Paso Robles: History in the Glass

Our second day in Paso Robles was billed as a “vineyard to glass” experience.  We started with our chariot bus from Breakaway Tours where Owner Jill Tweedie helped start our journey in style.  We arrived at the train-themed Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery, where Matt Merrill, the general manager, and Jim Shumate, the winemaker, greeted us with a tour.

 

The Merrill family has been growing grapes for eight generations and the business is still family owned.  After 30 years of growing for others, they decided to produce and farm their own wines five years ago.  The Merrill’s great grandfather was a railroad engineer and the tribute to him is an integral part of the winery experience.

 

 

Also joining us was Steve Martell, the winemaker for Sextant Wines and Ashley Leslie, portfolio manager.  Sextant is located right around the corner and Steve talked about how he uses fruit from the Pomar Junction as well as his own 100-acre vineyard.  This is when we started to hear about the Templeton Gap influence and how the diverse number of climates in the region along with the calcareous rock allow for so many different wines to be produced.  Jim Gerakaris, Winery Sommelier of Justin Wine, also talked about how Paso Robles has all of the qualities of any great global wine region.  Jim Shumate also talked about the lack of fear in trying new things that pushes the winemakers to do things that are different.

 

Our next stop was Adelaida Cellars, another family-owner vineyard located in the mountainous Adelaida District.  The winery focuses on Rhône, pinot noir, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.  The winery has 157 acres of vineyards in three different locations.  We hiked up to a spectacular view of the entire AVA and were greeted by Jeremy Weintraub, winemaker, and Paul Sowerby, national sales manager.  Also joining us was Jason Joyce, winemaker from Calcareous Vineyard, and Jordan Fiorentini, winemaker of Epoch Wines.  We took in the palate of colors from the mountain, drinking a Adelaida Rose, life was good.  Jason talked about the diversity of the region, “You throw a rock and find a new soil type.”

 

Jason Joyce, winemaker from Calcareous Vineyard

We came back to the tasting room that was remodeled about two years ago where we tried a line-up of great wines from these producers and had lunch.  The Rhone influence was really fun to see (and try) and the wines that are being produced out of the region were top notch.  It’s an influence of Old World vs New World with a special blend of Paso uniqueness thrown into the mix.

 

Our next stop was a first for me – Pasolivo Olive Oil.  We experienced the process of tasting five different oils, adding spices (habanero, lemon pepper, Italian mix, etc) and determining our perfect blend.  It was fun to go into the orchard and see the olive trees in bloom.

 

 

 

We then traveled to one of the pioneers in the region, Tablas Creek Vineyard.  Tablas Creek is a decades-long friendship between the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, a long-time importer and founder of Vineyard Brands.  In 1985, the families formally partnered and purchased the 120-acre property in 1989.  The vineyard is all about the limestone and chalky soils and temperatures that allows the sun to ripen the grapes, the rain to dry farm the vineyard and for biodynamic farming.  When Tablas Creek couldn’t get the quality of vines it wanted back in the 1990’s, it imported cuttings directly from the Beaucastel vineyard and then shared them.  In fact, there are more than 400 wineries that have descendants of these cuttings today.  Our host, Manager John Morris, talked about how making better Rhone wines helps the quality and acceptance of these wines on a global scale.  We toured the vineyards, met alpacas and sheep, learned how to graft a grapevine and saw the sustainability measures in place firsthand.

We finished in the tasting room where we tasting 12 Rhone-style wines – a diverse range from red to white to rose.  After a day at Tablas, one proudly sports the badge of a “Rhone Ranger.”

We then had about 47 seconds to get back to the hotel and change for our dinner at Thomas Hill Organics, a restaurant that started as a CSA and then evolved into a well-known restaurant that focuses on local ingredients.  We had pairings for each course and four winemakers joined us – Kevin Willenborg from Vina Robles; Molly Lonborg (assistant winemaker) from Halter Ranch; Tom Lane from Bianchi Winery and JC Diefenderfer from Treana.


Tom from Bianchi has been the head winemaker for the past 11 years and bought the property 16 years ago.  He was born in Kansas and had “an illogical, romantic vision of what winemaking would be,” he said.  This was also his second career – he has three other degrees in biology, chemistry and botany.  Tom is the quintessential Renaissance man.  He actually brought the shocker wine of the meal – a Gewürztraminer that was an awesome dry white wine.

I didn’t get to spend much time with Molly from Halter Ranch Vineyard, which originally started as a grower’s vineyard.  The winery does 15 varietals – 60 percent Bordeaux and 40 percent Rhone-based.  Molly was generous enough to give us a bottle of wine to take and it was absolutely delicious.

Kevin from Vina Robles was also on the other side of the table.  He talked about the importance of having the vines do the work.  “You express the fruit, you never mask the fruit,” he said.

JC from Treana originally wanted to be a circuit board engineer until analog geometry got in the way.  But he knew he still wanted to develop, build and create.  His long-time friend, Austin Hope asked him to design and build their crush facility in Paso Robles.  This led to JC being on the winemaking team at Hope Family Wines starting in 1998 where he apprenticed under then-winemaker Chris Phelps.  When Austin asked him what he wanted to do, winemaking was the obvious choice.  “There are many of us that make Paso special by doing things differently,” he said.

My sense of community being alive and well in the region was reinforced.  The growers and winemaker look at making this one of the greatest regions in the world as a team effort.  The fact that Tablas Creek gave away cuttings from a highly-regarded vineyard to improve Rhone wines is only one proof point.  Winemaker Jordan Fiorentini from Epoch Estate Wines summed it up perfectly, “Make the best wines that you can and help those around you do the same.”