Ordinarily when I visit the vineyards and wineries of San Luis Obispo County I drive. This time, however, I flew. As it turns out, flying is slower for getting from Sacramento to San Luis Obispo than driving, nearly seven hours for the former, four to five for the latter. The difference was due in large part to a two-hour layover at LAX. On the upside, however, the views of the California coastline from 12,000 feet between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo are enthralling and enlightening.
I'm now in Psso Robles. I have, frankly, an agenda. I'm increasingly convinced that the next great thing in California winemaking will be the rise in popularity and esteem of blended wines marketed with proprietary names. Paso Robles, I believe, is the epicenter of that development. That's my storyline, and nothing I experienced in my first few hours here has persuaded me otherwise.
The evening began with a reception at the posh Hotel Cheval in downtown Paso Robles. I gravitated, understandably, to the blended wines being poured by the glass at the hotel's horseshoe-shaped bar. I was not at all let down in my choices, a wonderfully aromatic and abidingly floral blend of gewürztraminer, malvasia bianca and marsanne marketed under the proprietary name "Genesis," and an exceptionally complex and rich yet lively and approachable mix of syrah, viognier and grenache called "Elephant in the Room." (It's important to note here that the marketing of domestic wines in the United States depends largely on varietal designations - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and the like. In hopes of capturing the fleeting attention of wine enthusiasts, vintners keen on blended as opposed to varietal wines are relying on imaginative, often mysterious and hopefully compelling names like "Genesis" and "Elephant in the Room.")
Dinner followed at the restaurant Artisan, where three of the five wines were blends with proprietary names. Two were by Tablas Creek Winery, whose founder, Robert Haas, was on hand to talk of the wines. In short, Tablas Creek is one of a handful of wineries instrumental in putting Paso Robles on the map of modern fine-wine regions, and the Haas family has done it with unappolegetically blended wines. Tablas Creek models most of its wines on the historic blends of France's Rhone Valley. After two decades of focused effort it is producing such remarkable emulations as its 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, at once plump with melons yet also angular with minerality, a blend of grenache blanc, viongier, roussanne and marsanne, and its 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel, a mix both earthy and elegant of mourvedre, syrah, grenache and counoise. The 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc carries a suggested retail price of $20; the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel long has been sold out, with Haas bringing it to dinner to demonstrate how well it has aged.
When asked how he convinces consumers to pop for proprietary blends for which their frame of reference is shaky, Haas succinctly said, "One by one." In other words, wine enthusiasts interested in exploring proprietary blends best had find themselves a trusted wine merchant or sommelier, then let him or her sell them on the merits of this or that blend. That's the way it's been with proprietary blends, and that's the way it will remain until Americans come to recognize that the whole can indeed can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Myself and several other wine bloggers and writers are in Paso Robles as guests of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, which is keen on getting out the word about the area's fast-growing wine trade, now up to about 220 wineries. We'll visit several of them today. I suspect we'll find a few other proprietary blends that have something profound to say of Paso Robles.