Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
visiting eden canyon vineyards
From time to time, my “wine connection” Magid (Ludwig’s Fine Wines) contacts me with a lead on a product he deems suitable to my BIG CABERNET palate, especially when the “price is right.” In the spring of this year, right after the Napa trip in which I chronicled my “Spring Release” articles, he emailed me with an “eye opening” offer for bottles of 2007 Estate Cabernet from Eden Canyon Vineyards, in Paso Robles. My response back tossed out several questions, quizzing him in a fashion that I thought might yield some truths to influence my purchasing decision. Magid, in his “cut to the chase” way, responded, “Jon, you will like this wine. Let me send you a bottle to try.” This was not accompanied by ramblings about its characteristics. He was so sure of my satisfaction that he just packaged a bottle and shipped it to me, without charge.
My “Friday Afternoon Don’t Go Back to Work Lunch” wine group of friends (Calvin, Dave and Bob) were all notified that there would be a tasting in Dave’s office, just after the bottle arrived. We scheduled it to coincide with a famous Houston restaurant’s featured tasting of the 2007 Vineyard 29 Cabernet, a wine that Calvin, Dave and I had missed in our above referenced Napa tour, weeks earlier. Wanting to give the E/C bottle “its due,” we popped the cork in Dave’s office, decanted the wine and left for the V-29 tasting, which fortunately was nearby. The wine we traveled to sample (boasting a Robert Parker 98 rating) was an extremely refined disappointment, at least to the four of us. We thus trekked across the street to another restaurant and had some “nibbles” along with a wine that Dave had recommended, passing the time for our tasting experience (back in his office) to properly unfold.
Our absence had given the E/C Cabernet ample time to breathe… approximately 2 hours. Returning to the office, I poured from the decanter into four glasses, and we retired to Dave’s conference room for the tasting. There were no words at first, only raised eyebrows. Then, I broke the silence with the technical wine expression, “Whoah!” It was waaaay better than anything we had tasted that evening, heck for most of us, better than anything since our Napa trip. The wine was “big” indeed, with a nose of blueberries and a chewy, chocolaty fruit-forward taste, yielding a lovely, long lasting finish, giving me the impression that this was a well-crafted Bordeaux blend. Yet the label indicated 100% Cabernet. Without further ado, we got on Dave’s conference phone and called Magid. There were accolades and case orders, within the first few minutes of our connection. Magid, no-doubt chuckled, knowing “he had us at hello.”
Next on my agenda was contacting the winery and finding out the story behind the intriguing “Bordeaux-esque” flavor coming from a straight Cab. The following day (or sometime thereabouts) I placed a call to Eden Canyon Vineyards. Elaine Villamin (co-Owner and winemaker) answered. After my introduction, she started telling me everything about the vineyard, her and her Dad’s history, her thoughts about the reasons for the wine’s characteristics and so much more. We were on the phone for over an hour, as if old friends catching up on the past. Elaine was of the belief that the reason for the Bordeaux flavor was the fact that Danny (her Dad) had planted with French rootstock, not the native American root systems with grafted French vines (typical of most American vineyards, due to this combination’s resistance to the subsurface pestilence known as Phylloxera). Elaine attributed their success to the wildfire which decimated their vineyard in 1996, leaving the torched soils free of this pest. After planting with French roots, they are so remote in their location that the bugs have not “come-a-knockin’.” Additionally, with their higher elevation and snow covered ground each winter, these critters are not as inclined to reside in such unwelcoming conditions. The fear of such a pestilence, however, looms large with this family. We talked on several occasions, following that initial conversation. I soon discovered that they did have a great Bordeaux blend called “Jolie,” which proved equally enchanting, upon my later exposure to it.
With wine this great, coming from the realm of an area so very new to me, I decided Paso Robles had to be the focus of my next trip. And, as evident from my most recent article, I wasted little time making arrangements for the adventure. Elaine had indicated that she would be home from a wine promotional expedition by Sunday, August 29. My trip’s schedule was thus structured around this opportunity to meet her and her Dad, along with experiencing the vineyards and winery first hand. Many great Paso wineries were visited the two days before, but that Sunday morning, I arose with a special excitement.
Sherry (my cousin, accompanying me on this trip) and I had a big breakfast at A Touch of Paso, about as early as they opened the doors. It was going to be an hour’s drive out to Eden, and I had no idea how long the visit would last. Following the instructions to their place off of the website, I drove eastward on 13th Street to Creston Rd. which began the journey. The day was picture perfect, and the recent Pacific front had cooled daytime temperatures by more than 20 degrees from just a week ago. There were numerous vineyards along the way, especially those of Chateau Margene. We had visited their tasting room the day before, on the west side of Paso’s wine country.
I had seen the Eden Canyon property from Google satellite photographs, on my office computer, so I knew what to look for at the entrance gate from the roadway. Without too much trouble from Danny’s directions, we pulled up to the front gate at around 9 am. It was opened, as if we were expected. As soon as the SUV slowed to turn in, a dark colored German Shepherd dog ran down the driveway toward us. At first I was alarmed that it might be vicious, but after I noticed her chasing her tail in excitement, I realized she was our greeter and the harbinger of welcome we would soon receive. Her name was Lucy, and a better winery dog you just could not imagine. She would catch her tail with her teeth and continue to pursue it, running in tight circles until excitement waned. That did not occur for quite a while.
There was a large wooden structure, perched on the hillside which served multi-purposes. It was their winery, barrel storage quarters, laboratory, offices, family “wine stash” and Danny’s woodshop, where he built millwork and cabinetry (his “day job,” so to speak). Every section was separated by wood framed and siding clad partitions. The look was purely no-frills functional, just as God intended. Everything was in its proper place, awaiting its next utilization when the time was right. One side had a large overhang which served as shelter from the hot sun or inclement weather when various winery functions needed to be performed.
Danny Villamin, property owner and head of the family, emerged from the building with a smile and said, “You must be Jon.” We shook hands, and I introduced Sherry. Elaine had been late getting home from her promotional function on Saturday evening, so she was not quite up and around yet. He thus offered us a tour of the vineyard on their “four-wheeler.” As we started up the hill, Lucy ran along-side, barking at every creature she could see, proving her worth to the family. Danny proudly (and rightfully so) pointed out his 1930’s tractor which still ran, designed narrow enough to successfully navigate between the rows of vines. We saw the various sections of grapes (mostly Cabernet, but including some rows of Syrah) and how they were irrigated. The water supply situation in California is critical, so much ingenuity went to carefully utilize each drop. It is very fortunate that these grapes provide their best winemaking yields with minimal watering.
We surveyed the area on an adjoining hillside that Danny had begun the boulder removal process, preparing for more vine planting, when available funds allowed. It was amazing to me that they were getting enough production out of that ten acre vineyard to produce approximately 2000 cases of wine a year. Danny pointed out a blueberry farm across the highway which he swore was the reason for the notes of blueberries in their wine’s aroma. He maintained that it was the wind (but I speculated bees, with blueberry pollen on their “hinies”) which caused it. I nodded my head in agreement, because who-the-heck knows? We both could be right.
We learned about damage to the grapes caused by Starlings which flew from vineyard to vineyard, destroying crops in their path. Some farmers attached sparkling aluminum strips to the plants. As the wind blows, they flicker motion to the birds on the prowl, hopefully scaring them away. Others wrap the greenery and grapes in a plastic mesh, designed to keep out these and other predators. Yet Starlings are crafty devils (“rats with wings,” I call them), and they tend to find their way through these wrappings. I am more a proponent of the pellet gun. They are very communicative birds. When “word” gets out that death awaits them in Jon’s vineyard, they will find other spots to pillage. Fortunately for Starlings and all the now-offended PETA readers, I do not own a vineyard.
The ground was so unlike the turf of Napa’s farmland, but the grapes seemed to thrive in the barren looking calcareous-rich shale soils present. Danny cut a small cluster from one of the vines and we tasted the Cabernet fruit, which was still a month away from harvest. I was amazed at the sweetness from such small berries. He tossed the balance of the cluster on the ground, and I winced. Danny laughed and said that Elaine would be upset if she witnessed what he had done. I understood completely.
As we returned to the winery building, Elaine was unloading boxes from her SUV. The greeting was memorable, again as if old friends. This girl is an intense business woman, wine producer and sales-force, wrapped-up in one cute package. As she talked, I could sense her mind swimming with the things she needed to do that day. We received the grand tour of the facility and then sat down to taste various bottles of opened wine that she brought back with her from the trip. Danny graciously opened two new bottles of their 2002 and 2003 Estate Cabernet out of the family library stash, something very few people are offered. Yes, I felt special. Then Elaine asked if I was a fan of Port. My response was negative. Yet with a little coaxing, she convinced me to sample their late-harvest Cabernet called Presente. It had a rich fruity Cabernet flavor, a click or two sweeter than the Estate Cab, but not overbearing to me as most of the Port wines I have tasted. It was one which could provide a memorable finish to a lovely dessert-free meal. Heck, it was great to sip just sitting around chatting at their table under the overhang that morning. I’m certain it was five o’clock somewhere…
We barrel tasted the 2007 Reserve Cabernet, which was soon to be bottled, just before harvest. It will be a great one to purchase, while supplies last. Only 500 bottles will be produced from the few barrels which cradle this magical juice….so after our tasting, maybe only 499. The peacock label that she commissioned for the bottle was a real beauty. I had seen it on the internet, but the original sketches she showed us that morning were impressive. Elaine mumbled visitor-friendly, would-be expletives about searching for a new label maker for this task, since her previous vendor had decided to boldly escalate their prices. The girl’s business sense continued to capture my admiration.
Lunchtime fell upon us and our hosts graciously offered to share their meal that “Mom” must have been preparing at their home, farther up the hill. We were still stuffed from breakfast, so I politely declined and indicated that we needed to get on the road for more winery visits that afternoon. It was with a heavy heart that I parted ways with my beloved Lucy. I knew that my communications would continue with Elaine and Danny, but it would be much longer before I encountered this delightful winery dog again. She resumed her circling pattern as I started the engine of the vehicle…
We visited two more wineries on the way back, but none were nearly as special, although indeed more elaborately constructed and outfitted. Yet, their wines paled in comparison. Each had hired pleasant looking college-aged kids with scripted promotional lines to peddle their wares. They offered designer t-shirts, organic fruit preserves and even “Truffled Fresh Goat Cheese.” For me, however, it only takes a “humble abode” with wines that possess true beauty for which tasting alone will make the sale… and of course, a wonderful winery dog chasing her tail.
Eden Canyon Vineyards
Ludwig’s Fine Wines
A Touch of Paso