In April, I was supposed to be attending my third annual Wine Writers’ Educational Tour, a media “deep dive” into AVAs, terroirs and varieties, scheduled this year in Paso Robles. Like most wine events this year, it was postponed due to the pandemic.
So instead of touring a vineyard and winery with time in the barrel room at Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery at The Wine Writers Educational Tour (WET), I found myself at my dining room table with a five test tube vials, 5 glasses, my computer along with 40 other wine writers ready to do a virtual barrel tasting with Alta Colina led by Wine Educator and WET Founder, Fred Swan.
First, a little about Paso Robles. ‘The Pass of the Oaks,” is located in San Luis Obispo County on the Salinas River. It is known for its wineries, olive oil and almonds as well as its mineral hot springs. It is the largest wine region in California with 30 distinct soil series, many microclimates and varying topography within 612,000 total acres.
Paso Robles has a storied history in wine. Grapes were introduced in 1797 by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries. Spanish explorer Francisco Cortez had the vision this would be a great wine region and encouraged those in Mexico and California to come to the region. In 1882, Andrew York, who came from Indiana, established a winery that still stands today under a different name as Epoch Winery. Fast forward after Prohibition and growth continued. Paso Robles’ American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1983 with 17 wineries and 5,000 vineyard acres with Zinfandel as the heritage grape. The real expansion started in 1990 when the winery count was 20 and today totals more than 200 wineries.
Today the Paso Robles AVA accounts for 87% of San Luis Obispo County’s wine industry output and economic impact with 40,000 vineyard acres and more than 200 wineries, 95% of which are small production, family owned businesses. In 2009, the Paso Robles AVA was split into 11 smaller viticultural areas and at this time the winemakers began to expand into a wider variety of grapes including Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. As context, Paso Robles is three times the size of Napa Valley.
The Alta Colina Vineyard & Winery, which translates into “High Hill” in Spanish, has been owned and operated by the Tillman family for three generations. The winery is located on the Westside of Paso Robles in the Adelaida District sub-AVA and has a focus on organic wines. Alta Colina currently produces about 3,000 cases with ten different Rhone wines. The 130-acre property features the Trailer Pond, a unique getaway option in wine country.
Bob, Maggie and Molly
Bob purchased the property in 2003 after working in engineering during his first career at Hewlett-Packard and planted the 31-acre vineyard of Rhone varieties two years later. His love for wine came early when he took a night class about wine with his wife in 1971. He talked about why, “People have hobbies I worked a lot and didn’t have one.”
His daughter, Maggie, talked about growing up with barrels of her dad’s home winemaking in the garage so her mom couldn’t park there.
The wines were released in 2009 and Maggie came on as owner/director of sales and marketing. Until recently, she held the title of owner, vineyard manager and winemaker.
A month ago, Molly Lonborg came on as winemaker allowing Bob to focus on managing the vineyards She spent nine years at Halter Ranch Vineyard as associate winemaker. Before Halter Ranch, she held lab and cellar positions at several Central Coast wineries, including JUSTIN Vineyard & Winery and Orcutt Road Cellars.
As we tasted our barrel and bottle samples, they talked about how Paso Robles is special. “Paso Robles has changed a lot, but has retained its character,” said Maggie.
We tasted three barrel samples in different types of barrels and two bottle samples:
2019 Syrah Block 8 – 2014 Boutes French Oak
2019 Syrah Block 8 – 2019 Berger & Fils French Oak
2019 Syrah Block 8 – 2019 Vicard French Oak Hogshead
2016 Alta Colina Old 900
2017 Alta Colina GSM
The differences of the barrels were striking using the same wine in the barrel samples – proving winemaking is a much of an art vs a science. The bottle samples of the two wines were delicious – different styles but showcasing what we have to look forward to next year during our visit to Paso Robles.