Most of the many years I've spent practicing my wine hobby were spent in Napa and Sonoma counties, with an occasional trip to the Santa Cruz mountains or way north to Mendocino in the search for great wines and winemakers. Now, just go 100-plus miles west from home and be prepared to encounter many of the very best Rhone varietal wines in the world. The world of fine wine is agog with the emergence of little old Paso as a premier wine destination -- and I mean, worldwide.
Rhones? What -- no cabs or chardonnay? The Rhone varietals (types of grapes) are syrah, grenache, mourvedre, mostly for the reds, and viognier, roussanne and marsanne the more common whites. You'll also find that most of these great wines are not 75 percent to 100 percent one varietal and thus labeled syrah or viognier; many, if not most, are blends and usually will tell you on the back label what is what.
On the front you're going to find colorful names, different for each winery. How about falling in love with Sagacious, or Broken Stones, or Pandora or Neopolitan Pussycat? These wines are as wonderful as their names.
The name Rhone Rangers is frequently mentioned in current wine publications extolling the virtues of our current great Rhones. I first heard this amusing term in the 1980s right in Paso Robles in a tasting room in a garden shop on Highway 46 west. The winery was Bonny Doon, and winemaker Randall Grahm was a lot of fun to be around. His Le Cigare Volant was one of the first popular Rhone blends and just recently that tasting room locale was the spot of a new winery, Lone Madrone, of winemaker Neil Collins. The very first of the current crop of great Rhone blends that I tasted was Panoplie, done by Neil as the winemaker at Tablas Creek.
How's that for a segue into the very important place that winery occupies in the current panoply of great California wines? Tablas Creek was started 20 years ago or so by wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family of France's Chateau Beaucastel, makers of great Rhone blends Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They, along with John Alban, started the great stampede into Rhone wines, and their winery and tasting room on Vineyard Drive is the best place to begin your day of learning about the Paso phenomenon.
I just returned a few weeks ago from a one-day visit to that area. I had arranged to talk with winemaker Scott Hawley about a new venture, a winery named Law that had just released its first four wines, all 2010 Rhones. They were amazing, especially being just a few years from being planted, and I highly recommend each one. Visit this new facility up on Peachy Canyon Road. I also spent time at three other new wineries: Epoch, Brian Benson, and Dilecta, talking with their winemakers and other knowledgeable folks.
Make a trip over there, and stop for a map/guide at one of the first wineries as you head into Paso Robles. Plot out your fun and remember to include a designated driver. Learn about the new wine boom right in our own backyard.
-- Ann Cierley is a retired Kern County educator and wine lover