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)**

Apr 6, 2008

Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek is one of those wineries that everyone inevitably hears about in Paso, and I think that's for good reason. Many of the local wineries recommend a visit to Tablas Creek and after a quick google-ing it's clear that not only is Tablas Creek one of the older establishments in the area, but the Haas family plays a substantial role in the local wine industry. Robert Haas (the boss man) was honored in 2007 by the local Wine Country Alliance (www.pasowine.com) as the Paso Robles Wine Person of the Year and the honor of the American Wine Blog of the Year was recently bestowed upon Jason Haas, Robert Haas's son. As a wannabe wine blogger myself I think the Tablas blog (tablascreek.typepad.com) is a nice way to give a more personal touch to the Tablas Creek website. And as a side note, I was very excited to learn of the American Wine Blog Awards in the first place and maybe someday I will be the bestowed upon!

Anyway, the Tablas Creek tasting room is attached to the winery in the far reaches of Adelaida Road. It's a bit of a drive to find the building but once you're out there it's hard to miss. The tasting room itself is mostly made up of bartops with nice-enough pourers. I must admit I wasn't bowled over by the effusive friendliness of the lady that helped me but she was very knowledgeable and she recommended I take the tour, which I really enjoyed. The tour was low-key but informational, the highlights being the nursery and the barrel room. I also found the tour was a great way to hear more about the Tablas Creek story, which is a tale of a French-American bond, 3 years of quarantined grapevines, organic farming practices, and award-winning Paso Robles wines. The short version of the story goes something like this: the Perrin family from France in conjunction with the Haas family from the U.S. decided to transplant French grapevines in a new terroir to see what kinds of wines those vines would produce in a different place. To quell the agricultural-bureaucratic establishment in the U.S. (aka the USDA) the vines were quarantined for three years to ensure that they would not bring any evil French-ness across our borders! The vines were finally planted about 1993 and since then the Tablas Creek vines have produced not only the fruit for Tablas Creek but the budwood has been sold throughout California.

Overall I really enjoy visiting Tablas Creek. The wines are delicious and this place is a staple of the Paso wine scene. They've got a great story and between the website, the blog, the tasting room staff, and the tour, there's a wealth of good information about Tablas Creek wines. My only complaint is the sometimes-prickly disposition of the pourers...maybe something weird was happening on the days I visited but the energy-level wasn't super high. But minor-prickliness aside, Tablas is worth a stop and a great place to learn about one of the earlier Paso wineries.

As always, all photos were taken from the official Tablas Creek website: www.tablascreek.com