The Paso Robles West Side Story, Part 1 — wine region on the rise

Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco lies California’s Central Coast and Paso Robles Wine Country. Its land features — warm days and cool nights with micro-climate conditions — allow it to make premium wines in 26,000 vineyard acres, producing more than 40 different varietals from more than 180 wineries. It is the fastest growing wine region in California. Paso Robles is a lovely and lively walking town as is the other attractive nearby villages of Cambria, Templeton and Morro Bay.
After a number of sweeping see-all trips, it was clear to me that the West Side of “Paso” held the most promise for a European-style wine experience with its elevation of 1,600 to 1,800 feet and its radically changing microclimates. It’s not unusual to observe fog rolling in at anytime during the day, following Highway 46 West cooling the Templeton Gap, a finger-like valley that threads its way to the Pacific Ocean. This allows a co-existing of Bordeaux and Rhone style varietals that are the equal of their French counterparts.
On the West Side, Debby and Justin Baldwin started planting 72 acres of their 160-acre Justin Winery and Vineyard in 1981. Then, there were only eight wineries in the Paso Robles appellation. They did not drop their day jobs until 1991 when they began distribution of mostly French Bordeaux style wines. My conversation with Debby quickly turned to their world renowned Bordeaux blend “Isosceles.” This wine has been in my top 10 tastes for a number of years, with the ’06 showing in my winners for the first half of this year.
I asked her about the process by which varietal selection decisions are made for Isosceles.
“Each year, we assemble a tasting panel after our winemakers put together 10 blends that they feel could be contenders, based on what the vintage and nature has given us,” she said. “The grapes are always Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It is a blind tasting and includes our well-known Master Sommelier Joe Spellman and French wine specialist Philippe Melka. The latest ’06 release was made available a few months ago and has 86 percent Cab, 9 percent Cab Franc and 5 percent Merlot. The touch of Merlot mellows out the blend and helps those that want a drink-now experience.”
Classic years for Isosceles will always have a high percentage of Cabernet, the Bordeaux style calling card. Kevin Sass, Justin’s young, talented winemaker, called the ’06 elegant and structured, one of the best since the blend was founded in the mid-80’s. 
I also asked him about the newer blend, the 2006 Savant. “This is a Bordeaux and Rhone collaboration of 59 percent Syrah, 41 percent Cab,” he said. “It has a dark, ruby red character with the bright fruit of Syrah, integrating nicely with the power and acidity of the cab. It’s barrel aged for 18 months in French Oak.” 
He wanted to speak to the evolution of Justin to a more European style of winemaking, yet with modern techniques of alcohol control.
“We have begun outside open-top barrel fermenting at Justin, to create more effective sugar to alcohol dissipation,” he said. “The 90-degree temperature during sugar fermentation, when it encounters the air temperature, results in lowered alcohol levels. Our ’07 Cabernet 13.5 percent alcohol level is one of the lowest in the industry for a cab. This has a flavor benefit that ages better and matches up more effectively with food selection.”
When you visit, be sure to tour the Justin Caves, some 100 feet below ground, storing more than 5,000 barrels, or three years’ worth of wine. Within the caves is the Isosceles Center, the vintage library and storage for this acclaimed wine.
At the tasting center, a petite, beautiful restaurant for intimate dinners and weekend lunches emphasizes garden fresh local menus, and is named Deborah’s Room. You can also stay at the Just-Inn, in one of the four warm, richly appointed comfortable rooms. For more information, call (800) 726-0049 or visit www.JUSTINwine.com.
In my next column, we will explore other wineries and a lovely resort with some eye-popping amenities. Look for Paso Robles West Side Story, part two. 
Wine Bytes
— The City of Hope Wine & Food Fest is from 4 to 7 p.m. Aug. 9 on Strand Way, Coronado Island. It’s a day of wine and food pairings, silent auction and special entertainment. Pre-sale tickets are $55 each. Call (858) 452-6846 for more.
— Decanter Wine Lounge & Restaurant in Cielo Village, Rancho Santa Fe, is hosting a book signing and release party from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 12. Janene Roberts, the author, will present her book “Wine Tasting in Southern California and Beyond,” and Briar Rose Winery in Temecula will pour four wines. Cost is $25 per person including a copy of the book. Call (858) 756-9333 for details.
— San Diego Wine & Culinary Center, across from the convention center, is hosting “Uncork the Cure” from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 13. It supports Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, with fine wines and cuisine offered for $50 each. VIP admission with special privileges for $85. Details at (858) 452-2873.
— 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro in Encinitas is planning a Martinelli Wine Dinner, at 6 p.m. Aug. 18.A four-course dinner with a different wine per course is offered for $90 per guest. Regina Martinelli will speak about the winery, one of Napa Valley’s oldest.  Details by calling (760) 942-2104.

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