The Battle for Syrah II – Our search for the YUM factor


Tablas CreekHerman StoryL’AventureDennerBooker

Everyday, customers come into the Los Olivos Tasting Room on their way to or from Paso Robles. With over 180 wineries, over twice that of Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles is definitely more established than Santa Ynez Valley. We decided it was time for the Stolpman Vineyards tasting room team to travel north together to sample some of the very best that Paso Robles has to offer.

Because of the hotter climate, Paso Robles “style” is much more consistent than the vastly varying East-West Santa Ynez Valley. Tommy Oldre of Tablas Creek told us that the ocean wind doesn’t break through the Santa Lucia Range until around 4:30 every afternoon, while it blasts through Ballard Canyon by 1:30. The effect of the longer daytime heat provides the fruit forward, rich “Paso Robles Yum Factor” as Denner Winemaker Anthony Yount coined it.

While Stolpman prides itself on an elegant, high-toned “old world” style of Syrah, we realize the need to band together as fellow Rhone Rangers despite our stylistic differences. There can be no in-fighting within the Battle for Syrah!

Including Monterey County, the Central Coast as a whole accounts for over half of the premium Syrah grown in California according to the 2011 California Grape Crush Report. All other regions, such as Sonoma or Napa, trail far behind, accounting for at most 20% each. With such a strong concentration of Syrah and Rhone producers we would be foolish not to stand united in presenting the world with revolutionary fine wine!

Tablas Creek

The day naturally began at Tablas Creek. Stolpman’s ties to Tablas run deep. The Perrin family placed an offer on what is now Stolpman Vineyards all the way back in 1987, the same year as Tom Stolpman. After both parties didn’t get a response from the cattle ranching owner, the Perrin family moved north to Westside Paso Robles and purchased the Tablas Creek property in 1989. The common bond that both the Perrins and Tom Stolpman were looking for: LIMESTONE.

Because the Perrins already owned Ch. Beaucastel in Chateau Neuf du Pape they were able to source their favorite Rhone plant material and started a nursery to propagate their French plants in California. We proudly brag about our Beaucastel Roussanne and Grenache plantings we purchased from Tablas!

We chose to taste at Tablas first, not only because of our personal allegiance, but because Tablas Creek’s wines tend to be more delicate and lower in alcohol. Even for us professionals, it’s easier to appreciate them on a fresh palate rather than after some riper, higher octane Paso juice.

Our good friend Tommy toured us around the Limestone hills of the property to check out the Mourvedre and other more esoteric Rhone varietals planted. Tablas now boasts 9 of the 13 Rhone Chateau Neuf du Pape varietals.

Back in the winery, we got a kick out of the huge 1500 gallon Oak Foudres. While we don’t have plans to purchase any of these extremely expensive containers, Sashi and I are buying some new Concrete fermentors for the 2012 harvest, more on that soon.

We were all thrilled with the 2010 Patelin de Tablas red because, just like Stolpman entry-level wines, it over-delivers for a very modest $20 price point. The Patelin, or “little country neighborhood” in French, presents a delicate perfume and kicks up a balanced, fresh “pop” on the finish that won us over.

Another cool tie to Stolpman, Tablas has transitioned to dry farming many of its plants. Tommy told us Tablas receives 26 inches of rain per year versus Stolpman’s 17. The higher end wines really show off the naturally balanced concentration that is simply impossible to achieve through conventional irrigation.

Herman Story

A quick van ride into town, and we fell into the burly, welcoming arms of the Bearded Legend, Russell From. Russell’s winery, Herman Story, was the only non-Estate based winery on our itinerary. So why did we choose Russell? Simply put, he embodies the Paso Robles Yum Factor. His flauntingly high-octane style is so addictive his mailing list might someday have to take the form of a medical prescription pad.

Dr. From prepared a nourishing lunch for us, paired with his 2006 Roussanne sourced from down here in the good ol’ Santa Ynez Valley. Russell aged the Roussanne in desert wine barrels that he purchased from Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non, the very man who used to buy Stolpman Roussanne fruit before we began making L’Avion. With age and the traces of ice wine from the oak pores, the Roussanne reminded La Coppa Joe of our 2005 Angeli Blanc, the only geeked out Botrytis late harvest wine we’ve ever made.

Dr. From’s prescription worthy 2010 Larner Syrah pulled the rug out from under our assumption that Paso always produces juicier, more fruit forward wines than Ballard Canyon. We found the epitome of “Paso Robles Yum”, but Russell picked it just 3 miles south from Stolpman down Ballard Canyon Road. The 2010 Larner is proof of a winemaker’s ability to put his stamp on a wine, and in this case, there is simply no generic substitute for 750ml of Herman Story.

Russell began buying Syrah from Stolpman in 2011 and we tried a barrel sample. It’s too early to tell how firmly Russell’s style is imprinted upon the signature Stolpman upfront-structure and acidity. It’s certainly different than Stolpman as Russell has employed 225 liter heavy-toast barrels while Sashi only uses the more subtle 300 liter medium toast cigars. We are confident that the good doctor will nurse the Syrah through the rest of malolactic fermentation to beauty. We can only hope he sees us fit for a couple 1.5 liter doses.


Next up was L’Aventure. I demanded this stop after trying the 2006 vintage Estate Cuvee and Cote a Cote out of pre-bottling tank with former asst winemaker Jacob Toft. These wines were some of the most gorgeous blends I’ve tried from California, and I’m looking forward to trying the 2006’s in five or so years.

Unfortunately on this trip, the 2010’s were already bottled, so we missed the pure magic just-assembled fresh cuvee moment, not that we were “settling down” for the bottled 2009s. As expected, Estate Cuvee’s solid Bordeaux backbone supporting the oozing, lush west-Paso Syrah profile stole the show.

L’Aventure winemaker Stephan Asseo’s decision to plant Cabernet and include it in his highest-end cuvees proves the vast difference in climate between Santa Ynez and Paso Robles. Tom Stolpman planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot but none of these Bordeaux varietals could consistently ripen in the harsh, cool climate of Ballard Canyon. Despite the Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Syrah, L’Aventure showed its true allegiance to the Rhone Ranger phenom by pouring next to Stolpman and Tablas Creek at the San Francisco Grand Tasting on March 25, 2012, so we are cool with it!


Arriving to the beautiful Denner winery and tasting facility brought home one of the key differences between Paso Robles and Santa Ynez. Not to dwell on local politics, but building a similar facility in Santa Ynez is currently impossible due to a small group of property-owners that are protesting any new winery project that aims to bring the beauty of their vineyard to customers.

As we chatted in the afternoon sun with winemaker Anthony Yount overlooking the hills of Oak Trees to the west, it was tough not to enjoy the wines. Taking in the moment, the wines showed exquisite smoothness and concentration. The Denner Grenache did show off big time “Paso Robles Yum” while all of Anthony’s other reds greeted us with a pep of structure and bright, young character.

 I once fell in love with a café’s house red in a beautiful Tuscan village but when I tried the bottle removed from the Italian Countryside, the wine fell flat and insipid. The Denner Viognier, on the other hand, tasted just as beautifully rich and balanced with take-out Sushi back at home as it did on the tasting room patio under the building’s arching beams. With it’s beautiful facility situated atop the Vineyards, Denner is definitely winning over hearts and minds daily in the battler for Syrah and Rhone Varietals..


By the time we arrived to our last winery of the day, Booker, we had all picked up on some common winemaking trends. To play into the natural richness of Rhone whites, winemakers are leaving the juice on the grape skins rather than immediately pressing. The Booker White was yet another example of a deep, robust Rhone, it’s hard to believe people still choose California Chardonnays when there are wines like this available.

The coolest fact in the newly published 2011 California Grape Crush Report is that the Central Coast accounts for 61% of all Roussanne plantings in California. Hopefully wines like L’Avion and all these great West Paso Roussanne blends will become the benchmark of white wine from our area.

Booker’s winery was by far the smallest operation we saw, which certainly doesn’t help the fact that demand far outstrips supply. We counted ourselves lucky that we timed the trip when there was actually wine to try!

On the way home, the van rode lower with all of our purchased wine, and I think we are all looking forward to cooking for friends and pulling out comparison bottles against the usual French and Stolpman offerings. Between Tablas Creek, Russell’s Larner Grenache, and the other three top West-Paso players throwing “yum” at us, we definitely have a lot to talk about in the tasting room. While we only had time for 5 stops in one day, there are at least a half dozen more wineries in Paso that demand a visit on our next visit. Please send us leads on other Paso Syrah Warriors!

Next up, we will flip the tasting right back to the other side of the Syrah continuum and taste the absolute best Cote Rotie in the world.