Paso Robles, Calif.—
Matt Kettmann asks a question of Michael Mooney, co-owner of Chateau Margene in Paso Robles, Calif., during a panel discussion about the region's Cabernet Sauvignon on April 24.
With standout wineries like Tablas Creek and Tobin James Cellars specializing in Rhone varieties and Zinfandel, respectively, even regular visitors to the Paso Robles wine region might be surprised to learn that Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties make up 55% of the acreage planted to wine grapes in the Paso Robles AVA.
Cabernet producers from the area organized to host wine professionals and consumers last week in an attempt to educate them about Paso Robles’ most widespread wine variety. The event—CABs of Distinction—was hosted by the Paso Robles CAB Collective from April 23 to 26.
On April 24 Matt Kettmann, senior editor at the Santa Barbara Independent
and contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast
, moderated a discussion between four Paso Robles winemakers to reveal their perspectives on the noble grape.
Winemaker Daniel Daou, who co-founded 18,000-case Daou Vineyards & Winery with his brother Georges (read about their winery here
), formed the Paso Robles CAB Collective in 2012 with the idea of raising the bar—and awareness—for the region’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
“The CAB Collective came together because in the past wineries in Paso Robles were shy about making Cabernet Sauvignon that earns respect. So we’re working together on collaborating and elevating the flavor of our vineyards,” Daniel Daou told an audience of sommeliers and members of the media who gathered at the Paso Robles Inn for the panel discussion. “CAB Collective is open to anyone from Paso that makes Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Before selecting a site to grow grapes, the Daou brothers scoured California looking for terroir
similar to that found in French vineyards. The pair’s search brought them to Paso Robles, Daou said. “Calcareous clay, which is the same you’re going to find in Burgundy and the Rhone region, combined with a high elevation gave us a chance to live the dream.”
For many winery owners, living the dream would mean connecting with the largest nearby consumer wine market: in this case Southern California. “We know they have to drive through Paso to get to Napa,” Michael Mooney, co-owner of 1,300-case Chateau Margene outside Creston, Calif., said of Southern California’s wine-drinking population.
Daou welcomed the chance to point out differences between Napa Cabernet and the same varietal grown in Paso Robles. “We’re not trying to taste like Napa,” he said. “Ten years from now in Paso Robles I would like to see really high quality vineyards. I would like to see a change in perception in the market, where Paso has the perception for high-quality, distinct classical Cabernets.”
For his part, Daou would like to produce complex wines with more minerality. “Paso has established itself as having affordable Cabernet with a lot of potential, but I think it’s time to go the other way” with high-end offerings, he said.
Growing in Paso
The mild climate in Paso Robles allows growers to ripen fruit with little interference from the elements. “What we found in Creston is that we can control the viticulture, canopy management, watering,” said Mooney, who uses deficit irrigation and shoot thinning to grow smaller berries with concentrated flavors.
However growers in some areas of San Luis Obispo County may have challenges ahead. In August 2013 the county’s Board of Supervisors enacted a ban on new water use (including the planting of grapevines) within the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. (See “Digging Into Groundwater in Paso Vineyards
Many vineyard owners were quick to specify that their properties are outside the protected basin area. Still, grapegrower David Parrish of Parrish Family Vineyard
said that water would be his top priority if he were looking for vineyard property in the Paso Robles AVA.
“Water would be No. 1, and I’d make sure I had an area that had enough growing degree days,” said Parrish, whose grandfather planted 740 acres of grapes in Atascadero, Calif., about 13 miles south of Paso Robles.
For years the amount of water and growing degree-days for the region have been split into two distinct areas: east and west, referring to vineyard locations on the east or west side of Highway 101. The west side is known for smaller operations with a cool growing climate. The east side, with its lower elevation farther from the coastal influence, is known for a higher number of growing degree-days. This side is hampered by the region’s scarcity of water.
The days of east vs. west Paso may be drawing to a close—the conversation “needs to go away,” according to Mooney—as 11 subappellations come closer to TTB approval. (See “Paso Winegrowers Back on TTB Track
The move, heralded by some, has others worried. “Paso Robles is not far enough down the road from a media standpoint to start breaking it down into smaller pieces,” Mooney said. “For me, let’s spread the word about Paso Robles.”