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The Rhone Zone

A Handful of Renegade Winemakers Are Producing Syrahs and Viogniers and Other French Varietals That Just May Put Paso Robles on the International Map

June 23, 2002|HEATHER JOHN | Heather John is a senior Style editor at the magazine

NARROW COUNTRY ROADS SNAKE INTO THE WESTERN HILLS OF PASO ROBLES. Native oaks dripping with moss, fields of cattle, chalky soil, weathered barns and lupine-lined vineyards define this yet undiscovered, rugged wine region. But, unlike California wine landscapes in the Napa Valley, Santa Barbara or Sonoma, the scenery--much like its new breed of winemakers--does not lend itself to comparison. It's not Napa. It's not Bordeaux. It's not Tuscany. Paso Robles is its own terroir--distinctly raw and distinctly Californian.

To understand terroir--what the French define as the total natural environment that imparts defining characteristics to wines from a specific viticultural site--is to understand Paso Robles' emerging identity as a premier area for producing Rhone-style wines. The most common of these red varietals are Syrah (Shiraz, as it's known in Australia), Mourvedre and Grenache. White varieties include Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. For the past several decades, Paso Robles (or Paso, as the locals call it) has been known for its mass-produced, and often inferior, wines from the appellation's warmer eastern vineyards. But the cooler and rockier vineyards of the region's west side resemble the southern Rhone in France both in climate and soil. A handful of Rhone devotees want to change the area's wine-making image, and foreign producers are taking notice.

You might not expect much as you step through the door of winemaker Mat Garretson's humble aluminum-clad warehouse in an industrial park off Highway 46 East. To the left of the tasting bar, there's a shelf of T-shirts that bear the winery's label, Garretson Wine Co., along with the slogan "Well, we've never heard of you either." Garretson emerges from the cellar and says with a laugh, "Pretension is not part of my vocabulary." The 40-year-old vintner, known in wine circles as "Mr. Viognier," is one of the region's most enthusiastic proponents of Rhone varietals--a passion that predates his arrival on the Paso scene. As the owner of a wine store in Atlanta, he founded the Viognier Guild in 1992, which later became known as the Hospice du Rhone--an annual event now centered in Paso that draws some 160 producers and 4,000 wine lovers from around the globe each May.

In 1994, Garretson moved to California to work as director of sales and marketing at Eberle Winery, a producer of high-end Cabernet Sauvignon. Gary Eberle, while at Estrella River Winery, was one of the area's first vintners to experiment with a Syrah varietal, in 1978. "Gary Eberle knew my passion for Rhone wines, and he was open to exploring that avenue," he says. "By the time I left we were doing eight Rhone-style wines."

Garretson then found similar sensibilities at Wild Horse Winery, where he went to work with Ken Volk, forming the Equus label in 2000 to produce Viognier, Syrah, Roussane, Grenache and Mourvedre. For the last six years he also made wine under his own label at friends' facilities. Last year he left Wild Horse to start his own winery, devoted exclusively to Rhone varietals. He's currently producing 4,500 cases, most notably Viogniers, which have landed on the wine lists at such high-profile Los Angeles restaurants as Lucques, Campanile, Alex, Rockenwagner and Asia de Cuba. "The growth has been dramatic and continues to be," Garretson says. "People within the wine industry recognize that this isn't just a fad, and it's something Paso does very well."

Others are following suit. Today, 43 wineries are making Syrah and 23 are producing Viognier in the Paso Robles appellation. Of the 21 Rhone varieties, 12 are currently planted in the region. And while these plantings still cumulatively amount to less than 20% of Paso Robles fruit (the majority is still Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel respectively), acreage being planted with Syrah specifically is escalating faster than any other single variety--both in Paso Robles and throughout California.

"Syrah delivers what Merlot promised," says Bob Lindquist, owner and winemaker of Santa Barbara County's Qupe Wine Cellars. Lindquist has been making Syrah from Paso Robles fruit under the Qupe label since 1982. While others were stuck in the Merlot frenzy of the '90s, Lindquist saw the region's potential for Rhone-style wines. "Merlot was supposed to be the softer, fruitier version of Cabernet that was more approachable, and many Merlots didn't turn out to be that way, but Syrah really is. It's a big, rich wine that can go with the same foods that Cabernet does, but you don't have to age it forever to get it right."

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