Friday, May 29, 2009

I call Shotgun! Memorial Day Road Trip Part 1: Paso Robles

Last weekend my boyfriend Charles and I drove up the coast to attend the wedding of my high school friend in Carmel. We don’t get a chance to venture North of the “Hella Line” often, so we decided to investigate Paso Robles wines and explore the Monterey area also during the trip.

But, we didn’t just magically appear in NorCal – the trek began after work in Downtown L.A., continued with our road trip ritual of ordering two crispy steak tacos at Snapper Jack’s Taco Shack in Ventura, and ended for the night at my mom’s house North of Santa Barbara. On Saturday morning we took off early, around 11am (well, we were supposed to take off early anyways), so we could taste some Paso wine.

Saturday: The Wages of Zin

Having been raised in Santa Ynez, I have a heavy hometown bias when it comes to wine—could Paso Robles, a rocky little outpost subject to extreme temperatures and smelling of cows—produce wine as good as my lovely little valley? I had serious doubts. And I hadn’t heard much about Paso wines to make me doubt those doubts—in fact, all I had heard was that there were wines to be found there.

Before we hit the road, I asked my friends for any recommendations, and George – my editor at the Santa Barbara Independent – pointed us to his favorite Paso wineries. As a food editor, George is a very reliable source for foodie info--but then again, everyone has different tastes, especially when it comes to wine. So with few expectations, Charles and I went to our first stop: the George-approved Turley Wine Cellars.

We walked out with two bottles.

Turley’s small tasting room had knowledgeable people standing on both sides of the counter – these were not newbs. These were young couples and middle aged people bandying about wine lingo like “levels” and “chewiness” while deftly swirling their glasses. The very professional—yet friendly—pourers talked about the age of the vines that went into each bottle, a very popular theme in Paso it turns out. You don’t hear about vine age often in Santa Ynez, since most were planted A.S. (After Sideways).

My favorite was the 2006 Pesenti Vineyard Zinfandel ($40), from venerable 85yr old vines. Scents of dark chocolate and strawberry jam welled up above the lip of the glass, and the garnet liquid tasted of grape jelly and had a velvety mouth feel. Paso Zins seem to be all about texture—they’re rough, or suede, or velvet, and my own personal favorite descriptor: cat-tongue. I made that one up myself. My boyfriend’s pick was the 2006 “Juvenile” California Zin ($22), tasting like black cherries with a big fruity nose, rich and round. At this point, I was mentally composing my “Thank You” email to George.

Turley Wine Cellars

2900 Vineyard Dr.

Templeton, CA

$10 for 5 pours

Our next stop, Four Vines, was not on George’s list. I found it during my pre-trip research and thought it was a sure bet due to the many glowing recommendations on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

As soon as we stepped out of the car and I saw a man in an 18th century white wig in period garb quickly disappear behind a fence. I blinked twice, turned to my boyfriend and asked, “Did you see what I saw?” Before I could fully form theories about ghosts and/or hallucinogenic mushrooms, we entered the tasting room and saw more costumes – the staff was dressed up for the release of the newest vintage of “Monarchy.” The world made sense again—too bad really.

The tasting room was packed with what appeared to be wine-limo tour groups. Tasters get to choose their glasses from a number of designs. I chose a glass with the anarchy symbol etched on one side; my boyfriend chose the more politically ambivalent four vines design. The attitude of the wine labels, décor and staff was uniformly fun, casual and irreverent; the attitude of the tasters was “let’s get drunk and ask really stupid questions.” Four Vines makes a lot of wines, and the tasting menu is chaotic. We couldn’t keep track of what we were tasting half the time, though I do have some notes that say “the stinky-manure award goes to the 2006 ‘Maverick’ Zin.” Nothing was terrible, but nothing was exciting either. Our fellow tipsy tasters didn’t seem to care what the wines were– but they did enjoy the numerous and generous pours.

One of the winemakers was giving free barrel tastings for the release event, so we joined the limo tour in a dimly lit room to learn about and taste the new vintages. This could have been really cool; it certainly had an entertaining aesthetic. The room was unnecessarily dark with a gothic crystal chandelier dangling in the center, and tall iron candelabras provided flickering light. Barrels formed a circle beneath walls draped with black cloth. It was like the Phantom of the Opera’s wine cellar. But the other tasters quickly sucked the mysterious goth atmosphere right out of the room. These middle aged, fairly respectable looking people weren’t there to educate their palettes or appreciate the art of wine-making. Their sole purpose appeared to be to have a fun, drunk day out—like, that’s what wine tasting means to them. I’m still a bit bewildered by this. Anyways, if you think that sounds like a fine and dandy goal, then Four Vines is for you.

Four Vines

3750 Hwy. 46 West. Templeton

$7 for a lot of pours – I lost count

After giving Four Vines every chance to produce an interesting wine, we left tipsy, even though we poured out most of the wine. There were just a lot of pours. We nixed the idea of trying to hit a third winery, sobered up on snacks, and drove North for 3 hours.

To be continued.


George said...

I've been a Turley fan since a Bob Wesley tasting of it (and numerous other delectables) years ago at Lazy Acres. Got on the waiting list for the mailing list. When I finally got on, it was like hitting the lottery.

Then they opened in Paso, buying the old Pesenti Winery, and it was even easier to buy extra, too.

You gotta love wines big, but I really do think the fruit and acid balances all that high alcohol. Turley's wines never spank the back of my throat like some 15.5+ wines do.

My favorite of theirs is from the Ueberroth Vineyard, actually. With the 101 from Alexander Valley a close second.

LV said...

That sounds like the Seasmoke waiting list - Holy Moley. I think my boyfriend has been on the waiting list for the waiting list for over a year now. Funny thing is, I have a bottle that I'm too afraid to open. Granted it could do with a bit of cellaring anyways according to the reviews.

But man, do you have great taste in wine! Those tips were the best. :D

jawlz said...

Gotta wait for that mailing list. I'm on the waiting lists for the mailing list at Seasmoke, Screaming Eagle (haha, I expect that I'll get on that list ~200 years after I die; no big loss, though; I'd have to sell what I bought to afford it in the first place), and Linne Calodo's.

Turley and Linne Calodo are kinda weird, inasmuch as they have tasting rooms where you can buy their wines in person, but you can't get them any other way except being on the list or buying them marked up at restaurants. I've never really understood the 'tasting room where you can buy bottles while we're telling people our mailing list is full' concept, but I suppose it at least opens up the opportunity to taste wines that are otherwise unobtainable.

If Corison up in Napa (probably my favorite California Cabernet producer) had a list, I would likely be on it or waiting to be on it, but they're not a mailing-list wine, and you can order their wines without being on a list.

jawlz said...

Oh, I'm also on the Elis/Melis mailing list, but haven't had any of their wines, and have heard mixed opinions on them.