In 1996, during my first meeting with Gary Eberle at his Paso winery, we tasted through an impressive lineup of California cabernets that included his flagship cab. He said candidly that he didn’t like the way critics rated wines. I had just left my job at Wine Spectator magazine as the tasting coordinator who set up the blind tastings for Spectator’s wine critics. I explained that we thought it was fair to judge the wines among their peers in a blind tasting. But Eberle believed Paso cabernets should be mixed among cabernets from Napa, Sonoma, and other appellations in California to be judged more fairly. I know from years of experience that’s true: Wine competition judges and critics alike typically show their prejudice when they know the appellation, even if they don’t know the brand name.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- CALLING ALL CABS : These are just some of the wines that will be featured at the Cabs of Distinction Event in Paso Robles on April 26 and 27.
Seventeen years later, Robert Hall winemaker Don Brady pointed out that nothing has changed. That’s unbelievable.
“The standard critic’s way of tasting is unfair, and our wines should be tasted in the mix just like they’re sold in the marketplace,” Brady stated genially.
Rather than compare Paso to Paso, winemakers like Eberle and Brady ask that critics or judges compare their wines to Napa Valley’s.
“There are a lot of preconceptions about Paso Robles, and that means we have more work to do,” Brady noted. “Yes, we have warm areas and we have cool areas. The untold story is the diversity that’s here.”
Consumers, and even some winemakers from other regions, disparage Paso Robles as too hot. But few outsiders understand the diurnal temperature drop of 50 degrees that takes place every afternoon, even in the warmest summers. Besides that, the temperature varies tremendously in Paso’s myriad vineyard sites. Over the past decade, Paso has received glowing press coverage, and its wine festivals attract thousands annually. The wine critics, however, have favored Rhone producers with the highest scores. Now, Paso’s cabernet producers are working together to prove their wines can stand beside the world’s greatest cabernets and cabernet blends.
“Zinfandel and Rhone wines are great grown here. But I’ve always believed that cabernet sauvignon is the No. 1 grape,” Eberle said.
The visionary who always favors cabernet was also the first to plant syrah on the Central Coast. Eberle has every cabernet he’s made since 1976 in his cellar, most of it in large-format bottles (magnums and larger). During a conversation with another cabernet advocate, winemaker Daniel Daou of Daou Vineyards, he noted that Paso Robles’ largest vineyard acreage is cabernet sauvignon.
A visit to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance webpage, pasowine.com, provided the stats; Paso Robles has 26,000 acres of vineyards: 38 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Merlot, 10 percent Syrah, and 9 percent Zinfandel. These are the most widely grown. In all of SLO County, there are only 29,000 acres total, but the cooler South County climate is best suited for pinot noir and chardonnay.
Seven North County cabernet specialists—Adelaida, Chateau Margene, Daou, Eberle, J. Lohr, Justin, and Vina Robles—have founded a think tank they call the Paso Robles CAB Collective, focused on educating the public. This collaborative group also hopes to encourage winemakers to produce better wines as they share information about ideal clones and improved growing conditions for crafting world-class cabernets.
The collective was instigated by Daou, who wanted to create a Cabernet Society: “I went to other cabernet winemakers, and their reaction was immediate,” Daou recalled. He soon had seven founding members and then other cabernet producers called hoping to join—among them Stephan Asseo, owner and winemaker at L’Aventure. Originally from Bordeaux, this innovative winemaker moved to Paso Robles for its potential to craft the world’s greatest blends. The group has grown to 20 members.
Daou modeled the inaugural event after tastings in Bordeaux, France, where consumers and media taste barrel samples of the previous harvest. He’s constantly asked why he chose Paso Robles over Napa or Sonoma valleys, and says it was because of Paso’s ability to achieve ripeness nearly every year.
“I hate to bash Napa, but every area struggles with achieving ripeness,” Daou explained. “In my vineyard, we have warm days but not overly warm. When people say hot to me I ask, do you mean hotter than Calistoga (upper Napa Valley) where temperatures average above 100 degrees? Many regions in Paso Robles are too cool for cabernet.
“There’s a revolution in Paso that’s happening, and we can give other regions a run for their money. We’re not anti-Napa or anti-Rhone,” he continued. “The consumer who buys a lot of wine is typically a cabernet collector. Most people go to Napa, where you’ll find a high number of higher-end cabernets than we have here. But when they start coming here, then we’ll see a huge shift. I want people to come taste these wines that are low yield, high end from amazing wineries; they’ll be blown away.”
Eberle stated: “The nice thing about Paso Robles is that we are a very cohesive group. The CAB Collective is about getting information to the public that they can get some spectacular Paso cabernets.”
Learn more about these inspired winemakers at their upcoming Cabs of Distinction Gala, a walk-around tasting focused on Paso Robles cabernets and Bordeaux blends on Saturday and Sunday, April 27 and 28, at Windfall Farms. Find it on Facebook at PasoRoblesCABCollective or pasoroblescab.com.
Eberle concluded with his usual mantra: “Drink Paso cabernet.”
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at email@example.com.