I found Paso more open than most wine regions in America.
I found some wines that I can drink at dinner.
I came away from the Grand Tasting of the Hospices du Rhone --the Paso Robles- based festival that is one big, happy red-toothed stained orgy-- scratching my head at some of the contradictions I witnessed.
* One local winemaker told me that on a bad year you use LOTS of new wood and on a great year you use even MORE new wood. Laurent Combier from from Crozes-Hermitage said on a bad year you use NO new wood and on a great year you use NEW wood.
* I liked the basic Combier Crozes very much and couldn't drink his wood-cherried single vineyard from a good year, Clos de Grives.
* Most Paso winemakers said they came here for the limestone and calcareous soil. Paso is trying to get a reputation for syrah. The French winemakers said you have to be crazy to plant syrah on calcareous soil.
* The winemakers from Australia called their syrah elegant.
* Most winemakers here said they struggle to grow grapes ripe enough and keep alcohol levels within reason. (15 plus alcohols here are not uncommon). I could almost believe them. I almost felt their pain. That is, until I tasted the wines from Steve Edmunds.
Steve Edmunds has been making his wines under the Edmunds St. John label for over two decades. His wines have reasonable alcohol levels which hover at just over 14% and under. They are elegant and what's more, they are delicious. I had just tasted some super-ripe wines from Saxum (one day Jason Smith of Saxum will make wines I like. I feel it in my bones but right now they are super ripe and heavy with grape sugars minimally saved by aspirin minerality) and then I visited Steve.
I hadn't tasted Steve's wines in two years. But twenty years ago I liked his wines and today I still like his wines. I can't say that about any other wines in California (except maybe Calera). I came away with renewed respect for this man's talent. He picks early, governs over his wines wisely and has never bowed to the 'fashion' for oak and super-ripeness.
I was happily tasting at his booth. The 2001 Los Robles was fragrant and mineraly-- truly Rhone-like. Then there was the Basseti San Luis Obispo Syrah (OK, it's cooler there than in Paso Robles. Yes. Granted.). It was all prune and heat and olive but with well-knit structure and tannin. Good and healthy tannin. Not every one shares my love of tannin, like the guy tasting next to me. He asked Steve, is this ever going to open up?
It was hard not to chime in. But, I didn't. I didn't perceive the wine as closed. Oh yeah, it would evolve, wines with structure and tannin evolve. That's a good thing. I look forward to those kinds of experiences. But the man (who admited to being 52) said he didn't have time to buy a wine that needed more years to hit its peak of enjoyment. I wanted to say, and you sir, you are the kind of man (or mouse?) that micro ox was made for.
But, he greedily moved on to taste the overblown Turley wines before I had the chance. And it just as well. Somtimes I just have to hang it up.
But, in the end? Paso might have something. The only thing they have working against them is their youth and often a lack of reverence for the wine Gods of France. One winemaker who wants to make glorious pinot (and doesn't) said proudly that he visited France, once. "Honey, was that ten year ago?"