With 30 years of robust history most often credited to entrepreneur Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Rhone Rangers are firmly fixed on the California wine landscape. Since 1983, the winemakers of Paso Robles and York Mountain AVAs have played a significant role in shaping the future of Rhone varieties in the US.
It’s a familiar story. Franciscan monks shaped the contours of California wines more than 200 years ago. They moved apace from south to north planting vineyards along the way to support sacramental missionary rituals. It basically took the gold rush of 1849 to unleash secular commercial winemaking over the next few decades. One such pioneer was Andrew York, a Hoosier who seized the opportunity to leave farming behind to establish a Wild West ranch. He was wise to plant vines, as well as raise cattle, on what is now the York Mountain AVA. He called his winery Ascension, for the monks.
Today the original York property encompasses two estate vineyards called Paterewski and Catapult. Sold in 2004, then purchased (in foreclosure) in 2010 by Bill and Liz Armstrong, the winery now known as Epoch is being lovingly restored and reactivated.
Epoch’s red wines are unfiltered and weigh in at a hefty sun-kissed 15.7-16.2% abv. Our tasting included five wines: a deliciously complex 2012 white Rhone blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne easily earning 92 points from Wine Advocate; 2012 Grenache-predominant rose the color of summer in Provence; one of Wine Spectator’s top-25 global picks for 2013, a 2010 Syrah blend that includes 7% Tempranillo; a 2010 GSM blend called “Ingenuity” that will make wine-with-chocolate lovers very happy; and a muscular 100% Syrah from Block B (2010) that for years to come will be sure to please lucky buyers of this small production wine aged 22 months in new French oak.
It was probably inevitable that the Rhone Ranger movement would attract French investors to Paso Robles. The geological and climatic conditions were near-perfect to plant and nurture the 40 different Rhone and Languedoc varieties, both white and red, grown and preserved by Tablas Creek Winery.
In 1989, when there were only 17 wineries in Paso Robles, the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape launched an American venture with their US importer, Robert Haas. Tablas Creek is an important commercial nursery as well as wine producer, ensuring that somewhat obscure legacy varieties such as Tennat and Counoise survive and thrive on American rootstock in a “library” of healthy vines.
Now one of about 230 Paso Robles wineries, Tablas Creek enjoys preeminent pioneer status producing 20,000 cases of wine a year from 110 acres of active vineyard estate property. Our tasting included six wines: Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2012, a fresh and lively blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne; flagship Roussanne-predominant Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2011) which also includes Picpoul Blanc; a 100% Mourvedre, which is surprisingly the winery’s most widely planted variety; and three 2011 GSM wines that also blend in the spicy Counoise grape to varying degrees — a rustic Patelin de Tablas (“country neighborhood”), the elegant Esprit de Tablas and the well balanced Cotes de Tablas.
Moving from historic and refined to fresh, new, wild and wooly we experienced the Herman Story Winery. And it is an experience! This geeky high school photo, soon to be a bottle label, says it all.
Tucked away in an innocuous commercial area just off Highway 101, Herman Story is magic once you step inside the doors. Although the tasting room is closed on Wednesdays, thanks to a personal introduction from Casa Dumetz’s Sonja Magdevski, we were welcomed with open arms by tasting room manager Chris. As we headed to the tasting room through the main area of the production and aging room, in a small but serviceable kitchen a big guy was mixing up a bowl of meatloaf and rocking to blaring music. To be honest, it didn’t register that this was Russell P. From (RPF for short), Herman Story’s winemaker! After light coaxing to shift the music to Meatloaf, we earned an invitation to (help prepare) and stay for lunch with the staff.
RPF has been making wine in Paso Robles for quite some time. Herman Story winery, named for RPF’s grandfather, is about 3 years old. A photo of grandpa hangs at the end of the tasting bar so that he can join in the fun every day.
In a unique move, all of Russell’s red wines are the same price ($48 in the next release). There is a wine club, but don’t get excited. There’s a waiting list to get regular shipments of Herman Story’s relatively small production of 4,500 cases per year. Russell also provides the production facilities for his girlfriend, Vailia Esh, who produces Chardonnay and Cabernet as Desparada wines.
Our tasting of six wines included these two Desparada and four from Herman Story. A 2011 called “The Newsman” on RPF’s previous label was a flavorful Rhone blend of Marsanne with 25% Roussanne and Viognier. Next was Desparado Chardonnay, initially served too cold, but in being able to sip it occasionally over a period of two plus hours, the beautiful pure fruit essence of a lightly oaked Chardonnay was revealed.
Heading into the tasting of reds, let me say this only once: Russell From is a big guy, and he loves big wines.
The fruit for Herman Story’s “Casual Encounters” GSM comes from 12 vineyards. The grapes are a co-fermented, so the blend is decided first. The recipe is consistently 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. Rated 92 by Wine Spectator, this wine is dark and savory, lots of extraction, but surprisingly subtle for 15.2% abv.
My personal favorite was the 2011 “Nuts & Bolts” 100% Syrah sourced from 7 vineyards. It is a complex wine, big fruit on the nose with savory herb and bacon notes on the palate and a very long finish. Might I add that it was excellent with meatloaf?! This wine was rated 93 by Wine Advocate. Our final red from Herman Story was “The Signmaker” 2010, 70% Cabernet from Paso and 30% Syrah from Santa Ynez. After an extra year of bottle age prior to release, the smooth wine was opaque, nearly black, offering perfumed notes of dark black fruit, chocolate, cassis and oak spices. The finish was endless.
We closed the tasting with Desparada’s “The Purist,” a 100% Cab sourced from two vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley. Only 50 cases were made! The 2011 is tight, still needs time for tannins to relax and integrate, but interesting flavors of smoke, licorice and eucalyptus will no doubt yield to a deep fruit palate.