Paso Robles may be best known for Rhone grape varieties, a perception reinforced by the popularity of the Hospice du Rhone gathering. It’s also famous for zinfandel and celebrates an annual “zinfandel weekend.”
But the most widely grown grape variety in Paso Robles is cabernet sauvignon, accounting for about 40 percent of the area’s 40,000 acres of vineyards. (Syrah and zinfandel stand at a paltry 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively.)
So some of the vintners who produce cabernet, seeking some recognition of their own, formed the Paso Robles CAB Collective (CAB stands for Cabernet and Bordeaux) in 2012 to promote the area’s wines made with cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties. The group’s website, www.pasoroblescab.com, makes the lofty claim that the organization was formed “with the belief that the best red Bordeaux varieties in the world are produced in Paso Robles” and goes on to say that the wines are “worthy of international acclaim.” Vintners in Bordeaux and the Napa Valley (and Alexander Valley, for that matter) might have something to say about the first claim, but there’s no question that many of the wines are very good and worthy of recognition.
The potential for cabernet sauvignon and other red grapes is what drew vintner Gary Eberle to Paso Robles in 1973. Eberle is perhaps best known as a syrah pioneer – he was the first California vintner to produce a wine made from 100 percent syrah (released in 1978, while he was at the now-defunct Estrella River Winery). But “the wines that I think are my best are my cabernets,” Eberle says. The first wine he made under his Eberle Winery label was a 1979 cabernet sauvignon.
Cabernet is also what attracted Jerry Lohr, founder of J. Lohr, to Paso Robles. Lohr had started out in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County but wanted a warmer, less windy place for growing cabernet and other red Bordeaux varieties. He bought land in Paso Robles in the late 1980s. Now J. Lohr farms about 2,600 acres in Paso Robles – a combination of vineyards that are owned or on long-term leases – and about 2,100 acres are devoted to cabernet sauvignon, says Steve Peck, J. Lohr’s red winemaker.
More recently, Daniel and Georges Daou have made a splash with their rich, dramatic cabernets. The brothers, who grew up in Lebanon and became tech entrepreneurs in this country, established their eponymous vineyard and winery in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles in 2007 because they were looking for calcareous clay and limestone soils. They purchased part of the historic Hoffman Mountain Ranch, which had been home to the first commercial winery in Paso Robles. Stanley Hoffman, working with California wine icon Andre Tchelistcheff, had planted some of the region’s first cabernet grapes.
The Daous, who were among the driving forces behind the founding of the CAB Collective, recently hired Master Sommelier Fred Dame to be an ambassador for their brand and also to help promote Paso Robles as a prime region for red Bordeaux grape varieties.
In addition to Eberle, J. Lohr and Daou, the group’s roughly two dozen members range from cab pioneers Justin Vineyards & Winery and Adelaida, both established in the early 1980s, to wineries such as Vina Robles, Ancient Peaks, Chateau Margene and Calcareous Vineyard.
Paso Robles has a lot of variation – the overall appellation is further divided into 11 smaller sub-appellations – so it’s hardly surprising that Paso cabernets show a lot of variation, too. They range from big and bold to more restrained and elegant, but most are marked by soft, silky tannins and fully ripe fruit. The hot days result in good phenolic development, while the cool nights preserve acidity (although a lot of winemakers do have to add just a little).
The region produces “big wines that are outsized in all their proportions,” says Jason Joyce, winemaker at Calcareous Vineyard.
J. Lohr’s Peck tries to further explain: “I have always thought that the recipe for success of cab in Paso Robles starts with the low-fertility soils that limit vine vigor and results in softer, chocolaty tannins. Our warm climate drives off herbaceous characters in the fruit and allows more of the underlying berry character to show through in the wines. With most of the vineyards falling somewhere between 15 and 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean, we get quite chilly at night all summer long, which is essential to retaining the fresh fruit character and acidity.
“I would generally consider Paso Robles cabernets as having more fruit (less herbal) character with softer tannins than most cabernets from other growing areas around the state and in the world. I guess that’s what I would say is our particular character.”
How does that translate into the J. Lohr wines? The entry-level 2016 J. Lohr “Seven Oaks” Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) displays bright cherry with an anise note, medium weight and approachable tannins. At the higher end, the 2014 J. Lohr Cuvée PAU ($52) – a blend reminiscent of Pauillac and dominated by cabernet sauvignon — is dark and dense, with lively black fruit, roasted coffee, nice freshness and refined tannins. And the top cab, the 2014 J. Lohr Signature Cabernet Sauvignon ($100) is dense and lively, with ample black fruit, savory notes of anise and tobacco leaf and a hint of dark chocolate.
The wines from Daou are more opulent, especially the top-of-the-line Soul of a Lion ($150). I particularly liked the dark, structured, savory 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), although it’s not currently available. There’s also a reasonably priced cab made from purchased fruit that’s sold through Costco and other retail outlets, but not at the winery — the 2016 Daou Cabernet Sauvignon ($21), which is bright and structured, with red cherry and a kiss of sweet oak. It’s made in a more easy-drinking style.
Eberle’s cabernets aren’t quite the bargain they used to be, but the fine estate cab is well worth the current price. The 2015 Eberle Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($42) offers rich black cherry with notes of anise and spice, and it finishes with fine, polished tannins. There’s also an excellent reserve cab, if you can handle the $90 price.
I find that the cabernets from Vina Robles and Ancient Peaks are always reliable, at affordable prices (low to mid-$20 range). I also enjoyed the 2014 Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge ($60), a Bordeaux-style red blend with a kiss of syrah that’s structured, ripe and lively, with black fruit, notes of dark chocolate and baking spice and a hint of anise. The wine takes its name from the fossilized oyster shells found in the vineyard.
Adelaida Vineyards, a longtime Paso winery that’s near Daou, produces several cabs. In addition to the very good 2015 Adelaida Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) from the winery’s Viking Vineyard, there’s the bigger, more dramatic 2015 Signature Viking Estate Vineyard ($90).
This is just a snapshot. There’s plenty more to explore. Time will tell whether Paso Robles’ cab producers will really rank among the world’s best, but all indications are that they are well on their way.