Monday, August 24, 2015

Dichotomy: J Lohr Vineyards and Parrish Family Vineyards

Dichotomy:  “Division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups,” a contradiction, opposites paired together.  Life is filled with these.  We find them everywhere:  in nature, in people, in business…and yes, in wine. 

I recently wrote of the wine region of Paso Robles and how much I enjoyed the area.  After leaving, I thought back on my visit and the word “dichotomy” popped in my head.  I chuckled at two of the most positive experiences I had there; both so memorable and meaningful, yet both so different from one another. 

The first is a large producer making literally millions of cases of wine; the other, an artisanal producer making just over a thousand cases.  Two wineries, seemingly so contradictory on the surface, but with so many similarities when directly compared.  These two examples of dichotomy at its finest showcase some of Paso Robles’ finest wines.

J Lohr Vineyards and Wines
As a young boy growing up on a farm in rural South Dakota, Jerry Lohr of J Lohr Vineyards did not necessarily dream about being a winemaker.  Even when he went college, growing grapes was not what he imagined himself doing.  After a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering took Jerry to a master’s degree and a PhD. from Stanford University in California, Jerry went in to the United States Air Force and then took a job with NASA. Though Jerry had a rural upbringing, his passion for wine was fed by his time in California.  He started to search the state for what he considered perfect land to grow grapes and make wines that would show a sense of place. 

Instead of going to Napa like many others were in the late 1960s, he went south to Arroyo Seco, in Monterey County, a little-known region for growing grapes.  His first vineyard was planted there in 1971; by 1987 his wine business was so successful he expanded even further south to Paso Robles, another basically-unknown region for wine. (Read the full story of Jerry Lohr's path to winemaking and the values he expresses through his business.)

J Lohr Vineyards' Paso Robles tasting room and production facilities.
Today, over forty years after the first fateful vintage, J Lohr Vineyards produces about two million cases of wine a year between its two winemaking facilities:  the original in San Jose, now used for the production of white wines, and the Paso location, now used for the production of red wines. 

Most wine drinkers have probably seen J Lohr wines on a liquor store shelf at some point. These are the winery’s widely-distributed Estate wines, found in all fifty states and 27 total countries.  These Estate wines make up the bulk of production, with Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon accounting for one million cases. 

Seven Oaks Vineyard--no matter what direction one looks, seven oaks are seen.
The second J Lohr label is the Vineyard series, all with black and gold markings; these have a smaller production than the Estate wines. The third and fourth labels produced by J Lohr are very limited productions, with first release solely to wine club members and then sold only in the two tasting room locations.  These are the Gesture—named for the fact that these special wines are a “gesture” to wine club members who continue to support J Lohr Vineyards—and Cuvee—blends based on the three Bordeaux areas:  Pomerol, Pauillac, and Saint Emilion—lines. 

It may seem counterintuitive to have a winery that makes one million cases of a single wine at the same time it makes small-lot wines only available at the tasting rooms.  This is possible because at J Lohr Vineyards, there is a winery within a winery, a small production area within the larger one.  This special space makes J Lohr Vineyards capable of multiple styles of wines.

Small winery within the larger winery.
J Lohr Spotlight Wines
2013 Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon—I have long loved this wine as an exceptional cab for its price point.  After my tour at J Lohr, I have even more respect for it.  All grapes are estate grown just across the road from the Paso Robles facility.  The barely-rolling hills of the Seven Oaks Vineyard—only disrupted by the seven oak trees scattered between the vines—allow the fruit to be machine harvested.  Its close access to the production facility is another bonus.  All of these steps keep costs low so that money can be used later when aging the wine.  Every single drop of Seven Oaks Cabernet is aged in French oak barrels, no oak chips or cheap techniques here.  Then after barrel aging, wines go through a series of blending into different sized stainless tanks—from quite small to very large, 167,000 gallons large—to ensure consistency throughout all the bottles. 
From oak barrels...
To smaller tanks...

To larger tanks for blending and consistency.

2012 Arroyo Vista Chardonnay—sourced from the grapes in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey in the original area Jerry Lohr planted, this is an old-world style chard.  Yes, there is a hint of butter essence, but stone fruit and floral are the strongest characteristics of the wine.  Allowed to go through malolactic fermentation, this wine is silky smooth on the palate.

2013 Tower Road Petite Sirah—known as the durif grape in France, where it is incredibly prone to mildew and rot, petite sirah grows wonderfully in Paso Robles due to the long dry season from June to October.  This is another very popular J Lohr wine; so popular the 2013 was already released because the 2012 sold out.  Red stone fruits and dried herbs on the nose and palate with beautifully soft tannins, this is a perfect example of what California petite sirah can be. 

Parrish Family Vineyards
Winemaker David Parrish has deep roots in the Paso Robles area through his grandpa, an early resident of Atascadero, a small town about half an hour from the actual town of Paso Robles.  David’s grandfather was proud owner of the first post office box in Atascadero and lived in the house that is now the Atascadero museum.  In 1927, he owned 540 acres of land with vineyards.  The legacy of David’s family heritage is incredibly important to David, so important that the image of his grandfather's PO Box 1 is on the label of Parrish Family Vineyard wines.

Parrish Family Vineyards bottles, with David's grandfather's PO Box 1 and historic Atascadero home. 
Though David had this family link to Paso vineyards his entire life, it took him some time to plant his own grapes there.  After graduating from high school, David went to UC Davis before starting his own business, a vineyard trellising service.  Over the last thirty years, David’s company, which he still owns and runs in addition to making wine, has developed and installed trellis systems all over the world. 

David’s company uses American made materials, and over the years, David has developed many items for which he has the patent.  He has traveled all over the world trellising vines, though today he travels much less because modern technology allows him to consult from home and do much of the planning via computer.  Because David’s business was based out of Napa Valley, he has been involved with some of the best-known wines in America, names like Mondavi, Beringer, and Stag’s Leap. 

Today, David has 140 family owned acres growing multiple varieties of grapes between Monterey and Paso Robles.  He started growing his own fruit in 1995.  He sold this fruit to other producers until 2004 when he started making wines under his own label, today making around 1,200 cases.  In 2011, the tasting room just off Paso Robles’ City Park was opened. 
The tasting room off Paso Robles' City Park.
Still truly a family affair, his son-in-law Ethan is the assistant wine maker and “right hand man,” and David’s daughter (Ethan’s wife) Cecily manages the tasting room, public relations, and social media.  David’s family legacy for vineyards and wine will obviously continue to live on through this next generation of wine lovers, possibly passing on to his someday grandchildren.

Parrish Family Vineyards Spotlight Wines
2013 Silken Blanc—a beautiful blend of 85% chardonnay and 15% viognier grapes, the citrus and orange blossom notes on the nose carry through to the palate to create a delightfully strong floral characteristic.  The wines end in a silky (yes, it matches its name) finish that lasts—a wonderful white blend.

2012 Petite Sirah—this is another great example of what California’s climate can do for petite sirah.  On the nose, the dark fruit and chalky, limestone fragrance leads to blue and black fruits on the palate, joining chocolate and dried herbs.  The wine boasts elegant tannins, yet is smooth enough to be great with many robust foods. 

2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—five years after vintage, this is a superb cabernet.  The French oak aging gives hints of tobacco and spice, but it’s the tannin-acid balance that make this cab special.  Strong but smooth tannins are given life by the perfect acid structure.  Great ripe berries also show through to the finish.  Drink now or save a few years…neither will disappoint. 
Photo in with winemaker David in front of a portrait of his family land.

 “Just as we have two eyes and two feet, duality is a part of life.”  It is.  Opposites pairing together is seen everywhere.  Dichotomies are in individuals, businesses, and wine.  I saw it first hand in Paso Robles, a wine region truly worth a stop.  Though it would seem that large producer J Lohr Vineyards would have nothing in common with small wine maker Parrish Family Vineyards, it is simply not true.  Both truly believe great wine starts in the vineyard.  Both give special attention to the wines every step of the way.  Both have strong family and agricultural ties.  Both produce spectacular wines to enjoy.  The duality shown from these two illustrates the character to be found in Paso Robles.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Don't Let It Pass You By--Paso Robles

Its real name is El Paso Robles, “the pass of the oaks.” 

In California—where wine is king…and queen…and prince…and princess, too—most think of wine country as Napa.  Then maybe Sonoma.  However, there is another wine destination that should be on all wine lovers’ radars.  A place that must not be treated as an afterthought in the CA wine world—Paso Robles.  It is—and should be—a destination in, and of, itself.  It is home to distinguished wine producers, excellent restaurants, and fun activities.  Pass through the “pass of the oaks.”  You will not be sorry. 

The town of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, has a population just under 30,000 people.  This “small town” feel adds to the overall friendly atmosphere of the area.  In fact, many comment that the people are actually “eerily” friendly, always talking with tourists and locals alike.  In the center of the little city is a town park; this square acts as the cultural hub with multiple eateries, tasting rooms, and shops nearby.  The Paso Robles AVA surrounds the town.  There is basically no traffic and plenty of space, as it’s a wine region spread out over 30,000 acres. 
Beautiful vineyards spread over rolling hills with groves of oak trees.
The slow evolution over the past decade into a world-class wine destination has been incredibly beneficial for all involved.  Though many agriculture-based companies call the region home, all ag businesses have worked cooperatively instead of competing; there has been little to no in-fighting between ranchers and winegrowers.  The restaurants and attractions have improved over the last ten years as well, proving the adage that a rising tide for some does indeed raise all boats.

Wineries:  With a reported 180 (and growing) wineries in Paso Robles, there is surely no shortage of tasting rooms to visit.  Add nearby Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, and wine, good wine, is not at all hard to find. 

The large producer J Lohr Vineyards (look for my 605 Magazine article about Jerry Lohr and a future long piece on J Lohr itself) helped put Paso on the map in the 1980s by producing excellent wine. 
J Lohr's Seven Oaks Vineyard.
Then in the 1980s, Justin Winery started producing wines in Paso Robles from local fruit; these wines received huge acclaim from well-known critics.  Justin’s Isosceles red blend continued Paso’s rise to stardom. 

Next came Tablas Creek Vineyard, the result of a partnership with France’s Chateau Beaucastel, producing Rhone grape varieties grown in Paso.  Just named as the number one U.S. winery by The Daily Meal (after being near the top for several years), another feather was put in Paso’s wine cap. 

However, don’t think for a minute that wine makers here are getting large heads and feeling cocky.  It is still not unusual to walk in to a tasting room and see the winemaker behind the bar pouring sips or running the register in between producing tasty vino.  In fact, on my stop at Parrish Family Vineyard, winemaker David Parrish poured my tasting as we visited with his son-in-law and assistant winemaker the entire time.  (Also look for the future story of Parrish Family Vineyards.) 
With David Parrish at Parrish Family Vineyard's tasting room.
There are many, many, many more wineries worth visiting; from small to large or old to new, there is something for every palate.  Grab an area wine map and see for yourself!

Restaurants:  The most important reason to visit is, of course, the wine, but there are great places to eat as well.  Just arrive near the City Park area and walk to an array of fine eateries.  Artisan is a great modern American bistro.  Aptly named Bistro Laurent serves French-inspired fare as part of the slow-food dining movement.  For Italian check out Il Cortile, for seafood go to Chico's, and for Mexican visit La Cosecha.  If in need of a quick lunch, stop by the Red Scooter Deli or have one of their employees deliver your mid-day meal on—you guessed it!—a red scooter.  End the day with a stop at Brown Butter Cookie Company with a large selection of cookies, all made with brown butter, which will actually melt in your mouth. 

Quaint downtown Paso Robles, lined with restaurants, tasting rooms, and shops.
Activities:  Of course, my top priority in Paso was wine, but there are many other activities for entertainment.  The already mentioned City Park hosts concerts, farmer’s markets, and car shows; it is also a spot to let the kids play or the parents relax. 
City Park
Lake Nacimiento provides much to do during the hot afternoons.  Hiking and biking are always options.  Plus, if you are there during the right week of July, the California Mid State Fair is a wonderful place to hop on a carnival ride or attend a concert. 

If none of these seem upscale enough for travelers, just go half an hour and visit Hearst Castle, originally built for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.  Other historic experiences can be had in the town of Atascadero. 
Hearst Castle
Finally, in just over half an hour, travelers can be at the beach, enjoying the California sun at either Pismo Beach, Los Osos, or Morro Bay. 
Pismo Beach
In general, this is the kind of spot where a wine lover can find a vacation rental at a reasonable price, have a wonderful conversation with that rental’s proprietor, and then meet a winemaker on the street.  It’s the destination where locals will greet you with a smile when you enter a restaurant and then make recommendations to add to your itinerary. It’s a place where you definitely want to do more than just pass through.  In fact, if you pass up the opportunity to visit Paso Robles, you will regret it.