Monday, February 25, 2013

Connecticut transplant does Paso Robles winery right!

Three days of rest and two wine bars later, it was time to leave Paso Robles. Loading up Kenji and checking out of the Norman Bates like motel, we drove to the coast to soak up a last minute salt water intervention. As we drove along, I thought about all of the wineries that were visited during this road trip, and realized that Paso Robles is one of my favorite wine regions. For some reason, the climate, proximity to the ocean, people and the great wines that come from this central coast appellation agree with me. If I really had to say what it is about Paso Robles that made the trip memorable, it was everyone that served me at the various wineries.

The most memorable experience of wine tasting occurred at the last winery that was visited. Referred by another winery and located over the river, through the woods, up the side of the hill and precariously nestled among a huge grove of stately oak trees lies Starr Ranch. The ranch consists of approximately 15 acres of grapes and 85 acres of walnut, persimmon and other fruit trees, is owned by a Connecticut transplant named Judy Starr.

Judy is a spry, perky, adventurous, mature women who does it all on her ranch. She reminds me of someone with their own PBS television show who can make something out of anything and enjoys nothing more than sharing her passions with others.

Arriving at the ranch, you may need to gather your bearing as the ride leading up the hill is a bit colorful. The road is curvy with several surprises that seem to lurk around every corner. One such surprise resembled a demonic version of Wilbur, the pig in the book "Charlotte's Web." Having never seen a feral pig, I nearly took out the wayward oinker as it darted out in front of Kenji. (For those reading the blog for the first time, my car is named Kenji.)

Locking up the brakes and watching the evil, undercooked, spiral ham escape under a fence, we continued the drive up the side of a hill with a near 90 degree incline. Kenji was not happy with the uphill slope and begged to be shifted into a lower gear. As we pushed against gravity, the surrounding landscape was hard to ignore. The vines dotted the hillside facing towards the sun for maximum exposure. This was exciting to see because my favorite types of grapes (varietals) all require an abundance of sunshine to produce excellent quality fruit.

We parked next to the winery and enjoyed the view for a few moments before the chill in the air became too much to endure. As I walked to the front door, a small welcome sign shaped like a bucket and capable of holding flowers was nailed to the door. This put a smile on my face and eased my still shaking form the drive nerves.
The tasting room had a look and feel of an artists studio. Two separate counters beckoned visitors to sidle up and sit a spell. The rest of the room served as office and storage space.

The feel of the room was warm and comfortably familiar. As an artist, a space well lived in and slightly cluttered with your "stuff" provides a homey, relaxing atmosphere. Just think of a friend that you visit often who makes no effort to tidy up before you arrive. There was not a lot of effort to conceal the inner workings of the winery and this made me feel quite at home.

Judy Greeted me after a few moments and I walked over to where she was pouring for a young couple. She immediately made me feel as if this was not a first time visit. It is only right to mention that the referring winery painted a picture of her as being a tough as nails, take no prisoners, frontier woman who could have easily been a member of the Donner party. (We all know what happened to the Donner party, right?) Moving forward.

Judy was warm, gracious and humble. She spoke freely about her desire to move west and begin anew as a gentlewoman, farmer. As she spoke, one could begin to see her tough, tenacious interior, but the contagious smile on her face belied a lady who was quite pleased with where she was in life. She preferred dialogue and was more interested in what her guests had to say then dominating the conversation with wine speak. I was in awe of her tale of a woman in midlife who tossed caution to the wind and moved west. She had not formal training in farming, nor did she have a degree or extensive knowledge of winemaking. What she had was a visceral (this means guts!) sense that she wanted a change in her life and she always wanted to be a farmer. Thus, in a tale that sounds uniquely familiar to the Beverly Hillbilly saga, she literally loaded up her family and moved west.

By the seat of her pants and with no fear of getting dirty, Judy has carved out a reputation in Paso Robles as a hard working, humble, and forthright business woman. She is consistently learning something new and accepts the unpredictable challenges that a life in agriculture can sometimes create. She encouraged me to follow my dreams and to always look at life from a positive point of view. One could sit at her feet and listen to her sage wisdom endlessly. She is definitely proud of her accomplishments and makes no apology for the well earned dirt under her fingernails.

 Like any good hostess, there was an abundance of munchies to accompany the small selection of artisan wine. As mentioned earlier, there were two counters to taste wine. The other is occupied by winemaker, Bob Fuller. Bob is one of small group of winemakers who produce and market small lots of wine under their own label through the winery. His label, Deodoro Cellars, produces a selection of extremely small, (think a barrel or two of each), red and white wines. He also makes Judy's wine. Now, let's talk wine.

Judy mentioned that all of her wines were red, and this suited me just fine. Beginning with the 2010 Supernova, a Rhone blend of Grenach, Mourvedre and Syrah, the wine presented with a touch of smoke and vanilla to my eagerly awaiting olfactory senses. (In lay terms, the wine smelled good!) Easy to drink and layered with complexity, this wine was like no other tasted in Paso Robles during this visit. To be kind, we'll call it an atomic fruit bomb.
Next, Judy poured a wonderful Bordeaux blend called "Marriage." The 2010 vintage was produced in honor of her son and his soon-to-be bride. Consisting of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine nearly exploded in my mouth. The only words that can accurately describe this wine are immensely orgasmic! Considering that I am the poster child for commitment phobia, a long term relationship could happen with this wine.

Merlot has never been a favorite grape, but when blended in a Bordeaux style wine with Cab dominating the relationship, this vino diva could easily entertain the thought of one day walking down the aisle into holy matrimonial bliss.(Not!) Moving forward. This wine really had something special going on in every sip. Dark cherry,blah, blah, blah...the wine was awesome!

Next in the line-up was the reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. OMG! I nearly had to slap myself into the present. Allowing my eyes to roll back into their sockets and inhaling deeply, all things terroir burst through the crystal glassware. Btw, the quality of the glassware can and does affect the way wine tastes, I digress.

Dirt; not soil, dirt. There was nothing earthy about this wine, it was purely full of luscious, loamy, mineral laced, dirty, dirt. It would not have been a surprise to see pebbles and fossils pour out of the bottle. As Judy poured the wine, the odoriferous terroir (this means stinky dirt) wafted from the bottle causing me an insatiable desire to wallow in mud. Spicy, fruity and oh so dirty, this bottle was reminiscent of some of the best Napa Cabernet's in my vast, ever growing collection of wine without the Napa price tag. To be convince my palate that it was not being deceived, Judy poured a nice, heavy pour and continued to do so until Bob reminded us that he too had some wine to share.

Tearing myself away from Judy's counter and savoring a last taste of Marriage, no pun  intended, Bob lead me over to his wares.

Beginning with the Windansea Great White, a easy drinker, and classy white wine, it was tasty and refreshing. I must remind everyone that white wine is not my forte, but I am always willing to try something new. Next he poured the Pantheon Red blend. Yummy, and so affordable.

The coupe de gras,  Syrah. Dark, silky and blah, blah, blah, you will have to make a trip to this lovely little off the beaten path winery to find out for yourself.

Bob was the consummate, laid back, professional at all times and perfect gentleman host. His passion for winemaking bordered on an obsession with allowing wine to become wine and not doing too much fiddling around with a formula that works. He also does not take himself too seriously and his dry humor was infectious.

I will be returning to Paso Robles in the next few weeks, and will gather more information about this rare gem of a far out winery. Because I too am a lady, I will not offer my usual two slaps upside the head accolades for a winery that does well, but I will say that Starr Ranch is worthy of a road trip visit. Plan to spend some time with Bob and Judy. Their wines stand out among several great places that I visited.

Until next time, Salute'.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shooting the Sh@# @ Chronic Cellars

Day three of "Get out of Dodge before you kill someone," road trip was beginning better than the latter two days. By now, I was beginning to relax and the much needed salt water intervention had eased my stress. It was time to do some serious wine tasting.

My buddy Denise, AKA Road Dawg, had suggested a visit to a small winery named Chronic Cellars.

The winery is located northwest of what is known in Paso Robles as the "Far Out" wineries. This group of tiny axe murderer type domiciles offers some of the most unique wines in the area far removed from city life. The owner/winemakers/body concealers (Just kidding) are twin brothers Jake and Josh Becket, who create some unique ( a safe description) wines with a lean toward Rhone varietals.
Unlike many wineries that load the tasting room with all things gift shop, it was refreshing to see artwork that could have easily been confused with a rampant comic book collectors eclectic tastes. A large  round, booth like couch that could easily seat 10 people  and a pool table also occupied the space.

The room was dimly lit, warm and festive. Good Karma, yes, but where this place truly shined was in the behavior of the tasting room staff. Awesome!
 My host, Kevin, was a true pro at providing a memorable experience. Why was the experience memorable? Simply because, well, unfortunately, the wines were not. Ok, before you go and get your panties in a wad, hear me out. The wine was not bad; a little on the unfocused side, but not bad. Drinkable, but not bad. Cool labels, but not bad.

Being a Rhone lover as well as a blend lover, and letting Kevin know this, he suggested a selection of wines that were in line with my taste preferences.  As he poured the first selection, a blend of Syrah and Zinfandel, I could not take my eyes off of the skeleton on the label. The wine was called Purple Passion. It was dark, definitely purple and well, let's just say that it was uhhh, it was, purple? Kevin could sense that my palate was searching for some hint of a reason to say anything about this wine, but nothing happened. Like a pro, and a very honest person, (he was so nice), he offered the words that eluded me. " A bit varietal unfocused, wouldn't you say?"

Uh, huh, those were the words that escaped my vocal chords. My face must have began to look like the graphic on the label, and Kevin explained how the winemakers developed this purple liquid. My mind went blank during the explanation, but Kevin was so nice. At all times, he was warm, honest and understanding of the effort it took to say something, anything about this wine. In truth, there was not much to say. It was though, very purple. On to the next bottle.

Still in a fog about the first sample, it dawned on me that maybe my mood had something to do with the inability to taste anything unique in the Purple Paradise. When Zinfandel and Syrah are blended together, the flavors play on one another to create a nice dark, spicy fruit forward wine. Maybe the next offering would have something additional to bring out these favorable traits.

It did! The Unteachables; a blend of Petite Syrah, Syrah and Zinfandel. Just what the doctor ordered. Now we are talking. The nose was leathery, sweet and had just a hint of smoke. This would be the one. I could hardly wait to let it flow over my tongue, rest in the deep orifice of the floor of my mouth and tickle the uvula in the back of my throat. Yes, this was going to be the wine that would find it's way into my collection. It was going home, today!

No, it didn't even come close to what my nose detected. Eagerly anticipating the flood of fruitiness, the wine settled limply on my tongue. Kevin could see my disdain and immediately suggested that he open a new bottle as this one had been open more than 24 hours. As he went about doing everything to make me feel comfortable, (he was so nice), a thought bubble must have appeared above my head, and Kevin could read the content; "She is not enjoying this wine!"
As he poured from a fresh bottle, he laughed a little and was completely unapologetic. After all, this is wine tasting, and one cannot expect to like every wine that is available. He simply smiled and offered another selection...which I must say was redemptive.

Suite Petite! 85% Petitte Syrah, 15% Syrah. We are in Rhone heaven, yes? Sort of. At least there was no skeleton on the label. Kevin detected a glimmer of acceptance on my face. I'm sure he was silently saying to himself, finally, she likes...SOMETHING?

Yes, this wine was a more than drinkable. Dark, smooth and full, two of my three favorite grapes played well with one another. The only reason this one did not come home, price. No need to get into that.
 Seizing the chance to make me very happy, Kevin poured another heavy handed sample and left momentarily to greet some guests from Texas. (He was so nice!)

It was time to bring out the ultimate in a Paso Robles blend.
Sofa King Bueno! 75% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 5% Petite Syrah, 4% Grenache. This was the wine that Denise wanted me to try....along with Spritz and Giggles sparkling wine. (We're not going to talk about the bubbles)

Kevin returned and was still smiling and taking good care of me. He poured a healthy amount of the wine in my glass and without hesitation described how much he liked this particular wine and it's popularity among locals. As he talked more and more about the wine, I could not help but to notice that the graphic on the label reminded me of Norman Bates' mother in Psycho. There was not much in the way of flavor, but the dryness of the wine was appealing...and Kevin was so nice.

After visiting more than 200 plus wineries in the last three years, it is expected to not enjoy every wine that is consumed. It is also acceptable to disagree with a winemakers style, and many winemakers value the feedback that customers give. It is however NOT cool to insult a wine. The wines at Chronic Cellars were different, not bad, just different. (and that's okay!)

 The time spent at Chronic Cellars was an exercise in learning to be in disagreement with the taste of a wine, and to not blow the disagreement out of proportion. During this visit, any disagreement was remedied by the treatment received and the attitude of the people who work in the tasting room. Kevin was a true professional. He could read my body language and offered the opportunity to sample several wines above what was being poured that day. The tasting fee was also waived. (That was so nice!) This said to me that he cared, or that he feared that I would slam him and the wines in this blog. (Nope!) His honesty, generosity and knowledge of the surrounding area were impressive, but what impressed me most was his steadfast support of the winemaking team at Chronic Cellars. The more he spoke of them and their passion for what they do and how they do it, it was easy to accept that this was just one of those wineries where nothing really appealed to my taste. (and that's okay!)

 Would I suggest a visit to Chronic Cellars? Absolutely.  I give Kevin two big slaps upside the head for his outstanding customer service. (He was so nice!)

When in Paso Robles, visit Chronic Cellars. Bring your pool cue and a sense of adventure.

Until next time,

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Another cool place in Cambria!

Picking up where I left off in the last blog, I walked over to this place to escape the smell of charred animal flesh. No, I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian; I simply do not like the smell of seared meat on a near empty stomach. The cheese, crackers, apples and pretzels devoured at Wise Owl were rapidly being converted into sugar in my stomach, and the overload of carbs only made the hunger worse. Sensing that I was either going to pass out or attack a tourist, the phrase "gourmet foods" caught my eye on the sign for the little shop of horrors called, "Fermentations."

Shop of horrors? Hardly. Gourmet foods? Lots of carbs in this place. (Just what I didn't need) The array of food stuff consisted of various jams, spreads, dips, and other high carbohydrate loaded goodies. Thus, the wine bar would be where my appetite would have to be satiated. (it wasn't)
Brittany was my vinista (made this word up. Just sayin') for the day. She was a recent transplant to the central coast, and her warmth, humility and aaww shucks, golly gee demeanor was delightful. I can appreciate someone who readily admits that they do not know everything and that they are learning on the fly. (Nothing like those uber know it alls who take random road trips to escape stressful situations. I digress) She taught me a thing or two about a few grapes that were not familiar to this road tripper.

Beginning with the white wine selections. For those who are not familiar with this road trippers' palate, white wine is not consumed on a regular basis...regardless of what is being eaten. However, we never say that we don't like something until we try it...unless it has any trace of curry, or was prepared near anything that touched curry or comes from the same family as curry, I digress again.

Anyhoo, Brittany poured a delicious Pinot Blanc from the Sierra Madre Vineyards located in Santa Maria Valley.
Okay, so what is Pinot Blanc? Pinot Blanc is a white wine grape varietal also called Klevner from the Alsace region of France. It is best consumed young and along with Sylvaner, another grape from Alsace, it produces some of the lightest, dry, fruit forward wines of the region. Pinot Blanc vines cover nearly 20 per cent of the Alsace region.

Amazing! Easy to drink and quite tasty. The wine had a peach like taste and was not too dry. Served just a tad colder than room temperature, this wine would be excellent for white cheese, apples, pretzels and crackers. (imagine that) Moving forward.

Brittany suggested the Chardonnay next. Explaining that my preference for Chardonnay consisted of wine that is so buttery and oaky that your lips slide off the glass while you spit twigs, she produced a wine called none other than, "Butternut!" 
Yep, needed to floss for splinters after this one. Buttery, is an understatement. Somebody pass the popcorn? Rich, creamy and just the right amount of fruit forwardness. It's a shame that this one did not come home. Maybe next time.
 On to the red wine. OMG, a central coast Barbera? Why not...or should I rephrase this as, "Why?," "Not!" Oh don't get your panties in a wad, it wasn't that good...I mean bad, really. It's just that the Barbera's from the northern foothills of Shenandoah Valley pack a little more punch. Whereas the Zinfandels of Paso Robles give the high octane fruit bomb Zinfandels of the Shenandoah Valley reason to feel ashamed, the Barbera's of the central coast lacked in all things character. (at least this one did, and two more at different wineries in the area) Just an observation Barbera lovers. Save the hate mail.
Goes well with Marvin Gaye music!
Moving forward. Speaking of Zinfandel. This one knocked it out of the park for me. The name alone gets kudos, "Sexual Chocolate!" Seriously, how could anyone skip this wine? Conceived by two college student buddies, the wine is a blend of Zinfandel and Syrah. The guys bought left over fruit pulp from local wineries and pressed out the juice to make this erotic concoction.
Can we all say, yummy? Fruit forward, cherry, blah, blah, blah, this is an excellent wine and moderately priced. Although it is available in the San Francisco bay area...this what they call northern California, really?, it is a worth addition to any collection. The guys now have a company called, SloDown Wines and rumor has it that they are up to creating some new offerings. Check them out at:

Liquid Sin
Time for desert! Now we have discussed this before, this road tripper is not a Port drinker. However, Brittany was up to no good when she pulled out a port wine made from Sangiovese. In truth, any wine grape can be made into port style wine. Traditionally, port comes from, you guessed it, Portugal, and was made with six distinctive varietals. (1) Touriga Nacional, the dominant. (2) Tinta Cao, (3) Sousao, (4) Bastardo,  (5) Tinta Roriz, and (6) Touriga Franca.
The process of making port wine goes back a zillion...ok maybe not that far, but dates back several hundred years. True Port is made exclusively in the Douro region of Portugal. Fortification, the addition of a neutral grape spirit is added to wine just before the fermentation process completes leaving residual sugars and elevating the alcohol level. Thus Port wine is by nature, sweet. The wine can be made dry, semi-dry and in a white form.
Enough about the process. Sangiovese grapes which are high in acid created a Port that was semi-dry, but still too sweet for my taste.
 Not to be left hungrier and a little jittery from ingesting way too many carbs, Brittany tried to hammer one more nail into my coffin.

Pairs well with anything!
Uh huh. Yes this is chocolate milk laced with Cabernet Sauvignon. Think Bailey's Irish Cream for the vino types. I wasn't sure what to make of this stuff; Serve it cold, yuck! Serve it warm, double yuck! Buy it and make it a great conversation piece...yes! I have enough  chocolate loving friends who would be willing to choke this  happy soccer mom beverage down.

 So, what would you do with this brew hah hah? Brittany said that she added it to coffee. Hmmm? Stay tuned for more info.

Just as a diabetic coma nearly consumed my nutrition deprived body, Brittany had one last port to sample. By now my eyes were crossed. Had it not been
for two ladies standing next to me who just happened to be from Lodi and knew where any form of protein was available nearby, no more port would have crossed these lips. My taste buds were numb. The only discernible flavor in the wine was pure alcohol and figs. Into the dump bucket with aplomb, Houston, we have a problem. The lights were about to go out like the Superdome during the recent Super Bowl.

Not one to toss the cookies in a crowd, (there were hardly any cookies to toss) we bade Brittany farewell with a healthy tip, acquired a new wine glass and bottle of chocolate yucky, and headed for the door. The smell of searing flesh was no longer present in the air, and I didn't care if curry wafted into my desperately in need of air lungs. I needed food. The two Lodian's, yes, that is what they are called, grabbed me by the arm and lead me to a bakery that thankfully had sandwiches.

The turkey croissant sandwich set my credit card back nearly $15.00. Perhaps a larger than usual tip was added to the bill, and the chips that were supposed to come with the sandwich never materialized. It was good! Lights are coming back on, just need a bottle of water and a nap!

When consciousness and the ability to drive safely returned, Kenji motored us down to Pismo Beach.
It was a wonderful ride with the windows rolled down and the sea breeze blowing through the sunroof. The sun was beginning to set as we drove onto the beach. Neither of us had ever driven on a beach and while observing everyone else move their vehicles closer to the sand dunes, it never dawned on us that the tide was coming in. Honking horns and screams of, "Hey, you're gonna get stuck!" did nothing to deter the pleasure of watching the sunset over the horizon. If we were going to get stuck, so what. Isn't that why we have AAA?

The beach patrollers seemed oblivious to our position and said nothing to suggest we move. As the surf encroached Kenji's tires and soaked my weary feet, all of the stress that had been building in my life seemed to wash least until we realized that the sea water from each encroaching wave was getting a little deeper, threatening to leave us stuck on the muddy beach.

 There is something about the ocean that calms me. It is contiguous, powerful and cleansing. Necessary for spiritual uplift and enjoyed with a good bottle of wine, the central coast offers spectacular beaches and an abundance of good places to eat. Wineries located near the ocean offer a welcome and surprisingly affordable get away when life becomes a bit too much to handle.

Visit the central coast wine region and enjoy the oceanic views. Do it often.
Until next time,