Jay McInerney of Wall Street Journal recommends Treana

When I first visited Paso Robles, in 2005, I felt as if I was stepping back in time, exploring a little-known outpost of the wine world set in a pristine California landscape where flocks of wild turkeys mingled with cattle and groves of towering live oak shaded Mennonite homesteads. Justin Baldwin, a regional pioneer of viticulture who founded Justin Vineyards in 1981, told me he fell in love with the area in part because it reminded him of Napa in the '50s and '60s.

Paso is still beautiful, if slightly less obscure, and if this Central California region eventually becomes as renowned as Napa or Sonoma, 2010 will be viewed as the turning point. Within the span of a few weeks, Justin Vineyards was purchased by bottled-water giant Fiji Water, and Saxum's 2007 James Berry Vineyard red, from a winery founded in 2002, was named the wine of the year by the Wine Spectator. The wine had already gotten a maximum 100-point score from Robert Parker.

Saxum's James Berry Vineyard is planted on a steep calcareous hillside that was once an ancient seabed, as evidenced by the marine fossils which crop up out of the soil between the vines. "That's a fossilized whale vertebrae," winemaker Justin Smith tells me, kicking a big, curiously symmetrical rock formation underneath a gnarly head-trained Syrah vine. "They're everywhere," he says and indeed we turn up two more as we walk the steep vineyard. For some reason Paleolithic whales came here to die in great numbers. While the soil is fascinating from a paleological perspective, the viticultural significance is the preponderance of limestone, relatively rare in California. The west side of Paso Robles is the state's largest exposed limestone layer and undoubtedly a factor in the flavor profile of the area's wines.
 

Saxum is a small, artisanal operation. Inside the small barn that serves as a winery is a Numark turntable and a collection of vinyl albums (Neil Young was the soundtrack the day I visited) that seems emblematic of Mr. Smith's retro approach to winemaking, which makes use of old-school cement fermentation tanks and natural yeasts. He makes only about 3,000 cases of wine a year, much of which he sells through a mailing list that was already oversubscribed before his 2010 beatification. Mr. Smith was only 39 when the Spectator anointed him. Three years later he still looks younger than that, putting me in mind of the lost third member of the Black Keys, whose music is frequently playing in the winery.

Mr. Smith's parents bought the land as a retreat back in 1980, and first planted Chardonnay. One day winemaker John Alban—one of the original Rhône Rangers of California—drove by and stopped to admire the steep vineyards and to strike up a conversation, eventually persuading them to plant Rhône varietals, including Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache. The area had a long history with Zinfandel, but the Rhône varieties became increasingly popular in the area, especially after the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape bought a former alfalfa farm in 1989 and established their Tablas Creek winery.

The '07 Saxum that rocked the world was made from a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, a recipe that would be common in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or elsewhere in the Southern Rhône. While other California wine regions have staked their reputations on single varietals—Napa is almost synonymous with Cabernet, while the Santa Barbara area is most famous for its Pinot—Paso Robles seems to be staking its future on blends, of Rhône grapes as well as Cabernet and Zinfandel. It's hard to argue with the results, and Smith points out that blending is the rule in many of the world's wine regions, especially the warmer ones, including Bordeaux and Priorat as well as the Southern Rhône.

"Blends are a great tool for winemakers to be able to bring complexity and balance to their wines, especially when working within a single site," he says. "It also allows for a much more consistent product; in a cool year Grenache and Syrah might be the dominant component and the late-ripening Mourvedre a lesser factor, where in a warm vintage, Mourvedre may be the superstar and Syrah might not be a big component."

“Blends of Rhône grapes as well as Cabernet and Zinfandel distinguish Paso Robles, with great results.”

Paso's climate is basically Mediterranean, certainly much warmer than that of Bordeaux, which is why Mr. Smith and others believe in the suitability of Mediterranean grapes like Grenache and Mourvedre, although Cabernet has its champions. Stefan Aseo, a transplanted Bordelais who cusses like a native speaker and is seldom seen without a cigar in his mouth, has built a cult following with his Estate Cuvée, which is a blend of Cabernet, Syrah and Petit Verdot.

Justin Smith's former Cal Poly roommate Matt Trevisan, proprietor of Linne Calodo, is among those who have been making Zinfandel-based blends, taking advantage of the area's extensive plantings. Linne Calodo, founded in 1998 as a joint venture of Mr. Smith and Mr. Trevisan, a chemistry major, was named after a particular type of limestone soil indigenous to West Paso Robles. The names of their wines are easier to remember, if fanciful: Cherry Red and Problem Child are both exuberant Zin/Mourvedre/Syrah blends. Trevisan has recently started making a straight Zinfandel, although at present I find the blends more complex and intriguing. Although the rustic/contempo tasting room with its soaring cathedral ceiling and long wooden bar conveys a sense of tasteful opulence, production is only about 3,000 cases and only a few of the 15 or so cuvées they produce are available at any given moment.

Napa Zinfandel old-vine-vineyard specialists Turley bought the Pesenti Winery along with its 80-year-old Zinfandel vineyards in Paso Robles in 2000; their Dusi Vineyards Paso Robles Zinfandel, made from purchased grapes, is one of the few wines in their portfolio to enjoy wide national distribution. Among all the newcomers, winemaker Austin Hope is unique for having grown up in Paso Robles, playing in the vines of his family vineyard. He now makes wine under his own name while producing delicious red and white Rhône blends for the Treana label.

Most of Paso's 180-plus wineries are relatively small operations making fewer than 5,000 cases, which is why Fiji Water's purchase of Justin was such big news. "On the one hand, the purchase signaled the arrival of Paso as a brand," one winemaker told me. On the other hand, everyone I talked to on my visit last month was upset about the stands of old oak forest which have been cut to make way for new vineyards, a practice which is perfectly legal under local regulations. The sleepy, prelapsarian California paradise of recent years has been discovered, for better or for worse.

June 17, 2012

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