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Paso Robles' Rhone Zone

This small Rhone wine producer isn't on the map--yet

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During my first visit to Michael Gill Cellars on Peachy Canyon Road in Paso Robles, I was impressed by the beautiful, picture-perfect estate. It’s exactly like the photos you see in glossy wine country promos inviting you to Napa Valley. Only now, Paso Robles is regularly fawned over by the national media who have dubbed it “the new Napa Valley.” This glamorous estate not only offers fine wines, pet people love the fact they can bring their dog inside.

The tasting room features a few of Dr. Gill’s hunting trophies, one an impressive polar bear that brought to mind Jimmy Buffet’s lyrics for “God’s Own Drunk:” “And that’s when I first saw the bear. He was a Kodiak lookin’ fella, ’bout 19 feet tall.”

Michael Gill, DDS, recalled the story of a trip to an Alaskan hunting lodge when this polar bear approached them in search of a meal. It happened during a tremendous snow storm with little visibility, so it was a good thing Gill and the lodge staff were prepared. During my visit to his tasting room, I couldn’t help chuckling over a visiting couple’s spaniel that suddenly spotted the polar bear hovering over an adult wolf. The dog crouched and quickly retreated backward, more fearful of the wolf than it was of the gigantic bear.

While the trophies make the tasting room unique, I noticed that all of the people who happened upon the new tasting room bought their favorite wines among the lineup of four Rhone varieties to take home. What more could any producer wish for than a sales record like that?

“We aren’t on any maps yet,” Gill noted, “but we have people coming in solely by word of mouth.”

Michael Gill Cellars is a small, family-operated winery that features Rhone wine varieties grown in the estate vineyard on 12 acres of very high elevation, low-yielding vines. The dentist has had his family practice in Bakersfield for 38 years. In 1977, he bought the estate—notably two decades before the wine business boom in Paso Robles. Gill didn’t begin planting winegrapes until the late ’90s when, thanks to the advice of his neighbor Robert Nadeau of Nadeau Family Vintners on Peachy Canyon Road, he learned his property was prime land for growing Rhone varieties. Nadeau had just become a bonded winery, and he invited Gill to visit and taste his wines. Nadeau advised Gill on what to plant and helped him stake out rows for grapevines. Gill started out only growing grapes he sold to other winemakers.

Gill recalled: “2001 was my first harvest, and Robert took all of the grapes. During the 2002 harvest, I had quite a bit more grapes, which I sold to Mat Garretson (of the defunct Garretson Wine Co.) and Robert. By 2003 we had a huge crop, which I sold primarily to Augie Hug of Hug Cellars and Matt Garretson.”

Although he wanted to make wines, he felt it was a matter of timing and waiting until everything fit perfectly. When he was ready make wines under his own label, he chose winemaker Signe Zoller of Paso Robles (formerly at Cambria and Meridian wineries, Zoller has consulted for many vintners during her 28 years of making wines).

“Signe took the first Grenache harvested from my vineyard and won a platinum medal for it,” Gill said.

Gill’s first release was the Michael Gill Cellars 2009 Viognier Shelley’s Surprise, of which there’s very little available at his tasting room when they open for guests on weekends. The Viognier was made, bottled, and labeled before Gill introduced it to Shelley for the first time—and then he proposed. Shelley said yes—no surprise there!—and she’s an active partner in running the winery. An elegant Viognier, it has an array of fresh fruit flavors highlighted with tropical nuances, minerals, and bright notes of lime.

For the 2009 vintage, Gill hired winemaker Amy Butler of Ranchero Cellars to make his estate Viognier. It’s a classic Viognier that’s quite nicely balanced with ripe flavors and aromas of summery stone fruits nicely offset by bright citrus notes and hints of vanilla. During Hospice du Rhone, he met winemaker Stillman Brown, owner of Stillman and Red Zeppelin brands, who is now the consulting winemaker for Michael Gill Cellars. Brown bottled (but didn’t make) the 2008 Syrah Double Rings and the 2009 Syrah Black Tie Cellars, both full-bodied, rich, and ripe wines grown on the estate. Although they are typical of their peers in Paso’s western region with higher alcohol levels, both wines are well balanced and neither is obviously “hot” on the palate.

Brown told me, “I met Michael four years ago when I won the Syrah Shootout (an annual competition among Rhone winemakers) with Clone 877.”

Brown labeled it with the Elvis Died for Your Sins artwork. He advised Gill to graft some of his Grenache vines with Alicante Bouschet.

“The magic of Alicante Bouschet is that it’s like turbo-charged Grenache,” explained Brown, who plans to add it to Syrah.

Unlike those who make Syrah in the Northern Rhone style, Brown noted that Viognier adds aroma but reduces the concentration on the palate.

“This vineyard, among those at the highest elevations, produces only one bottle of wine per vine and even less of Tempranillo and Grenache,” he said.

Gill concluded: “When I bought this land, there were only 17,000 people here. Now the sign says there are 30,000 people. We have it all in Paso Robles: great dining and once-in-a-lifetime experiences like hot air balloons and limo tours of wine country. There are so many things to do!”

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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