Last summer, I had the opportunity to meet three accomplished winemakers from Paso Robles, the California wine region that is about two hours north of Santa Barbara and two hours south of Monterey.
The pitch from the PR team was about how Paso stands out for its camaraderie and collaboration among winemakers and how that allows creativity and inspiration to thrive – leading to unique wines. And you know what? The Zoom tasting with Eric Jensen of Booker Wines, Rich Hartenberger of Midnight Cellars and Chloé Asseo-Fabre of L’Aventure Winery brought that entire pitch to life in the most charming and personable way.
The reason I do this blog is because of my endless curiosity about … what’s in that bottle… and because I like to share new finds that I think you might like to discover. So come with me and get to know these fantastic producers from a region that is really stepping up when it comes to quality and value.
About Paso Robles Wine Country
- Paso Robles is known for non-traditional blends. You’ll find red blends made with Cabernet Sauvignon (more than 50 percent of the area is planted to Cab) alongside Petit Verdot, Syrah, Petite Sirah – all sorts of crazy-delicious mash-ups. There are white blends made with Viognier, Chardonnay and Marsanne (wha?!) These winemakers don’t feel constrained by tradition or rules. Their main goal is to make delicious wines, no matter what the grapes are, helping each other out along the way.
- Paso has the largest diurnal shift (that’s the swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures) of all of California’s wine regions. Daytime temps in the summer range from 85-100 Fahrenheit while nighttime lows can dip to 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Grapevines love this, because the berries can soak up all that heat and sun during the day for perfect ripening, and then they chill down at night, keeping the growing pace just about perfect.
- The Paso Robes AVA was established in 1983 with 17 wineries and 5,000 vineyard acres. Today: Paso Robles has roughly the same acreage planted as Napa Valley (40,000 acres), and 200 wineries (compared to Napa Valley’s 375).
- Zinfandel was the first wine grape planted in the area in the 1880s and there is still plenty of delicious Zin here!
- The area was named Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year in 2013, and Wine Spectator’s #1 wine of 2010 was Saxum Vineyard’s James Berry Vineyard 2007.
Why Should You Care? When you’re shopping for wine, whether in a ginormous supermarket or liquor store or a neighborhood wine shop, it’s fun to get to know wines from different areas. Wine is hard to know about and most people pick a bottle based on a label that appeals to them – which is fine – but the more you know, the more fun your wine adventures can be! Alright, let’s taste!
Midnight Cellars 2020 Aurora White Blend ($34) Ooh-wee, I knew I would like this white blend made from 43 percent Grenache Blanc, 28 percent Viognier, 15 percent Roussanne and 14 percent Picpoul Blanc. (It had me at Viognier and Roussanne, two of my favorite French grapes that hail from the Northern Rhône Valley). It’s lush and luxurious with a satiny texture and an explosion of peachy-melony delights on the palate.
Owner and winemaker Rich Hartenberger and his wife drove from Chicago to California in 1995 and planted their first vineyard, after he suggested to his then-retiring father that he should open a winery. Shazam! Today, Midnight Cellars makes four whites and a ton of reds. When I asked how the name came to be, Rich said he wanted a name that was “dark and mysterious,” and Midnight Cellars stuck! Today they have a whole astrological theme to their names, which adds a fun element of these high-quality, well-made delicious wines.
L’Aventure 2017 Estate Cuvée ($108) This big beauty is a full-bodied, powerful red blend made from 49 percent Syrah, 30 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 21 percent Petit Syrah. This non-traditional mash-up of three big French varietals makes for a huge, generous wine that keeps unfolding, giving so many layers of complexity. You’re going to find ripe red and purple fruit (black cherries, plums, prunes), black tea and a spice cupboard, too (that’s the Syrah talking). This wine is both fresh and bright and dark and brooding at the same time. I tasted it from Coravin so as to keep the bottle corked so I can re-taste in about a year. It begs for braised short ribs or lamb chops.
The Asseo family came to California from Bordeaux in 1998, after they’d been making wine in Bordeaux for 15 years. Stephane Asseo wanted more freedom in winemaking. Consider the reaction from the Bordelais at the notion of blending Syrah with Cab and Petit Verdot: “Non, non et non!” The family immediately fell in love with the terroir of Paso Robles, and embarked on a new “l’aventure” in winemaking.
Booker Wines 2019 My Favorite Neighbor Red Blend ($50) Here we have another innovative combo of grapes, including 77 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 11 percent Petit Verdot, 8 percent Petite Syrah, 3 percent Syrah and 1 percent Malbec. This is another big wine that will get better and better in the bottle over time. It’s heavy on the Cab – so blackberry, cherry, plum, prune, dried fig, some coffee – and comes with huge, luxurious tannins (that will calm down with time) balanced with excellent acidity.
And you know what’s cool? It’s an homage to Stephane Asseo – hence the name! How’s that for tasting the neighborly feel that Paso is known for ( and yes I know I just ended a sentence in a preposition, except not really because of this parenthetical add-on!).
Eric Jensen named his winery after two orphan brothers – Claude and Dick Booker – who bought the land in the late 1920’s and became the area’s “favorite sons” for their humanitarian and philanthropic practices – which included helping a lot of neighbors in need. God, this whole theme just keeps coming to life in so many layers – I love it!
Anywho, back to Eric and Lisa Jensen, who bought 100 acres of the property in 2001. It is certified organic and planted with mostly French varietals. Wines are made in small lots and the only way to get most of them is through the winery’s wine club (see link below). The fact that Constellation just invested in Booker Vineyard speaks volumes about the quality that’s going on here.
Want to know more about the region and these wineries? Here you go!
I want to thank the winemakers and the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance for their time and the sample bottles. It’s always the best scenario when you can talk to a winemaker while tasting their wines! Cheers!