Dunne on Wine

Beyond cabernet: Paso Robles has lots of good (if not better) wines

A quiet drama is playing out in the vineyards and wineries of Paso Robles over what wines the region will be known for producing.
A quiet drama is playing out in the vineyards and wineries of Paso Robles over what wines the region will be known for producing.

Aside from scenery, history and restaurants, one of the more alluring attributes of Paso Robles, at least for wine enthusiasts, is its rich range of wine styles.

More than 40 varieties of wine grape are planted at Paso Robles. The area is so varied in topography, microclimates and soils it has been subdivided into 11 sub-appellations with such colorful and historic names as Templeton Gap District, Adelaida District and Estrella District. Just about any kind of varietal wine you want can be found at Paso Robles.

Yet, a quiet drama is playing out in the vineyards and wineries of Paso Robles.

Much of it casts itself as the South State’s version of Napa Valley. That is, known largely for cabernet sauvignon. Nearly two of every five of the 40,000 acres of vineyard at Paso Robles is cabernet sauvignon. When merlot is folded into the total, Bordeaux varieties account for more than half the appellation’s acreage.

It remains to be seen if any in the region recognize that there might be appeal and strength in diversity.

I, for one, want to continue to visit Paso Robles not so much for its cabernet sauvignon but for other types of wine.

This attitude was reinforced in February – as it had been a year ago – when I sat on panels at the TexSom International Wine Awards in Dallas that were assigned classes of wine that originated in Paso Robles.

A year ago, we tasted 27 cabernet sauvignons, giving four of them gold medals, a decent but not exciting return for a region staking so much of its reputation on the variety.

This year, the cabernets were even less impressive as a group. Of the 35 we tasted, just three earned gold medals. Different vintages and different personalities on the panel could explain in part the even less impressive showing, but again the outcome had to be unsettling for Paso Robles vintners banking heavily on cabernet sauvignon. (Most of the 35 were from the vintage of 2014, another drought year, which may explain the tepid showing, at least in part.)

For me, too few of the entries enunciated clearly “cabernet sauvignon.” Several were massive and blunt, with little finesse and finish. Tannins could be frightfully astringent, though experience has shown that Paso Robles cabernet stern in its youth often can turn into wonderfully sleek and vital wines after extended aging. Quite a few were high in alcohol, saturated with oak or low in acidity.

That said, we did find three that measured up to cabernet’s standing as the king of California’s vineyards:

•  The Hearst Ranch Winery 2014 Paso Robles Bunkhouse Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) was the only entry in the class to win a double-gold medal, meaning all four judges of the panel agreed that it deserved gold, and it was spontaneous, the panel concurring without any debate, which is rare. The wine’s shimmering fruit – cherries, berries, plums – and supple tannins won us over. It came near the end of the class, but popped out for its emphasis on sunny fruit and its break from too much oak.

•  The Robert Hall 2014 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) has the bright fruit, polished tannins and, incessant finish to keep inviting you back for one sip after another. We don’t know prices until after the competition, but this gets the award for best buy in the class.

•  The J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines 2013 Paso Robles Cuvee Pau ($50) is one husky wine, concentrated with dark fruit flavors, heavy on chocolate from the oak in which it was aged, and still so fierce with tannins that it should be socked away in the cellar until New Year’s Eve a decade hence and then paired with beef Wellington.

There were a couple of other cabernets that I thought deserved gold, but I couldn’t persuade my fellow panelists to move up. The wines ended up with silver medals: the forward, complex and hefty Halter Ranch 2014 Paso Robles Adelaida District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) and the robust yet elegant Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery 2012 Paso Robles Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($65).

And speaking of Pomar Junction, it turned in a pretty impressive overall performance at TexSom, with three other wines also winning gold medals: The richly fruity, earthy and spicy Pomar Junction 2013 Paso Robles Crossing GSM ($54), a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre; the lively, clean and crisp Pomar Junction 2015 Paso Robles Viognier ($30); and the sweetly seductive and intricately layered Pomar Junction 2015 Paso Robles Cotes De Pomar Blanc ($36), a blend of roussanne, grenache blanc and viognier.

For my money, the reputation of Paso Robles as a fine-wine region ultimately will be determined more by Rhone blends like Pomar Junction’s Crossing and Cotes De Pomar Blanc than by cabernet sauvignon, even though TexSom attracted just three Paso Robles entries in the “Rhone Red Blend” class. Nevertheless, two of the three won gold medals: the previously mentioned Pomar Junction Crossing and the flamboyant yet snappy Hearst Ranch Winery 2013 Paso Robles Three Sisters Cuvee ($24), a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre.

To me, Paso Robles over the years has been synonymous with zinfandels of authority and focus, but perhaps because of California’s enduring drought the seven entered at TexSom were disappointing, except for our only gold medal for the class, the Brady Vineyard 2015 Paso Robles Zinfandel ($19), a radiant beam of raspberry and blackberry fruit set off against shadowy earth tones.

When I think of Paso Robles, I don’t think merlot, even though it accounts for 14 percent of the appellation’s vineyards. Only one of the eight merlots at TexSom won a gold medal, but it went on to win a coveted Judges’ Selection award as well as be designated the competition’s “best value California merlot.” It is the exceptionally uplifting, complex and plummy Ancient Peaks 2014 Paso Robles Santa Margarita Ranch Merlot ($18).

In sum, while many of the vintners of Paso Robles see cabernet sauvignon as the wine to establish and sustain the region’s reputation for fine wine, today’s wine enthusiast still can find other commendable varietal wines and styles of wine to keep them coming back.