One of the more difficult aspects for me when writing about wine, but also the most rewarding, is discovering a unique story, one that has not been told in a certain way, or perhaps never told at all.
By and large, that is why I generally avoid Napa Valley. No region in this country has been explored as much as its most renowned wine growing valley. Sure, that is far too simplistic—as I am sure there are many great tales in Napa yet to be told.
But when many of them begin:
Our story begins not in Napa, but on Wall Street, where after x years, they decided they were tired of the race and wanted to own a vineyard…
…one just can’t help but feel that they had heard the story before.
While Paso Robles is far from being a Napa Valley (and that seems to be just fine, for the most part, with the majority of people in Paso), the region has been explored by many a more capable writer than me.
Last Fall, I spent about a week in Paso, getting better acquainted with a region that is neither “under the radar” or “up and coming.” No, Paso is one of the oldest wine growing regions in California, and has been making world-class wines for the better part of at least two decades (Justin Vineyards’ 1997 Isosceles was on the Wine Spectator’s Top Ten list in 2000, for those that put stock in such rankings).
After landing and finding the hotel, I headed out into the vineyards, with the first stop was on the West Side in the Willow Creek AVA (the Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983, but an additional 11 sub-AVAs [including Willow Creek] were approved in 2013). The first winery was a relative newcomer to the region: Four Lanterns Winery.
Steve Gleason decided that 30 years of institutional money management in Southern California was more than enough, so he and his wife Jackie bought property in Paso Robles with the aim of opening a winery, which they did in 2014.
As Steve was telling his story, while setting up a tasting in the vineyard, I had the distinct impression that I had heard his story before (see above). But this was different from the typical Napa yarn: here was Steve, in Blue Jeans and work boots, with a blue Four Lanterns baseball cap tightly affixed to his salt and pepper mane. His leathery tan and rolled up sleeves suggested that he was in the vineyard all the time, but rarely was he setting up a tasting, he was there to tend to the vines.
Not the stereotypical Napa story.
Even though the Gleasons bought the property in 2014, the vineyard had been there (albeit largely neglected) for thirty years. Originally terraced to be apple orchard, Randal Grahm (of Bonny Doon fame) was instrumental in planting the new vineyard in the late 1980s. The Viognier he put in (which he thought was Roussanne, oops) goes into the largest production white:
2016 Four Lanterns Lamplight Viognier, Willow Creek AVA Paso Robles: Retail $29. Unfiltered. Floral and quite rich in tree fruit. Comes from the terraced vineyard on north side of hill. Really fantastic mouthfeel and so fruity it comes off as sweet but negligible residual sugar (less than 1%) according to Steve. Wow. Really good.255 cases. Excellent to Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
After acquiring the vineyard, Steve and Jackie replanted a part of the vineyard with additional Rhone and other French varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon). Today, of the 35 total acres about 18 are planted, and Four Lanterns produces 2,500 cases, almost all of which are sold direct to consumer. Steve and Jackie grow enough fruit that they could almost double production, but they still purchase some fruit every year for a few of their blends (Steve approximates that they are 80% Estate).
2016 Four Lanterns Rosé, Paso Robles, CA: Retail $25. 97% Syrah, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. True rosé. Alvin clone of Syrah. The largest production wine at a whopping 280 cases. Bright and fruity, quite tart. Strawberry and cherry. On nose and palate. Nice. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
Steve is not only the lead vineyard manager, he is also the winemaker, something he intimated to learning “on the fly.” For the first two vintages, they hired a winemaker, but being a bit of a control freak, Steve eventually just started doing it all himself.
2016 Four Lanterns Jacinth Grenache, Templeton Gap AVA, Paso Robles: Retail: $48. Also from the west side, just south of the Willow Creek AVA. Really fantastic nose of bright red fruit and a bit floral with some herbal nature. Great red fruit and spice on the palate. Really fantastic. Excellent to Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
As he prepared to pour the last wine, I asked Steve, by almost any measure a relative outsider in the Paso wine scene, how he was received by the more established growers and wineries. After a brief pause, he stressed that he was surprised by how welcoming, supportive, and helpful the community had been, and added: “If we were all just fighting for a bigger piece of the pie, it would not be the community it is. There is a strong belief in Paso that making everyone better is good for all.”
I wonder how often that is repeated in the most well-known California wine region, a few hundred miles to the north?
2015 Four Lanterns Fire Light Syrah, Willow Creek AVA, Paso Robles, CA: Retail: $58. Some of the first cuttings off of Gary Eberle’s original Syrah plantings (in the 1970s). Fairly dark in the glass with perfumed nose of blackberry pie à la mode. Rich and fruity on the palate. Big but short of huge. Some spice comes in on the end. Very nice. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
I was just getting started on my trip to Paso, but already there was a decided relaxed vibe to the place, an ethos of hard work and a desire to make honest wines of high quality, and little tolerance for pretension.