Tectonic plates and the Ring of Fire. This is what I think of every time I come to Paso Robles. And I make sure I have a full tank of gas.
What am I talking about? Just that California is a hotbed of geothermal and seismic activity, and Paso Robles is very active in both regards.
Case in point: In 2003, an earthquake rocked the Paso Robles area, causing two deaths and a lot of spilt wine at the local wineries. Oh, and a big sinkhole, the size of a bus, opened up in the parking lot behind the City Library on the main square downtown. Looking down into this pit, one could see a swirling hot spring full of sulfurous, heated water. It’s a little disconcerting, knowing that a hot spring is directly connected to a dome of lava some unspecified distance below where you are standing.
Do you think that a volcano going off underfoot is an improbable occurrence? In 1943, a farmer in Mexico was plowing his field, when the ground started to tremble and become quite warm. A volcano popped up right then and there, eventually rising to a height of some 2,000 feet.
And let’s not forget what Mt. St. Helens did in 1980, killing more than 30 people.
It can happen.
So, in Paso Robles, I tread lightly.
Trouble is, the area produces some darn good wines. Especially big, lusty reds. This is why we traveled the 60 miles from our Nipomo home base today – in search of Big Red.
Many wineries in the area already have earned world-wide acclaim for their efforts. Saxum, L’Aventure, Villa Creek, Eberle, Justin, Turley and others have been awarded numerous gold medals in prestigious competitions, along with hundreds of 90-plus scores from top wine critics.
The varietals most awarded are Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. But today, I was looking for a newly emerging star – Petite Sirah.
Mary and I started our Paso Robles adventure at Christian Lazo Winery, located on dirt roads some 10 miles north of the town square. There in the rolling hills, it can get quite warm in the summer, often topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily for the grapes, the coastal influence cools things off at night. The daily temperature swings can be 40 degrees or more.
We were greeted at the winery by Guadalupe Lazo (above), co-owner with husband Steve Christian. Married 22 years, they are teachers by trade. Steve, however, is a farmer at heart. Ten years ago, he had the opportunity to buy vineyard land in Paso Robles and snapped it up. He has since added two other parcels, and has 25 acres of grapes planted to Zinfandel, Barbera and Petite Sirah.
Much of the grape crop is sold to famous wineries like Eberle and Rosenblum. But Steve always wanted to make wine himself. With a small winery facility that is attached to a house in the middle of his vineyards, he is able to craft 500 to 600 cases per year.
It is a true family affair. Son Jacob, when only 2-and-a-half, drew a picture that became the label for the wine. Guadalupe handles all of the day-to-day contacts and orders through a website. And they all work in the vineyards. “People may not realize how much work goes into bringing a bottle of wine to their table,” Guadalupe noted.
Each year, the family celebrates harvest with a party for members of their wine club. This year, the party is slated for October 6.
Tasting through their current releases, I sensed a warmth in them that spoke to the passion they have for their vineyards and their wines. Reviews from our tasting can be found here. For more information about the winery, visit their website.
After our visit with Guadalupe, we headed back to Paso Robles to meet up and have lunch with winemaker Aaron Jackson (shown below), owner of Aaron Wines. Our first restaurant choice, Villa Creek, was closed, so we instead went to Artisan. The food here was outstanding. I heartily recommend this dining establishment to anyone.
Aaron is the epitome of one smitten by the call of Bacchus. Just 28, he has been involved in winemaking for a decade now. Although born in Southern California, his heritage is Hawaiian. As you might expect, he loves to surf, and loves anything ocean-related. His wine label depicts a simple wave, which also has the shape of an A… for Aaron, of course.
A world-traveler, Aaron completed his formal training in enology at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.
Amiable and fast-talking, Aaron is an unabashed promoter of Petite Sirah. It is the only wine he makes. “I am convinced that the Paso Robles growing region is perfect for producing the best Petite Sirah in the United States, if not the world,” he says. “It wasn’t long ago that only 45 wineries were growing the grape. There are now about 800. Unlike the harsh, angular, tannic versions of the past, today we can produce rich, concentrated wines that have rounded, smooth tannins and are great complements to red meats.”
At present, Aaron produces a few hundred cases of Petite Sirah, and a fun Petite Sirah-and-Zinfandel blend. As good as the 2009 vintage is, watch out for the 2010. The barrel sample promises we tasted promises to be even better. You can access my tasting notes here.
Aaron’s website is as edgy as he is, and his blog is full of droll ruminations and winemaker insights. His wines aren’t easy to find; direct purchase is the best way: http://www.aaronwines.com/