Our second day started by meeting Chris Taranto from Paso Robles Wine Country in the lobby of our hotel and heading to J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. We arrived at the winery, picked up Brenden Wood, assistant winemaker, and Johnny Pierini, vineyard manager, and drove to the vineyard. There are three vineyard managers at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wine. On the drive through the vineyard, we learned J. Lohr has 800 acres of vineyards on the estate and 2,300 acres in Paso.
During the ride through the vineyard, we stopped and examined the vines planted. They were growing Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Grenache, Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The soil in the vineyard is more of a clay intermixed with chalk whereas elsewhere it is pure chalk. One set of vines had what looked like to me, bird netting getting ready to be raised, but in fact it was shade blocking cloth. It is used to prevent one side of the Cabernet Sauvignon block from the sun. There were also double irrigation lines in the Cabernet Franc block which lets both lines run at the same time, or just one run, especially for any replanting.
Upon arrival at the Hilltop Vineyard in the J. Lohr Vineyard was Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery, and Vic Roberts, owner/winemaker of Victor Hugo Winery. Between the three wineries, they are three of Paso Roble’s iconic brands who helped shape the AVA into what it is today.
Like the night before, we had a chance to taste wines from each winery while each winery spoke about their winery and wines. J. Lohr presented:
- 2016 Grenache Rose (92% Grenache Noir, 4% Counoise (pronounced coonwaz), 4% Mourvèdre)
- 2016 Viognier
- 2014 Los Osos Merlot (85% Merlot, 15% Malbec)
- 2013 Cuvee St. E (Cabernet Franc 63%, Cabernet Sauvignon 25%, Merlot 8%, Malbec 4%).
Eberle Winery had the following wines:
- 2016 Syrah Rosé
- 2016 Viognier
- 2015 Barbera
- 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve which was a special treat. Gary thought the 2007 Cab was the best wine they have ever made, and there is still some available which sells for $150 a bottle.
Gary Eberle is a pioneer in the Paso Robles region as he moved there in 1973 to begin his career as a winemaker and as the “Pioneer” of the Paso Robles Wine Region. In fact, during the time of this tasting, I received a text from a prominent Texas wine representative who had a question and knew I was on the Paso trip. I mentioned I was listening to Gary Eberle, and they replied, “You got to meet Gary?” I then had to take a quick photo of Gary and text it back. 🙂 I later mentioned to Gary about the text, and he said he has spent a lot of time in Texas. This was not the last time I heard that during the Paso Robles trip.
Victor Hugo Winery had the following wines:
- 2016 Le Mis Rosé (37% Merlot, 25% Malbec, 22% Zinfandel, 16% Syrah)
- 2015 Viognier
- 2013 Opulence (33% Cabernet Franc, 28% Merlot, 18% Malbec, 14% Petit Verdot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon)
- 2013 Petit Verdot
Vic Roberts said they are getting into more Rhône varieties like Viognier. Gary Eberle commented that he said it’s difficult to keep the alcohol below 14% for Viognier, but thinks that in 40 years, Viognier will be Paso’s white wine.
One small observation made here and throughout the trip is that personal spit cups are most commonly used, although some dump buckets are available. I’m not sure why, but it does help make it more personal when you’re expectorating. The week we visited was unusually warm for Paso Robles, and even though tasting in a vineyard is pretty cool, I could only imagine how some of the finer wines might have tasted in a cooler environment.
It was time to load up the bus again and head to our next location for the day, Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery. We arrived at the winery to meet Kevin Willenborg, winemaker, and Steve Lister, Director of Sales. A quick tasting of their 2016 White4 (49% Viognier, 23% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Verdelho, 8% Vermentino), which was grown in three different climate zones, was provided, and we were off for a tour of the winery. All wines tasted at Vina Robles were from their 1,110 acres of estate vineyards.
Usually winery tours I attend involve the production facilities of the winery, but I could understand why the major attraction at Vina Robles was their amphitheatre. This is a major concert venue with a 3,300 capacity that holds 30 concerts a year. The Vina Robles Amphitheatre is no tiny venue with just local artists. Major musical artists come to the winery. And of course when you watch a concert at a winery, what do you drink? There was a great selection of wines available at the different stations, including of course, beer for the non-wine drinkers. The Amphitheatre gives the area around Paso Robles a great location to listen to a concert.
It was time for lunch and we sat outside to enjoy a very nice lunch. Wines served with lunch were:
- 2016 Sauvignon Blanc
- 2016 Albariño
- 2013 Red4 (41% Petite Sirah, 40% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre, 9% Grenache)
- 2013 Suendero (71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot, 9% Malbec ‘Adelaida District’)
- 2013 Estate Petite Sirah
- 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Petit Verdot)
After lunch, we had a surprise tasting of three different Cabernet Sauvignons from three different vineyards (Huerhuero, Creston Valley, and Adelaida Springs Ranch). These were all 2016 barrel samples and they all tasted different. Does that mean terroir matters? Kevin commented how all except the last Cab tasted would be used in a blend instead of a single varietal.
Back into the bus, we went to one of their nearby estate vineyards. Before we arrived at the vineyard, construction was occurring and we were informed Vina Robles is building a new winery which will replace the one we were just at which happens to be owned by Gallo. We toured the vineyard and stopped to take some photos of the mountains in the distance and the rolling hills of the vineyard. The fascinating fact about this vineyard is that it extends both into the El Pomar and Geneseo sub-AVAs. It is also at a crossroads for marine air entering the region from both the Templeton Gap and Salinas Valley.
It was time to head west to DAOU Vineyards & Winery. As we climbed the hills to where the winery is, we enjoyed looking at the vineyards lining the hills. DAOU has the highest elevation of any winery in Paso at 2,200 feet, even though there are other vineyards that are higher. Once at the winery on top of DAOU Mountain, we met winemaker and co-owner Daniel Daou and Senior Vice President Maeve Pesquera. Daniel has been making the wine and this year marks the 11th harvest for the winery.
With a glass of 2016 Sauvignon Blanc in hand, we boarded two ATVs and drove through the vineyard. At our first stop, Daniel showed the very low vines growing in the vineyard with cordon at 18 inches from the ground which he said is very typical in France. He explained the normal height of a canopy in most vineyards does not allow a vine balance due to not enough energy and too many clusters to ripen. This means at harvest there will be grapes at different Brix. With his vine balance, he aims for a 4-4½ foot canopy to allow enough energy to ripen all the grapes at the same time. Also with the cordon closer to the ground, you have better terrestrial radiation. The advantage of this is you’re going to ripen one to two weeks earlier. Of course, the disadvantage of a low cordon is at harvest when you are hand harvesting and having to sit or kneel close to the ground. The vines were planted three feet apart and rows were between 6-6½ feet.
Daniel also explained that the soil is what made Paso a desired location for growing grapes, even back in the 1960s. He said, “California is not known for French soil, but is known for clay, sandy, loam, and volcanic soil, none of which are French. French soils are gravel and calcareous which are going to give great drainage from the rains and moisture retention, but they are also going to give great minerality. In France when you taste a Cabernet Sauvignon, you’re tasting 80% soil and 20% climate, because they don’t ripen often. They ripen maybe one year out of five or six. So, you’re going to taste more of the soil than the actual climate. When you’re tasting California Cabernet historically speaking, you’re going to taste 80% climate and 20% soil. There are obviously great areas like in Napa though with the Rutherford dust, but that is rare.”
When Dr. Stanley Hoffman owned the property before it became DAOU Mountain, he brought renowned winemaking authority André Tchelistcheff to the mountain who hailed it as “a jewel of ecological elements.” He recommended to plant Chardonnay at the bottom with Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir in another location. So, Dr. Hoffman planted Cabernet Sauvignon in the area which was really known for its Zinfandel.
The winery dry farms about 80% of the vineyard even in drought years. There are two blocks out of 35 blocks that in drought years see water from about May to August. Daniel continued, “The rare phenomenon that is happening here is you have soils that are going to give you great moisture retention. They’re going to really help stress the grapes, so you are going to have very small berries which are going to give a higher skin to juice ratio for much better concentration. It’s going to give you minerality, something that is often forgotten in California Cabernet. Last but not least, it’s going to give you a natural acidity. No where have we found a place that has French soils and Napa climate. Both regions produce great Cabernet Sauvignon in certain years. We get this weather and this pattern every year on this mountain.”
Back on the ATVs, we went to the original Hoffman Mountain Ranch redwood winery which was totally remodeled and today houses the barrels for the DAOU winery. Waiting for us at the building was a 2015 Reserve Chardonnay. The winery uses nothing but custom-crafted new French oak barrels. Their top wine is Soul of a Lion, and Daniel goes to France every year to select the wood for the barrel which is a rare, extrafine-grain pink wood called bois rosé. The barrel is aged four to five years before use, so adding on the aging of the wine in the barrel gives a wine that has taken a journey of up to nine years.
We headed back to the winery and went to a private event room. The ATV vineyard tour had taken a little longer than expected, so we had to slightly hurry through a tasting of some magnificent DAOU Cabs. These are the wines we tasted:
- 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot)
- 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2014 Soul of a Lion (83 % Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot). This is the best and darkest wine they make. The first Soul of a Lion made received 96 points on three year old vines.
All wines we tasted were from 100% free run juice. Now we had to run, but first some of the group had to ring the Spanish bell in the front tower. The bell is from 1740 and is rung at the beginning and end of harvest.
We made a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up and then it was time for dinner in town at Thomas Hill Organics. When we arrived at the restaurant, we met our dining companions from four different wineries:
- Barr Estate Winery – Geoff Barr, Assistant Winemaker
- Niner Wine Estates – Andy Niner, General Manager
- Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery – Matt Merrill, Owner/General Manager
- Sextant Wines – Nancy Stoller, Proprietor
During the wonderful dinner, each winery had the chance to explain the wines they brought and a little about their winery.
Geoff Barr from Barr Estate Winery said they are a 2,200 case a year winery and are distributed in Houston with a small distributor. They opened in 2007 and all their red wines are done in American oak. There are 53 acres of vines planted growing five different varieties. The wines brought were:
- 2011 Estate Malbec (75% Malbec 25% Cabernet Sauvignon)
- 2014 Barr Estate Albariño
Niner Wine Estates does 20,000 cases of wine a year. Andy Niner’s father started the winery in 2001, but his father retired three years ago and Andy took over the management of the winery. The wines brought were:
- 2014 Reserve Marsanne (75% Marsanne, 25% Grenache Blanc). This was done in a 600 liter barrel and he explained it as an experiment that went right.
- 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Malbec, 3% Merlot, 2% Carmenere)
Pomar Junction does 8,000 cases of wine with 28 different wines. They made their first wine in 2002 and Matt Merrill made the first wine for his wedding. Besides grapes, they also have six acres of olive trees. The wines brought were:
- 2016 Cotes de Pomar Rosé (100% Syrah)
- 2014 Cab Forward (43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28.5% Petit Verdot, 28.5% Merlot)
Sextant Wines is a 47 year old company whose vineyard is planted next to Pomar Junction. The majority of wines are estate wines from the Templeton region. There are two locations for Sextant Wines with one being the estate winery and the other being a tasting room. The wines tasted were:
- 2014 Wheelhouse Zinfandel
- 2016 Estate Rosé (1.5 liter) (80% Grenache, 16% Mourvèdre, 4% Marsanne)
It was a fantastic dinner with some excellent wines from the four wineries, but unfortunately, we had to call it a night.