THE MIX MASTERS
by Steve Heimoff
Paso Robles has always felt a little like comedian Rodney Dangerfield. It didn’t get any respect.
Napa Valley and Sonoma County monopolized the public’s fancy for fine wine. Paso, by contrast, marked the halfway point on the freeway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Conventional wisdom ran that it was too hot for wine. The area’s cowboy traditions didn’t exactly burnish its reputation as chic wine country.
But things are quickly changing.
The Templeton Gap Effect
Some years ago, people began to seriously explore Paso’s wide-ranging terroirs and microclimates. Granted, Paso’s northern and eastern reaches tend to be ovens in the summer. But vintners increasingly took advantage of a weather effect caused by the region’s notable Templeton Gap—low passageways in the coastal hills that permit cool maritime air to penetrate vineyards within its influence. Particularly in hilly western Paso Robles, these temperate areas have proven successful for more balanced, nuanced wines.
Vintners discovered something else: If they made a wine from one particular variety, it could be a little one-dimensional, with “divots”—deficiencies in aroma, color, texture or flavor. By blending in different varieties to fill in the divots, winemakers discovered they could create more complex, complete wines.
As Tablas Creek’s general manager, Jason Haas, notes, “Why do we blend in a world where varietals reign supreme? Because blends are better than component pieces.”
Mixing It Up for Today
A younger generation of winemakers, less encumbered by the traditions of the past, has wholeheartedly embraced the blending phenomenon. Matt Villard, the owner/winemaker at MCV, tinkers with everything from Petite Sirah and Grenache to Tannat and Petit Verdot in his “1105” red wine. “I’m a big fan of blends,” he says. “You get a more interesting wine, with a broader spectrum of everything available.”
Brian Brown of ONX says of his unique Zinfandel, Syrah, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, “You’d never see this kind of blend anywhere outside of Paso.” He feels that Paso’s traditional weakness—an absence of high-end winemaking—has been turned into its strength. “A lot of winemaking elsewhere is done by convention. Even in Napa Valley [where Brown used to be winemaker at Round Pond], I don’t think Cabernet Sauvignon necessarily makes the best wine. But that’s what sells.”
“It’s no-holds barred down here when it comes to blending,” observes David Galzignato, winemaker at Jada Vineyard. “The culture is more artistic and experimental than other places I’ve worked,” which include stints at Charles Krug, Lewis and Paraduxx, all of them in Napa Valley.
More Success Brings More Talent
Success breeds success. As Paso Robles has upgraded its image in the past few years, outsider investors have noticed and moved in. As Brown puts it, “More interest from the public brings more capital in, so more folks want to invest. And talent always follows the money.”
Besides the wineries referred to above, others that are producing interesting red (and sometimes white) blends from Paso Robles include The Farm Winery and Bonne Niche. As The Farm’s co-owner, Wally Murray, notes, “After many decades of effort in California, I think we now have a pretty good idea of how to make good wines—and that requires blending!”
If you do visit Paso—and it’s well worth a few days—you’ll hear about the great restaurants that have sprung up around the old Town Square. The Old West way of life is still alive and well, but the new wine culture has arrived with culinary deliciousness. Try Villa Creek, Bistro Laurent, Buona Tavola and, a winemaker favorite, Artisan.