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Paso Robles: Unsung King of Cab


PASO ROBLES — "What do we have to do?," pleads a frustrated Gary Eberle, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound former tackle at Penn State.

The problem is Cabernet Sauvignon--that of his own Eberle Winery and of his neighbor's vineyards in the Central Coast area around Paso Robles. Despite their quality--every year they bring home medals from competitions--they have so far failed to capture the attention of most wine lovers.

And Eberle wonders whether they ever will.

"After I had been making wine here for a while (at nearby Estrella River Winery), I even thought about moving to the Napa Valley to make Cabernet," he says. "But then I asked myself: 'Where can you get the best Cabernet grapes in California?' And the answer was: 'Right here.' "

So he stayed, opened his own Eberle Winery, and today, nine years after its founding, is still on the verge of tearing his hair out. His wines have been very good, some exceptional, and he's won his fair share of gold medals at major wine competitions.

"But it doesn't say 'Napa Valley' on it," he says with a shrug. "People see Paso Robles and ask 'Where's that? Mexico?' "

Hardly. Paso Robles is a warmish region north of Santa Barbara that has soil and climate perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon. Most years, the grapes ripen as perfectly as anywhere in California. In major wine judgings last year, Paso Robles Cabernets finished first, second and fifth in the state in total points based on medals won, as ranked by the book "California Wine Winners" (Varietal Fair Press: $6.95; (707) 874-3105).

The top-scoring wine in that evaluation was J. Lohr Winery's "Seven Oaks" Cabernet ($12.50), with four gold medals and eight medals overall. The wine was made from grapes growing not far from the second-place wine, 1987 Creston Manor Vineyards and Winery ($10), which won three golds and three silvers. The fifth-place wine, 1988 Meridian Cellars ($11.50), is one of the top wines in the state in terms of quality for the dollar.

In fact, a few weeks ago, Eberle decided to see how a group of experts would rank his 1982 and 1987 Cabernets against the best Bordeaux he could find. The tasting was interesting: Among the 1982s, the Eberle finished well down the list. Most of the judges felt the 1982 Bordeaux were pretty lackluster and the Eberle was just so-so. (The 1982 Chateau Cheval-Blanc was at the top on my score card.)

However, in the tasting of 1987s (admittedly, a mediocre vintage in Bordeaux), the Eberle finished third behind Chateau Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild--but ahead of Latour, Cheval-Blanc and Lafite. The intriguing spice aroma and deep, ripe flavors of the Eberle were appealing. And at its price, $15, it's a decided value compared with the Bordeaux, which retail for three to four times that.

To further test the Paso Robles Cabernets, I did an informal blind tasting of two dozen of them. The '87 Eberle again was judged a very good wine--but there were so many fine wines in the tasting that it was hard to find a bad one. Clearly, Eberle has strong competition right in his own back yard.

The top-scoring wines on my score card were the 1987 and 1988 J. Lohr "Seven Oaks" ($12.50), 1988 Meridian and 1987 Creston Manor "Winemaker's Selection" ($17.50).

The wines from the Seven Oaks vineyard were fleshy and round, fairly oaky and quite soft, but with ample aging potential. The Meridian is a true bargain, with deep cassis and cedar scents and a luscious, chocolate-like aftertaste--a wine that could sell for much more. The Creston Manor is more classic in structure, with wonderful herbal nuances intertwined around cherries and other complex elements.

In the second tier were the 1987 Eberle, 1988 Justin Vineyards and Winery ($18), 1988 Mission View Estate ($10) and 1989 Castoro Cellars ($11). The Eberle and Justin wines seemed to need a few years of aging because of their structure, and both are excellent. Castoro's wonderful 1988 Cabernet ($9) is still available on some store shelves, another bargain in top-flight Cabernet.

On another front, Paso Robles also may be the perfect home for Italian varieties. Martin Brothers Winery, run by the innovative Nick and Tom Martin, has planted Sangiovese, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo. Another variety that seems to do well in Paso Robles is Zinfandel, especially those produced by Wild Horse Winery, Castoro Cellars and Peachy CanyonWinery, as well as Eberle.

Three years ago, Eberle would crisscross the country in his own Cessna 340 plane. He'd be on the road 180 days, shaking hands with potential buyers and preaching the gospel of Paso Robles.

Today, he says, his travel plans haven't changed, but sales are easier. "It used to be that 97 out of 100 people asked me, 'What part of the Napa Valley is Paso Robles in?' Now it's only 75 out of 100."

Wine of the Week

1988 Husch North Field Select ($18)-- For years, I felt Mendocino County would never move into the spotlight for its Cabernet Sauvignons. The area was too cool to ripen the fruit properly, resulting in a wine too herbal in nature.

But this Husch wine is another in a recent string that has persuaded me otherwise. The aroma is herbal all right, but perfectly balanced with elements of cedar and cherry. It has a taste that is lush and focused. The fruit is good, the weight of the wine perfect and the aftertaste is exactly what you'd want in a Cabernet--full but not oaky or clumsy with alcohol.

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