Jul 11, 2008


Whoa Whoa Whoa...where am I? Is this really a family-run Paso operation? I'm not talking about the production or the quality of the wine. I'm talking about the tasting room. This place is an architect's wet dream! A sweeping, gravity-flow facility with impressive roof lines and a very nice high-ceilinged tasting room. There's a reasonably sized oval tasting bar accompanied by some comfy chairs, a dining room table, and a great view of the winery. Overall, this tasting room is very impressive. At the same time I feel like Denner is a sign of what's in store for the Paso Robles of the future...a wine region filled with fancy, ultra-designed facilites that play in beautifully with the marketing plan of the company. In this case, a spare-no-expense for quality type of endeavor. There is nothing reserved about the Denner facility...it's very classily extravagant.

As it stands now, Paso is a great place to visit as a wine consumer. It's beautiful, not as crowded as Napa & Sonoma, the wines are generally less expensive than up north (though Robert Parker's generous scores are changing that for the chosen few), and they're of excellent quality. All this is absolutely true of the Paso Robles wine region...the dozens of small, hands-on vineyard operations give Paso that rural character. But more and more producers, like Denner, are really stepping up their game when it comes to facilities and ambiance. Paso is still young as a wine destination so it retains that country charm...it will be interesting to see if that is still the case in ten years with so many new, high-quality, higher production wineries moving in.

Like JUSTIN, everything at Denner is on point. The winery is a massive, state-of-the-art, gravity flow facility. The tasting room is big and comfortable with plenty of room to ponder the tastiness of the wines. The sweeping lines of the roof makes it clear that an architect was very involved in the design of the winery/tasting room building, which isn't a bad thing...just not typical Paso! The wines are delicious and the Denners are lovely people. But still, I feel a little dubious when I approach this building. If every new winery and tasting room is going to look like this...it just seems that the Paso we know today will disappear. Who knows, maybe when the landscaping grows up a little more I'll think of Denner as a particularly charming stop along Vineyard Drive. Or maybe this is one of the new facilites that marks the new Paso Robles...

To be honest, I feel like I'm being a bit hard on Denner. Perhaps I've made Denner a bit of a scape goat for a general trend for new wineries in Paso Robles. For the record, the wine is very nice...definitely worth buying (assuming you agree with my uneducated opinion!). And the few people I've encountered that work there are very proud. And rightfully so. The wine coming out of this architectural extravaganza is delicious. Plus, the Denners rent out winery space to small high-quality winemakers, and as I've said...and really the most important, Denner wine tastes good. So please go visit the facility and see what you think.

**For a Gary Vaynerchuk review of the Denner Theresa White Blend check out: http://tv.winelibrary.com/2008/06/10/89-point-wines-what-is-the-deal-episode-482/

**All photos come from the Denner website: www.dennervineyards.com**

Jul 8, 2008

Tobin James Revisited

For those of you who are members of Tobin James' epic wine club, the James Gang, I'm sure you're well versed in the traditions and rituals of Tobin James. But for those, like me, who are not lucky enough to be part of the James Gang, I think it might be time to consider joining. Why? you might ask...are the wines the most delicious on planet Earth? Is Tobin James a tiny producer that's hard to find? Are they trophy wines that will impress all my snobby friends? No. No. And no. The real reason to join the Tobin wine club is the parties. The over-the-top, giant, raging parties.

Since I moved to Paso I've heard legend of the parties Toby throws at the winery but I never really understood until I finally went to one. These parties are unbelievable. I was expecting maybe a couple hundred people to show up...no no, there were 1,500 people! I had imagined wood-fired pizza from the oven they have outside the tasting room...They were certainly using the outdoor pizza to its capacity but on top of that there were at least 4 different caterers serving portions of an array of courses from Kobe beef hot dogs to fresh oysters. Of course I expected there to be wine. I figured they would open the tasting room and then have a few servers walking around to refill glasses...the tasting room was indeed open plus a fleet of pourers that walked around topping off any glass that was less than full. And that was on top of the hundreds of wine bottles that were already open and placed all over the dozens of tables that had been set up beforehand.

So...there were guests, hundreds of them actually. There was food from all over the area. There was beer and wine. On top of that, there was also a reggae band, Resination (http://www.resinationmusic.com/) that got even the least outgoing party-goers grooving in their seats. Tobin James covers every base at their parties and that loud and upbeat feeling that you experience on a normal day in the tasting room is amplified to an extreme...a crazy, over-the-top, and really fun extreme.

If you ever get a chance, definitely go. And take a limo!!

**Images from Tobin James website, http://www.tobinjames.com/. And the band website for Resination, www.resinationmusic.com**

Jun 6, 2008

15 Degrees C

I realize 15 Degrees C is not a winery. It is in fact a retail store and wine bar next to Trader Joe's in Templeton. The times I've stopped by 15 Degrees I was actually en route Trader Joe's for the free samples but I was derailed by promises of wine and cheese!

The owners of 15 Degrees C are two women, both named Allison (but one goes by Ali), who have been involved with wine for about ten years. A main focus at 15 Degrees C (http://www.15degreescwines.com/) is international wines, which makes good sense...it's not exactly the most difficult thing to come across local wines in this area! Between the local restaurants' wine lists, the wineries themselves, the numerous local wine shops, and bars there is no shortage of opportunities to try and buy Central Coast wines.

As you can see, I really love the idea of this place. It's run by two young wine industry women, there's a good selection, and the Allisons have the knowledge and experience to recommend wines you'll probably like. There are interesting tasting events every few weeks as well as some wine club options. They also have some bar stools set up along one side of the store with all sorts of wines-by-the-glass available. You can also order cheese plates that come with bread from Hush Harbor (a great bakery/sandwich in Atascadero...if you haven't been the time has come to check it out!) plus olives, figs, that sort of thing. You can also order different gourmet salts and artisan olive oils. 15 Degrees C also has a nice selection of micro-brews and some sakes that you can drink at the bar if you're not in the mood to try some wines. Clearly, the Allisons have set up a well-thought out business with products that will appeal to almost anyone that goes in. There are even a few wine-accesory items in the front of the store if you want to browse a little.

All that said, I don't like this place. I've been in a number of times and my visits have just never left me loving the experience. The first time I went in I just wanted to check out the store so I was browsing for 10 or 15 minutes and I was completely ignored. A "hello" would have done the trick but there was no interaction other than a response to a question I asked after I'd been in there for 10 minutes. At that point the store had just opened so I thought, "this place is new, they're working on other stuff...no need to write it off just yet. Hopefully they'll catch on to the whole 'customer service' thing".

I've returned a number of times since then to try the different drinks they have available. The wines by the glass are delicious and varied but quite expensive. Now being expensive is not the end of the world...many of the wines are high-quality, limited production imports, which is lovely to have access to in this area. But the thing that really got me was the wines that were available that weren't on the menu. You can pay for either a taste or a glass of wine and at one point I tried a taste of one of the non-listed options and I was unknowingly drinking a $9 2 oz. pour. Am I taking crazy pills?...or is that a lot for a single taste of a wine? Maybe my miser ways are being exposed but two or three tastes later I was out $25 bucks. And with the addition of a plate of three cheeses the bill is up to about $40. And then it's time to eat dinner where I'll spend another bunch of dollars...

Other than the mediocre customer service I can't decide what it is about this place that puts me off but it never comes to mind as a place I'd like to go tonight. The customer service is reasonable if you're sitting at the bar but the Allisons pay much more attention to groups than to individuals. And in my experience, unless you ask, you will not get much help if you're browsing the store. Again, the products they carry are high-quality and interesting but there's just something missing.
**All photos are taken from the 15 Degrees C website: www.15degreescwines.com**

Apr 27, 2008


JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery is one of the staples of the Paso Robles wine country. It's been around since 1981 and there's always something new whether it's a restaurant, a hotel, or a wine. This is one of the few wineries that people have not only heard of before coming here, but they've actually purchased and tasted a bottle of JUSTIN wine. Despite being at the end of a long, windy 25 minute drive out Chimney Rock Road hordes of people visit the JUSTIN facilities 7 days a week.

For most who have tasted at JUSTIN, they've been to the building just past Carmody-McKnight. Usually you'll be greeted by one of the winery dogs, which by the way have their own section of the JUSTIN website (http://www.justinwine.com/). This building houses a reception desk for those staying at the JUST Inn (get it? It's an inn...at JUSTIN?!), Deborah's Room-the fancy restaurant that's open for lunch and dinner (reservations recommended of course), and the tasting room. For those of us who aren't in the wine club, we stand at one of the counters in the tasting room and taste a few of JUSTIN's standard wines. To taste their top-of-the-line wines you have to be part of the JUSTIN Wine Society. And, as a wine club member, not only can you taste the award-winning Justification and Isosceles blends, but you can do so in their wine-club-only tasting room (on the ground floor of the Isosceles Center), which is located in an entirely different building farther down Chimney Rock Road.

While you don't get the exclusive club-member service at the regular tasting room you will at least get a chance to taste the wines in a room with Medieval Times-esque decor (and who doesn't love faux-medieval decor?). The walls as you approach the counters shelves on either side house an array of JUSTIN wines. For some crazy reason I always imagine each section on those walls being marked with a triangular flag...you know those flags that hang off the horn of one of those breeches-clad medieval horn-blower guys as he announces the arrival of the king! I know that sounds crazy but that's just what I think of!! And even though there aren't any triangular-horn-flags there should be! Anyway, the borderline over-the-top design at JUSTIN (both imaginary and actual decor!) only gets crazier when you leave the regular tasting room and head back to the winery and and the club-member tasting room where you sit on couches and get served your flight.
Overall, I've had actively positive tasting experiences at JUSTIN. The main issue I've had is that it gets quite busy. Luckily there's a little picnic area out front (often where the dogs hang out) so you can step outside if there are too many people. The only other complaint I have is the fact that any old person can't walk in and taste everything. Hearing so much about wines I've never tasted in the tasting room gives me mixed feelings. Part of me wants access to those wines, which is motivation to join the wine club. But then I remember that those wines are $50 a bottle so the wine club would drive me even more quickly towards poverty!! Then the other part of me just feels annoyed...they want me to drive all the way out there? And pay to taste wines that aren't necessarily their best? Mixed feelings...that's what I have!!

Now this is the part I've been waiting to talk about! If you have a reason to go around to this other entrance you must do so (I think you can sign up for a winery tour that will get you back there). You'll enter through a massive and quite grandiose gate and then cruise down a quarter of a mile and then see some giant buildings. This might not happen to you, but these building made quite an impression on me! First, imagine a big top circus. Next, imagine an Italian villa. And finally, combine the big top circus with the Italian villa (you have to think of really classy versions of a circus and a villa) and add a bit of that Medieval Times feel and voila!-you have a perfect vision of the JUSTIN compound that houses the winery, event space, corporate offices, and, among other things, the club tasting room.

While I poke fun at the decorative choices at JUSTIN I'm always amazed at the thoroughness and quality of everything at the winery. From the facilites, to the staff, to the printed materials, everything at JUSTIN in done right. The proprietors, Debbie and Justin Baldwin, clearly have an incredible knack for marketing and it shows. These two seem to be more entrepeneurs than just winery owners. They keep adding new projects like the restaurant, the inn, and the second tasting room. While these are choices I probably wouldn't make if I had a wildly succesful wine label I can't help but respect their total dedication to both JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery and the overall development of the Paso Robles wine community. The Baldwins go above and beyond for their employees and they readily participate in local charities. Basically Debbie and Justin Baldwin are completely on top of their game. They do everything with an unfaltering level of quality that I really admire. The wines at JUSTIN are all high quality and the highest echelon of their offerings, Justification and Isosceles, have been recognized by critics for years. So if you couldn't tell from my effusive description of the couple behind JUSTIN, I think you have to go to JUSTIN at least once. If you go and don't love it that's fine...in fact that's the whole point of wine tasting!! But JUSTIN is definitely worth a stop.
**All photos from the JUSTIN website: http://www.justinwine.com/**

For a look at a couple of JUSTIN wines check out these videos from Gary Vaynerchuk at Wine Library TV.
(Just to show how on top of it the Baldwins are, after this video aired on Wine Library TV Debbie and Justin wrote Gary an email thanking him for his honest comments, which Gary read on a later show.)

Apr 17, 2008

Halter Ranch

Holy moly! Just driving up to Halter Ranch predisposes you to love whatever you're going to drink inside. This winery has such a great combination of setting and location...they could be pouring me Welch's and I wouldn't care as long as it was as sunny and idyllic as most Paso days! Lucky for us they're not pouring Welch's--in fact Halter Ranch has fallen in line with much of what makes a great wine from this area: estate red wine blends from the west side of Paso.

Halter Ranch is easy to spot because there's a giant beautiful Victorian house just off the road. Sadly, the tasting room isn't inside the restored house, it's just behind it in a smaller, new building. And apparently it's not a home-steading, pioneer family that lives in the old Victorian...it's owned by some rich Swiss guy that's rarely there! But I xenophobically choose to ignore that incongruous detail and focus on how gorgeous the setting is at Halter Ranch! I mean come on, not only is there an old Victorian house but there's a barn and a grain silo and rolling, oak-covered hillsides. Swiss guy or not I totally love this place!

The tasting room itself is small but not too small and there is a really nice outside patio area. Plus, they sell some little meat and cheese snacks, which saved me a trip back into town. But I think the main highlight for me was the French pourer working there! The wines were mostly estate Rhone blends so of course I was loving the descriptions of the French varietals in an authentic French accent! In fact, I think the accented introductions to the wines made me like them even more...if I'd tasted them for the first time in my house it just would not have been the same! But French-accent aside, these wines are definitely tasty and many of them are still at good value. There's no doubt that I'll be coming back to Halter Ranch and bringing friends. With nice wine, a convenient location (at the Adelaida Road/Vineyard Drive intersection), and an incredible setting I can't think of any reason to not recommend a trip out to Halter Ranch.

**All photos taken from the Halter Ranch website: www.halterranch.com** And I'd like to give the website two very enthusiastic thumbs up...everything I could have wanted was available to me, which actually makes this website useful (unlike many other winery websites!).

Apr 13, 2008

Edward Sellers

I recently went by Edward Sellers, which is right off the park downtown, and it was a totally odd wine tasting situation. It's next to a Subway! You know, the fast-food sandwich chain?...Weird right?!

Anyway, my excursion to Edward Sellers was my first foray into the downtown-tasting room phenomenon in Paso. There are over a dozen tasting rooms in Paso's city center around the park but it never occurs to me to check any of them out. I'm suspicious the circumstances that brought me to the Edward Sellers are somewhat representative of much of their clientele...I was meeting a friend for dinner at a downtown restaurant and of course the person I was meeting was running 20 minutes late. For fear of looking like a loser sitting alone at a table on a Friday night I took a little stroll and found myself outside of Edward Sellers!

Once I actually made it through the front doors I was pleasantly surprised by the decor and general ambiance. Whoever decorated did a very nice job plus there's a comfy chair, which I wish was more common in tasting rooms. As for the wines, again I found myself pleasantly surprised. The Edward Sellers tasting list is longer than I expected but not as crazy-huge as many others I've seen. The woman behind the bar was super-nice but it was still odd to just walk into a downtown-store front. The pourer did a great job in explaining the Edward Sellers story and the wines were quite tasty but after I left it doesn't stick out in my mind. I think not having the wine-tasting experience of driving along curvy roads and seeing the vines along the way makes it hard to think of this tasting room as a wine-tasting experience. It's more like a random bonus of strolling downtown for an hour.

As more tasting rooms open up downtown I will be very curious to see how business goes for them all. Are they catering to a post-all-day-tasting, pre-dinner, drunk crowd? Not that I don't love drunk, rich, LA people, but seriously, who will visit these tasting rooms? I'll also be curious to see if I can ever bridge that wine country gap myself. I actually quite enjoyed my stop at Edward Sellers and I hope many of you do the same. And despite my vehement pessimism, I do wish all those who dare pour downtown all the best.

**Pictures from Edward Sellers website (www.edwardsellers.com)

Peachy Canyon (the Winery, not the road)

Peachy Canyon Winery isn't quite old enough to be a pioneer in the Paso Robles industry but the Beckett family has definitely been around long enough to be more towards the old school producers of the area. The Becketts got their start in 1988 selling Zinfandel made from fruit purchased from the Benito Dusi vineyard, which is among the oldest vineyards on the central coast. Since then Peachy Canyon has maintained their focus on Zinfandel but today when you go to Peachy Canyon to taste there are 15 or 20 wines to choose from that range from Viognier to Syrah to 6 or 7 different Zin options.

The tasting room itself is a reasonably cute building but it didn't blow me away with history or personality. It's also not the building that's on their powder-blue label...word on the street is that the property on Peachy Canyon Road that is now home to Minassian-Young Vineyard is actually the house that's still pictured on the Peachy Canyon Winery label. (As an aside I can't believe they ever sold the Peachy Canyon Road property...it is incredibly beautiful and peaceful out there.)

The woman that poured for me at the Peachy Canyon tasting room was very nice but I didn't leave the tasting room feeling like I had a sense of the Peachy Canyon approach to winemaking. I also found the epic tasting menu overwhelming but I'm always partial to smaller, more focused tasting menus so feel free to ignore that comment...it's easy to taste a big variation in wines at one location--it's just not really my favorite approach in a tasting room. This is also a great tasting room to do some tchotchke shopping. If you're in the market for any Zinfandel-related-pun this is the place. "Forgive me for I have zinned"...that kind of thing. Overall, I think Peachy Canyon Winery is worthwhile if you want to taste zins. This might be a good spot to start a day of tasting because it's just a couple miles down 46 West from 101 so all the other 46 West tasting rooms are accesible. If you're in Paso for a relaxing and casual wine-tasting weekend Peachy Canyon is a great stop. This probably isn't where the die-hard wine-geeks hang out but I enjoyed myself overall.

**All pictures came from the Peachy Canyon Website (www.peachycanyon.com) except for the label, which came from the Peachy Canyon profile page on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website (www.pasowine.com)**