I am currently having the luxury of a week-long immersion in lovely Paso Robles and its surrounding 11 sub-AVA growing regions. It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in here. Everything I have heard lately is boom and explosion. From a distance it appeared to maybe be the (somewhat nearby) L.A. influence, from the money to the tourists.
While this may be somewhat true, there are a few things I need to get straight in this short space before embarking on a lengthier exposé at a later date.
The setting of Tin City somewhat explains in a nutshell what is happening here. An entire neighborhood of production spaces – custom designed and leased to makers – that house cider (some of the best I’ve had, including lambrusco/charred-barrel/plum), incredible gelato, homemade pasta and related imported and local wares, as well as beer, craft spirits and new wineries. The designs, packaging and marketing are ultra sexy. In addition, many of these wineries are communal spaces, heightening the sense that this is a region that works together and shares the experience of a rising tide. On a busy weekend, live bands, young people, revelers (and lots of dogs) fill this district with vibrant celebratory cheer, all partaking in the reinventive agrarian vibe of Paso Robles.
One of these producers is Brian Benson. He has a small claim to fame as a finalist in Wine Spectator’s “Video of the Year” category. Benson makes stunning Rhône bottlings, upon which Paso has rested its grand-cru laurels, and uses a unique, visionary approach to creating his labels. He and friends take paintings with cups full of paint attached to them out into a vineyard. They carry along with them a long-range rifle and proceed to shoot at the cups of paint attached to the paintings, indulging in both target practice and artistic fulfillment. The best results are used on his labels.
Clay Selkirk, a former college classics major, was living in Greece and on his way to graduate school when his brother, a vital part of the family wine production, broke his pelvis. His father said, “Son, you’re not going to graduate school.” Selkirk now works for a winemaker named John Munch, who has his own claim to fame. Munch is the “Paso Robles Wine Industry Winemaker of the Year.” Together, Selkirk and Munch oversee Le Cuvier, an uber-naturale winemaking project, where they allow their Rhône varietals to rest in barrel and on the lees, with minimal intervention, for up to 42 months.
As far as his classics career, Selkirk’s own project, Devil’s Gate Wine Works, is a nod to enlightenment. His labels interpret six different underworld themes from ancient Greek (Homer), Latin, French, German (Faust), as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno.
Benson, Selkirk and I were joined by Amanda Whittstrom-Higgins of Ancient Peaks and Caitlin Pianetta of her family’s winery for a four-course meal at Thomas Hill Organics, a former CSA I visited several years ago, now turned into a full-fledged restaurant.
Whittstrom-Higgins introduced her sauvignon blanc from the Questa Range, a line of ancient volcanic morras, or plugs, that separate Paso from the Pacific Ocean. A series of fossilized oyster-shell layers replicate the great calcareous soils of France. The cool climate ensconced in daily fog layers creates an almost New Zealand-like sauvignon blanc quality. This paired deftly with a skin-on Chilean sea bass, ladled with a demure yet assertive miso broth and topped with shaved radishes and carrots.
Next, Pianetta introduced her story and her rise to winemaker status after a long illness disabled her father, John Pianetta, from a long life of winemaking. Locals now congratulate her bold, confident ways. Her sangiovese expresses the intensity of the sun in this area with its propensic ripeness, while the calcareous soil gives ample natural acidity. Even though these grapes grow just over the line into Monterey County, this is truly a local effort. The sangiovese comes on voluptuously with bright cherry, great acid and spices to finish. The pairing with a red oak-smoked pork loin, golden carrots, bourbon-soaked apples and a carrot-top pesto only enhanced the qualities of the wine.
Benson offered his rifle-splattered syrah-mourvedre with a heartily prepared duck confit (12 to 18 hours to complete) and bourbon-bing cherry gastrique. Most of the writers and winemakers assembled testified that this may have been the best pairing ever. The wine is sturdy, muscular and well built, yet so defiantly restrained in its makeup. Benson is sharp and has known winemaking all his life. It was a bold move for him to break from his family’s wine business toward his own wine project. His favorite saying is that “He’s never been asked by a second-generation Paso winemaker, who is still working for their family operation, why he started his own label.” Though he makes a killer zin, this is no longer the realm of your old-school Paso zins and cabs.
Selkirk and Munch’s orange, skin-fermented Le Cuvier “Chrysos” viognier-rousanne finished the formal part of the evening’s pairings, although we would continue to linger around several wines from each of the four winemakers that were not included on the evening’s menu. The chef prepared a grilled peach and charred Humboldt Fog goat cheese with a special, Santa Lucia-imported cacao nib combined with a pungent, floral lavender, intricately laying out what this wine was capable of. Every flavor in the wine and the “dessert” course pulled, played and flirted with the edge of sweetness, but ultimately yielded to brilliant restraint.
Brilliant restraint seems to be what the energy of this whole region is intent upon showing us. And who knows what would have happened if we’d kept on going. Luckily, it’s full-on harvest season and all of these young guns had to run off to greet the next 14-hour day bright and early.
More to come on this topic, including the incredible diversity of Paso’s grape varietals and production methods.
Cheers! Remember: Wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org