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California, Day One: Paso Robles' big reds, etc.

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It’s a good thing I’m such a poor sleeper on the road, otherwise I have no idea when I’d have the time to submit any sort of update at all for my humble little corner of the Free Press website. So here I am, sitting in front of my laptop at 5 a.m., blasting out as quick of an update as possible about what we did yesterday.

I’d really rather not revisit Sunday, as it was a an arduous day of flying: Winnipeg-Denver, Denver-Los Angeles and then Los Angeles-San Luis Obispo, before 12 of us hopped in a big honking tour bus and hit the road to Paso Robles. (Two more writers/sommeliers from out east missed connections and joined us yesterday.)

Our first stop yesterday was at Eberle in Paso Robles – we crammed into an underground barrel cellar for a seminar on the ageability of Paso Robles wines with winemakers from Eberle (of course), Tablas Creek, Adelaida Cellars and Victor Hugo Winery (the proprietor’s name is Vic Roberts, but his middle name is Hugo). They each brought one new and one older vintage of one of their wines to demonstrate how different Paso wines age, and the potential they show. I especially liked Tablas Creek’s white Rhone Valley inspired blend called Esprit de Beaucastel – the older vintage had taken on nutty, almost fino sherry-like notes.

Next up was a presentation, lunch and tasting at J. Lohr with Steve Lohr, son of founder Jerry, as well as Steve Peck, J. Lohr’s senior red winemaker. Lohr detailed the 2000+ acres of vines they have planted in Paso Robles, including the hundreds used for their Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon, far and away their biggest wine in terms of production. We hopped on the bus with him and drove through the massive vineyards surrounding their Paso winery (they make the reds in Paso and the whites in San Jose) and showed us their solar tracking array system, the largest of its kind in North America. They get 75 per cent of their energy from solar power, which is pretty impressive when you consider the fact that they make hundreds of thousands of cases of red wine on site.

Next up was L’Aventure, a much smaller winery set way up in the hills that I had actually visited on my first trip to California back in 2007. Proprietor Stephan Asseo is originally from Bordeaux but came to the area because he wanted to make wine without what he considers to be the constriction of Bordeaux regulations. Asseo had just returned from Las Vegas, but was in fine form in engaging our group in talking about the area and his wines, which tend to be big, thick, dark and high in alcohol (usually a whopping 15 or 16 per cent or higher). With Paso’s large diurnal temperature shift – often between 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit difference between day and night – the wines bring lots of ripeness with a thread of acidity going through them. L’Aventure wines are big, grippy tooth stainers and need either time in the bottle or food to help settle them down.

From there we headed back down the hill to Hope Family Wines, makers of Treana, Liberty School and Austin Hope wines. We had a quick visit and tasting there with Jason Diefenderfer, who explained how important the Canadian market is for them, especially with regards to Liberty School. In fact, there are a couple of Liberty School wines made specifically for the Canadian market including the Zinfandel I reviewed not too long ago.

We also ended up at dinner with Diefenderfer, Austin Hope and a couple other of their people at Villa Creek, a Paso restaurant I had actually visited on my last trip here as well. We were able to try a couple more of their wines including the Treana 2001 white from a magnum (1.5L) bottle, a great blend of Viognier and Marsanne – two Rhone Valley white grape varieties that do quite well in certain parts of Paso Robles. With nearly a decade of age, the wine was showing great complexity, minerality and spice, and was a real standout of the day.

Today we’re piling back into the bus and driving a few hours north to Livermore, and will be hitting Wente and Concannon before making our way to Napa Valley. I’ll have more to report whenever I next get a small chunk of time in front of my laptop again.

Twitter @bensigurdson

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About Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

When he wasn't bashing on a drum kit in local punk rock bands, Ben spent the mid '90s hucking cases of wine around to pay for two English degrees. Now he's the Winnipeg Free Press wine columnist and blogger.

The extent of Ben's wine experience in the mid-90s was memories of accidentally leaving a bottle of White Zinfandel in the freezer overnight, and the ensuing mess he was left with. Between 1996 and 2005 Ben absorbed all he could about wine while working at wine shops to pay for school. Meanwhile, he was churning out papers for his BA and MA in English (from the Universities of Winnipeg and Manitoba, respectively).

Ben became the Winnipeg Free Press' weekly wine columnist in 2005, and two years later joined Wine Access magazine as a contributor, a member of their national tasting panel and a judge at the Canadian Wine Awards and International Value Wine Awards until the magazine closed up shop in 2013.

In 2013 Ben joined the Winnipeg Free Press as a copy/web editor.

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