Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Paso Robles – California Wine Country (Part II)

Justin Winery cave and wine barrels.

I told you there would be more posts coming from California wine country!  The town of Paso Robles was not too be missed by us and you should not overlook it as well; especially, you red wine drinkers.

Napa and Sonoma are names synonymous with California wines, but the nearly 200 wineries around Paso Robles have put this area on the map and is the fastest growing American Viticulture Area in California.  Located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this area has the climate, soil, and topography (which is described as terroir in French)  that are the perfect environment for growing over 40 different wine grapes.  Many of the grape varietals are from the Rhône Valley of France and are very happy here in the California limestone soils.  I’m glad the grapes are so happy – maybe that is why they taste so good! (Remember the happy cows commercial where happy cows make good cheese?) 

El Paso de Robles (Spanish for “The Pass of the Oaks) has a vineyard history that goes way back to 1797 when Franciscan missionaries planted the first wine grapes.  Wine making in the region went through spurts in the 1920’s and again in the 1960’s and 70’s when the science of winemaking came into play.  Fast forward to the 1990’s when international investment took place and the success of Rhône and Bordeaux varieties influenced small boutique and family-owned vineyards and wineries.  Up until 1990, there were fewer than 20 wineries in and around Paso Robles which was just a sleepy little farming community.  Critics had always labeled Paso wines as rustic, highly tannic and with little finesse.  But things were changing and the refined Paso wines were in high demand.  Soon, the agricultural fields were replanted with the distinguishing rows of wine grapes and the wine bottles were adorned with  ribbons and points in the 90’s. 

Zinfandel grapes have always held a strong influence in the area and persisted during the wine making ups and downs.  Some credit the invention of white zinfandel with the survivorship of the red zinfandel as the demand for white zinfandel paid the bills until its red cousin became popular.  I am especially fond of zinfandel so I'm glad some of my relatives and friends kept it afloat by drinking the pink stuff.

The list of regional wineries is a mix of those you have probably heard of (like J. Lohr, Eberle, Robert Hall, and Justin) and those that you have not.  I really enjoyed the tastings at the small boutique wineries that were unfamiliar to me – like our first stop at Whalebone Winery.  I admit we pulled in because the sign out front said “free barbeque” and our hard right turn had nothing to do with their wines.  This small family-owned and run business started as a hobby and has grown into an award-winning winery.  You are greeted at the quaint, cottage-like wood tasting room by cats and a dog lounging in the sun overlooking the grape vines.  Enter inside and the family matriarch will pour you their finest while her son served up the best tri-tip sandwich around.  Don't be fooled by small wineries thinking these are cheap and boring wines.  Many of them are in the $20-$45 range and will blow you away.  

The official greeter at the Whalebone tasting room.

We bought two bottles at Whalebone and were off to Justin Winery (can’t go wrong there). We particularly love the Justin cabernet sauvignon but it was wonderful to try their other varieties and blends - like the 2010 Isosceles which is a blend of cabernet sauvignon (85%), cabernet franc (8%) and merlot (7%) at $62/bottle.

The tasting room in the Justin cellar.
While Paso is known for its zinfandel, the largest percentage of grapes grown in the region are cabernet sauvignon at approximately 38% followed by merlot (15%), syrah (10%), and zinfandel (9%).  And an estimated 58% of Paso wine grapes are sold to wineries outside the area so don't be surprised to find them in many other California wines.  

We had a great weekend wandering around the wineries and meeting people and talking to the representatives at the wineries.  Calli at J. Lohr was a blast to talk to and a wealth of knowledge about their wines.  And the family-owned and run Cass Winery was equally delightful as we sipped delicious wine while chatting with the owner (Steve) and his son (Brian).  It is these experiences that make us not only remember the wine but how wine can bring people together to enjoy the afternoon.  I guess milk could do that too?  Ha!

J. Lohr tasting room
Sculpterra Winery has some of the most impressive sculptures on their grounds.
Eberle Winery mascot "Porcellino" - Eberle is the German word for small, wild boar.  Rubbing his nose is supposed to be good luck.
There are over 26,000 vineyard acres in the Paso Robles region.
A mobile bottling truck at Sculpterra.  
Inside the bottling truck where the entire process of filling, corking, and labeling wine bottles is done in seconds.
On Friday and Saturday night at the RV park there were free tastings.  

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