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Tasting Paso Robles wines in–Oakland!



The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance held a big tasting at the Scottish Rite Temple


(and don’t ask me what those Scottish “rites” are, cuz I don’t know!) yesterday. As this is just a hop, skip and jump from where I live, I took a walk along the Lake to catch up on what’s been happening down in that beautiful part of the Central Coast, whose wines I was one of the earliest national wine critics to commend.

LakeThis is Lake Merritt, across the avenue from the Scottish Rite Temple. My house is just behind that big brown building, which is a retirement community owned by the Episcopal Church.

(Incidentally, thank you to the Alliance for choosing Oakland. This is a great city to have wine events in, and I’m grateful for you for selecting us!)

Since 2014, Paso Robles has had eleven sub-AVAs within its greater borders but, as the Alliance’s communications director, Chris Taranto, told us, it took seven years to make that happen! Which sort of made me shudder, because as you probably know I’m trying to get a new AVA up in Willamette Valley. But I don’t think it’s going to take seven years…

I’m not going to publish all my tasting notes from the event. But here’s one I really liked:

Jada Vineyards 2013 Strayts, $50. This is a blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. The alcohol is a hefty 15.2%, but the wine isn’t at all hot…I’d call it mouth-warming. Black in color, with impressive aromas of dark chocolate, bacon, violets, blackberry jam and smoky oak. A big, thick, dramatic wine with a wonderful texture: caressing and lively. Rich in tannins, sweet in fruit, but fully dry. I thought the wine is best consumed early, to appreciate its fresh, vibrant fruit, and scored it 92 points.

Paso still seems to have that element of experimentalism that always made me admire it. When I was at Wine Enthusiast, I wrote (and blogged) about how some Napa Valley winemakers were migrating there because, they told me, they felt that in Napa their hands were tied, making expensive Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas in Paso, they felt they could be free. Since Paso had no overwhelming reputation for any particular variety or style, they could make anything they wanted, any blend, no matter how weird or unconventional. I think Paso Robles still has that admirable quality: a place that, like the Wild West, lets you be whatever your aspirations envision.

Before the big tasting, they had a seminar, and, having been on a zillion of those in my time, it brought back memories of sitting on panels and hoping to have an excited, happy audience. I must admit to thinking there’s got to be a better format for these things. As it is, everybody sticks the winemakers at a table on a dais in front of the audience. There’s a moderator, the audience tastes wines in turn, and the winemakers talk about their wines, usually in technical terms. You can see people zoning out, in some cases, as the winemakers go on and on about clay and fog and barrels. I wrote, “We need a new conversational model for these things. How can we make them more lively and interactive?” I admit I don’t have any good answers. I’m good at diagnosing the problem but the solution, if any, is eluding me. Maybe there is no solution; it comes down to personalities. Some speakers are more exciting than others. And some audiences are more participatory and more willing to get involved than others. Whenever I’ve been on a panel, I try to stir things up a little bit, and whenever I’m in the audience, I feel like I have a responsibility to make this thing a success, so I ask a few questions and make a few remarks. It takes a village to pull of a successful wine event.

Have a lovely weekend!

  1. Steve,

    Nice post. How was the venue? How many wineries poured?

    Your question about panels is a good one, and I think you answered your own question:

    The format you described is fine as long as:

    A) there ar not too many wines poured
    B) the moderator is captivating, informative, and is good at controlling the flow
    C) the speakers understand their audience and understand when to get geeky and when not to
    D) the audience takes part in the process and doesn’t ‘derail’ the flow by not asking any questions or asking ones that are way off topic

    Yep, many variables to consider . . .


  2. Larry – venue was great. A beautiful, classic setting, spacious and comfortable. Easy to get to via BART, freeways, and plenty of parking. I think the crowd might have been larger if they’d had it in San Francisco, though.

  3. Steve,

    The Bay Area is always going to be a challenge for events – put one in the East Bay and it will most likely be less expensive to put on and you’ll get more for your money with regards to site and ease of getting to . . . BUT it seems there are so many from SF who simply want cross the Bay to go to them. I’ve seen this again and again . . .


  4. Bob Henry says:

    Larry and Steve,

    Los Angeles has the same problem.

    Urban sprawl has led to almost perpetual “rush hour” traffic clogging our freeways and major east/west and north/south surface streets.

    It discourages westside wine merchants and restaurateurs from grabbing the car keys and heading out to attend trade tastings. Doubly so for the Orange County and Ventura County and Riverside County wine trade from dedicating six-plus hours of a work day to commuting round trip to Los Angeles and attending events.

    For the largest trade tastings in town (such as Family Winemakers of California with 300+ exhibitors) should fund “designated driver” commuter vans to shuttle westside participants to and from events.

    Larry, see you next Saturday at Rhone Rangers in Los Angeles. (And bake some more of your bread!)

    And for those unaware of this “gathering of the wine tribe,” let me throw in this plug:

  5. I went to the seminar and tasting and found it pretty boring. Who wants to drink ANYTHING from Justin, the oak killers? The seminar leader got an audience question about describing the 11 different AVAs, which is what you might expect in a seminar about Paso. The moderator promised we’d get to that subject in due time, but time flew and we never did. I suspect that more about what makes Paso Paso is what people wanted to hear in a seminar. The winemakers – we could talk to them at the tasting area.

    Usually the featured winemakers have to pay a boatload to get on that dais and that’s why these events are so boring…it’s just down the line in the pay to play arena.

    It would have been far more interesting to preface each wine with how much Viognier, to take an example, is grown in Paso, the range of styles of Viogniers, etc. etc. and THEN taste one with winemaker presenting. A compelling discussion doesn’t usually result from “trying to stir things up.” Engagement happens when people’s curiosity is aroused and substantive, useful knowledge is imparted. Not just here’s my wine…

  6. Pam Strayer, agree with much of what you say. But you are unfair to Justin. Whatever your personal feelings, they should not reflect on your objective appraisal of their wines.

  7. Pam,

    The concept of ‘paying a boatload’ to be on a panel is not common – I’ve spoken on numerous panels and never had to pay.

    Not all winemakers enjoy being on panels; some just don’t like to share information; others are not comfortable in front of crowds; and others simply feel there is no ‘value ‘ in doing so.

    There really is a responsibility for the paenlists and moderator to be cognizant of their audience – who they are; their level of knowledge about the subject matter; etc. If that does not occur, I’m afraid that what you experienced there will be repeated.


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