Thursday, August 31, 2023

Paso Robles

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On fabled California highway 101, south of San Jose, the road passes through  Monterey County, past endless rows of field crops, then open countryside studded with oil rigs around King City, and finally, the blacktop rolls across the invisible border into San Luis Obispo County and the temperature begins to rise. 

An aside.  A number of years ago, I was on another trip down 101, bound for Paso Robles.  I had heard that what was rumored as "the largest contiguous vineyard in the world," was near King City, and, as it turns out, San Bernabe Vineyard was on the way. 

Delicato Winery owns San Bernabe and the vineyard is big.  In fact, there are places in San Bernabe where all you see is row upon row of vines, in all directions, as far as the eye can see. 

The vineyard manager kindly offered to show me around, so we  climbed into his truck, and after rumbling up and down a few dirt tracks, I spotted what looked like a monster mechanical grape harvester, resting at the end of multiple rows of vines. The unwieldy-looking machine, appeared to be a mash up of 10 or 12 harvesters, in a kind of Rube Goldberg-like contraption. 

"What is that," I asked the vineyard manager?

He smiled and said, " a big mistake. Some of the vineyard guys thought, if you can pick a single row in one pass with a single harvester, why not multiple rows with a gang of harvesters.  

"Sounded like a good idea on paper, but when the tractor pulled it to the end of the rows, the turn-around space was way too small, so the harvester made one pass and now is a rusting conversation piece."  

Back on 101, the town of Paso Robles is just ahead. Outside my non-air-conditioned VW Beetle, it was blistering hot.  

 Paso History

An anonymous person once wrote: "History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there." To that, I would add that to know the essence of something is to know its history.

Since the late 19th century, when disappointed former gold seekers arrived in the area, looking to improve their luck at farming and grape growing, "Paso," as the area became known, has become a thriving wine region. Today, there are more than 200 wineries, growing 60 varieties, and successfully dealing with the heat. 

Mission San Miguel Arcangel - YouTube
Mission San Miguel Archangel

There is a lot of different facets to the history of Paso Robles, all of which influenced the development of the region's wine business. In 1797, Franciscan friars planted grapes, for sacramental (and personal pleasure) at Mission San Miguel Archangel. Then, in the 1880s, Paso's wild west reputation as an outlaw hangout had the bad guys drinking Red Eye and red wine.  

Moving forward to the 1920s, the famous Polish concert pianist, Ignace Paderewski, planted Zinfandel near Adelaida and in 1955, James Dean, at the tender age of 24, crashed his Porsche Spyder near Chalome, not far from Paso Robles.  

Two Sides to Paso

Since the early 1970s, when pioneers like Gary Eberle began making Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, at Estrella River Winery, east of Paso town, the sprawling east side has attracted winemakers and growers interested in Cabernet, Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. The region may have been known for high-octane Zinfandel, as far back as the 1930s, but today Cab has eclipsed Zin in planted acreage.

The thing about Paso Cabernet that makes it so appealing is high ripe fruit and low tannin, but still enough acidity and tannin to balance the wines and make them interesting.  It's the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, drawing in cool breezes,  that lower nighttime temperatures, pushing the grapes to maximum flavor.  The diurnal shift is an impressive 50F, more than enough to fully ripen grapes.

On the west side of town, it's a different story. Cabernet and Merlot share vineyard space with a range of Rhone varieties, like Syrah and Grenache. The Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame and their U.S. partner, the late Robert Haas, are credited with introducing Rhone varieties at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Since the winery and vine nursery opened in 1989, Rhone whites like Marsanne and Roussanne have surpassed Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in new plantings.

For more than 20 years, Paso Robles Rhone-style wines have been showcased at Hospices du Rhone, held in Paso Robles town.  In April 2024, the next Hospices du Rhone will be held in Walla Walla, Washington. For details, go to 

Connecting with Paso Wines

Paso Robles, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a good place for an overnight break and a reason to visit a few wineries before resuming your journey.

All the information you need about where to taste wine, dine and stay the night is available at Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and its "Paso Wine" app that can be downloaded on Apple and Android devices.  Also, go to and read my "Paso Robles Reds" blog, March 16, 2023. 

Next blog: Savoring Soave

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Thursday, August 24, 2023

California Wine Adventures 4

In the last installment (posted August 4), my wine adventures in Colorado ended with tastings of two classic French wines. Then, at last, it was off to California, stopping first at Chalone in Monterey County.  The following adventures in the Napa Valley were at two wineries that have earned legendary status.

Huddling with Heitz

With our visit at Chalone behind us, my photographer, Jack Whidden, and I headed north from Monterey County to the Napa Valley.  I had hoped that my written correspondence with Joe Heitz and Joseph Phelps, had secured our visits to both wineries and set up interviews with the vintners.  Looking back now, it seems my assumptions were a bit naive but hopeful. 

Joe Heitz  (1920-2001)

It was the late 1970s, and email hadn't been invented yet, so the answers to my letters were brief and to the point. Joe Heitz said to come ahead but understand that I don't know any wine writers from Colorado and (I didn't read between the lines) I am very busy!

Nevertheless, we innocently forged ahead, arriving at the El Bonita motel, south of downtown St. Helena. The El Bonita was once one of the few affordable places to stay in the valley. We checked in, dropped our bags and headed back out to get something to eat.

Heitz was our first appointment the following morning, so before eating, we went by the Heitz tasting room on Highway 29.  The small building sat back off the road, amongst the vines. We pulled in the road so Jack could look at photo possibilities, when a dusty red Camaro convertible came roaring down the dirt and cinder lane, stopping at the highway. 

"That's Joe Heitz," I said, referring to the impatient-looking man at the wheel of the Camaro. "Let's say hello and ask about tomorrow." 

Traffic was heavy on 29 and the Camaro was surging as we approached.  "Hello, Mr. Heitz.  I'm Gerald Boyd and this is Jack Whidden.  I wrote to you from Colorado about a visit to the winery and an interview." 

Heitz turned to us, easing the racing motor to an idle, "When," he barked? 

"Tomorrow morning," I said, at the winery." 

"Right," he muttered. Then impatiently eyeing an opening in the traffic, he added,  "You damn writers think we have nothing else to do."  And with that, he was gone, leaving us with cinders on our shoes. 

The following morning at the winery on Taplin Road, we were ushered into a room, and within minutes, Joe Heitz came in, greeting us with a smile, as though we were long-lost cousins.  Three Heitz wines, with two sets of glasses, were set out on the table, but Heitz seemed to be anxious about getting on with the interview. 

So, I politely tasted the wines, Jack busied himself snapping a few photos, while I asked Heitz about the growing interest in Napa wines and the valley as a tourist attraction.  He wasn't happy about the crowds and said he was glad his tasting room was not at the winery. 

Then, Heitz got a little annoyed when I asked about the presence of eucalyptus in his best known red, Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. He said there was a lot of misinformation about Martha's supposed eucalyptus character, supposedly due to the gum trees that surround the famous vineyard. 

"That's a lot of crap," he growled. When I worked in the Central Valley, we parked gondolas full of grapes in the shade under eucalyptus trees, with nuts falling off the trees into the gondolas and we never had a whiff of eucalypt in our wines." 

We thanked Joe Heitz for taking time to talk with us and headed up Taplin Road to Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

Phelps and the Colorado Connection

I first met Joseph Phelps when I interviewed him in Denver for a magazine article I wrote, titled "The Colorado Wine Barons."  Besides Phelps, the other "barons" were Tom Jordan, Jordan Vineyards and Ray Duncan, Franciscan Vineyards.

When we met again at the Phelps winery, I found Joseph Phelps a friendly and robust vintner; an encouraging demeanor that's welcomed in an interview subject. It was evident that this successful businessman from Greeley, Colorado, who had made his money in bridge and highway construction, was just as comfortable at the helm of his Napa winery. 

Joseph Phelps (1928-2015)

Phelps construction company built the Souverain of Napa winery and then in 1972, Joseph Phelps decided to build his own winery on vineyard land he already owned off Silverado Trail. Phelps was among the first monied people, not from a wine background, to buy into the burgeoning Napa Valley wine business. 

Heitz also had the foresight, or some good advice, to hire German-born Walter Schug as the first winemaker.  Later, Phelps brought on Craig Williams who succeeded Schug as winemaker, staying on at Phelps for more than 30 years. That continuity and consistency was also evident in Phelps wines.

One of the first things that Schug did was to plant Syrah in Phelps' new vineyard and I wondered why a Rhone variety in a Cabernet-dominated valley. Phelps said that Schug saw the potential for Syrah and he believed it made a better wine than the more popular Petite Sirah. Joseph Phelps Vineyards, of course, would become known for Syrah as well as the Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, Insignia.

In the late 1970s, there were many old vines still in the valley, especially varieties like Alicante-Bouschet, Mataro (Mourvedre) and Carignane. So, Syrah, the great French variety from the Rhone Valley, was a shot across the bow to the old timers, but Syrah never became as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon. 

A few years after Joseph Phelps Vineyards opened, I scheduled our visit. Phelps and Schug brought out a few wines, including reds still in barrel. The vines had not yet matured enough to produce complete wines, so the winery was still not ready yet to release a full line.  

My notes from the visit do not include detailed comments on the wines I tasted, but I did note that the Cabernet barrel sample was deeply colored and packed with ripe berry flavors.  

Admittedly, I had little experience then tasting barrel samples, so the impressions of Heitz and Phelps were more about the people and the wineries, than the wines. Time and experience helped improve my abilities as a wine taster.  

After Napa, my next California Wine Adventure was in Ukiah, and a visit with a Mendocino County legend. Later, there's a glimpse at the early years of The Wine Spectator, the former Marine who founded the publication and the New York investment banker who took it from a struggling tabloid newspaper to a major wine magazine.

Next blog: "Paso"

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Thursday, August 17, 2023


In the early 1970s, when I was trying to get my head around wine, Zinfandel was the first California red wine that got my full attention.  Burgundy was my first love, but when I tasted my first Zin, a whole new taste experience opened up. 

Ridge Vineyards was making elegant Zins then, but the wines were budget busters, so I looked at more affordable Zins from Shenandoah Vineyards in Amador, Storybook Mountain and Sutter Home in Napa, Parducci in Mendocino and the eccentric Monterey Peninsula Winery, producers of a Zinfandel they touted with a back label (or was it an innovative side label?) that suggested the Zin was a good choice with a Zen macrobiotic casserole! 

Those were heady days for California wine and for me. A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had bested the field in the famous 1976 Paris tasting and the respected television news magazine "60 Minutes" ran a story about the "French Paradox," with bon vivant correspondent, Morley Safer, announcing to the world that wine was good for your health.  

Those two events catapulted California wine to new heights and gave me an appreciation for Cabernet Sauvignon. But the new craze for California Cabernet moved Zinfandel down my list of red wine least for a while. 

Tasting Zinfandel

Of course, the rise of Cabernet meant that all red wine would, henceforth, be measured by Cabernet Sauvignon. And for many American wine drinkers, like me, that included the all-American red wine, Zinfandel.  

Fans of Cabernet Sauvignon are content with its angular structure, harder tannin and shy fruit flavors. Cabernet is a hard wine to like when young and collectors are used to waiting for their wine to take years to come around.  

Old vine Zinfandel

Zinfandel has no such drawbacks. A young Zin is all about loads of ripe, almost jammy, blackberry flavors, supported by good acidity, albeit hiding behind the fruit.  And, yes, high alcohol, a red flag of sorts that bothers Zin critics, but is excused by Zin fans as it is what it is. In other words, love the Zinfandel, love (or at least tolerate) the alcohol.

Today, Zinfandel producers work to keep the percentage of alcohol down to an acceptable 13%-14% level, although they are quick to remind consumers that the nature of Zinfandel tends to higher alcohol. When alcohol levels began to creep up, a number of reasons, such as changing vineyard practices, use of new clones and, of course, climate change, were given.

Zinfandel by the Numbers

The very active Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) has a useful web site ( packed with everything you need to know about Zinfandel, including the 11 regions in California where Zinfandel is grown and produced. And there's a section on old vines and Legendary Vineyards, like Lytton Springs, plus a directory of the hundreds of Zinfandel producers, including Felline, a Primitivo maker in Puglia, Italy.

Primitivo Connection

One of the most enduring stories about Zinfandel is where it comes from. The tale is circuitous, moving around eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin. 

The short account claims there is evidence of the presence of the Zinfandel grape in 6000 BC in the Caucasus mountains. From there, the journey moves to Croatia, then the Puglia region of southern Italy were researchers found the Primitivo grape to be genetically identical to Zinfandel. 

Old vine Primitivo

Further, records show that Zinfandel likely entered the United States through a nursery on Long Island, New York. The NY nursery imported grape cuttings, including one labeled "Zinfendal," from a nursery in Austria which probably got the grapes from Croatia.

Looking for Zinfandel 

California leads the world in Zin plantings and production. Where else is Zin grown? My son the winemaker does not count Zinfandel among his favorite red wines. But then, he makes wine in Washington state and there isn't much Zin in the Evergreen state.  There are small amounts of Zin in about a dozen other states, including Colorado, Texas, Ohio and Arizona. 

Worldwide, Zinfandel can be found in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, South Africa and Western Australia, where Cape Mentelle makes a big, rich Zin, that can at times, taste like Zinfandel, while at other times, tastes more like a big red wine.

Finding Zinfandel from any of these places, except California, may be difficult, but don't give up, Zinfandel from anywhere is worth the search.

Next blog: California Wine Adventures 4

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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Albarino & Alvarinho

When I first became aware of Spanish wine, in the late 1970s, there were two choices: Rioja and Sangria.  The market in Denver was flooded then with bottled Sangria and everyone seemed to have a personal recipe for mixing red wine with fresh citrus fruits.  

White and red Sangria

Serious wine collectors did not want to be seen in public holding a glass of Sangria, but they welcomed what was thought by the cognoscente to be the "Bordeaux of Spain."  

The claim was not so far fetched.  In the late 1800s, the twin destroyers -- powdery mildew and phylloxera -- mostly wrecked Bordeaux vineyards, causing growers and winemakers to head over the Pyrenees to Rioja and Navarra, where the devastation had not yet destroyed the vines, and hopefully continue to make red wine.

In those days, Spanish white wines were mainly of local interest. It was common then for vino blanco to be made in an oxidative style, usually caused when wines  stayed far too long in large oak casks or concrete tanks.  It took almost 100 years for the style of Spanish white wine to modernize, mainly in Rioja and among the producers of sparkling wine in Catalonia.  It was a struggle, though, between the old guard and the newer generation.

The era of popularity for Albarino came later, probably in the 1970s, when the wine world was awaking to the demand for fresher white wine that wasn't aged beyond recognition. Now, 50 years on and we have a whole different approach to making white wine in Spain, a thrust that many say can be attributed to the rise of Albarino.

Iberian Albarino

Albarino is an aromatic white grape grown mainly in the Spanish part of the Iberian Peninsula that juts out along the western edge of Continental Europe. The main area of propagation is Rias Baixas, in the district of Galacia.  Known for its cool climate and ample fresh seafood, Galacia is popularly called "Green Spain."  


Over decades, Albarino has developed a thick skin as a defense against the damp climate in Galacia. That thick armor protects the grape, allowing it to develop high natural acidity, layers of flavor and respectable alcohol for a white variety.

Albarino is mostly fermented and matured in stainless steel, although some wines are aged for short periods in oak.  Occasionally blended with other indigenous Spanish grapes, like Loureiro, both varietal and Albarino blends age better than most Spanish whites.

Here are five Rias Baixas Albarinos and one Napa Albarino to get you started: Vinos a Tresbolillo, Lagar de Pintos, Zarate, Martin Codax, Granja Fillaboa, Hendry Estate, Napa Valley.  Expect to pay between $20 and $25 for Albarino.

Iberian Alvarinho

Across the Minho river from Galacia, Albarino is known as Alvarinho, for this is Portugal and we have left Spain for a different look at the same grape. The iconic Portuguese white wine, Vinho Verde, "green wine," is so called not because of the color of the wine, but as a reference to the wine's early drink ability. 

You are likely to see Alvarinho spreading across the expanse of a pergola in the Vinho Verde region and even further south in Dao.  The advantages of using a pergola is it opens the vines and clusters to more air, reducing molds that develop in humid climates.  Designed like a high arbor, a pergola also provides space on the ground, under the pergola, for the cultivation of other crops.

Alvarinho clusters on a pergola

Alvarinho tends to crop heavy, producing grapes that rarely exceed 9% alcohol, a characteristic of Vinho Verde white wine.  Although there is some experimentation with barrel fermentation, Alvarinho is best suited to controlled fermentation in stainless steel, yielding fresh apricot flavors and bracing acidity, just the right combination for summer drinking. 

Portuguese Alvarinho, mainly from Vinho Verde, include Quinta da Raza, Vale dos Ares, Quinta da Aveleda, Muros de Melgaco. Vinho Verde is priced from $13 to $20.

Albarino or Alvarinho, the choice is yours, so treat yourself today to one (or both) of these refreshing Iberian wines. 

Next blog: Zinfandel: An American Wine

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Thursday, August 3, 2023

California Wine Adventures 3

The second episode of my adventures in California wine (posted July 14), was about my early years in Colorado writing about wine for a newspaper and a handful of local magazines. The third episode wraps up the Colorado times with comments on two unique tastings and then continues on with a first visit in California at the remote Chalone Vineyard and its classical-music loving founder and winemaker.


At some point in every wine lover's life comes an opportunity to join a local wine club. It's a convivial opportunity to share wine experiences, taste new wines and enjoy fraternal companionship.

My unexpected invitation came about in Colorado when I was invited by a wine distributor I knew to join the "Grapenuts."  Well, I thought, that's the same name as a breakfast cereal I had in the kitchen cabinet.

"Is this a gag," I asked in my most indignant voice? There was a pause...then, the voice I recognized, but with a noticeable edge, quietly said, "No, it's the name of our wine club."

How could I turn down an invitation to become a "Grapenut?" 

And so, I joined a small group of fellow wine aficionados at the distributor's home to taste a flight or two of wines from a member's cellar or wines we purchased from a local wine store.  The idea was to select a wine which the members were not familiar with but that would be a pleasureable learning experience.

At one memorable meeting the distributor presented a small flight of red Burgundy from the Dr. Barolet Collection, an eye-opening experience and one that set me on a quest to learn as much as I could about the seductive charms of Burgundy wine.  Dr. Barolet was an eccentric medical doctor who practiced in the city of Beaune and, over a lifetime, amassed a jaw-dropping collection of Burgundy, many of which were sold to private collectors after the doctor's death. 

I don't remember all of the wines, although there was a Beaune from the 1930s,  the rich texture of Pinot Noir, supported by supple tannin and impeccable acidity remain in my wine memory. 

Rumors have circulated for decades that Dr. Barolet would "dose" those wines he felt needed it, with Cognac. If so, the brandy in the wines I tasted only helped the Pinot Noir age longer and the wines still tasted like Burgundy to me.

Unforgettable Sauternes in Denver

Another taste experience in Denver that is still fresh in my memory, was at a late afternoon showing of some of the wines that would be offered that year at the Heublein Auction of Rare Wines. 

In the late 1970s, the Heublein auction was a major wine event that attracted many wealthy wine collectors. Pre-auction tastings were open to the public, for a fee. Before each public tasting, a special tasting was set aside for the press to wander, sample and interview. 


At the pre-auction tasting in Denver, Heublein showed a few select vintages of Chateau d'Yquem, grand premier cru Sauternes, the tres plus ultra of French sweet wine, that Heublein was selling at auction for a private collector.

Private cellars often have multiple bottles of the same vintage wine and that was the case with the collector's 1929 Y'quem. When word got around that Heublein would open a '29 Y'quem to sample, the press cued for a thimble full of the famous wine; a once in a lifetime opportunity to taste a rare bottle-matured, I quickly got in line. 

A writer's main job is to come up with words to adequately describe an experience in which the reader can vicariously participate.  So, here goes.  Deep complex bouquet of honey, ripe apricots, sweet spices and a subtle hint of beeswax. Rich, unctuous mouth-coating flavors echoing all those things I smelled.  The 1929 Ch. Y'quem was one of the most complex and delicious wines I've ever had.  

An hour later, I returned to the table where the Y'quem was poured. The glass, of course, was empty but the dried wine still clung to the inside and when I took a long sniff, it was as though there was still wine in the glass.  Amazing!

Wine On the Mountain

My first trip to California, courtesy of Uncle Sam, was an assignment at the USAF Satellite Tracking Station in Sunnyvale.  My knowledge of California wine then was limited, but I was eager to learn. An account of the visit to David Bruce Winery is  in "California Wine Adventures 2," July 14, 2023 post. 

In my off-duty time, I worked a side gig as a wine writer.  I snagged a magazine assignment to write about California wine, so an Air Force colleague (now a civilian photographer) and I headed for Napa and Mendocino.  We had an appointment at Chalone Vineyard, in the Gavilan Mountains, high above Soledad, Monterey County, to interview Owner/Winemaker Richard Graff. 

Graff said to arrive at any time, so we left San Diego, arriving in Soledad in late afternoon. After checking in to a motel, we headed up the winding road to the winery. The sun was setting but there was enough light to see the number on the mailbox at the end of the lane. It was very quiet as we approached a Quonset hut, with one small lighted window. The door was unlocked, but there was no one around.  So, I left note and we headed back to the motel.   

Chalone Pinot Noir vineyard in Gavilan Mountains

The following morning Soledad was buried under a thick blanket of fog.  We had only one day at Chalone and I was worried about getting photos for the story.  As we rolled up to the Quonset, a rangy dog loped up to the car, lifted its leg and christened one of the VW's hubcaps. It was a humorous distraction but not as much as the classical organ music coming from the hut.   

Richard Graff stepped to the door, pushed it open and, smiling behind a neatly trimmed black mustache, greeted us with an out stretched hand. I told him about our visit the night before and he explained that he was in Soledad filling the tank truck with water. It seemed that not only did Chalone not have its own water, but it didn't have electricity either. 

We looked around the winery and then tasted a few wines.  Graff didn't have any whites to show, but we did taste his Pinot Noirs.  The depth and complexity of the wines reflected the mountain vineyards.  Rich and packed with ripe fruit, the Chalone Pinots recalled the Burgundies from the Barolet collection I had tasted a few years earlier in Denver. 

Cabernet be dammed, I was a true convert to Pinot Noir.

With the visit to Chalone lingering in our memories, Jack pointed the VW north and we headed to the Napa Valley and appointments at Heitz Cellars, Joseph Phelps and then on to see John Parducci in Mendocino.

Next blog: Albarino and Alvarinho

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