is probably the easiest issue to address in the cellar.  But in a vintage where everything had dark color and deep flavors, Syrah stood out less.
  • Counoise (five lots: two 1's, two 2's, one 3):
    The Counoise lots, like the Grenache lots, were fairly unfinished.  Two were still fermenting actively.  But two of the three lots that were done got a "1" grade from me, and one of them was unusually dark and rich.  Still, I'm not sure we'll use that much Counoise in the 2010 Esprit; the acids in 2010 were excellent, and acidity is Counoise's biggest contribution to blends.  Depending on how much we use in our blends, we may make a small amount of a varietal Counoise this vintage.  It seems like it would work.
  • Mourvedre (fourteen lots: eight 1's, five 2's, one 3):
    These were the most impressive lots we had.  Several of the lots I gave "2" grades to will almost certainly become "1" lots with just a little attention in the cellar.  The lots had varied characters, some more rich and lush, others meatier, and others showing more of the chalky tannins that we're coming to attribute to our limestone soils, but all were balanced and compelling.  I am looking forward to all the things we'll be able to do with these lots... and with nearly 9000 gallons to work with we should be able to do a lot.  I would guess that we'll be increasing the Mourvedre composition of our Esprit up from the 38%-40% range where we've been the past few years back closer to the 45%-50% range we were in in the mid-2000's.
  • Blend (one lot, which I gave a 2):
    We have one lot of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah that was blended at harvest time from strong components.  It has been aging in one of our 1600-gallon wooden upright fermenters, and I expected to love it.  I didn't; it was a little funky and had less richness than I would have liked.  It will get some additional time in foudre, and likely end up being one of the star components of our Cotes de Tablas.  A good reminder for me that early blending, even with raw materials that we think are top notch, removes options later.
  • Tannat (three lots: two 1's, one 2):
    What happens when you add Tannat, which is always dark and structured, to a year that produced deeply colored, highly structured wines from normally-lighter varieties like Grenache and Mourvedre?  Surprisingly, you don't get an impenetrable monster of a wine.  The Tannat lots had plenty of depth, but nice acids and tannins that were present but not dominant.  Very good.
  • Pinot Noir (two lots, two 2's):
    I didn't love either of the small Pinot Noir lots today.  One felt slightly bound by its oak (though the barrels are three years old) and the other a little muddy and unfocused.  They'll be blended together, and we'll give them some more time in barrel.  One lot came from our nursery block, and the other from the small vineyard planted outside my parents' house in Templeton.
  • Cabernet (one lot, which I gave a 1):
    Finally, the surprise of the tasting for several of us.  We typically get less than a ton of Cabernet off of the row and a half of Cabernet vines we have in our nursery block.  More often than not, this gets co-fermented with the Tannat, as Cabernet is a traditional blending partner for Tannat in its native home in the Pyrenees.  But this year we had enough to make four barrels, so we did.  And it was stunning.  Rich and powerfully expressive of Cabernet, with dark fruit, a little minty lift and wonderful tannins that wrapped up the whole package.  We'd been planning to blend it into the Tannat again, but it was so good that we'll bottle it on its own.  Anyone care to volunteer a name for it?

Overall, the take-home message was a highly positive one.  After such an unusually cold summer and a challenging harvest season, we were hopeful that the long hangtimes the grapes had would overcome the relative lack of heat they received.  And it appears that they did, reaching ripeness while maintaining excellent precision and somewhere picking up these deep colors and powerful minerality.  I'm very much looking forward to getting to know these 2010's as they have a little more time in our cellar.

I leave you with a snapshot I took at the end of the morning with my notes stuffed into my notebook.  Who says this isn't work?