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Paso Robles Cabernet: a new age

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My highest Cabernet scores are still heavily centered in Napa Valley and its sub-appellations, but I’ve been so impressed by how strong Paso Robles is coming on.

Cabs from more established wineries, including Eberle, Vina Robles and J. Lohr, have developed a graceful, delicious elegance that used to be lacking sometimes. This may be due to the relatively cooler vintages that have marked recent releases from 2009 on.

But it’s the new wineries, or newly revitalized ones, that have really caught my eye: outstanding among them are Jada, Daou, Ecluse, Falcone, Villicana, The Farm and Venteux. Some of these, I had never heard of until recently. But all are on my radar now. They’ve all released 90 point or higher Cabernets in the last several months that I would gladly drink with the most Cab-friendly foods around.

I’ve been saying for years that it was only a matter of time before this happened. No disrespect to Napa, but it never made much sense to me that one region, and one only, could excel at a particular varietal, in this case Cabernet Sauvignon. The temperature in the cooler parts of Paso Robles–notably those affected by the Templeton Gap, which sucks in maritime air from the Cambria coast–is ideal for ripening the grapes. Not all areas are exposed to the westerly breezes; the topography of these hills is complicated. But on the hottest days, when it’s well above 100 in Paso Robles town and to the east, it’s dependably cooler throughout the hills, and the higher the elevation, the more the temperature drops.

Meanwhile, the soils in these hills west of the 101 Freeway, where the Santa Lucias trail off, are well-drained, making for small, intensely-flavored grapes, just the way they do in Napa’s mountains.

What held Paso Robles Cabernet back for years was, in my opinion, a lack of belief on the part of local vintners that they could compete with Napa. They either didn’t even try, or they gave it a half-hearted attempt that yielded half-hearted wines. The fact that these Cabs weren’t priced too high helped, but gave Paso Robles the reputation for making modest Cabs that were often too high in alcohol.

Never mind, meanwhile, that in Napa itself, Cabernet was inching steadily up in alcohol, so that some of the cult Cabs approached 15.5% or even higher. People still thought of Paso as too hot for Cabernet. Old stereotypes are slow to die.

It takes powerful, consistent evidence to smash old stereotypes, but I have now experienced it, and am ready to declare for Paso Robles Cabernet. Granted, the quantity of good stuff is extremely small; most of the new wineries produce miniscule amounts and will be hard to find–just like a Napa cult Cab. But even though they’re priced high for Paso Robles, they’re downright bargains by Napa standards.

I think the next step for these Cabs is to catch the attention of sommeliers. Somms always say they’re looking for new, exciting wines, but let’s remember that they’re paid employees of restaurants whose customers aren’t always so open to innovation. A somm might personally be excited by, say, Jada or Daou, but how far will that go when the customer insists on Silver Oak? These new Paso Cabs require hand selling and the truth is that not all somms are good at hand selling or are encouraged to do so by their bosses.

I’ll be down in Paso on Sat. April 27, hosting a panel for an organization called the Paso Robles CAB Collective.  This little group of wineries is just getting started. If you’re in the area,  drop by.

  1. Hi Steve,

    Great post. Paso Cabs have definitely been flying under the radar. From personal experience I’ve found that they can be a tough sell to my Bordeaux and Napa-centric friends. Then I sneak one into a blind tasting, and watch the sparks fly when thy do really well. Collective organizations are always a good idea when you’re trying to make converts, so I think it’s great that Paso now has an organization speaking for their Cabs. the quality is there, it’s just a matter of getting the word out.

  2. The Justin Isosceles and the justin isosceles Reserve are very good wines. The cab and cab reserve are ok but nothing special. No other cabs, since my last visit 6 months ago, really “spoke” to me. I actually preferred other varietals from the region, the Rhone grapes, zinfandel, and tempranillo.

    Actually, I was wondering why more tempanrillo isn’t grown in the area. The climate seems perfect. Anyway, I digress.

  3. GaryEberle has been making lovely/elegant/balanced/drinkable Cabs in Paso since the early ’70′s. Alas…that’s not the style that most critics are focused on. When I want a good Cab to drink (that’s not very often), an Eberle is what I often will grab.
    GaryEberle doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves for his contributions to the Calif wine industry. He made the first good Syrah ever in Calif. He made one of the first really good Barberas in Calif. His Zins, particularly from RichardSauret’s vnyd, have always been deelish. But they’re not made in a big/brash/in-your-face style that garners big points from the critics…so he continues to fly under the radar. Sometimes you just want a wine that tastes good..the Eberles usually fill that bill.
    Tom

  4. Steve, Good commentary on the westside or Templeton Gap area and tis true about how good they are. I had an older Falcone last night and Eberle current vintage the night before. Well made classy wines. I have always liked the top wines from Justin, J Lohr and recently discovered DAOU. Thanks for the shout out for Paso Robles Cabernet and I look forward to seeing you at the event April 26-27th. TMcD

  5. Ryan Harper says:

    Steve-

    Good article, thanks. You also have to check out Proulx’s Blackburne Cab. For $16 retail, it is among the best in Paso in my opinion. I just found it recently. Great little family vineyard and tasting room on the westside of Templeton. I am not sure I should have posted this, as now I might have a hard time getting it.

  6. As a Cabernet winemaker, selling against Napa will be a life-long challenge I’m afraid. Selling Caymus is easy for the somm, buying it is even easier for the consumer. Taking a risk on an upstart $30,$40, or $50 Cabernet is a leap of faith for both Somm and consumer. Wine shop owners fall into the same category as Somms. These are truly hand-sells.

    I’ve had high-quality, value-for-the-money Cabernet and Cabernet blends in Paso Robles and Sonoma County (I’m biased) and try them from every producer I can. I almost feel that Pinot has the edge on Cabernet in terms of people accepting a new brand/appellation more equally and with higher prices from RRV, Carneros, and Santa Ynez, while Napa Cab is still King.

    Here’s to producing better and better Cabernet.

  7. David Scheidt, I agree that a new brand Pinot is easier to sell than a new brand Cabernet, but only up to a point. Give that new brand Cab a high score from a famous critic, and suddenly, everybody wants it.

  8. Agreed. Price points are critical. Kinsella in DCV is the new hot-hand up in my neck of the woods. First DCV Cab to score that high.

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