Vol. 8 No. 6 - Nov '00
photos courtesy of: Michael Poston
Journal and tasting notes from a three day tour of wineries in Paso Robles and the Central Coast.
Tasting Notes / Scores: Brief tasting impressions are included following the winery write-up. An "n/n" indicates that no notes were taken.
Time for yet another post-holiday wine tasting trip, this time with Paso Robles as the destination. We left Orange County about 8:15am, and headed up the 405 to Santa Barbara. Stopped at the Country Store in Los Olivos to pick up a couple of sandwiches for lunch, then set out for our first winery stop.
Arrived at Sanford about 11:15. There were already a few tasters inside (Sanford opens at 11:00), which would normally be unusual, except for the fact that this was the Friday after Thanksgiving. Tasted 7 wines N/C. They were obviously expecting a big crowd for the weekend and had set out two tasting stations, pouring the first 4 wines at a table to one side of the room, and the last three wines at the tasting bar. Seemed like a subdued crowd, but then again, we'd all just arrived. Wines were about as usual for Sanford, although the '98 Pinots didn't seem to have quite as much punch as in past vintages. Out at 11:40.
Arrived at our next stop, Loring, about 12:10, for an appointment with Brian Loring, of Loring Wine Co, to sample some of his new Pinots. This is a new venture for Brian, who went right from being a consumer -- a Burgundy fanatic -- to working the '97 crush at Cottonwood Cyn, to being the winemaker for his own label in '99. Brian says it took him a long time to get it through his head that California Pinot could never be "Burgundy". But, once he got it straight that his wines didn't have to be Burgundy, he embarked on a journey to make the best CA Pinot Noir that he could make, from the best fruit he could find. Brian credits Norm Beko, of Cottonwood Canyon Winery, with giving him his start and showing him the ropes (or, vines, as it were). He currently uses the Cottonwood Cyn facility to make his LWC wines. Production is at 300-400 cases, with intention to go up to about 1,000 cases. His first release will be a '99 from Sharon's Vnyd, which is part of Cottonwood Cyn Vnyd (Santa Maria Valley). The wine was still in barrel, with bottling just weeks away, and release scheduled for sometime in early 2001. After meeting Brian at the Cottonwood tasting room, we headed down the trail to the caves to taste his wines. In addition to the '99 Sharon's Vnyd, Brian has two other Pinots in barrel: a 2000 Clos Pepe Vnyd (Santa Barbara Co.), and a 2000 Garys' Vnyd (Monterey Co.). The Garys' Vnyd has an interesting lineage; it's a joint effort of Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, using the La Tache clone. The Clos Pepe fruit is from the 667 clone. Brian expects to lose access to the Sharon's Vnyd fruit in 2001, as Cottonwood Cyn ramps up its own production. But, he has another source lined up -- an acre from Rancho Ontiveros Vnyd, a new vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. Brian's obviously excited about this venture, and his eagerness to do well is producing some nice results. Out at 1:25.
Tasted at Loring:
Arrived at Wild Horse about 2:30 to a moderately busy room. Weekends are usually quite busy here, with holiday weekends being even busier. Luckily, a second tasting bar had been set up inside the tasting room, and we ambled over to bar #2 to see what damage we could do. Tasting Room Manager Barbara Smith chatted with us and graciously took us through eight of their current offerings, with the '97 Equus Syrah being the best of the bunch. Ken Volk is the owner and winemaker here. Wild Horse makes about 100,000 cases of wine per year, and is one of the area's biggest producers. They also fill a vital role as one of Paso Robles' "custom crush" facilities. In fact, both Mat Garretson (Garretson Wine Co.) and Matt Trevesan (Linne Calodo) work for Wild Horse, and make their wines here. Wild Horse produces 25 different varietal wines, and have many of them available for tasting. Out at 3:15.
Tasted at Wild Horse:
Arrived at Meridian at 3:40 to a fairly busy room. Founded in 1984, Meridian took over the site of the original Estrella River Winery, after the latter ran into financial problems. Part of the Beringer stable, Meridian is another volume producer, concentrating mostly on the larger selling California varietals. We tasted only the reds from the list, although the Chardonnay is usually nice and always worth a try. Often, there are few low production jewels hidden among the standard offerings. Unfortunately, I didn't find any this time. I can say that just about without exception, the staff here is always very friendly and efficient. Out at 4:05
Tasted at Meridian:
Arrived at Eberle about 4:20 to a busy room. This winery always gets busy toward the end of the day, so I'd recommend a late morning visit, if possible. Three or four staff were working the busy tasting bar, and the customers (actually, potential customers at this point) were starting to line up two deep. Our pourer was a part-time fellow who seemed to know his way around the wines and the bar. He kidded with us about his being the "token male" working the room, and the one who usually got tabbed for all of the fetch-this-fetch-that jobs. But, he seemed to take it all in good stride -- at least that's what the record will show. As always, lots of wines available for tasting here, but once again we tried only the reds. Out at 4:45.
Tasted at Eberle:
Had a nice day, managing to get to 5 wineries, and taste 28 wines. Grabbed some dinner at McPhee's, in Templeton, and settled in for the evening.
Saturday, Nov 25, 2000
After breakfast, we headed out to the Westside, and up Chimney Rock Road to start off the day with some of the "Far Out Wineries," as the folks on the far west-side of Paso have come to be known. Although this is usually a very scenic drive, especially in the Fall, a moderate fog was covering the area and we weren't able to capture very much of its photogenic beauty. Arriving a little early for opening time at Justin, we continued down the road to see how far we could get before we ran out of road. (According to the map, we were several miles short of the coast, and the town of San Simeon.) Funny how a "few miles" can chew up the clock. We hadn't run out of road before we ran out of time -- and, this was, after all, a wine tasting trip; we weren't Lewis and Clark.
Arrived Justin at 10:10, and headed toward the retail room, wandering up to the small tasting bar. Normally tranquil at this time of morning, the room seemed to have a more activity than usual. A few staff members seemed occupied with tasks, and a couple of guests were checking out of the Justin Inn (the adjacent B&B owned and operated by the winery). A young gentleman behind the bar welcomed us, pouring some wine while he continued to reconcile the guest's bill. As another staff member came around behind the bar, our pourer asked the fellow to resume pouring for us while he finished with the cash register. Justin Baldwin stopped by to answer a few staff questions, and then chatted with us for awhile. Other than finding out that they were "...out of wine" (well, wines that received big Wine Spectator ratings -- like the Isosceles), there wasn't much happening to report, so we moved along to greener pastures. Out at 10:50.
Tasted at Justin:
Arrived at Carmody-McKnight at 10:52. Originally established as Silver Canyon Vineyards in 1985, this idyllically-situated winery is owned by actor Gary Conway (Burke's Law; Land of the Giants) and his wife. The winery changed its name with the '95 vintage, using a combination of Conway's real last name (Carmody), and his wife's maiden name (McKnight). Daughter, Kathleen Conway manages the property, and she, along with winemaker Greg Cropper, formerly of Justin Vineyards, are producing a wide-ranging lineup from the 100 acres planted. Producing about 3,000 cases annually, the wines have been made at local custom crush facilities. But, intending to take matters into their own hands, they have a straw-bale winery under construction, and will soon be making the wines on premises. The first Estate release will be a Pinot Noir in 2001. Out at 11:25.
Tasted at Carmody-McKnight:
While on our way to Adelaida Winery, we quickly flew by a sign.. . .Screeeech! . . .What's this . . .a winery that's not on our itinerary or our map! The sign read "LeCuvier at Ramage Vineyards," and although I wasn't familiar with the Ramage name, I certainly was familiar with the LeCuvier name. It's John Munch's (formerly of Adelaida) label. Arrived at Le Cuvier at 11:32 to a rural-looking house that serves as the LeCuvier tasting room on Adelaida Rd. Our pourer, Cheryl (sp?), was just setting up a big spread of pate, cheese, and crackers when we walked in -- her first customers of the day. "Have a seat," Cheryl said motioning to a couple of bar stools at the small kitchen bar. Meanwhile, Cheryl continued to open wines and prepare the appetizers. Very homey -- it felt as though we were visiting someone's house (we probably were). Shortly after we sat down, a couple arrived to do some tasting, making it a real cozy room. Cheryl greeted them: "Hi, come on in. My name is Cheryl." "Oh, thanks. Your name is Cheryl? -- My name is Sheryl, too!" "And, I'm Nick," replied her companion. Seizing the opportunity, I found myself saying, "Hey, my name is Nick, too." (If I'd have really been thinking, I could have added: "and my buddy's name is Nick, too!) They were nice folks, and we all had a good time chatting over the wines. These were some surprisingly mature, yet tasty, wines in this lineup, indicating that Munch must like to sit on things awhile. As we were walking out to the car, we ran into John Munch; we told him how much we liked his wines, and told him to keep on keeping on. We also noticed that Sheryl and Nick were apparently travelling by livery service, as there was a big stretch limo waiting for somebody, and it wasn't us. Nice ride. We joked a bit with the driver about not getting into the wine etc., and finally left about 12:05.
Tasted at Le Cuvier:
Arrived at Adelaida about 12:15. This place was hopping. Two-three pourers working the tasting bar located inside the storage/winemaking room. A savvy gentleman took care of us, pouring 5 wines, and keeping the conversation going. Nearly all of Adelaida's production is sold out of the tasting room or from local merchants and restaurants. John Munch originated this label in 1981, and continues to consult for them. Adelaida concentrates on Zins and Cabs, with production is running about 9,000 cases, mostly from Estate fruit, as well as from other Westside growers. Munch's preference for highly extracted wines seems less evident with the last couple of vintages, but especially so with the difficult '98 vintage. We ran into Nick and Sheryl again (hey, you following us?) as we were leaving. Out at 12:50.
Tasted at Adelaida:
Arrived at HMR 12:55 to a moderately busy room. This winery started life as Hoffman Mountain Ranch, becoming quite well-known by the acronym HMR. In the '70s, Proprietor Stanley Hoffman had enlisted the help of none other than Andre Tchelistcheff to help develop some unique HMR wines from 1200 acres of rolling hills on Paso's Westside. The results were very well received, and the star varietal was surprisingly, Pinot Noir. For a variety of reasons, the HMR Estate eventually fell into a state of neglect, and the label was gone from the marketplace for over a decade. (Adelaida Winery purchased the land with the Pinot Noir vineyards in the early '80s--- but did not buy the rights to the label itself.) Now, after a long hiatus, the label's back. In 1997, three local families banded together, resurrecting the name, the winery, and some of the vineyards. This time, however, the HMR name stands for Hidden Mountain Ranch. Very friendly staff, and two of the owners were pouring as well. Also, we ran into Nick and Sheryl once again as we were leaving. Current production is around 3,000 cases. Tailgated a bit, then out at 1:45.
Tasted at HMR:
Arrived Nadeau at 2:05. Robert and Patty Nadeau opened this new small-production winery in 1997. Located up on Peachy Cyn Rd, this is another of the "Far Out" group of wineries, and currently the only tasting room on Peachy Cyn Rd. But, the trip is well worth it. The Nadeau's have 8 acres in this location, with production at about 1,600 cases. Robert is also winemaker for Norman Vineyards, and he's using that experience to branch out into Rhones for his own label. In chatting with him, he seems very assured about his product, and I can understand why -- these wines are really nice. Interestingly, a healthy percentage of the Zin has come from old Cucamonga vineyards, which lends a smooth burnished tone to the otherwise often bright Paso fruit. Another nice stop, and we found some real discoveries. Out at 2:55.
Tasted at Nadeau:
Arrived Windward about 3:15. Founded in 1990 by Marc Goldberg and Maggie D'Ambrosia, with a fervent desire to create a property in the mold of a great Burgundy Estate, but one that would showcase California Pinot Noir. While Paso Robles may seem like an unlikely location for such a venture, they were drawing on the historical successes of Pinots made nearly 30 years earlier from plantings by HMR. Working with only the 15 acres of Estate fruit, their first vintage (1993) was very well received, as have all follow-up releases. Production is about 1,200 cases, depending upon vintage yield. Maggie tasted us through two current releases, the '97 and '98, while explaining their approach to making Pinot in Paso Robles, and the style they try to achieve with their wines. Marc joined us later in the spacious lobby/tasting room of the winery, and we chatted some more about the variety of clones he uses, and his expectations for the wine. Very nice people; very nice wine. Out at 3:44.
Tasted at Windward:
Arrived at Zenaida 3:46. The nice new tasting room (opened this past June) was largely empty, so it appeared that we'd arrived between the onslaughts of the usual holiday crowd. Hospitality was graciously handled by Jodie Rounds, who poured 5 wines and answered my innumerable questions. The background here is that in '89 the Ogorsolka family planted the vineyards, electing to try their hand at home winemaking in '94. Pleased with the results, Eric Ogorsolka went "live" in 1998, and opened Zenaida Cellars. Making primarily Estate wines from their 66 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, Zenaida has a current production of about 3,000 cases, but plans to ramp up production to about 10,000 cases in the foreseeable future..Out at 4:10.
Tasted at Zenaida:
Arrived at Pesenti 4:15. Pesenti is an old and venerable name in these parts. And, as if to bear this out, my first visit here revealed a winery that was far more reminiscent of the '40s or '50s than the current-day palces. To me, the winery buildings looked more like an old auto repair garage, or something used for farm equipment storage, rather than than a wine making facility. In addition, the old tasting room resembled a speakeasy, a feeling further enhanced by the method used for wine tasting -- small pours of wine into shot glasses! Hearing that some recent changes had taken place at Pesenti, I was looking forward to returning to here for a look.
The Pesenti winery has always been considered an somewhat of an underachiever by most Zin fans. The vineyards are highly regarded by those in the know, who believe that old-fashioned winemaking techniques have never really brought out the potential in the finished wine. Well, that's about to change. It seems that Larry Turley was very interested in the Pesenti vineyards. So, a few months back, he bought the them out, lock, stock and barrel, so to speak. Turley winemaker, Ehren Jordan, was sent down to Paso Robles to assess and oversee the operation. Although Pesenti's Frank Nerelli will continuing as hand-on winemaker, it's safe to say that the ensuing products will undoubtedly have the benefit of Ehren Jordan's experience.
Physically, the place hasn't changed very much in the past several years. It looked as though a little paint has been added here and there, and they've created a larger and more inviting tasting room. The '98 Pesenti Zin is the first to receive Jordan's influence. The wine tasting is still done in a shot glass (probably for historical as well geo-political reasons), but generally things seem to be on a new track, and there's a very friendly crew working the tasting room. Once again, we ran into Nick and Sheryl as we were leaving. It looked as though they'd been having to have a really good time on their winery-hopping schedule. "Hey you guys -- where've you been," Sheryl called out "Hey, did you like the riesling at Adelaida; I really liked the riesling at Adelaida." She mentioned that she thought the winery visits were starting to take their toll, and she was feeling a bit tipsy. But being a trooper, she seemed determined to try at least a few of the Pesenti wines. As I chatted with Nick, Sheryl got my attention again... "Hey, did you like the riesling at Adelaida; I really liked the riesling at Adelaida." (Now Sheryl, if/when you read this, we're laughing with you, not at you. Nick, tell here we're kidding.) Out at 4:45.
Tasted at Pesenti:
Arrived Dover Canyon at 4:52. Moving out of their temporary location in the old JanKris tasting room (now the new JanKris tasting room) last year, Dover Cyn is now settled in their nice new location on Vineyard Drive. Owner Dan Panico purchased 10 acres that were originally planted to walnut trees, and is putting in several acres of Zin, which when mature, will augment his other sources of fruit from local growers. In addition to the mainstay Zinfandel, Dan is also aboard the local Rhone bandwagon, currently producing Roussanne, Viognier and Syrah. Tasting is complimentary, and we elected to try the 4 reds available on the list. Mary did the pouring, and chatted with us about the recent changes. Dan started his own label in '94, leaving his job as winemaker at Eberle in '97 to pursue his Dover Cyn full-time. Production is currently at 3,000 cases. Out at 5:20.
Tasted at Dover Canyon:
Arrived Grey Wolf at 5:23. Established in 1994, the Barton family operates this winery and tasting room out of an old small farmhouse on Hwy 46 West. Currently working with fruit from local sources, Grey Wolf has 11 acres under vine and are merely awaiting maturity for some Estate fruit. We decided to try just the reds from their list. Always very friendly to visitors, they seem to treat everyone as though they're a local resident, and you get the immediate sense that this is a family business. Currently producing about 3,000 cases, the Barton's are making some very good and very reasonably-priced wines. Out at 5:47.
Tasted at Grey Wolf:
Had a huge day! We visited 11 wineries, tasting a total of 61 wines. Went for dinner at Villa Creek, and congratulated ourselves on actually surviving the day. Our original itinerary had us covering 9 wineries -- an already dubious quantity. But, we ended up dropping one (JanKris), and adding LeCuvier, Nadeau, and Zenaida.
Sunday, Nov 26, 2000
Working with either old and/or inaccurate information, I had the impression that Hug at Alban would be open for visits this weekend. However, a sign at Alban said "closed," (Note to self: always call ahead.) Disappointed, we headed for Seven Peaks as a pick-up visit before Kynsi opened at11:00.
Arrived at Seven Peaks 10:35. This winery is a recent (1998) joint venture between Southcorp Wines of Australia, and the Nivens family, owners of Paragon Vnyds in the Edna Valley. The new winery has planted over 400 acres of new vineyards (Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Mourvedre) in Paso Robles. A pleasant fellow named Ryan was doing the pouring, and we tried 5 of the moderately-priced wines. The grounds here are good looking, and the tasting room is nicely appointed, with a beautiful view of the vineyards. Out at 10:25.
Tasted at Seven Peaks:
Arrived Kynsi at 11:16. Look carefully for this former dairy farm that was converted to a winery by the Othman family. Small signage makes this an easy place to miss. But, it's definitely a place well worth finding. As we arrived, a milk can with an "open" sign was being placed out near the road. Producing small amounts of local Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus Syrah from Paso Robles, this family winery is making some very impressive wines. A full-fledged family operation, the Othman's eldest daughter was doing the pouring in the small tasting room. The Othman's started making wine here 5 years ago, with '95 as the debut vintage. Future plans call for planting 30 acres in partnership with Talley, and Stephen Ross. The "Kynsi" name is the Finnish word for talon and is meant as homage to the local barn owl.
Out at 11:45, and headed for Nichols, which was due to open at Noon. We tailgated while waiting to see if someone would arrive and open the gate to the Tolosa/Nichols/Stephen Ross facility identified as the address of the Nichols tasting room. After waiting until 12:10, we figured we had more erroneous info, and gave up and headed for Santa Barbara County.
Arrived Babcock at 1:20. The driveway leading to Babcock from Hwy 246 has undergone a transformation. Gone is the old asphalt-to-dirt road, and replacing it is a nice new wide concrete driveway, shared with its neighbors, Melville Vineyards (see below). There were already several visitors in the small informal tasting room. (As a sidebar, there's a awkwardness to the tasting arrangement used here. It's similar to the old Justin setup, and I've seen it used other places as well. The pourer, working from bottles on a round table located near the center of the room, moves out to the circle of tasters with each new wine to be poured, then retreats back to his "home ground." I'm sure it was thought that visitors would tend to congregate near the table, making the relationship of visitors and staff more social. But in fact, what happens is people tend to push away from the table, seeking their own comfort zone.) So, we just assumed a position against an uninhabited wall, and staff member Fred Reed started us off with the 11 Oaks Sauvignon Blanc. Very nice fellow: polite, friendly, knowledgeable, and had a darn good memory of who had last tasted what. Fred was pouring all 9 current releases from the Babcock list, for a nominal fee. The new Troc (rhymes with Poke) label is meant to be an everyday wine. Anyway, don't let my little rant on tasting arrangements dissuade you -- the people here are nice, and the wines are all very good. Out at 1:50, and we had to drive clear over to the other side of the driveway for our visit next door.
Tasted at Babcock:
Arrived at Melville at 1:52. This recently established winery (tasting room opened July 2000) is located right next door to Babcock, on Hwy 246. Situated on a small hill just off the highway, the Tuscan-inspired villa that serves as both the winery as well as the beautifully appointed tasting room, is an immediate attention grabber. The property looks great too, with vineyards filling the space between the road and the winery.
The Melville family brings past experience to their new venture here in the western Santa Ynez Valley. Previously, Ron Melville and family were operating a successful grape growing business in Calistoga, farming the usual Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The quality of their fruit was excellent, and much of it found its way into the reserve wines of Geyser Peak, Dry Creek Vineyards, and Chateau St. Jean -- no small feat. Deciding to relocate the family, yet continue in the grape growing business, Ron selected an 82 acre location in Lompoc, and began to pursue his interest in Pinot Noir. Recently, the project took on additional emphasis, and Ron, along with sons, Brent and Chad, became not only growers of high quality Pinot Noir, but also decided to become winemakers as well. Their 1999 debut vintage includes a Santa Maria and an Estate Pinot, as well as a Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay. A miniscule amount of Estate '99 Syrah (23 cases) was released December 1, 2000.
Melville currently has 75 acres under vine on the property, distributed to produce about 55% Pinot Noir, 30% Syrah, and 15% Chardonnay. In 1998, they added another 55-60 acres (of the 100 owned) in Cat Canyon (near Los Alamos). The Melvilles have planted 11 clones of Pinot Noir in mostly sandy and loamy soil (with some clay), as well as 3 clones of Chardonnay, and 7 clones of Syrah, on 5 different rootstocks. Although currently augmenting the fruit from outside sources while waiting for maturity of their vines, intentions call for Melville to become Estate-only with the 2000 vintage. Aside from their own production, the Melville fruit is largely committed to other local wineries: Brewer-Clifton, Babcock, Jaffurs, Santa Barbara Winery, Lane Tanner, and Ojai. Ron selected Greg Brewer as winemaker for the label, given Greg's stellar reputation and familiarity with Santa Barbara County fruit. Brewer, formerly of Santa Barbara Winery, also has his own Brewer-Clifton label, which is now utilizing the Melville facility as well.
On arriving, we first met with tasting room director, Megan Wright, who started us out with the '99 SMV Chardonnay. Chad Melville then stepped out to introduce himself, and after an in-depth description and tour of the grounds, the winery, and their winemaking approach, we proceeded to "wade into" a little barrel tasting. In expressing yields, most wineries speak in terms of tons-per-acre from the vineyard. Given the high-density plantings, Melville prefers to use pounds-per-vine as a way to express its yields. In the case of the Estate Pinot, the 1/3 ton per acre translates to 1/2 lb per plant. Chad explained Melville's current and preferred method of bin-fermenting the fruit, using extended maceration, 35% carbonic maceration, and gravity feed to minimize handling the fruit. At one point, Chad uncovered a bin of fermenting Pinot to show us the fruit and stems "cooking." By impulse, I stuck my head into the bin I took in a big wiff -- big mistake. The huge CO2 blast felt like I was drinking 7-Up with my nose! Chad's role as Assistant Winemaker keeps him involved in the day-to-day processes with Greg, something he obviously relishes. "Wanna try the 115 clone with different levels of stems," he asked, climbing up a stack of barrels with the wine thief in hand. He seemed just as fascinated as we were at discovering the results of different techniques used for each wine. Actually, one of the really interesting things about barrel tasting is the ability to taste all of these individual raw materials -- the effects of using various clones and yeasts. This is never more obvious as with Pinot Noir. Melville also appears to have all the raw materials be very successful in this venture, and we may be witnessing a rising star. Out at 4:30
Tasted at Melville:
Had a very nice half-day! We visited 4 wineries, tasting a surprising total of 33 wines. Went to Hitching Post in Buelton for dinner, then headed back south.
Wrap up: what a great trip! Over the course of the long weekend, we visited 20 wineries -- tasting a total of 122 wines. We made several new discoveries, three of whom are standouts - the wines from Nadeau, Kynsi, and Melville are excellent, and bargains in the marketplace from a quality standpoint. Two relatively new ventures, Nadeau and Melville are producing fabulous stuff now, with the best probably yet to come. The Melville visit is also featured in the "Winery Spotlight," an area of individual coverage reserved for in-depth visits and tastings.
Had several nice one-on-one visits at Loring and Carmody McKnight, and enjoyed meeting the many fabulous people out there in the tasting rooms. HMR is making some very nice wines, and the staff couldn't be nicer. I'm also happy to say that Pesenti is doing a fabulous job in the tasting room -- excellent staff. Sometimes I think this would be fun even if they weren't serving wine. Naw. Then I'd have to bring my own along.