Reprinted from Forbes Magazine,
The next Napa
heard of Paso Robles yet? Fine. That's the way wine lovers hope to keep it.
There's lots to like about the Napa Valley. So
much, in fact, that Napa now ranks among the biggest tourist draws in
California, ahead of Yosemite. Five million tourists a year beat a pathway
to its door. But not surprisingly, that door is looking scuffed. Tour buses
now snake their way through what, 15 years ago, was Eden. Traffic is hellish
on the weekends; anybody wanting to make a left-hand turn off Highway 29,
the valley's main artery, might just as well try making same-day
reservations at the French Laundry.
At more than one winery, glitz has muscled aside
charm. After Francis Ford Coppola bought Inglenook, he added props from his
movies--vampire costumes from Bram Stoker's Dracula, a Tucker
automobile from Tucker, a gunboat from Apocalypse Now. The
result is what you might call Hollywood and Vines.
Miss the quaint old Napa? The little vineyard whose
owner might himself be your host at an inn? Look south, down the Pacific
coast. Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles lies Paso Robles, with
most of the winemaking potential of Napa but almost none of the traffic
jams. Paso's 60 vineyards attract just a million tourists a year.
For most of Paso Robles' history, its grapes went
straight into jug wine or undistinguished blends. Then, in the 1980s, a new
breed of vintner took stock of soil and climate, and decided Paso (as the
locals call it) could do better. Two years ago Robert Parker Jr., the famed
wine critic--and a man not noted for rhapsodic endorsements--sampled the
wines of Stephan Vineyards, a Paso newcomer. Parker pronounced its 1999
L'Aventure vintage "sensational," "profound," "reference points for
complexity and quality" and gave it a 92 rating, comparable to far pricier
Mouton Rothschild or Cheval Blanc.
Owner Stephan Asseo, a Frenchman with a puckish,
aw-shucks demeanor, shrugs Gallically at all the praise. His wines, he says,
owe everything to the terroir--the substrate of limestone and clay
similar to what one would find in the Rhône valley. Grapes have a hard time
growing here, and that is paradoxically good: Less fruit means greater
intensity of flavor. The yield here is roughly a third of that in Napa.
"It's quality of fruit that's key," says Asseo,
"[not] the equipment or the technology." With a sweep of a callused hand he
takes in the steep hillsides of his vineyards. "You can inject millions, but
never can you change the terroir." After leaving his family's winery in
France, Asseo searched the world for a place to start a vineyard of his
own--Australia, South Africa, Spain, Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara. He
A few miles away, through rolling hills of
chaparral and oak, Justin Baldwin and his wife, Deborah, former bankers from
Los Angeles, bought their first Paso parcel in 1981. They've since gone on
to accumulate a 65-hectare vineyard, a winery, an inn and a formidable
number of awards. The 1994 vintage of their premier red, Isosceles, was
dubbed "best blended red wine in the world" by the International Wine &
Spirit Competition in London in 1997. Wine Spectator in 2000 named
the 1997 Isosceles number six among its favorite wines of any kind, from
anywhere, ahead of a 1998 Château la Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée des
Great wine alone won't boost the region into Napa's
league. It must have restaurants and hotels. Baldwin has built a hostelry on
his vineyard property, the tiny (only three rooms) but luxurious Just Inn.
On the eastern side of Paso, the owners of another winery, Martin & Weyrich,
opened Villa Toscana last July. Any fan of Napa's Auberge du Soleil would
feel at home here.
As for restaurants, when French chef Laurent
Grangien opened his Bistro Laurent five and a half years ago, Paso was still
a chicken-fried-steak kind of town. Now Grangien's is one of five or six
Napa-class eateries. He has no trouble selling out special tasting dinners
built around black truffles or foie gras. In November the James Beard
Foundation in New York City showcased some of Bistro Laurent's dishes,
paired with Paso's finest wines. "A big honor," says Grangien.
What's still lacking? A signature varietal, in the
sense that Napa is associated in the public's mind with cabernet. "We suffer
from a lack of focus,"says Austin Hope, winemaker and head of viticulture at
Treana Winery. "My vision is that we'll be known for our syrahs." His own
will debut this year.
Paso isn't Napa yet. But that's one of its prime
virtues. (For more information on Paso Robles and how to get there, visit