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passion in paso Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

A Taste of Paso Wines 2008 Tasting Event

paso_treeAt 105º F, I imagined that this is what a typical summer day felt like in Paso Robles. Only I was in downtown San Jose, making my way on foot through the stifling air of what was clearly a heat wave, with the goal of reaching the air-conditioned interior of the landmark Sainte Claire Hotel. Even in my rapidly-dehydrating, heat-induced delirium, the irony didn't escape me that I was about to taste a considerable number of heavy, presumably high-alcohol red wines — even though all I could focus on upon my arrival was ice-cold water. But I reminded myself that small tasting events featuring a single, up-and-coming wine region are few and far between, and so, braving the oppressive heat — to which I'm completely unaccustomed as a San Francisco resident — was oddly worth it. As I acclimated to the cool environment of the boardroom in which the event was held, I renewed my resolve to experience what promised to be a unique opportunity to meet a group of producers from Paso Robles, and sample the wines they came to showcase.

A sun-soaked and isolated plain, the Paso Robles AVA is the largest wine-producing region in San Luis Obispo, on the central coast of California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its wine history began at the end of the last century with the production of high-alcohol and fiercely tannic Zinfandel, a predictable outcome of the blisteringly hot summers typical of the climate. But since its confirmation as an AVA, winemaking in the area has demonstrated considerable progress, and now includes a number of varietals, arguably the most important of which has been Cabernet Sauvignon and, increasingly, Syrah. And while many of the wines made in Paso reflect the rusticity of its maverick history, winemakers of late have begun to master the local terroir, maximizing its expression in the wines they craft, and in the best cases, achieving considerable finesse.

But how does the land, baked with scorching sun and dry heat, manage to produce what are progressively proving to be polished wines? After all, that sort of climate normally makes for what many will argue are obnoxiously fat and jammy plonk of less character and more caricature. But in Paso Robles, nowadays, we're seeing wines of better balance and more vibrancy — in spite of sustained high levels of alcohol, at times creeping past 15%. What's going on here? Well, the answer lies in choosing vineyard site location. One way in which this choice is manifested is in elevation; a few producers have planted vineyards on hillsides that enjoy cooler microclimates than the flatter ground below. Another way, and one I find personally more intriguing, lies in the counterbalancing effects of the unique soil: clay to help maintain rainwater collected during the winter and spring, plus calcium and limestone to retain natural acidity otherwise blunted in the hot growing season. (One winery, in fact, in honor of the very land that's helped it produce wines of wonderful balance, has named itself after the calcareous soil in which its grapes are grown.) And although it is only a subregion, the Templeton Gap is one location that enjoys the cooling effect of a breach in the coastal range that otherwise shields the rest of Paso from the same marine influence. But regardless of the factors going into the growing of better-balanced grapes, the bottom line is that producers here are becoming progressively better at understanding the local terroir, and ultimately maximizing the quality of the wines they make.



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