Pass me the Paso Cabernet - Liberty School

I recently hosted a blind tasting of Napa cabernets, attempting to focus on value wines that offered good bang for the buck.

Napa cabs — good value. Some readers are no doubt thinking oxymoron here, but this annual exercise served to reinforce the fact that when it comes to quality California wine, Napa knows no peers.

That’s predicated on the premise that aficionados are prepared to pay a premium for cabernet sauvignon with that precious “Napa Valley” name tag. But the nagging question: Are there better choices when it comes to selecting wines in that everyday drinking range between, say, $10 and $20?

I’d argue yes, and Paso Robles is the place to go to find California’s best bargains. Barely a blip on the state’s wine map before rapid development in the ’90s, the Paso region has become a hotbed of growth for warm-weather grape varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah and grenache.

Paso Robles, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along U.S. 101, can remind visitors of its cowboy-country heritage. This is not the Napa Valley, and the locals are quick to celebrate that. Although Paso’s formerly laid-back town square is showing signs of becoming dangerously chic these days with fashionable restaurants and multiple tasting rooms.

As California’s fastest-growing wine region and largest geographic appellation, greater Paso Robles encompasses more than 26,000 vineyard acres and 180 wineries.

Farmers do not enjoy a compact, valley-enclosed agricultural region like their fellow viticulturists to the north, but a vast, boundary-busting area of rolling hills and calcareous soils.

The region’s summer is characterized by hot, cloudless days, with daytime temperatures ranging between 85 and 105 degrees. It’s too extreme for grape-growing except for the cooling marine seabreezes of late afternoon that drop temperatures by up 50 degrees.

This unique effect, called a diurnal fluctuation, is considered key by winemakers hoping to attain intensity and character in hearty varietals such as cabernet sauvignon.

New wineries seem to open weekly, but much of the Paso region’s success comes from pioneering vintners such as J. Lohr, Liberty School, Justin and Wild Horse.

Recommends:

Liberty School 2008 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($13 to $15): Produced with fruit from the Hope Family Winery, a former secondary label for Napa’s Caymus Vineyards, this wine reveals ripe cassis, black cherry, peppery spice, and soft mocha aromas and flavors.

- Tim Dwight

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