What’s the best way to escape DC in the doldrums of winter? Jet off to a place that is the exact opposite. Hubby and I ventured to the central coast of California for wine tastings, breathtaking hikes, and delicious food and drink. For the first day of wine tasting, I honed in on one AVA – Paso Robles Willow Creek.
In contrast to Napa and Sonoma, one of the first things you notice when researching Paso Robles is the lack of information about the region. In fact, I couldn’t find a website, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account dedicated to the newly established Paso Robles Willow Creek sub-appellation. Officially established in November 2014, Willow Creek joined ten other sub-appellations to further distinguish the geographically diversity of Paso Robles to a growing consumer base. Eager to add varietal diversity to my California wine collection, I was drawn to the Rhône-style wines of the area, as well as the casual cowboy vibe of the town.
Paso Robles Willow Creek is just west of Highway 101, in the Santa Lucia Range, northwest of the Templeton Gap in San Luis Obispo County. The area has a large diurnal temperature range, cool influences of fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and calcareous soil.
First up on our itinerary was an appointment at Denner Vineyards off of Vineyards Lane (cover photo). I tasted their wine at Mintwood Place in DC and loved the Grenache blend. After a 15-minute drive from downtown Paso Robles, we were at Denner’s stellar tasting room, a modern building with stunning architecture, and a superb view of the estate vineyards and the Santa Lucia Mountains.
The crew was in the midst of pruning back dormant vine growth when we arrived. There were hardly any cars on the road and only a handful of cars in the parking lot. Serving five different wines, we were blown away from the depth of flavor, intensity, and quality of the wine. Our tasting guide was exceptionally knowledgable about their wine-making process, answering all of my wine geek questions without even the hint of hesitation or annoyance.
One delicious aspect of the tasting was a comparison of the two string 2013 Ditch Digger, a blend of 50% Grenache, 25% Mourvèdre, 15% Syrah, 5% Counoise, 5% Cinsault. It is produced in two different renderings – One is 100% aged for 14 months in concrete, and the other is a blend of wine — 40% aged in concrete tanks, 50% aged in neutral oak puncheons, and 10% aged in new French oak. The contrast in a back-to-back tasting was a really fun way to illustrate to impact the winemaker can have on the flavors and intensity of wine. We preferred the oak-aged version, with velvet smooth leather, plum, blueberry, and tobacco notes.
Our next appointment was at Booker Vineyards, about ten minutes away, further east towards Paso Robles. I discovered Booker as a source of grapes for the acclaimed Saxum Vineyards, which only offers tastings to their exclusive members (boo). Booker’s quaint and relaxed tasting bar was the perfect way to finish our afternoon. We were greeted by Brutus and Lucy, the resident four-legged hosts of Booker. Brutus, an English Bulldog, was waiting for me outside of the restroom, and Lucy, a Weimaraner, enjoyed sneaking kisses and sniffs of us as we tasted the offerings at the bar.
Our favorite wine was the two string Oublié. French for forgotten, (so glad I took french in ninth grade to prepare me for my future wine-drinking days…) Oublié refers to the Counoise grape used in their “GCM” blend. 46% Grenache, 34% Mourvèdre, and 20% Counoise, instead of the typical “GSM” blend found in Rhône, made with Syrah instead of Counoise. Counoise is a fresh and bright varietal, with characteristics of low alcohol, low tannins, and high acid. Gorgeous red fruit, white pepper and earthy minerality dominated the glass. Fresh on the palate, I think the flavors of the wine will pleasantly intensify with age.
Our day of wine tasting was a refreshing look at Rhône blends in California. I was pleased that I found two small California producers dedicated to wine-making philosophies that allow the land and grape to dictate the flavors and characters of the wine they produce. Denner uses minimal, environmentally friendly farming techniques and has a gravity-flow winery. Booker practices biodynamic farming with high density, low yield vines producing high-quality, intense fruit. Approachable wineries with premium expressions of Rhône, Paso offered more than I imagined, and I couldn’t wait to try more!