For many who associate California wines with the Napa and Sonoma Valleys Paso Robles, at an equal 200-mile distance from San Francisco and Los Angeles, might be a bit off the beaten path. Tablas Creek Vineyard, twenty-minutes up windy roads into the hills outside of town, is even further removed still but to taste some of the best expressions of Rhône grape varietals in California it is well worth the trip.
In 1985 Robert Haas, eminent wine importer and founder of Vineyard Brands, and the Perrin family, vintners of the renowned wines from storied Château de Beaucastel in the Rhône Valley’s Châteauneuf du Pape appellation, converted their longstanding friendship into a business partnership to found a winery venture. Four years later the partnership purchased a 120-acre property in the Las Tablas district west of Paso Robles because they were reminded of the limestone soils and pleasant climate of Châteauneuf du Pape.
Drawing from the viticulture traditions at Château de Beaucastel’s viticultural, a heritage that stretches back to the early 1500’s, the partnership brought grafts of the traditional Rhône varietals to plant on the California hills: Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Counoise for reds, and Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc for whites. This initial vine stock was the basis for the on-site nursery at Tablas Creek, the only of its kind in California, whose cuttings would in 1996 be made available to other vintners, contributing mightily to the growing prevalence and appreciation for Rhône varietals in California. Given its soil and climate, winemaking has been happening in the Paso Robles region for several decades. It is a curious fact that while most early vintners planted their grapes on the Eastern side of Highway 101, it has been the latecomers in the Western hills whose wines have tended to accumulate more accolades.
We visited Tablas Creek on a typical March day – cool and cloudy – in what has been an atypical winter of warmth and sun. The winery’s vineyard management has been certified organic since in 2003 and recently several blocks have been converted to a biodynamic system – a practice we had the delight of seeing firsthand as a herd of sheep munched down the winter grassed growing up amongst the vines.
Tracing the path of other wine country regions, Paso Robles has evolved from a sleepy agricultural town into a full-fledged tourist destination with ample hotel rooms and numerous intriguing restaurants. The wineries, Tablas Creek included, have also grown to meet the needs of these visitors. Having left behind its more rustic tasting facilities, Tablas Creek now boasts a stunning tasting room with enormous windows looking inwards to the winemaking and aging facilities.
We had the opportunity to taste a range of Tablas Creek wines, starting with their lower-priced Côtes de Tablas wines and moving up to their flagship Esprit de Beaucastel in white and red. All were delicious and provided good examples of the nuances created in blended wines as one moves up the price ladder. While the vast majority of the wines under the Tablas Creek Vineyard label are estate-grown, the Patelin de Tablas wine blends grapes from both on and off the estate to create an easy drinking and affordable table wine. Of course many of those off-estate vineyards were seeded with nursery stock from Tablas Creek so the winemaking remains in the family so to speak. Tablas Creek also offers limited bottlings of single varietal wines and was showcasing a very pleasing and crisp Vermentino the day we visited. (If ‘Vermentino’ doesn’t sound very French that is because it is not. It is the Italian name for a varietal also prevalent in the Rhône where it is known as Rolle.) We purchased a few bottles to enjoy during the rest of our trip up the coast to Pebble Beach – Verminitino that quenched during a home-cooked ham dinner and Patelin de Tablas that paired beautifully with a rich beef stew.
On a final fun note, after tasting at Tablas and checking in to our hotel, we visited Villa Creek Restaurant on the square in downtown Paso Robles for dinner where we were delighted to once again encounter the fabulous produce of (now) nearby Windrose Farm that we had enjoyed just the night before in Beverly Hills. While Windrose was celebrated for a week at Bouchon it is a constant fixture of the menu at Villa Creek, where the day’s best lettuces are showcased in salads and winter vegetables like potato and kale were found on numerous dishes. It was a good reminder that while Paso Robles may feel worlds away from the bustle of Los Angeles, it is only a few well-invested hours up the road.