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exploration--paso robles wine country

by Jon Rusciano

In all of my numerous trips to Napa’s wine country, I never had flown to Los Angeles to visit my cousin Sherry who lives in San Pedro.  She had invited me to stop in, on numerous occasions, but I was otherwise focused.  It was not that I was trying to play “hard-to-get,” just intent on achieving the best exposure to the valley’s bounty with the limited time that I had available.  And, several of the trips were with friends, with similar tight schedules.  Then a few months back my “wine connection” Magid (Ludwig’s Fine Wines) introduced me to a very interesting Cabernet from a Paso Robles winery called Eden Canyon, which really turned my head in a new and exciting direction.  Their 2007 Estate was very reasonably priced, since Magid had acquired it in a large wholesale “futures” purchase.  The wine was one which (in my opinion) rivaled many I had acquired in Napa at much higher prices.   Thus “Paso” soon became a primary focus and ultimately my “new destination.” 


I decided to fly into L.A. and visit Sherry (and her husband Herb), then move onward to this region and start my tasting spree.  Sherry indicated that she would like to join me for this adventure, so she was welcomed company.  This gave us much more time to “catch up” with conversations about our lives since our last face-to-face visit (so many years back that neither of us could recall).  We traveled in her Ford Explorer, and she did the destination driving since she knew her way through the “Angel-less” freeway maze.


Paso is approximately 3.5 hours from San Pedro in a low traffic scenario.  We departed around 9 am., to miss the perilous congestion.  The sky was blue and the forecast for all of coastal California was pleasant, due to a cool Pacific front which had just pushed through upon my arrival… (accommodating, I must say).


The itinerary of places to visit was determined in two ways.  First, I accessed my eRobertParker.com website (subscription, and worth every penny) for Parker’s assessment of Paso Robles wines with scores above 93 points.  To my surprise, several recent releases were highly rated, and some up to 98 points.   Then, I was advised by Elaine Villamin (Co-owner and Winemaker at Eden Canyon) as to various wineries to visit which had Cabernets she thought I would enjoy.   The list quickly mounted to 17 stops, and I became fearful that we could not make all of them in the three days I had allocated.  However, because of the very close proximity of many of these places (and my tendency not to consume everything offered in each tasting), we were able to make them all… safely.


Entering Paso from the San Joaquin Valley was like driving into a mountain range, through which it was difficult to see where the divide would be for the highway’s continuation.  We passed the infamous marker on Hwy 46 (Jct. 41) indicating where in 1955, James Dean (movie actor and female heartthrob) had been killed by a driver named Donald Turnupseed (say what ?) who turned across Dean’s path.  For some strange reason, he was never charged or cited, going on in life to start a successful electrical service business, bearing his last name.  My new Sprint EVO phone provided the entire story via Google Search, while Sherry drove onward.  Finally, the opening magically appeared, and we began ascending through the mountain range which straddled the San Andreas Fault line…Yikes!  As we began descending, there were sights of vineyards on both sides of the highway.  Paso’s wine country was emerging.


Without elaborating on all of the stops made in our three day tour, I will say that I was most impressed by three different wines produced by many of these establishments.   First and foremost were various blends of a “Southern Rhone” variety, utilizing Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre as primary components.  Next were the Zinfandels and finally Cabernet Sauvignon.


Several stops were of the “walk-in, walk-out” variety.  These seemed to occur at random.   The first one to give me pause (or paws) for contemplation was Grey Wolf Cellars on Hwy 46 West.   Walking into the front door of the converted residence to tasting facility, we were greeted by two cool wine dogs.   One was a Golden Retriever and the other a mixture of multiple breeds but predominantly Dachshund.  I was most impressed with their Rhone Blends called “Southpaw” and especially “Soulmate.”   Their flavors were big and “chewy.”  The ladies (especially our host Gretchen) in the tasting room were accommodating, while continuing a fragmented private conversation about men and how “you just cannot trust any of them.”   I did not miss my opportunity to insert my emphatic agreement.  This acknowledgement got me another pour of the Soulmate, and I purchased a bottle for further analysis at home.


Just down Anderson Rd. off of Hwy 46 was another place I really enjoyed.  It was Booker Vineyard (off the Parker list).  The wine storage and tasting room facility was one of those metal buildings with corrugated metal siding made of the kind of steel which will allow moderate surface rusting for a desired patina, but not to the destruction of the material.  It is a popular (and pricey) look these days, especially combined with stained wooden window and door trim.  Whitney, our server, was quick to explain that there was no way we could acquire any of their wines via internet purchase, unless we were a wine club member, which had a two plus year waiting period.   Sometimes this kind of position sours me to the establishment, and to a degree it did.   However, I could not help but love the Syrah driven flavors of their two blends called Vertigo and Alchemist.  She did allow me to buy 4 bottles of the 2008 Alchemist (95 RP rated) from the counter before the last of their supply was exhausted that very day… somewhat redeeming.


Farther down the highway, at its intersection with Vineyard Drive, was a winery called Linne Calodo.  This was an amazingly constructed modern facility, which offered a number of Rhone blends, but most notably a wine called Cherry Red which incorporated Zinfandel as its major component (58%).  This too was highly rated by Parker, and deservedly so.   The Zin flavor was pronounced but beautifully woven into a mixture of Mourvedre, Syrah and Petite Syrah.  The combination was masterful.   This was the best Zin-blend I have ever sampled.


Across the highway on Vineyard Drive was one of the most well-known wineries in Paso, Turley Vineyards, primarily for its highly rated Zinfandels.  That day we were allowed to taste Zins from their Dusi, Hayne and Uberroth vineyards.  All were great, some reminiscent of the pronounced flavor of the famous Martinelli Jackass Vineyard in Sonoma.   I did not attempt to purchase any for the trip home, because I was fearful that my bottle count would too quickly exceed a single case.  And, I am hopeful that Magid and his distributor have some pull with them.  For Zinfandels, their prices seemed high.  That may be attributed to the price one must pay for fame.


Traveling northward on Vineyard Drive we stopped at a place called Denner Vineyards.  For its remote location, the place seemed quite impressively constructed of curved steel beams cast-in-place concrete and lots of solar glass.   Walking into the Tasting Room and speaking with Chris, our host, I soon discovered why.  The Owner of the establishment, Ron Denner, had long ago invented a dirt excavation device called the Ditch Witch.  If you know the construction business at all, you have heard of these excavators, owned (or leased) by nearly every substantial electrical and landscaping contractor in America.  Ron’s novel idea paid off, big time.  The Rhone blends his winemakers created were very good, and their names echoed the business venture which spawned their existence… Ditch Digger and Dirt Worshipper.


On the opposite end of the elaborate scale, we found a notable winery located along Peachy Canyon Rd. called Villa Creek Cellars.  If you blink twice, you missed it.  The place is a brown, unassuming metal building structure, with entrance doorway, curiously on the side facing away from the road.   Walking in, we were greeted by an extremely fit and frisky boxer dog, hoping for a toss of one of his fetch balls.  The wine barrels were all stacked high on racks, allowing a place in the center of the building for simply built tasting tables.  That is as far as modesty would reign, however.   Sampling their two blends of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache called Avenger and High Road elevated the establishment into the realm of regal divinity.  I was most pleased to discover that Magid has an ongoing relationship with these people.  Screw-capped bottles be damned, this was great wine.


In the realm of Cabernet, there were three stand-outs besides my beloved Eden Canyon.   All were selfless suggestions by Elaine.  The first was Kenneth Volk Vineyards which had a small tasting room located on the back side of Lone Madrone (facing Hwy 46).  Their Cab’s dark fruit was pronounced and the tannins soft.  The flavor was interesting, so I purchased a bottle for future analysis.  I hate to pass final judgment on a product, unless I can consume much more than a taste.  Yet, my impression is that this one will be worthy.


Secondly, I tasted a scrumptious Cabernet at Chateau Margene, their 2005 Reserve.  It had fruit forward characteristics alike many that I have consumed and loved in Napa.  It would have been one that I pounced upon as a staple, except for the price.  Let’s just say that they were extra-proud of this wine.  Had it cost a click or two above their Estate Cabernet (nice, but forgettable), I might have classified it as “a find.”  The son of the Owner, named John, was “working the crowd” in their Vineyard Drive tasting room that day.  I must say I admired his talent in convincing many who wandered into the place that all their offerings were the best that money can buy.  He’s a great salesman.


Finally, there was Calcareous Vineyard perched high in the hills off of Peachy Canyon Road where I met with their Marketing Coordinator, Erin, for our tasting experience.  The Tres Violet Red Rhone Blend was nice, but not the killer variety experienced earlier.  More notable was the 2006 York Mountain Cabernet.  It had some of the characteristics that Margene’s best possessed, however it was reasonably priced.  I knew this one was special, so I attempted to call Magid there on the spot to have him connect with these folks.  Way out there, my not-so-reliable Sprint cell phone service was zero bars.  I was about to make a 6 bottle purchase, shipped to my office in November, when Erin told me that the 2007 would be released by then and it was similar, but “BIGGER.”   This news rang my wine chimes, so with her assurance of my satisfaction or “money back,” I went for the upcoming release.  BTW, I did reach Magid later and he seemed interested in making the connection.  Another plus for this place is the fact that they sell “wine compatible” foods for picnics on their scenic grounds, overlooking many of these “west-side” Paso vineyards.   Numerous customers enjoyed this as they dined and drank wine on the premises, amidst cool mountain breezes that afternoon.


The town of Paso Robles was quaint, linear and easy to navigate after a short while.  I did all of the in-town and winery driving, and my GPS girlfriend stayed packed away for most of the trip.   Sherry and I found several dining spots which we thought were delightful.  One was our breakfast “hang-out” called A Touch of Paso.   Their veggie egg-white omelets were impressive.  Sherry loved the biscuits and gravy offering.  They knew us by name, well before the morning of our departure.  There was no need for a small town newspaper, just walk through those doors, and you heard it all.


In the center of town there was a square block which was their own version of “Central Park,” toward which most of the pricey eateries faced.  On select weekends, local bands set-up in the center for free concerts.  The residents come from all around with their lawn chairs and coolers to enjoy the entertainment.  During the show, there is no such thing as an unoccupied parking space for blocks in every direction.  There appeared to be a remarkable sense of community present.  Paso proved a very comfortable place to visit.


As you may have noticed, I carefully skirted around our visit to Eden Canyon.  It was the primary reason for my trip to this region, and thus it will be the subject of the next chapter of my report.  This winery and its Owners are the most interesting of the lot.  Don’t touch that dial…




Ludwigs Fine Wines



Eden Canyon Winery



Grey Wolf Cellars



Booker Vineyard



Linne Calodo



Turley Wine Cellars



Denner Vineyards



Villa Creek Cellars



Kenneth Volk Vineyards



Chateau Margene



Calcareous Vineyard



A Touch of Paso



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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