Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I Call Shotgun! Part 6: Pit Stop in Paso Robles Paradise

Shaded by a canopy of twisted oak branches, Adelaida road winds high in the hills overlooking grassy valleys and vineyards, that seen beyond the trees, seem to generate their own light. I remember a cartoon of Jack and the Beanstalk, and the opening scene was of a fairytale valley, a patchwork of prosperous fields spread across rolling hills. The Santa Ynez Valley has always reminded me of that. But this one road in Paso Robles combines all of my most beloved aesthetic elements to create a truly magical land where one might just be able to spin straw into gold or meet gnomes in the walnut orchards.

As if the view weren’t reason enough to plan a return trip, the wineries along this stretch of enchanted pavement are outstanding. This time, I stuck with George’s list, not eager to reconnect with the drunken revelers we met on our way North. We were so taken by the scenery, that we accidentally drove past Halter Ranch and ended up at Tablas Creek first, although I had it listed as stop #2. Yes, I do overplan.

Even during busy times, the tasting room at Tablas Creek has enough staff and space to give customers individual attention. Which is great since the tasting pourer was extremely knowledgeable. He knew the Tablas Wines and the history of the winery backwards and forwards. The vines were cloned and shipped directly from the Chateau de Beaucastel winery in France, a process that took three years just to set the roots in California soil. But the owners deemed it worth the effort to get the exact Rhone varietals for the wines they wanted to make: Mourvédre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. They scoured the California coast for just the right microclimate and pH level to replicate the Rhone region, determined to bring the Rhone grapes and the Rhone weather together and settled on Paso Robles. The new Tablas Creek Vineyard also continues the Rhone tradition of blending wines, in fact 80% of what they make are blends. Delicious blends.

In addition to Tablas trivia, I also got a good whiff of the definition of “Barnyard,” which is a term I hadn’t heard before, but could have used many times. “Barnyard” is a descriptor of the nose, specifically a nose that smells like manure. Or, as they put it “a gamy nose but with lots of fruit behind it.” Their writeup is more accurate, because I do not mean to imply that Tablas wines smell like crap.

One of their wines, the Esprit de Beaucastel 2005, knocked me for a loop because, while the nose was initially eau-du-dung, it morphed into heavy luscious jasmine. What I really liked about this wine is that neither the jasmine nose nor the strong fruity flavor lessens after a few sips, like so many strong wines do.

The 2008 Rose was very dry with a vivid nose of strawberry. A perfect wine for a warm night in Hawaii – yes, I’m bringing it, and we’ll just see whether that “bottle shock” thing is true.

The 2005 Syrah had a strong “barnyard” nose, but in a pleasant, earthy sense. Growing up around horses, I actually find the scent of good old dirt comforting.

Tablas Creek, $10 tasting fee
9339 Adelaida Rd. Paso Robles

When we drove past Halter Ranch the first time, my head swiveled around to see the classic 1885 Victorian Farmhouse shrink in the distance. Such a gracious home in the midst of this overabundance of natural beauty so captured my imagination that I would have demanded we double back even if Halter Ranch hadn’t been on George’s list.

The Halter Ranch tasting room is in a pretty little wood structure to the right of the farmhouse with a deck built out over a small hill that dips down into a dry creek below. A gravel path meanders down from the deck to an area with picnic tables set around a large outdoor stone fireplace—a perfect setting for a wedding, though unfortunately the owners don’t rent it out to people they don’t know. They do host a number of wine and food events though.

Our pourer was a genuine French woman who said she liked Californian wines and America in general, California weather in particular. The wines at Halter Ranch were very different from Tablas, and overall I found them to either be too sweet or too acidic. Cat tongue. Taking a whiff of the 2004 Ancestor Estate Reserve was like sticking my face in a pile of slightly overripe sun-warmed plums. With a dash of vanilla. The definition of “fruit forward.” I’m picking up my wine terminology quickly these days.

I was somewhat tempted to get the 2008 Rose, since I thought it would be the perfect wine to drink with family. It has a very high alcohol content (a plus for family get-togethers), a super sweet nose, and is also very fruit forward. It’s a wine that my mother would like—considering that her favorite wine is Beringers White Zinfandel—and that I wouldn’t choke on (I hate White Zinfandel). But I’m not so rich as to bust money on a bottle that I don’t love, especially since most of my family really is quite happy with the Costco 6 pack of Beringers. Sometimes I think I am adopted.

My favorite part of Halter Ranch, besides the old covered bridge and the charming Victorian house, was the resident kitty. He looked like an Ossicat, with feral leopard-like spots, and apparently he appeared one day and decided to make Halter Ranch his home. Even Charles liked him, and he is decidedly a dog person.

Halter Ranch, $5 tasting fee
8910 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles.

Finding the mysterious Linne Calodo winery was tricky. We kept winding up a narrow road, checking addresses at every turn, doubling back once, until we finally found the almost unmarked entrance. Then we drove through the trees and saw a few large empty wood buildings. Thankfully there was a sign that said something like “Yes, our tasting room is open.” We wandered around to the back of one of the buildings, and sure enough, a door was open. Two people were inside: a young lady behind the counter, and a scruffy young man who struck me as a possible Santa Barbaran (they have a look – unwashed, moneyed, smart, and trying hard to assimilate with the plebeians). Charles thinks he might be a winemaker himself; the guy definitely knew his stuff and helped me find words to fit what I was tasting.

Of all the tasting rooms I’ve been to, I think I felt the most comfortable in this one. Which I really can’t explain. It’s not like the tasting room girl was exuberantly welcoming - but between her and the scruffy intellectual, I felt like I was hanging out with really wine-smart and fun friends. The conversation flowed freely, we got each other’s jokes, the chemistry was as good as the wine. And the wine was good. And expensive.

All the wines are reds, Rhone and Zinfandel varietals. We started with the round and rich 2006 Outsider. The 2006 Cherry Red however, blew me away. Blueberry and lavender nose, red with blue undertones for color, very fruit forward but with some toast on the end. I couldn’t even figure out how to describe the 2007 Problem Child, which is really embarrassing as a writer. I was also having trouble figuring out the 2007 Sticks & Stones until the scruffy gentleman suggested “cream soda” which suited it perfectly. The 2006 Nemesis had a big, powerful nose, a smooth mouth feel, and tasted like toast, burnt caramel and crème brulee with a smoky finish. I want to move in – just leave me at Linne Calodo. Will work for wine.

Linne Calodo, $10 tasting fee
3030 Vineyard Dr. Paso Robles.

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