Paso Robles Cabernet: a new age

My highest Cabernet scores are still heavily centered in Napa Valley and its sub-appellations, but I’ve been so impressed by how strong Paso Robles is coming on.

Cabs from more established wineries, including Eberle, Vina Robles and J. Lohr, have developed a graceful, delicious elegance that used to be lacking sometimes. This may be due to the relatively cooler vintages that have marked recent releases from 2009 on.

But it’s the new wineries, or newly revitalized ones, that have really caught my eye: outstanding among them are Jada, Daou, Ecluse, Falcone, Villicana, The Farm and Venteux. Some of these, I had never heard of until recently. But all are on my radar now. They’ve all released 90 point or higher Cabernets in the last several months that I would gladly drink with the most Cab-friendly foods around.

I’ve been saying for years that it was only a matter of time before this happened. No disrespect to Napa, but it never made much sense to me that one region, and one only, could excel at a particular varietal, in this case Cabernet Sauvignon. The temperature in the cooler parts of Paso Robles–notably those affected by the Templeton Gap, which sucks in maritime air from the Cambria coast–is ideal for ripening the grapes. Not all areas are exposed to the westerly breezes; the topography of these hills is complicated. But on the hottest days, when it’s well above 100 in Paso Robles town and to the east, it’s dependably cooler throughout the hills, and the higher the elevation, the more the temperature drops.

Meanwhile, the soils in these hills west of the 101 Freeway, where the Santa Lucias trail off, are well-drained, making for small, intensely-flavored grapes, just the way they do in Napa’s mountains.

What held Paso Robles Cabernet back for years was, in my opinion, a lack of belief on the part of local vintners that they could compete with Napa. They either didn’t even try, or they gave it a half-hearted attempt that yielded half-hearted wines. The fact that these Cabs weren’t priced too high helped, but gave Paso Robles the reputation for making modest Cabs that were often too high in alcohol.

Never mind, meanwhile, that in Napa itself, Cabernet was inching steadily up in alcohol, so that some of the cult Cabs approached 15.5% or even higher. People still thought of Paso as too hot for Cabernet. Old stereotypes are slow to die.

It takes powerful, consistent evidence to smash old stereotypes, but I have now experienced it, and am ready to declare for Paso Robles Cabernet. Granted, the quantity of good stuff is extremely small; most of the new wineries produce miniscule amounts and will be hard to find–just like a Napa cult Cab. But even though they’re priced high for Paso Robles, they’re downright bargains by Napa standards.

I think the next step for these Cabs is to catch the attention of sommeliers. Somms always say they’re looking for new, exciting wines, but let’s remember that they’re paid employees of restaurants whose customers aren’t always so open to innovation. A somm might personally be excited by, say, Jada or Daou, but how far will that go when the customer insists on Silver Oak? These new Paso Cabs require hand selling and the truth is that not all somms are good at hand selling or are encouraged to do so by their bosses.

I’ll be down in Paso on Sat. April 27, hosting a panel for an organization called the Paso Robles CAB Collective.  This little group of wineries is just getting started. If you’re in the area,  drop by.


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