Mining new territory

In California's Paso Robles, far from Napa, winemaking pioneers have carved out a spicy, rich milieu now considered America's Rhone.

Published February 21, 2007

Robert Haas doesn't seem like a frontiersman or a rebel. He grew up in his father's wine business, now Sherry-Lehmann, importing wines from France.

Today at 80, he's genteel and gracious in a pale blue shirt, casual but pressed.

Yet he's a pioneering winemaker who settled a new frontier of California wine country, the rough and rugged hills and flatlands around Paso Robles, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

When he decided to start a winery, friends pointed him toward Napa. But the rebel and his partners, the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel on the Rhone in France, went south instead to prospect the dusty rangelands.

They settled in 1983 on Tablas Creek, 12 miles from the ocean over the Santa Lucia mountains in San Luis Obispo County. The inland slopes and the valley were hot cowboy country, used more for cattle than grapes.

California's Rhone

Twenty-five years later, it's clear they and other explorers found purple gold in Paso Robles, now considered the Rhone Valley of California. It's the place to go for wines with the pepper and peaches of the Rhone, plus a chocolate softness.

Why not? Paso Robles has always been good for zinfandel, which amounts to our homegrown Rhone. Haas and the Perrins started their own nursery. They imported vines of 13 French grapes, grew and grafted them very carefully. In time their 600,000 vines were the rootstock of America's Rhone revolution.

If you can't place the Rhone in France or tell it from the Rhine, consider one word or two: syrah/shiraz. There's more to the Rhone, but that very popular, spicy red is the place to start.

For decades U.S. buyers saw all France was divided in three parts: Champagne, Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon) and Burgundy (pinot noir, chardonnay).

That skipped most of southern France. The Rhone region from Lyon to Provence and the Riviera has made wine since the Romans. Its vineyards were a circus of barely tamed fun, reds of pepper and spice and whites perfumed with everything nice, some blended, some golden sweet and others dryly pink.

A variety of grapes

Paso Robles is perfect, as warm as the Rhone, with the same calcareous soils (that's geek for chalky limestone soils). Cool ocean air sweeps through the canyons to knock summer highs down 50 degrees overnight. That lets Paso grapes ripen long and at leisure to a perfect balance: dark, rich and ripe, yet fresh and crisp.

Breezes also keep mildew at bay, so Tablas Creek follows another Rhone innovation that the Perrins started in 1955: sustainable farming. Haas uses no pesticides, relies on beneficial insects and fertilizes with vetch and sweet peas. (Like most wineries, Tablas Creek uses sulphur in winemaking.)

Though such farming is still rare, Paso Robles is very fertile for new ideas, grapes and wines.

The pioneers like J.Lohr, Firestone, Justin, Wild Horse, EOS and Meridian are now familiar brands. Smaller Tablas Creek, Adelaide, Eberle and Peachy Canyon have strong followings.

With 100 other growers, they have planted a remarkable array of grapes. More than a dozen make Rhone whites marsanne, rousanne and viognier. The red roster is even longer: barbera, dolcetto and nebbiolo of the Piemonte, charbono and petite sirah of Italian immigrants, touriga nacional for Port, the tannat of Uruguay, malbec from Argentina and ripe cabernet franc.

It's complicated in the tasting room of Wild Horse, which at one time made 48 wines. Kyle Coots guides innocents through a reduced but still amazing spectrum. "Our focus is on chardonnay, cabernet, pinot and merlot," he says. But he'll also try oddities such as Portuguese verdelho, honeyed malvasia bianca, even Austrian blaufrankisch ("zinfandel meets merlot") or French negrette ("very earthy, dark . . . like a real big pinot noir").

Such flavors are what Haas sought in the dusty cowboy hills. "I was frustrated with California. Instead of diversity we had uniformity."

Not in Paso Robles, where Haas and others have transplanted the world - and a spicier future.

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or e-mail csherman@sptimes.com.