Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gadzooks. What on earth is happening in Paso Robles?

Something’s happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear,
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Sayin’ “Stop, you gotta beware,
Singing, Stop, hey what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s goin’ down.

Well, that pretty well summarizes the last few weeks here in Paso, which when I moved here some 33 yrs ago was said to be the “next Napa”. It wasn’t. But times changed, and the old timers, Hoffman Mountain Ranch with the mad Russian winemaker’s Pinot Noirs, and old standbys Pesenti and York Mountain , gave way to Justin Winery beginning as far back as 1982, Wildhorse, then Meridian, and finally a whole host of others. Gary Eberle the founding father of local Rhones, Justin and his Isosceles, Wildhorse’s Ken Volk and his Pinots became well known and the wine rush was on. There were mergers and acquisitions, lots of buying of local grapeland by foreigners from Napa( who were buying as much as 60% of Paso’s grapes at one time), and hundreds upon hundreds of new vineyards put in. Wineries followed the vineyards, and today we have some 220 wineries just here locally in Paso Robles. And that doesn’t include hundreds of acres in south county San Luis Obispo, home of well known GSMs, whites and Pinots.

And then came two weeks ago. Justin Smith, winemaker for Saxum got Wine Spectator’s #1 wine in the world, which followed a 100 pts for his wine a short time before. Within a week Justin Baldwin sold his winery to a billionaire with huge Central Valley holdings of pomegranates, nuts, and stone fruit. In the last 10 yrs, Constellation bought up Wildhorse for a reported $37million, recently Four Vines sold for a reported $17 million(with a virtual vineyard and winery), and now Justin has sold for a very large sum (unknown at present). Paso Robles has become the new Napa. Whether you look at new acreage plantings, number of new wineries in last 10 years, the amazing sums well known wineries have sold for recently, or the very simple fact that truly remarkable wines are coming out of our Paso AVA… like the above song says, “something is definitely happening here”.

It is abundantly clear, however, what it is. Paso Robles, with its multitude of different microclimates and terroirs, has blossomed into the “in” place to have a winery. Long associated with lesser fruit, vastly lesser caliber winemakers, and essentially no cachet, that has all now changed. There is no longer any question about the caliber of wines coming out of Paso. Not all wines, but the wines from fine vineyards, immaculately farmed, beautifully framed amongst the massive oak forests, some like ours straight up and straight down, and a growing reputation for , robust, balanced, and beautifully made wines…those wines are now getting not just attention nationally and internationally, but they are getting it often. There is a radius of less than a mile surrounding our vineyard/cellars, Cerro Prieto, called by some the heart of the heart of Paso’s wines. To the SW is Jack Creek with Doug Kruse’s Pinots and Chards, to the S is Matt Trevisan’s Linne Calodo and his Rhones, East is Booker, East NE is Stefan Asseo’s Bordeauxs, to our NW over two hills is Saxum… and Cerro Prieto is fortunate to be surrounded and central to all those mentioned. What is happening…what has happened, is that Paso, which had such tremendous potential 33 years ago, has now realized it. We are here. We have arrived. We still maintain the friendly atmosphere of years ago, a winemaker can actually be chatted up by a wine buyer… and we have entered the contest, so to speak, with the brite light on the hill, Napa.

Where to from here? A good question because the one vintner who has had greatest impact on the area in last fifteen years has just sold his vineyard/winery operation. True, Justin is staying on, but his winery has now sold. He single-handedly got the local wine alliance, PRWCA, to institute national wine tasting tours for Paso wines, whereby all 50 states now have access, altho limited in some cases, to Paso wines. Our biggest proponent, our biggest marketer, has now sold. New and better winemakers have come on the scene, wines have skyrocketed in quality, but we don’t have another Justin Baldwin out there, tooting our horn, making our case. Undoubtedly someone will step up, but we will miss Justin and his extraordinary marketing skills. Paso Robles will be less well off because of Justin’s sale. The push probably will come from some of the young turks, tho I don’t see another Justin on the horizon. Justin got the nation’s attention. It is now up to the young winemakers to step up and keep the spotlight fixed brightly on Paso Robles, not with Justin’s innovative marketing, but with plain old fashioned superb wines. The new Justin, Saxum’s Justin Smith is but one of those probable leaders. Others will come from the short list mentioned above, and we still have Steve Lohr, Gary Eberle, and other stalwarts to help lead us.

Napa is on notice. The sleepy town of Paso Robles from 4 decades ago is no more. The small town friendly atmosphere remains, but make no mistake about it: Paso Robles IS wine country.

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