The region appears to be a little fickle in some ways, with growers following trends and occasionally paying for that as they find the trends changing. Planting vineyards takes time and you have to wait several years to be able to reap the rewards. If a trend has changed in that time, a winemaker can find him or herself struggling to keep up. Trends can be influenced by newspaper articles, such as the famous New York Times one that heralded the 1997 Napa cabernets such that the prices rose ridiculously and nobody could then even GIVE away the 1998, even though many were better than 1997. Or the reason can be as banal as a movie which was the case here in the Central Coast after the release of Sideways. Prior to the movie, growers had planted merlot vines in huge numbers, but after the movie denigrated that grape, winemakers had a hard time selling it! Such is the power of the media.
One grower who has not followed trends but has attempted to cut his own path, is Lee Nesbitt of Chumeia. Lee's winery name means "alchemy" in Greek - the process of turning something abundant into something valuable, and that is exactly what he has done with his grapes. His story is fascinating and you can read it here, but I was most impressed with his philosophy that wine is really grown, not made, and that he tries to let the fruit speak for itself and use oak "as a giant spice rack" . His wine interests now extend beyond Paso Robles to other parts of California and also into Argentina. Another reason we liked his winery is that it is dog and pet friendly. Hopi met his first cat who was lying on the tasting room counter, oblivious to everything!
Lee showed me several of his wonderful wines. The 09 Chardonnay is from Monterey fruit but delicate and fresh, very light on the oak and delicious. The 2007 Partridge-Leigh Barbera was absolutely wonderful. Full, balanced, mouth filling yet still gentle on the tannins. An incredible food wine from a great vintage. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was also excellent and then in the corner of my eye, I saw the Zinfandel lurking. I admitted to Lee that I do not usually enjoy Zinafandel. I find it too single-dimensional, too alcoholic and jammy. He smiled and asked me to taste his. What a revelation! Layers of flavor, full yet not overpowering, lingering yet not cloying, peppery but not too much. I absolutely loved it and almost for the first time in my career, I actually ENJOYED a Zin!
On we went and headed off the main highways to dusty back roads. We ventured to L'Aventure Winery, whose wines are made by Frenchman Stephan Asseo, who studied winemaking in Burgundy and then made wine in St Emilion, Bordeaux. His dream was to own his own winery and make blends thant he was not allowed to make in France. His hunt for a suitable vineyard took him all over the world, to Lebanon, South Africa and Napa. None of the hillsides he wanted were available in Napa and so he went to Santa Barbara. He found that climate too cool for what he wanted to do and then he was advised to chek out Paso. He had no knowledge of the area but fell in love with it. Now he makes wines with blends from the Rhone and Bordeaux and with huge success. I tasted several that were quite remarkable and that have received great critical acclaim. The 2010 Estate Rose was being poured for the first time this weekend and may be one of the best roses I have ever tasted. Bravo to Stephan and his team for their adventure!
After a picnic in Peach Canyon's vineyard with a glass of Viognier, we found another small, family owned winery, Grey Wolf. Unusually for this area they make some great white wines which I tasted. The Sauvignon Blanc was a surprise and had slight citrus tones and bright acidity. Joe and Shirlene Barton have converted a 50-year old farmhouse into a tasting room and it is a delight. Well worth a visit for some relief from the big reds when in this region.
Finally we ended up at the house of some dear friends, Kelly and Gregg Wangard. Kelly was the chef at Riverbend when we opened in 2001 and her husband is also a chef. Kelly is originally from Paso but Gregg is a Wisconsinite. We had a wonderful afternoon in their garden with them and their two gorgeous children, Elle (who shares a birthday with me on Thursday) and son, Mason. Their Labrador, Libby, played with Hopi, the wine flowed, the beer flowed and, as you would expect with a family of chefs, we had great food too. Oh and an early birthday cake for Elle and me! Such fun times!!
And to top it off, we heard the news about Osama Bin Laden's demise.
Now on to Napa!