A tale of two Pasos
Every time I start thinking that Paso Robles has turned the corner on red wine, along comes a bunch that makes me think the bad old days never went away.
First, the good news. I talk up Paso Robles all the time, especially in Napa Valley. You’d be surprised at some of the “names” to whom I say, “They’re doing some fiercely good stuff down there.” Many of them — Napa vintners — are freaked out by the collapse following the third quarter of 2008. For the first time ever, they’re looking over their shoulders; even Paso Robles, for all they know, might be a contender. So they listen. It reminds me of when the French Rhônistes came over here, in the early 1990s. They weren’t exactly worried about the Californians, but they’d heard distant rumblings…maybe they should find out for themselves what was going on.
Napans would do well to pay attention to Paso Robles. We are in game-changing times. Napa Cabernet is not immune to a market turnaround. A Toyota moment always threatens, or threatens to threaten; the current recession may already have dealt a serious blow to über-Cabernets. There’s a lot of Southern California money invested in Paso, the way that Silicon Valley goes to Napa. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Paso Robles — young, aggressive, ambitious — Napa’s smart winemakers want to learn it.
There’s plenty of evidence on the Paso side. At their best, Paso reds are juicy-good and balanced, and if that means they spent a little time inside a spinning cone, so what. Saxum is a good example of how delicious these wines can be, but, as Saxum is so rare and expensive, perhaps a better example is Vina Robles. To name just one, I reviewed their Signature red blend (Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) last Fall, gave it 93 points, and might have gone higher, I suppose, had I let it play with the air in the glass; but at some point in reviewing, you have to close each chapter and get on with the next.
So that’s the good news, but then come those awful Paso Robles reds, and once again I despair. No names, please. This blog is not the place for that (you can look up my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database, and it won’t cost you a penny). There are wine companies down there that charge $30, $40 and more for red wines that are so terrible, I think of quitting my day job and becoming a coal miner. What goes wrong in Paso Robles?
a. Overripe grapes. There is nothing more disgusting than inhaling a wine and getting a lungful of raw, harsh port.
b. Thinness of fruit due, I suppose, to overcropping. I have nothing against 15% alcohol, in and of itself, but when there’s not enough fat on those bones, the wine is hot and disagreeable.
c. Bizarre acidity. I imagine some winemakers add stuff out of a bag because the wines are too soft. Nothing like unnatural tartness to make the palate gag.
d. Residual sugar. A longtime bugaboo of mine.
e. Uneven ripening. Sometimes you get asparagus. Not pleasant.
f. Uneven tannins. This probably comes from inferior viticulture or from problems at the sorting table (if there is one).
Why do these things happen in Paso Robles but seldom in Napa Valley? I put the question up on my Facebook page and got some interesting comments. Matt Garretson, who used to make wines in Paso, said, “The issue isn’t so much with the raw materials (which are every bit as good, if not better), but has more to do with the intentions/talent of the grower/winemaker. Far too many posers there, IMHO.” Another commenter, John Danby, noted, “Part of the reason you get some less-than-stellar wines in Paso is that it’s still relatively affordable for the dreamers (gotta love ‘em), making their own wine and finding their way along. In Napa, if you can afford to be here, you can afford the consulting winemakers, etc.” I agree with both statements.
Paso has its work cut out, but they’ve shown enough critical mass of intelligence and fortitude that I retain hope. Anything can happen.