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Snapshots from Paso Robles Wine Country

Note: Thanks to the Paso Robles Wine Alliance, I was recently flown out to California to meet winemakers and learn more about what makes this region so unique.

Paso Robles has been called the "anti-Napa," "the new Napa," "the Napa 25 years ago." Basically this means you can roll into just about any winery, many of which don't have tasting room fees, and though it feels casual and homey without the hoity-toity pomp, the wines are carefully and contentiously made by obsessives. Since 2000, the number of wineries in this region has more than quadrupled from 50 to more than 200.

Situated just ten minutes inland from the Santa Lucia mountains, this special area of central California feels very warm days and cool nights. In fact, Paso Robles undergoes the largest diurnal temperature swings. Case in point: just a couple weeks ago in early October, one daytime temperature was recorded at 102°F while it cooled off to a chilly 47°F that same night.

Though it means erratic dressing habits for locals (daytime tanks and evening fleeces), it also means optimal conditions for growing grapes. The wine grapes grown here (26,000 acres' worth) develop deep, rich colors due to the intense heat sizzle and fairly bright acidity thanks to the nighttime chill.

Paso is more known for their reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel (they hold an annual Zin festival every March), Merlot, Mourvèdre, and a little Pinot Noir. But you'll also find some distinguished whites: Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. Most interesting, though, are their crazy blends.

Maverick winemakers blend Bordeaux with Spanish varieties; Rhone with Zinfandel. Clayhouse Wines, for example, makes a Zinfandel-based blend called Adobe Red that includes a whole eight grapes. Eight! (40% Zinfandel, 17% Syrah, 13% Petite Sirah, 9% Malbec, 6% Cabernet Sauvingon, 6% Petit Verdot, 6% Tannat, and 3% Merlot). Of course Paso Robles didn't invent the idea of blending, but they're not afraid to take it to the next level, mixing a little of this, little of that.

"Take Prince for example. What is he—Rock? Pop? These wines also defy categories," said Nick de Luca of Vina Robles at the "Crazy Blends" seminar at Sunset's Savor the Central Coast Festival recently. His 2010 White4 is 29% Viognier, 28% Verdelho, 27% Sauvignon Blanc, and 16% Vermentino, where one single grape doesn't dominate the blend. It pours a golden straw color with aromas of kiwi and citrus, and notes of spice that end on a refreshing finish.

While in the area recently, I toured a few wineries and chatted with many winemakers.

Take a tour of Paso Robles wine country in the slideshow »

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