A THIRD PRODIGIOUS CABERNET SAUVIGNON REGION EMERGES IN CALIFORNIA
by Andrew Chalk
Cabernet Sauvignon has proven itself to be one of the world’s most transplantable grapes. It reaches global quality levels on a wide scale in Napa and Sonoma Counties of California. While there have always been isolated examples elsewhere, is there any other region that has the broad quality to challenge these two?
There is one that may be nipping at their heels - Paso Robles.
This was my fourth visit to Paso in six years (the pandemic forced two years to be skipped) and this time I planned a deep dive into the cabernet producers of a region that is also well known for other grapes. Notably, Rhône blends (spearheaded by Tablas Creek Vineyard, owned by the Perrin family from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of France), and chardonnay. The improvement in cabernet does not in any way detract from other grapes, it rather reflects the diversity of terroir in this sizable region.
The Paso Robles CAB Collective provided logistical assistance with obtaining appointments. On this occasion, I did not visit a leading producer (and CAB Collective Founding Member) DAOU Vineyards, having covered them at length in 2016. But the winery has clearly gone from strength to strength.
ANCIENT PEAKS WINERY
I met with Doug Filipponi and Karl Wittstrom, representing two of the three families that own Ancient Peaks (Rob Rossi is the other third) at their tasting room in Santa Margarita. Their Santa Margarita Ranch is 14,000 acres, out of which 1,000 are currently planted to vines, with additional acres available to plant.
The Santa Margarita Ranch AVA was approved by the TTB in 2014 and encompasses approximately 18,300 acres. It is the southernmost sub-AVA of Paso Robles and physically separate from all the other sub-AVAs. There are other growers, but to date Ancient Peaks is still a Monopole in terms of wineries. They grow about 15 different grape varieties and use 100% estate fruit in almost all Ancient Peaks wines (there is one exception in the current lineup). Any remaining fruit is sold to other winemakers. Winemaking is handled by winemaker Stewart Cameron and founding winemaker Mike Sinor.
Santa Margarita cannot match the coastal coolness in the San Luis Obispo Coast AVA but it does manage to warm up later than other Paso Robles sub-AVAs, being cool until 10am, and cools off earlier in the afternoon as breezes come in from the coast. Diurnal swings can be 50 degrees or more. This results in it being 7-10 degrees cooler than Paso Robles downtown. These temperature effects have important implications for red wines. Karl notes that they don’t get the big jammy fruity flavors of other areas.
2020 Merlot ($22) My favorite to drink now. Others may ascend higher, but this was a complex, accessible, balanced wine with a bit of cedar and a hint of spice that made it profoundly interesting.
The 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) shows an impressive nose of blackberry fruit, sage, and tobacco leaf. Flavors of blackberry, mocha, sage and eucalyptus. As suggested earlier, it is not overly ripe or massively fruity in the mouth. Underpinning the other side of its terroir was the soil it was grown in. Santa Margarita Ranch shows a variety of soil types and the cabernet sauvignon grape is grown in at least four (ancient sea bed rich in fossils providing a calcareous component, rocky alluvium, volcanic, and granite complex). There is also a clay component.
The ancient sea bed terroir looms largest in the Oyster Ridge wine, grown in a singular block of the ranch richest in sea fossils. The 2019 Oyster Ridge ($60) blend is 72% cabernet sauvignon, 11% cabernet franc, 9% petite verdot, 6% merlot, and 2% malbec. Something of a tête de cuvée for the winery, select lots of wine made from these grapes are used to make the final blend.
The 2019 Cabernet Franc (75% cabernet franc / 25% merlot) ($50) is a winery-only offering. It has all the right peppery notes and cabernet structure.
The 2018 Petit Verdot (80% petit verdot / 20% malbec) ($60) is an example of the elevation of petit verdot to first-class variety status. This wine is an inky monster with an aroma of black cherry and boysenberry, a palate of wood and forest floor notes amid the fruits, French oak, grippy tannins, firm acidity and a pleasing finish. The wine was aged in 50% new French barrels for 23 months. A winery-only wine so order online.
An impressive lineup, and remarkably good value compared with Napa, yet comparable in quality.
LXV - PASO ROBLES UNKNOWN IS WORTH TASTING
This winery is from Neeta Mittal and her husband Kunal. While just a small, boutique winery (all sales are direct-to-consumer) they really punch above their weight on the cabernet grape family connection. Consulting winemaker is Jeff Strekas, a recovering chemical engineer from the east coast who obtained a graduate degree in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis and made wine at, among other places, Mollydooker Wines in Australia’s McLaren Vale.
All the AVAs listed below are sub-AVAs of Paso Robles unless specifically noted otherwise.
2020 The SECRET ($68) is a Bordeaux blend of 68% cabernet sauvignon, 18% cabernet franc, and 14% petit verdot drawn from the Parrish Family Vineyard (El Pomar AVA), ONX Estate (Templeton Gap AVA), Portico Hills (Santa Barbara County AVA). 275 cases.
Very true to character in the characteristics it exudes: structure, grip, and herbaceousness.
2020 The TEMPO ($68) is a Bordeaux blend of 57% merlot and 43% cabernet franc from the Preston Vineyard in the Templeton Gap AVA. This is their homage to right bank Bordeaux wines. 266 cases.
This has some classic merlot notes like chocolate, but it is milk chocolate, softer, rounder, and more ingratiating than the bite of dark chocolate.
2019 Mesa Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) 100% cabernet sauvignon from Gateway Vineyard (Willow Creek AVA). 100 cases.
Winemaker’s notes do justice to this New World style cabernet sauvignon “...a perfect expression of classic, restrained yet expressive new world Cabernet. Loaded with aromatic notes of graphite, violets, and red and black currants..On the palate, more subtle notes of cedar, cassia, and iron start to emerge.”
Sixmilebridge - A Newsy Turns Good
The founder of Sixmilebridge is Jim Moroney, former publisher of The Dallas Morning News. Sixmilebridge (or Droichead Abhann Ó gCearnaigh, if you like) is the town in Ireland from where his family came. And yes, it is all one word on the map and the bottle - sogetoverit!.
The winery is dedicated to cabernet blends.
The property is 11 acres on steep (42o slope!) calcareous soil on the back side of Daou mountain in the Adelaida District AVA. All the wines are estate grown. Elevation ranges from 1,700-2000 ft. Output is 1200 cases annually and sales are 100% direct-to-consumer. Future plans include a third vineyard of grapes approved to Bordeaux varieties such as marselan.
The winemaker is Anthony Yount (moonlighting from Denner Vineyards) whose wife Hillary is Vineyard Manager.
2019 Limerick 65% merlot, 17% petite verdot, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 3% cabernet franc.
Young, tight, merlot is complimented by the cabernet sauvignon structure and the aromatic notes produced by the petite verdot.
2019 Cabernet Sauvignon. Known as the estate, the cabernet is 94%+ cabernet sauvignon with the balance petite verdot. Much more structured. Will age for a decade or more. I would put it away but if you have to drink it now then pair it with fatty red meat like ribeye steak or Texas brisket barbecue.
Sixmilebridge is young, but undertaking several projects. It is a winery to watch.
Douglas Ayres is not just a hotelier (one example of his work, Allegretto Vineyard Resort, is in Paso Robles) he is also a winemaker, with vineyards in the Willow Creek AVA. Despite his passion for Italianate architecture, all his plantings are in the Bordeaux red stable, except for a patch of Vermentino.
Allegretto Wines is in a growth phase so expect to see more bottlings in the next few vintages.
2019 Heart of the Vibe, Symphonic Red Wine, Ayres Family Reserve, Paso Robles ($60)
A complicated blend of 56% petit verdot, 32% cabernet sauvignon, 9% malbec, and 3% tannat. 690 cases.This wine features a painted label containing 24 ct. gold.
Dark hue, open impressive fruit in the nose. Blackberry, cherry, and anise. Chewy tannins but softer than the cabernet sauvignon (below), firm acid, mouth filling fruit and pleasing finish. Judge as a New World Bordeaux blend with the attendant higher ripeness, augmented power, and herbaceousness.
2018 Malbec, Ayres Family Reserve, Paso Robles
150 cases. Wine club only. Estate. 30% new French oak.
Powerful, chewy, lots of blackberry fruit. Long finish. Drink with red meat now (my choice would be lamb or venison).
2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Willow Creek Vineyard, Willow Creek AVA ($65)
Doug bought the vineyard before the AVA was created, but the choice was fortuitous. This wine has a powerful tannic backbone, blackberry and raspberry fruit, grippy tannins, and lots of aging potential.
POMAR JUNCTION VINEYARD & WINERY
Matthew Merrill, GM of Mesa Vineyard Management and Pomar Junction Vineyard Winery. The double title results from his family’s history as a manager of vineyards (they now manage over 13,000 acres) and the more recent foray into winemaking with Pomar Junction Winery.
Matthew attended Cal Poly to study Fruit Science and Wine Business (translation: viticulture and winery management). On graduating, his father told him of a 100-acre property he was considering buying. The plan was for Matthew to farm it. There was even a vacant house on the property to live in. Matthew took the bait and Pomar Junction was live. The railway language and images reflected the family’s historical employment on the California railroads.
He farmed, obtained, and is a big supporter of, SIPCertified, and Jim Schume, a faculty member at Cal Poly, made the wines.
Translucent wine. Cherry hue. Red fruit. Strawberry and a little cranberry. Velvet tannins, medium-plus acid. Finish fruit-driven. Very cleanly made wine.
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
Clear color difference from merlot. Darker ruby-blackcurrant hue. Nose has pleasant hint of pyrazines (green pepper). Taste of black cherry. Bold tannins. Black pepper. A keeper.
2015 Cab Forward.
50% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 25% petite verdot.
Name and locomotive label imagery is a reference to the family’s railroad history, cab forward locomotives and the forward nature of cabernet sauvignon in this wine. Blackberry, dusty nose and blackberry and wood flavors in the mouth. 2014 got 95/100 from SommCon.
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Intense, peppery nose. Dark fruit (blackberries). In the mouth the blackberry fruit is explosive.
This wine is typically just 3 barrels. Oak treatment is ⅓ new French. Some Hungarian, to augment the spice cabinet. They sell cabernet sauvignon to Daou, Booker, Justin, Tolosa, and other wineries down to Santa Maria. He remarks that Daou likes the El Pomar area now.
THE FARM WINERY
The winemaker here is noted Argentine winemaker Santiago Achaval. The Farm Winery makes a range of wines. They focus on both the cabernet sauvignon and Rhône strengths of Paso and Cardinal is their cabernet flagship.
Cardinal, 2018 Paso Robles, Adelaida District, Old Bailey Vineyard
This wine is from Paso’s oldest vineyard. Fifty-eight year old vines producing at insanely low yields of one half a ton per acre on a steep calcareous hillside.
Appearance: Opaque ruby;
Nose: Dusty, red fruit of raspberries;
Palate: Extended red-fruit flavors effuse throughout the mouth. Complex and lingering flavors make this almost a wine to quaff over a long movie rather than pair with food. However, game or lamb would also ensure this wine never disappoints.
GLUNZ FAMILY WINERY AND CELLAR
Glunz Family Cellar is a family run winery set in glorious topography on the east side of 101. Lots of hillside cabernet sauvignon here. It is a forty-acre plot but 20 acres are off limits to planting during a long drought. Family-run for generations, Stephan Glunz is Owner and Director of Operations, and Matthew Glunz is Winemaker and General Manager.
2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve
Estate grown (although not represented as such on the TTB label verbiage). 100% cabernet sauvignon was subjected to 20 months of aging in French and American oak. Bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Appearance: Opaque, garnet;
Nose: Intense plum, black cherry, thyme, oak panel, pyrazine;
Palate: Chewy tannins, medium-plus acid. Glorious powerful fruit. Solid oak flavors. Forest floor and herbaceous notes. Will age for likely a decade.
ROBERT HALL WINERY
Robert Hall Winery is a spectacular property on the east side of the Paso Robles AVA. It is the eponymous ‘folly’ of a hard-driving successful entrepreneur with humble working class origins in St. Paul, Minnesota. Original winemaker Don Brady not only put the wines on the map, he also played a key role in establishing the Paso Robles AVA. Earlier, he studied at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas and worked at Pheasant Ridge Winery as an intern. Then he moved to Llano Estacado Winery where some of his wines were served at official White House dinners.
2018 Cavern Select
174 cases. 30 months in French oak. Forceful, heavyweight, and complex California Cabernet Sauvignon with black and blue fruits, lots of forest floor. Ready to cellar for 10+ years.
VINA ROBLES WINERY
Vina Robles Winery is an extensive property on the east side of Paso Robles that even has an amphitheater for live events. Our interest is in their very serious involvement in cabernet sauvignon blends.
2019 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($32)
Fruit from two estate vineyards, Huerhuero and Creston Valley. Winemaker
Kevin Willenborg, a UC Davis graduate describes them as follows: “Huerhuero Vineyard, in the hilly terrain between the El Pomar and Geneseo Districts, benefits from the moderating Pacific breezes that blow through the Templeton Gap in the afternoon as well as its limiting calcareous subsoils. Creston Valley Vineyard has picture perfect high terrain, southern exposure and shallow soils with noticeable granulated limestone.”
From handpicking early in the morning the grapes were destemmed, optically sorted, and crushed into temperature-controlled tanks. Regular pumpovers enhanced color and extracted tannins from the skin. Then followed pressing and racking back into barrels for malolactic fermentation. Aged for 20 months in French, Hungarian, and American oak barrels. A little petit verdot was added after eight months aging to add structure.
Appearance: Opaque ruby;
Nose: Blackcurrants, black cherries, licorice;
Palate: Confirmed the fruits in the nose. Chewy, ripe tannins, medium acid and dark chocolate. This is an enjoyable wine to quaff now or pair with red meat or red-sauce pasta dishes.
2018 Vina Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Creston Valley Vineyard’, Paso Robles ($46)
Appearance: Opaque garnet;
Nose: Blackcurrants, black cherries, licorice;
Palate: Confirmed the fruits in the nose. Heavy moufeel. Chewy, velvet tannins, medium acid and dark chocolate. Can be drunk now but will improve with age.
Just north of the town of Paso Robles is the tasting room and vineyard of J. Lohr Winery. A large veranda surrounds the tasting room and it is from that vista that one can get the best grasp of the scope of this winery. The tasting list is vast, comprising no fewer than six verticals, three styled on an old-world, Bordeaux inspiration.
Cuvée POM line is inspired by the great wines of Pomerol, centered around merlot and cabernet franc.
Cuvée PAU (and guessing is easier after the first one) is inspired by the Grand Cru wines of Pauillac, so cabernet sauvignon and merlot are the core grapes with trace additions of cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot.
Cuvée ST. E. The Saint-Émilion, is centered around merlot and cabernet franc.
J. Lohr is a vertical lovers dream
Each of the above offers seven or eight vintages of the J. Lohr wine.
The Hilltop Cabernet vertical gets no fewer than 10 vintages, broken only by 2010 and 2017.
Carol’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon consists of four vintages.
The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon has six vintages.
And all of them are cabernet based.
I tasted a selection of J. Lohr wines (not enough of the older vintages, unfortunately) and came away impressed with their commitment to cabernet family varietals and the quality of their winemaking.
HEARST RANCH WINERY
Hearst Ranch Winery is indeed associated with the famous family of William Randolph Hearst through Steve Hearst, great grandson of William. He and business partner Jim Saunders own the winery. Nowadays, winemaking is in the hands of Soren Christensen. I met with him just after he had completed his 23rd harvest in the region.
The winery has a lineup of about 18 wines with a strong cabernet family emphasis. 2020 Babicora Malbec ($39) is decidedly fruit-driven. The oak treatment is 10% new American, 5% one-use French, and 85% neutral. He augments its structure by blending in some cabernet franc or petit verdot.
The 2019 Pico Creek Merlot ($39) has plentiful flavors of mocha, Hershey’s chocolatey notes, beautiful red fruit and a structure of chewy tannins.
2020 Bunkhouse Cabernet Sauvignon ($39)
Huge lush juicy dark fruit, coffee, chocolate. This vintage has 5% petit verdot. The 2020 vintage was at risk due to distant fires. Luckily, tests confirmed the absence of smoke taint. And the name? Most wines are named after a geographical point of interest on Hearst Ranch (which is a total of 83,000 acres).
2020 Lone Tree Cabernet Franc ($49)
Lovely velvet texture will work well with barbecue beef. ‘Lone Tree’ is a tree on the ranch.
2019 Pancho Petit Verdot ($49)
The name here, Pancho, refers to the original ranch manager for William Randolph Hearst. Low temperature fermentation gives lots of structure. Sweetness in the aftertaste is likely from a combination of the low temperature fermentation and sweet oak. Soren lets the wine sit in the fermentation tank for several days in order to settle particulates rather than having to rack once the wine is in the barrel. He feels the latter will oxidize off beautiful flavors.
Hearst Ranch is making some interesting wines to a very high quality. The easiest way to order may be online at their website.
In a remote corner of Paso Robles westside, five miles from downtown, I was at Calcareous Vineyard. It is a dramatic hillside property, 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, with fabulous views.
Lloyd Messer and daughter Dana Brown established Calcareous Vineyard in 2000 as 442 acres on an outcrop running from 1,500’ to 1,800’ elevation. Lloyd passed away in 2006, but Dana continues the mission to this day. Jason Joyce became head winemaker in 2010 and has put his stamp on the wines.
Calcareous produces only around 12,000 cases of the brand each year. Visitors to the spectacular visitor center location account for a lot of the sales, the wine club a lot more. That leaves local distribution and, oddly enough, Texas distribution for most of the rest.
One fun thing. The web site has a fun animated display of the 2022 harvest showing the locations of all the blocks in the vineyard. Do play.
2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($60). There are three blocks of cabernet sauvignon in the vineyard. Jason sources the fruit for this wine from all 3 blocks. It is a big, lucious, fruity wine with grippy but not coarse tannins, and exhibits a lot of red fruit for a cabernet sauvignon.
The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Carver Vineyard, York Mountain ($60) comes from Calcareous’ own Carver Vineyard in the York Mountain AVA. At only 6,400 acres, the AVA is tiny. Jason is enthusiastic about the fruit. This wine shows massive blackberry fruit, formidable tannins, and herbaceous elements.
The 2019 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Dana Brown’ Signature ($100) is Calcareous’ signature wine. Jason used an “old grenache trick” - barrel fermentation. Enabled by barrel head removal and fruit hand-shoveled in. Fermentation lasts around 30-days with hand punch downs. Remove the head by hand, pump the wine out and put the juice back in the same barrel for aging. Just 4 barrels (100 cases) were treated this way, and it sold out.
The results are a feel that is different, more rounded and structured, but without the smell or taste of oak. I note red fruit.
Calcareous Vineyard is a discovery. There seem to be many in Paso Robles in this otherwise massively oversupplied wine world.
HOPE FAMILY WINES
Austin Hope hid his light under a bushel (or a vine, in his case) in many marketing contexts. Hope Family Wines brings together all the brands that are the result of his prodigious work product. Namely: Liberty School, Troublemaker, Treana, Quest, Austin, and Austin Hope.
The brands have in common a strong emphasis on Paso Robles vineyard sourcing. They differ in price point and individual ‘quirk’. More below.
Liberty School 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) is the entry level Hope Family Wine and is a luscious, juicy, grippy, lively style of cabernet that is instantly likable without requiring a lot of study. You can almost feel the happy winemakers laughing, joking (and singing) as they made it. The Liberty School 2019 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) is in the same stable but in graduation year at Liberty School. More serious, more complex, deserving more time to appreciate.
Two wines, both good value, both representing Paso Robles well at their price point.
The 2020 Treana Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) was already familiar from earlier tastings. It draws on some seven different soil types of the 30 that make up Paso Robles. It is loaded with blackcurrant fruit, structured with firm tannins, nuanced with forest floor notes in the mouth, and held together by vibrant acidity.
The 2020 Quest is a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. There are definite cabernet franc indicators in this wine. The pyrazine notes in the taste (not out of control), there is a greenness, and hints of eucalyptus. One Austin Hope tasting room leader said he also noticed undertones of chocolate cake.
Austin is something of an outlier as a brand. It was designed for restaurants where the bottle on the table would scream “Paso Robles” to every passing diner with the gift of sight. The non-vintage current release has an SRP of $20 and it is actually a thoroughly respectable wine (despite its table manners).
Finally, the 2020 Austin Hope Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($56) and 2020 Austin Hope Reserve Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($130) are intended as halo wines for Hope Family Wines. These are massively extracted wines that would be part of any front rank display of Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon.
Hope Family Wines is not just Austin Hope, it is Austin Hope at several price points in several brands. It is a savvy way to promote Paso Robles as it makes them accessible to all with inexpensive Liberty School and presents them as serious cabernet examples with the eponymous label. Other producers may want to take note.
Justin Winery is one of the best known wineries in Paso Robles and I have covered their winery and wines before. This trip, I visited their restaurant and wine bar located in downtown Paso Robles.
The wines, of course, are the Justin list, and that is the greatest strength of the facility. I recommend the 2019 Reserve Malbec ($49), 2019 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), 2019 Isosceles (Bordeaux blend) ($85), and 2017 Isosceles Reserve ($120). They reflect the 30+ years of experience that Justin brings making wine in Paso Robles.
The 2017 Isosceles Reserve was the most impressive bottle. Opaque ruby hues led to an involved tight nose of fruit, wood, and perfumy notes. In the mouth powerful but not raucous tannins make this a keep for a decade. To consume it now would be crib theft.
NINER WINE ESTATES
Niner Wine Estates was founded in 2001 by Dick and Pam Niner when they purchased Bootjack Ranch Vineyard. Dick had been a successful entrepreneur, buying struggling companies and turning them around.
They make three cabernet sauvignon expressions. One appellated Paso Robles ($50), one appellated Geneseo District, and one appellated Willow Creek District. In addition, they blend cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot and carménère into a wine they call Fog Catcher ($103).
One of the most interesting projects is their carménère plantings. They create a carménère bottling from their Bootjack Ranch ($80) in the Geneseo District. I tasted the 2019 and 2020 and they are both varietally correct, lusciously textured, and ready for red meat or, as I paired them, with today’s craze of cauliflower crust pizza.
CASTORO CELLARS VINEYARD & WINERY
Castoro Cellars Vineyard & Winery may be the least known winery farming 1,600 acres that I have come across. Part of the reason may be that they do a lot of winemaking for other people, especially private labels, producing just 40,000 cases under their own name.
They are SIP Certified, fully organic, and even have approximately 50 acres under biodynamic viticulture.
Castoro and their Templeton Gap AVA and Estrella District AVA vineyards seem to be able to successfully grow every variety of grape from Albariño to Zinfandel. All of their wines are entirely estate grown fruit. Confining ourselves to just cabernet family wines we taste through a 2020 Merlot ($20) with a deep ruby hue, nose of plum, vanilla, and oak,and a palate of dark fruits with soft tannins and a medium-full body (alcohol is a reported 13.8% by volume). This can be drunk now and is a good value.
The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) comes from Whale Rock vineyard, named after the amount of whale bone that is in the soil from a distant geological era. This wine features blackberry aromas and flavors, American and French oak, mocha notes in the nose, good acid, and grippy tannins.
The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Whale Rock Reserve ($45) is the previous wine after a workout program. It is more oaky, from American and French oak, more intense, more tannic, more black-fruit than red-fruit on the palate. The emboldened structure suggests cellaring for five to ten years.
Paso Robles is remarkable for its consistently high standards and its stylistic variation. It impresses more people each year as its product quality consistently increases.I feel that now it is knocking on the door of Napa and Sonoma to be present at the same table when it comes to the family of cabernet wines.