While Rhone varietals like syrah and grenache have been garnering much critical acclaim for Paso Robles in recent years, the region’s roots are really in cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals, which account for more than 50 percent of the plantings there. But due largely to money-minded farmers growing, as per agricultural tradition, for quantity rather than quality, Paso cabs as a whole haven’t quite established a reputation for excellence, even though at least a dozen of the appellation’s 200-plus producers have never lost focus of premium winemaking.
To remind the region and the world that Paso is and can be a premiere place for Bourdeauxs, a number of wineries recently formed the CAB Collective and, this past weekend, hosted a wide array of media, trade, and the general public to move that ball forward. Starting with an en primeur tasting on Friday afternoon — in which the 16 winery members poured barrel samples of their 2012 wines, at least two years before any are expected to be bottled and sold — and culminating in a grand tasting on Saturday amidst the immaculate horse stables of Windfall Farms on Paso’s hot and dry eastside, the CAB Collective’s coming out party proved its point rather loudly, and now it’s up for the rest of the wine-loving world to take notice.
Aside from frank and detailed conversations with the winemakers throughout the tastings and associated dinners, the educational centerpiece of the weekend was the Saturday morning panel on the grass at Windfall Farms, where Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast magazine moderated a conversation of historic proportions. On the panel were pioneers like Gary Eberle, who first planted in Paso back in 1973, as well as relative newcomers like David Galzignato of Jada Vineyards, who represented just one of the many winemakers being lured away from the Napa Valley and elsewhere due to the promise of Paso.
After Heimoff noted that the region had reached a “tipping point” last year due to a “dramatic, shocking increase in quality,” Eberle regaled the crowd with his history in the area, dating back to visits in 1972 as a student at UC-Davis and then the subsequent development of the pioneering Estrella River Winery, which he grew to 300,000 cases annually. Despite being the first person in the United States to plant syrah since Prohibition — which has since led to Paso being “dubbed the Rhone zone” — Eberle remains convinced that cab is where it’s at, “There’s no doubt in my minds that it’s our best grape.” He believes that while earlier cabs like his were based on a lower yield clone and resulted in better wines (including the 1980 bottle he opened for the tasting that followed the panel), the explosive plantings of a more productive clone in the late 1990s hampered the focus on quality.
Scott Shirley, who joined Justin Winery in time for the 2012 vintage after working for renowned producers such as Opus One and Hess Collection in the Napa Valley, said that he was lured to the area due to “great soils, great climate, and great people.” Shirley explained, “I feel the potential for great cabernet is just coming into being, just burgeoning.”
The winemaker for Vina Robles, Kevin Willenborg, is another newcomer with previous experience in Napa (Lous Martini, Rubicon), Santa Barbara (Firestone, Bridlewood), and France (Petrus), and he noted presence of the newbies as evidence a shift was underway. He credit’s Paso’s high diurnal temperature variance, where it can be 100-plus degrees during the day but drop into the 40s at night, as a reason for great wines. Add to that poor, alkaline, calcaerous soils, and Willenborg said the resulting wines comes from “rich, expressive, bold fruit” that also has a natural “roundness” and “creaminess.” When asked to compared Napa versus Paso versus Bordeaux, Willenborg said that Napa always has to fight to “tame the tannins” and that Old World winemakers are leaning toward a more fruit-forward California style. “Although,” he laughed, “you’ll never get a Frenchman to admit that.” (In related news, Vina Robles is almost ready to open its 3,400-seat amphitheater this summer, bringing a new entertainment option to the area as well.)
J Lohr has been producing Paso wines since the 1980s, and winemaker Steve Peck has been in charge of the company’s red wines since 2007. He believes that somewhere along the line winemakers who were worried about the green flavors of their wines overcorrected to by letting cabs hang on the vine for too long, resulting in “portly, maderized, flabby” wines. Nonetheless, the critics loved these big monster wines rather than those that were more about balanced, so Peck explained, “Winemakers who didn’t go that direction were left out a bit.” But the Old World holds the keys for cab’s proper ripeness, said Peck. “It’s not the warm vintages you want to buy,” he said of Bordeaux, “it’s the dry vintages.” That means that dry years producing stressed but nuanced fruit are preferable to the hot years that may produce overly ripe fruit.
Next up was David Galzignato, who was hired by Jada in 2011 as the 4,000-case-per-year winery’s first full-time winemaker. “I honestly believe that Paso Robles has the potential tyo be the best appellation in California,” said the veteran of such respected Napa houses as Charles Krug and Duckhorn.
The last panelist was Daniel Daou, who, along with Chateau Margene’s Michael Mooney, was one of the visionaries behind the creation of the CAB Collective. “We felt we could achieve ripeness year after year,” he explained of one reason why he and his brother, Georges, settled on Paso. “You have these soils that you only find in special places in the world,” said Daou of the alkaline dirt prominent in the area. “Natural acidity flows very well into the wine.” The future looks brighter because “more and more vineyards are planting high quality clones,” said Daou, who believes that as growers figure that out, so do the consumers. And that just may be the biggest message of the CAB Collective: that while cabs are pretty good in Paso now, said Daou, “The whole quality is going to rise.”