Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Paso Robles’ cabernet sauvignon

Gary Eberle believed in Paso Robles’ cabernet sauvignon.
Gary Eberle believed in Paso Robles’ cabernet sauvignon.

Vintners of Paso Robles, saddled with a reputation developed largely on boisterous zinfandel, gamely are trying to convince the wine world that they aren’t riding a one-trick pony.

The bronc they are taming to show that Paso Robles really is one of California’s more diverse and notable wine regions is the noblest black grape of them all, cabernet sauvignon.

Indeed, plantings of cabernet sauvignon at Paso Robles dwarf all other grape varieties. Of the 32,000 acres devoted to wine grapes in the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, 39 percent are planted to cabernet. Merlot is a distant second with 14 percent by specific variety. Nowadays, zinfandel isn’t even in the top three, accounting for just 8 percent of Paso’s vineyards, right behind syrah’s 9 percent. Nearly 40 other varieties are cultivated at Paso Robles.

Nevertheless, I’ve been skeptical of cabernet’s long-range prospects in Paso Robles. While I’ve tasted and written of some exceptional cabs from the area, I still identify the region principally with forthright, well-proportioned zinfandel.

But I’m rethinking the matter, largely on the basis of judging a class of cabernet sauvignon at the TexSom International Wine Awards outside Dallas in February. TexSom is one of the few but growing number of competitions to organize classes by region as well as by style of wine, a logical step given the role of place in a wine’s character.

In this instance, all 27 cabernets in the class were from Paso Robles. We gave just four of them gold medals, but we awarded silver medals to a rather astonishing 20. (Note to self: Plan a column to explain why silver-medal wines often are really the best wines to emerge from a competition, in large part because they frequently have more finesse and typicity and are more accessible than blockbusters that grab gold by standing out for their ripeness, sweetness, alcohol and oak.)

At any rate, as a group they were impressive, and so diverse in expression that I can’t say that Paso Robles is turning out any one style of cabernet sauvignon. In build, some were lean and coltish, others broad and weighty. In flavor, some ran to raspberries, cherries and plums, others more to the herbal side of the cabernet spectrum – eucalyptus, bay leaves and mint. By and large, tannins were easily tolerable, the application of oak was light-handed and the acidity jaunty without being stinging.

When identities of the wines were revealed, it was gratifying to see that three of the gold medals went to families who early on recognized the potential of cabernet sauvignon in Paso Robles, invested industriously in the region and tinkered tirelessly in vineyard and cellar to get their fruit to express the variety most clearly and profoundly.

One gold went to the Eberle Winery 2013 Paso Robles Eberle Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), a lusciously fruity and constantly unfolding take whose backbone and acidity should ensure that it endures for the next few decades, a trait for which Eberle cabs have come to be known. The sleeker Eberle Winery 2013 Paso Robles Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) was one of the more focused and driven silver-medal cabs to emerge from the class.

Another gold medal was awarded the J. Lohr Estates 2013 Paso Robles Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($17), much like the Eberle Estate Vineyard cab in its dark juicy fruit, sprightly acidity, judicious oak and solid build, all of which should assure that it will age and develop confidently in the cellar for at least the next decade.

The other golds went to more youthful interpretations – the exceptionally layered yet readily approachable Hope Family Wines 2013 Paso Robles Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) and the sweetly fruity and generously oaked Concannon Vineyard 2013 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($18).

Silver-medal winners that especially impressed me, and which I suspect can be found hereabouts, were the True Myth 2013 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($24), one of the more straight-forward and persistent wines in the class; the Justin Vineyards & Winery 2013 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($26), a take with concentrated cherry fruit punctuated with a dash of eucalyptus; the more monumental, layered and supple Justin Vineyards & Winery 2012 Paso Robles Isosceles ($72); the floral yet robust Harmony Cellars 2013 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($22); and the unusually vivacious SeaGlass 2013 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($12).

Steve Lohr, whose family farms 2,034 acres of cabernet sauvignon at Paso Robles, attributes the character of cabernet from the area in part to the region’s relatively poor sandy loam soils and their pockets of gravels and lime shale. By not holding much water or nutrients, such soils stress vines and thus encourage higher quality grapes, Lohr says. “Cabernet sauvignon by its nature can be a somewhat vigorous variety, so having natural environmental stressors is important.”

Both Lohr and Paso Robles pioneer Gary Eberle also concur that an uncommon 50-degree swing in diurnal temperatures – the difference between daytime highs and nighttime lows – also enhance the tone of the area’s cabernet sauvignon by stretching out the growing season and by retaining the acidity crucial for vitality and longevity.

He started to plant cabernet sauvignon at Paso Robles in 1973 and within two years had 200 acres dedicated to the variety, a huge gamble when the area wasn’t recognized for the grape. But Eberle was undaunted, noting that principal players in viticulture and enology research at UC Davis then were predicting “that Paso Robles would be the next great red-wine region in the state.”

Sonoma and Napa, says Eberle, had an advantage for their proximity to San Francisco and its wine-savvy population and throngs of tourists.

Paso Robles, about midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, was in the middle of nowhere. It still is, but people with a thirst for elegant, concentrated and long-lived cabernet sauvignon, including one wine writer slow to come around, now recognize that the variety is comfortably at home in the Paso Robles corral.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.