Wine Spectator

Fed up with bureaucracy, Stephan Asseo, owner-winemaker of Stephan Vineyards, left France and headed for Paso Robles, in California, where he and other winemakers are proving the region's potential for making Bordeaux- and Rhône-inspired varietals.

In 1994, Matt Garretson (center) relocated from Atlanta to Paso Robles based on his hunch that the region's rhô-like terrain might make for fine Syrah Vineyards—and he was right. Two likeminded winemakers—Matt Trevisan (left), owner of Linne Calodo, and Justin Smith (right), winemaker of Saxum—have also devoted themselves to producing top-notch Syrah. Garretson's annual Hospice du Rhône gives wine lovers the chance to sample other Syrah-based wines from around the world.

Located in the California Central Coast about midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles is far removed from glitz and glamour. The region is defined by a rugged but beautiful landscape filled with steep, oak-studded hills and windswept plaints. A nearby mission from the Spanish era is a vivid symbol of the reigning tradition and tranquility.

The local winemaking philosophy has long reflected the essentially rustic nature of Paso and its people. Most of the region's wine ends up in the mass-produced blends. Yet change in in the air, spearheaded by a group of vintners whose pioneering efforts to revolutionize quality in the region are beginning to bear fruit. Stephan Vineyards, Justin Vineyards & Winery and Garretson Wine Co. are among the new leaders in Paso Robles who are trying to ratchet up quality and make wines of richness and intensity.

Stephan Asseo, 42, the owner and winemaker of Stephan Vienyards, left Bordeaux after making wine there for 15 years because he had grown tired of regulations dictating grape varieties and production techniques. After comparing land (and prices) in Napa and Sonoma, he chose a rocky, 126-acre site in Paso Robles. He wound up planting a total of 35 acres of grapes, mostly to red Rhône varieties (Syrah and Mourvèdre) and Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot).

Asseo has the callused hands and deep sunburn of a vintner who does his own fieldwork. With only four Paso Robles harvests under his belt, he's already setting new standards. The 1999 L'Aventure Syrah (92 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, $40, 250 cases) is the finest Syrah yet produced in the region, and close behind is his Syrah-Cabernet blend, the 1999 Optimus (91, $50, 1,400 cases).

He credits his success to small crops that deliver concentration and to meticulous viticulture that encourages even ripening. And he believes other local producers need to follow suit. "First, Paso has to reduce its yields," insists Asseo. "This isn't just blah, blah, blah. It's a question of the motivation of the owner."

"I think if the vineyards here are managed properly, we'll have a consistency of style. ... That style, more than a particular varietal, will define Paso Robles."

—Jeff Branco, Winemaker, Justin Winery

Asseo is only one of many recent arrivals to Paso Robles. Few other major California winemaking regions have witnessed such explosive growth during the past five years. Vineyard plantings in Paso Robles have more than doubled, from 11,000 acres in 1996 to roughly 24,000 acres today.

There are currently 64 active wineries in the appellation, which covers an area nearly three times the size of Napa Valley. Almost all of the vineyards are located between 6 and 22 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Nighttime breezes can reduce temperatures as much as 50 degrees from daytimes highs.

Highway 101 runs north-south through the appellation, dividing it more or less in half. Most of the older estates, such as Eberle Winery and Meridian, settled on the gently rolling benchlands east of 101. California heavyweights—most notably Fetzer, Gallo, Kendall-Jackson and Mondavi—have also purchased land in eastern Paso Robles

Grapes have been grown in the region for more than 200 years, but Paso Robles garnered little attention until 1967, which Ridge Vineyards began making its Dusi Ranch Zinfandel. Over the past 30 years, however, relatively few Paso Robles winemakers have aimed for the high end. Most of the farming techniques are drown from the bulk producers of the Central Valley, many of whom grow huge crops destined for innocuous blends. Even now, no more than about 40 percent of the grapes grown in the region actually go into bottles labeled with the Paso Robles appellation (most are sold as "Central Coast" or "California" wines or are used to augment blends from more august regions in the North Coast).

"For a long time, this was essentially an extension of the bulk market, and it's hard to convert that mentality to premium farming practices," says Jeff Branco, winemaker at Justin Winery. The finest wine yet produced in Paso Robles is the Justin Isosceles 1997 (95, $40, 8,000 cases), a Cabernet-based blend from Justin's estate vineyards in the northwest corner of the region. But efforts to make premium—rather than bulk-style—wines are still relatively new to much of Paso Robles, and Branco insists that another seven to 10 years are necessary to determine which grapes belong where.

While local vintners have had success with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, no grape has yet established itself as the region's signature wine. That lack of clear-cut identity has probably hurt Paso Robles, but a coterie of impassioned young producers is convinced that Rhône varieties, especially Syrah planted on select sites in western Paso Robles, are the future face of their appellation.

Mat Garretson, 39, the owner of Garretson Wine Co., is on of the biggest proponents of Syrah in California. He expects to make a total of 4,000 cases from the 2001 vintage, including 10 Syrah bottlings.

Garretson has been instrumental in raising awareness throughout California about the quality and potential of Rhône grapes. He moved to Paso Robles in 1994 from Atlanta to work as the director of sales and marketing at Eberle Winery. Part of the impetus to relocate, he says, stemmed from his impression that the steep, rocky hills and warm climate resemble areas of the Rhône Valley in southern France.

In 1992, he started the Viognier Guild, which in 1997 became the Hospice du Rhône, an annual gathering devoted to all Rhône-inspired wines. By dint of persistence and eagerness, he has convinced scores of winemakers, mostly from California, France and Australia, to travel to the town of Paso Robles at their own expense and provide an impressive array of current and older releases. Last year, more than 160 producers and 2,000 wine lovers attended the Hospice du Rhône, which now stands as one of the most informative (and unpretentious) wine events in the United States. (The 2002 Hospice will be held May 30—June 1; for more information, visit www.hospicedurhone.com.)

The Hospice has also given Paso wineries a welcome international perspective, something that Garretson insists is still sorely lacking in what has long been a backwater region. "We're in Mayberry here, with a lot of people not seeing past their own tasting rooms. The people who realize what's going on know we have to step up quality," he says.

The Young Turks of Paso Robles don't worry about ruffling feathers. "We want to change to make it better. [The old-school winemakers] think it's great already," says Matt Trevisan, 29, who started Linne Calodo (pronounced LIH-nay KUH-loh-doh) with his ex-partner, Justin Smith.

Like Garretson, they believe that Rhône grapes are the future for Paso Robles. Apart from a predilection for the hard-to-pronounce (Garretson gives his wines Gaelic monikers), it's difficult to find fault with their enthusiasm.

"I think Syrah is what Paso will be known for," insists Smith, 31. He's already had noteworthy success growing Syrah from the Bone Rock block of his family's James Berry Vineyard. The 1999 Linne Calodo Bone Rock (90, $42, 70 cases) has impressive concentration, with a distinctive chalkiness that comes from very rocky soil. As of the 2000 vintage, the Bone Rock Syrah will be bottled under Smith's new label, Saxum (Latin for "large stone").

Perhaps the region's highest-profile Rhône-inspired venture is Tablas Creek Vineyard, a partnership started in 1990 by importer Robert Haas and the Perrin Family of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The estate has 80 acres under vine, divided nearly evenly between reds (Counoise, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah) and white grapes (Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier).

While white grapes have fared better so far, Haas has high hopes from the younger red blocks planted with French clones, which seem to provide more depth and concentration.

Other growers in Paso Robles evidently share his opinion on the French clones, because Tablas had to start a nursery to satisfy demand. "We never intended to have a nursery business, but the phone was ringing off the hook," says Neil Collins, winemaker at the estate.

A veteran winemaker in Paso Robles, Gary Eberle planted Syrah early in his career, but during his nearly 30 years of winemaking, his presence shifted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Eberle's influence on Paso Robles has been immense, and some of his protégés, Mat Garretson among them, are a part of the region's new wave of winemaking.

Yet some area vintners won't jump on the Rhône bandwagon. Gary Eberle, the owner of Eberle Winery, first made a Paso Robles Syrah in 1978 (he and Joseph Phelps were the first in the state), but he frankly admits to preferring Cabernet.

"It's such a forgiving grape, I think anywhere Cabernet grows and ripens properly it's going to be an area's best wine. It has a unique ability to adapt to the best terriors," says Eberle, who settled in eastern Paso Robles in 1974 after graduating with a winemaking degree from the University of California, Davis.

Eberle is a formidable presence in the region. At 6 feet 3 inches tall, the former Penn State defensive end resembles Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII, and while it may be a stretch to say he has been the king of Paso Robles wines, he has certainly been the standard bearer for the past 20 years. Many Paso Robles vintners are Eberle alumni, including Garretson, Tobin James Cellars owner Toby Shumrick and Dan Panico of Dover Canyon Winery.

The affable Eberle has developed firm opinions during nearly 30 years of winemaking. He also takes the long view. Although he sees great promise for some of the new Syrah plantings in western Paso Robles, he believes it's too early to form conclusions. "Until you have [been producing from a site for] five years, you really can't say anything," he says. "We're still trying to figure out where the jury will come down in terms of the style for Syrah."

Justin winemaker Branco believes that no single grape variety will dominate Paso Robles. "I think if the vineyards here are managed properly, we'll have a consistency of style, with rich, forward wines with ripe, soft tannin. I think that style, more than a particular varietal, will define Paso Robles," he says.

Indeed, it's unlikely that one single grape variety will consistently excel in such a large region, and differences in climate and soil will likely lead to subappellations within Paso Robles.

A number of winemakers in western Paso Robles are already pushing to form their own district, though they expect continued political resistance from vintners to the east. While the area west of Highway 101 contains less than 10 percent of the appellation's total plantings, these vineyards might well have the potential to make the area's finest wines.

The terrain is rugged and scenic, with many steep hills dotted by majestic oak trees. At night, more deer than cars can be seen along the twisting roads. Starting a top-flight vineyard in this region demands both money and commitment, because a 50-acre property will likely contain no more than 15 acres suitable for vines.

But in a superior western Paso Robles site, such as Asseo's vineyards or the James Berry Vineyard of Saxum, those prime acres will have unusually stony soils that reduce yields, while also imparting a toothsome mineral component. Proximity to the ocean extends the growing season, allowing grapes to develop added complexity.

It's not that eastern Paso Robles can't make great wine, only that ringing success looks easier to achieve west of the highway. Asseo, for example, bought the grapes for hist outstanding 1998s and 1999s mostly from eastern vineyards. By working with the growers to severely restrict yields to roughly 3 tons per acre, he hit the mark.

Time will tell how many other Paso Robles estates renounce volume viticulture. Whether Syrah or Cabernet claims center stage, a nucleus of producers now has the knowledge—and the will—to lead the region by example. "Growers here have been talking that we need to do more marketing," says Garretson. "And marketing is fine. But nothing markets better than making good wine."

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