With half of our numbers culled due to the intractable plague that's currently incapacitating much of our fair, bevined country, the still-healthy portion of this intrepid band of devout turned four wheels southward, this time, for a drive down the 101 toward the City of Angels. Since no grapes grow in the smoggy doom below – ironically – The Grapevine, we settled on the dustier earth of the Paso Robles environs to slake our unyielding thirst. Just south of Monterey and north of San Luis Obispo sits Paso Robles, where a nexus of fine vineyards rests on the rolling land, parted by lines of old oaks bursting with mistletoe clusters galore.
The drive from San Francisco is about four hours, so while a day trip is possible from the Greater Bay Area, it certainly must be a lightning one. Being fond of electrical current, we settled upon the proud banner of Turley as our beacon and hoped to find other gems beneath the fertile fields there. We were not wholly disappointed.
As promised after our return from Napa last fall, Turley was the glimmering lure with which we cast our alcohol-soaked nets to start the new year right. The facility sits in the southern Paso Robles area, off the beaten path but still highly renowned enough to have a two-year waiting list even for membership offers. Rather than allowing tours of the vineyards and processing areas as does Ladera and Girard, the Turley tasting was holed up in a single room that doubled as a register and a bar, finely furnished with rustic knick-knacks and crunchy snacks.
The estate representatives knew the product well and the tasting included six pours, mostly Zinfandels for which Turley is well-known and loved. Four were exclusively old vine vintages with vastly different flavors and tones, my favorite being their Pesenti Vineyard 2001. A fifth was a fortified Zinfandel quite reminiscent of Girard's Late Harvest strawberry bomb, and we finished up with an unorthodox Rhone-style blend of Roussanne and Viognoer colloquially known as 'White Coat'. Props to Turley for pleasantly mixing mystique and quality; personal purchases are limited, and we took advantage of our concentration of small numbers.
What – did you think we were playing around?
Orwell the dog was getting a wee bit impatient all tied up to the twig-sprouted trees in the wood-chipped entrance to the Turley estate, so we gave him freedom and took him for a brief stroll up a meandering dirt road behind the facility. There, Zinfandel grapes grew in short, shaggy tufts, quite distinct from the lush verdancy of the more temperate Napa Valley. Gorgeous, still, all around.
While I might note that collectively, our preferred varietal is Pinot, to this end, exploring a Zin-laden land keeps one noticing the regional distinctions in soil, climate, and grape. Things are dustier in Paso Robles. The earth is drier and there is much more brown mixed in with the normal green of vineyard and vine. The air is warmer and the land is simply not an effective engine for Pinot grapes. Keeping this in mind, even a fun movie like Sideways cannot project enough interest upon some wineries to save their poor product. Sadly, this was the case at Windward. Regardless of what Jack and Miles enjoyed in the film, we were sorely disappointed with all three Pinot vintages poured for us there. Though the facility is handsome and the views from their driveway are scenic, it doesn't make up for the muddy, acerbic wine and the low level of attentive service at the tasting counter. All this and they had the cojones to charge a fiver for the tasting.
Taking our bitter mouths and thoughts onward to the next stop, we enjoyed the surroundings and the spot of kind weather on a Tuesday in the middle of January. It was hard to believe that whole states were snowed in as we were bounding through the lazy hills with the windows down. Lining the roads were clusters and lines of gnarled oak trees, lacking leaves this time of year but instead sprouting massive growths of parasitic green mistletoe, just high enough to be out of reach. No kisses for us, then.
The pleasantness of Peachy Canyon helped us to ease into the next spate of tastings, and the fact that we were offered six vintages there didn't hurt, either. While the atmosphere is a bit over-branded and almost too "country-quaint" for my tastes, the staff were very kind and we enjoyed a variety of different wines from their massive list. Each Peachy customer may choose a half-dozen from the list, regardless of varietal, and we mixed it up furiously. Of special note are the wide range of Zinfandels (Old School House and Snow Vineyards being quite tasty), the 2002 DeVine Cabernet, and a really interesting table blend of Syrah and Cab/Cab Franc called Jester, which comes in a beautiful bottle.
While nothing was exemplary there, they do make a variety of inexpensive wines that are fine to slug with meals. Peachy's wine club is a real value on account of the large discounts they offer to members, and their selection of fine accompanying food products is also intriguing (I couldn't resist picking up a jar of garlic-stuffed Chardonnay olives). Perhaps best of all was the marmalade kitten watching over the tasting room, sitting on the bottle-wrapping paper and feigning disinterest in the entire wine-lover's ritual.
Our final destination on this trip germinated as an afterthought of once again attempting a Pinot tasting in this arid, sunny area. We'd heard good things about Wild Horse from Ryan, and we couldn't have slipped down the Pinot charts from Windward, so we took a detour to hunt down the lovely vines surrounding this very excellent facility.
Wild Horse did not let us down. The sommelier was a personable chap with good humor and plenty of generosity – always good traits in the business. The winery offers two levels of tastings: one free, which includes three basic varietals; and the 'Unbridled' sampler, which adds three more reserve wines to the tasting list for a nominal fee. As it was late in the day, they were kind enough to pour them all free of charge, and it made them a purchase of the 2003 Unbridled Pinot from their Bien Nacido Vineyard. The gent was even good enough to offer me a club discount on the bottle, just to be kind. Wild Horse renewed our faith in Paso Robles Pinot, and I'll be happy to give them business (and enjoyment) in the future. Check this one out next time you're in the area.
All in all, our guerrilla strike on Paso Robles was a fun outing. There are many wineries to visit when you're near, but you should make Turley and Wild Horse a certain part of any trip. Depending on how long you wish to stay, there are a host of hotels and restaurants in the area, including a number of Bed & Breakfasts with quaint surroundings and good service – and the sunsets can't be beat. After catching the last rays of the mid-Californian winter sun, we drove the long highway back to foggy San Francisco. Orwell had the best seat in the car, and we realized after the fact that Scottish Terriers make very vigilant watchdogs. But don't take our word for it...
Next up: Anderson Valley!