What Distinguishes Paso Robles Cabernet?

Winemakers connect their wines' characteristics to the California region's climate, soil and people

by Jim Gordon
paso cabernet
Paso Robles winemakers make the case for Cabernet during a panel discussion April 27. Pictured, from left, are: Daniel Daou of Daou Vineyards, David Galzignato of Jada Vineyard & Winery, Steve Peck of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, moderator Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast, Kevin Willenborg of Vina Robles, Scott Shirley of Justin Vineyards & Winery and Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery.
Paso Robles, Calif.—What makes Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles different from Cabernet grown elsewhere in California? Is it the climate, the soil or the people?

Six winemakers debated this topic and others this past weekend as part of the inaugural CABs of Distinction event for media, trade and consumers in this upland section of San Luis Obispo County. Here Cabernet Sauvignon, traditional in Bordeaux, is the most widely planted variety, but Rhone Valley grape varieties often capture much of the public’s attention.

The winemakers each shared a wine for the group of 40 media and trade members assembled in a tent adjacent to an immaculate horse barn at Windfall Farms on the east side of the 614,000 acre Paso Robles American Viticultural Area. They described the style of wines made from Cabernet and other Bordeaux-bred grape varieties in the AVA as brighter in flavor, naturally high in acidity and with tamer but rich tannins compared to wines from the state’s standard bearer for high quality Cabernet: Napa Valley. Then they detailed what factors they believe create the differences.

Separate but equal?
Kevin Willenborg, winemaker for Vina Robles, presented his winery’s deeply fruity and firmly tannic Mountain Road Reserve 2009. He said the defining characteristics of the Paso Robles terroir are the high diurnal temperature variance (as much as 50°F) and very limited soil nutrients in the generally calcareous, high-pH soil that controls the natural vigor of Cabernet vines.

These factors help explain how a region with summer temperatures frequently hitting 100°F can produce vibrant wines that don’t need acidification, according to another speaker, Daniel Daou, whose owns Daou Vineyards with his brother.

“We came here because we thought we could achieve ripeness every year,” said Daou, who was a founder of the Paso Robles Cab Collective, which hosted the event. “When Cabernet Sauvignon achieves ripeness, it is truly fantastic.”

“The soils here are very different compared to much of California. The clay gives you richness; the calcareous composition gives you natural acidity. We can get all the ripeness we need without adding acid,” Daou said.

Minimizing herb flavors
Steve Peck, winemaker for J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, put a finer point on the ripeness issue while presenting the concentrated but not heavy J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon from 2010. He recalls that Wine Spectator favorably reviewed a 1984 Cabernet he worked on during his first job, at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley, as “wonderfully minty.” The mint flavor came from methoxypyrazines in the grapes, an aspect not well understood at the time, and later regarded as a negative sensory quality. By 1994 many growers and winemakers knew how to minimize the strong herbaceous and vegetal flavors through frugal irrigation, better sun exposure and longer hang time.

A low level of rainfall in Paso compared to Sonoma and Napa counties is an advantage, Peck said. “Our opportunity here is that we don’t have to dry moisture out of the soil, but we may need to drive it up.” He said he is a big fan of pressure bombs to measure water status in vines and make informed decisions about managing irrigation to further encourage positive, fruity characteristics.

Gary Eberle has more experience than anyone making Paso Robles Cabernet, having arrived in the 1970s to assess the region’s soils with Dr. Harold Olmo from the University of California, Davis, where Eberle had been studying viticulture and enology. Their assessment led to the founding by his family of Estrella River Winery (now owned by Bronco). He opened his own Eberle Winery in 1983.

While Estrella and Eberle pioneered Syrah (traditionally from the Rhone Valley of France) in the modern era of California winemaking, Gary Eberle is emphatic in his support of Paso Robles Cabernet. “I came down here for Cabernet,” he said while presenting his elegant, well-balanced 2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

“We’ve been sort of dubbed the Rhone zone, which is all right—we make spectacular Rhones,” Eberle said. “But I think Cabernet is our best grape. There is no doubt in my mind.” Eberle has kept a library of his older Cabernet vintages and had two bottles of 1980 to share with a few people during the walk-around tasting in the stables that followed the panel discussion.

Eberle said his reference wine for Cabernet when he first came to Paso Robles was the Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve from 1968. He used cuttings from one of the Beaulieu properties in Napa Valley, the Madame de Pins vineyard, for his original plantings in Paso Robles. (Other winemakers on the panel identified this as Clone 6.) “It is basically a skin wrapped around four seeds,” Eberle said. “Soft and easy to extract.” Other vineyards subsequently used cuttings from Estrella and Eberle for their scion wood.

Talent from Napa Valley
Napa Valley kept coming up in the panel discussion, and not only because of clones. Four of the six winemakers had previously worked in Napa Valley. Willenborg of Vina Robles made wine for Louis M. Martini Winery and the Rubicon Estate (now Inglenook). Scott Shirley left the Hess Collection Winery in Napa in 2012 to come to Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles. Steve Peck started his career in Napa, and David Galzignato of Jada Vineyard & Winery worked 10 years at Napa wineries Charles Krug, Lewis Cellars and Duckhorn Vineyards.

The panel’s moderator, Steve Heimoff, is the California editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine. He asked Peck if Napa Valley really has the best location for Cabernet Sauvignon, or did Napa succeed largely because of human talent and money. “I think the people are a big part of it,” Peck said, noting that his employer, the Lohr family, also own 30 acres of vineyard in Napa Valley along with hundreds of acres in Paso Robles. He pointed out that Napa’s growing conditions are not always ideal, saying, “I saw some pretty rough fruit from there in 2011.”

Eberle answered the money and talent question this way: “If Robert Mondavi would have built his winery in 1966 in Paso Robles instead of Napa, this would be the most famous wine region in California.”

Posted on 05.01.2013 - 08:47:45 PST
What happened to Sonoma? Did it disappear? Monte Rosso, Chalk Hill, Knight's Valley all gone?

With due respect, and apparently the first to comment, Paso makes nice wines, but better Cab than Napa? I will earn some disfavor and flatly disagree. I have never tasted the Napa super $$$ like Bond & Eagle, but Heitz Martha, Fay, SLV, Cask 23, Mayacamas, Pine Ridge, Randy Dunn, Pride, Spottywood, Staglin, Insignia, Rubicon, Rubicon Rutherford Zinfandel, Signorello's now extinct Luvisi Howell Mtn Zin?
Donn Rutkoff