Dunne on Wine: Hearst Ranch Three Sisters Cuvee

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

Contrary to the popular if dated image of newspapermen, publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst wasn't much of a drinker.

He built a substantial wine cellar at his gleaming castle along California's Central Coast, but he kept a firm grip on the key and wasn't a particularly generous host during dinner parties.

"The wine would flow like glue during the meal," quipped one guest, actor David Niven.

But that was then, and now his descendants appreciate California wine – Hearst stocked few in his cellar, preferring French and German wines – and they're capitalizing on the Central Coast's growing esteem for vineyards and wineries.

In 2009, Hearst's great-grandson Steve Hearst teamed up with another independent businessman, Jim Saunders, to establish Hearst Ranch Winery, capitalizing in large part on a Paso Robles vineyard that Saunders began to plant in 1993. They've built a winery on the northern outskirts of Paso Robles and opened a tasting room inside the landmark Sebastian's General Store across Highway 1 from the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, now a California state park.

Each vintage, they oversee the production of around a dozen wines, including cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, tempranillo and malbec, most of them bearing the Paso Robles appellation. Total annual production is at around 10,000 cases.

Though Hearst Ranch Winery is young, it's generating buzz for the caliber of its wines well beyond Paso Robles. At this summer's California State Fair commercial wine competition in Sacramento, for one, judges elected the Hearst Ranch Winery 2009 Paso Robles Three Sisters Cuvée the best red wine in the roundup.

The wine garnered the honor on the power and balance of its lush fruit flavors, its peppery spice, its shrewd complexity and its liveliness and persistence. It's a blend of three grape varieties long identified with France's Rhone Valley – syrah (50 percent), grenache (35 percent) and mourvedre (15 percent). This was just the second Three Sisters Cuvée to be released.

The win was tacit endorsement of a growing realization in California – that Rhone Valley varieties stand a better chance of making a lasting statement if they are blended rather than bottled as individual varietals, the custom for most wines made in the United States. The downside, say vintners, is that proprietary blends with fanciful names are more difficult to sell than varietals.

Nevertheless, blends are rising in both number and standing. After the State Fair judging, for one, the Three Sisters Cuvée was named the best Rhone- inspired red wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

The wine was made under the auspices of resident winemaker Jeremy Leffert and consulting winemaker Adam LaZarre. Growing conditions in and about Paso Robles during 2009 were atypical. The summer was cooler than usual, and the two fretted about whether the grapes would get ripe enough to be as expressive as they'd hoped. The syrah wasn't particularly strong, recalls LaZarre, but the grenache more than made up for it.

At one point, the two were experimenting with 15 different lots of the three varieties, experimenting with this mix and that before finally settling on a combination that pleased them.

"It took a lot of tweaking," said LaZarre, who credits Leffert's persistence in seeing through the many trials-and-errors that were needed.

The wine had been bottled for just a month when it was entered in the State Fair, and LaZarre figured it would need six more months of aging before it would start to live up to expectations.

Leffert and LaZarre share a vision in their winemaking – to craft wines that represent a sense of place, pack plenty of fruit and are lower in alcohol and pH than what customarily is found in California wines nowadays. Most of all, the wines have got to be compatible at the table.

Leffert said he wants his wines packed with "loads of fruit," but he doesn't want them cloying or low in acid, which would leave them soft. "I'm not a big fan of over-the-top fruit bombs that don't pair well with food. We want the wine to be as enjoyable as an aperitif as it is with barbecue. We're all about barbecue here."

As to the name Three Sisters Cuvée, there's some debate among the principals about its inspiration and meaning. It could refer to the three varieties of grapes in the wine, said Jim Saunders. Or it could refer to his wife, Debi, and her siblings, she said. Most likely, it stems from three peaks that flank Hearst Castle.

Hearst Ranch Winery 2009 Paso Robles Three Sisters Cuvée

By the numbers: 14.1 percent alcohol, 1,250 cases, $20.

Context: Jeremy Leffert likes the wine with barbecue. Adam LaZarre recommends cuisine inspired by the South of France, specifically dishes that include lamb, pork or sausages.

Availability: In the Sacramento area, wines by Hearst Ranch Winery are carried by Nugget Markets. Wines also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.hearstranch winery.com.

More information: The tasting room at Sebastian's General Store, 442 SLO San Simeon Road, San Simeon, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

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