Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Sherman Thacher at Thacher Winery in Paso Robles
Halfway between the 2 main California metropolises of Los Angelos and San Francisco is Paso Robles Wine Country. Paso Robles is one of most dynamic wine regions in the US and now home to more than 200 wineries. One of the winemakers is Sherman Thacher from Thacher Vineyards. I visited him recently in Paso Robles. I had met him earlier at Screwtop Wine Bar in Virginia.
Paso Robles has a long history of winemaking and grape growing beginning in 1797 when the first wine grapes were introduced by the Franciscan missionaries at the historic Mission San Miguel Arcangel. The Padres produced wine for sacramental purposes. After Mexico secularized the California missions in the 1840s, the vineyards were abandoned until European immigrant farmers started to arrive in the 1860s, following California's independence in 1850.
Picture: Sherman's 2 Dogs
Today, Paso Robles is California's third largest and fastest growing wine region, with over 26,000 acres of vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading variety for the Paso Robles appellation, accounting for 1/3 of the region's vineyard area. Major progress has largely come from a group of producers often referred to as the Rhône Rangers, specializing in grape varietals of the Rhône Valley of France. With Italian, Spanish and Rhône varieties on the upswing, more than 40 other varieties with 300 to less than an acre are planted in the region. In the last decade, Paso Robles has seen an increase from 35 to about 200 wineries, of which about two-thirds produce less than 5,000 cases.
The Rhone Rangers
The Rhone Rangers is a group of winemakers who promote the use of grape varieties from the Rhône Valley in the US. They are mostly based in the Central Coast of California, but also in other parts of the US. In particular, the Rhone Rangers are considered a catalyst in making Syrah more prevalent on the Californian wine landscape. In the 1980s, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard and Bob Lindquist of Qupé Wine Cellars began popularizing the marketing of the Rhône varietals.
Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Sherman Thacher at Screwtop Wine Bar in Washington DC
The French government recognizes 22 varieties in the various appellations that comprise this large and diverse wine-growing region. Rhone Appellations, including Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Condrieu, Chateuneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Bandol and Cotes du Rhone each choose a different subset from the collection of these 22 grapes.
The most common red Rhone varietals are Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre, with Syrah predominant in the Northern Rhone and Grenache in the Southern Rhone. Other relatively common red grapes include Cinsault, Carignan, and Petite Sirah. The Rhone Rangers have also adopted Zinfandel as a "cousin" grape. The principal white Rhone varietals are Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, each found throughout the Rhone Valley, with Grenache Blanc a widely planted but less well known contributor in the Southern Rhone.
Since 2004, the Thacher Winery has been hand-crafting wines from vineyards found on the Westside of Paso Robles and in Southern Monterey County. It is a boutique winery that specializes in Rhone blends and Zinfandels.
Thacher Winery is a family operation of Sherman Thacher and his wife Michelle. Sherman started as a brewer and became an award winning brewmaster. He held that responsibility for 16 years but he is now a very successful winemaker. “I may do something with apples and produce hard cider in the future” said Sherman. The orchard that lies between the entrance gate and the winery will provide the fruit. As a big fan of applewine from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, I am looking forward to this.
Sherman and Michelle’s home and the home of the Thacher winery - the Kentucky Ranch - was part of a 4,000 acre Spanish Land Grant until 1869 after which it became a thriving horse breeding operation. In addition to Shermand Michelle’s home and the winery, the ranch includes a 1920’s Kentucky Ranch barn, outbuildings, barley fields, riparian habitat for deer, coyotes, bobcats, turkeys and the occasional mountain lion as well as the vineyard (2 acres), which was planted in the spring of 2007 and which consists of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. The “KR” on the barn is a well-known landmark of old time Paso Robles.
Pictures: Sherman Thacher at Thacher Winery in Paso Robles
Construction of the tasting room and the 4600 square foot winery was completed in 2008, just in time for the fourth harvest of 33 tons of premium wine grapes. Case production was about 1800 cases in 2008 - almost double the production of previous years. Currently, Thacher Winery produces 2000 cases. Sherman does not want to expand production beyond 3500 to 4000 cases. This is an output level which he thinks he can handle with his wife without overstretching.
Although the farm includes some vineyard land, Sherman buys most of the fruit and “that will remain so” he said. He is more interested in the fermentation and aging part of winemaking and less in growing the grapes. This dichotomy between vine growing and wine making is very common in the US, but a bit difficult to comprehend from an European perspective. “I will always buy – it is like buying different spices” said Sherman.
The Paso Robles wineries have teamed up to various groups. The Thacher winery is part of the “Far Out Wineries”, all wineries that are situated west of the Paso Robles town. We took the scenic drive on Peach Canyon Road from Paso Robles downtown to the winery. It took as a bit longer than on Adelaida Road, but it was worth every minute. The area their reminded me very much of Southern France. It was a gorgeous drive.
The Wines We Tasted
Here are the wines we tasted, including winemaker comments:
Picture: The Wines we Drank
2008 Zinfandel $29
100% Zinfandel, bottled just last July (thank you bottle crew!), Released May 8, 2011, 190 cases.
This is a brand new release big, jammy and ripe zinfandel. "Medium-dark purplish ruby; attractive, fragrant, spicy, briary, jammy, blackberry fruit aroma with hints of pomegranate and smoked bacon; full body; big, rich, thick, jammy, dark berry fruit flavors with some residual sugar and a creamy mouth feel; full tannin; lingering aftertaste. Very ripe, over-the-top style of Zinfandel.
2007 Will's Hills Zinfandel $40
100% Zinfandel from Will's Hills Vineyard,Paso Robles, 72 cases
Very fresh and fruity flavors on nose and palate. Very ripe red fruits, balanced with a hint of vanilla and dried fruits. The finish is long and displays impeccable balance bwtween ripe fruit flavors, fresh acid and fine ripe tannins. This is a delicious wine and ready to drink in 2011, but will hold until 2013 or 2014, and will continue to develop additional complexity of aroma and flavor.
2008 CONTROLLED CHAOS $35
42% Mourvedre, 37% Zinfandel and 21% Grenache.
216 cases Release Date April 2011.
All three varietals picked from westside Paso Robles vineyards. This wine is clear and bright, with a medium plus intense ruby core fading to a pale ruby rim. On the nose this wine is clean and developing, with medium plus intense unctuous aromas of red and black plums, black cherry, strawberry jam, crushed black pepper, cedar, pan grille, roast meat and vanilla. Very complex.
On the palate, this wine is dry, with a medium plus body, spicy alcohol, generous chalky tannin, and acid to balance. The flavors are very intense, showcasing black cherry, black berry, strawberry jam, crushed peppercorn, cassis, chalk, black morel mushrooms, grilled meat and warm oak. The finish is long, with complex flavors balanced by lingering firm and integrated tannin.
This wine is ready to drink, but would benefit from 1-2 years in bottle, or a splash decant. It will hold for 4-6 years, maintaining its fruit and tannin throughout. Overall, an outstanding wine.
2007 SYRAH $28
100% Syrah from Coast View Vineyard, Monterey County
This wine is clear and bright, with a deeply intense shiny purple core, fading to a medium purple rim. Legs are slow and sheeting, with saturated purple color. On the nose, this wine is clean and developing, with medium plus intense aromas of ripe black cherries, French roast coffee beans, vanilla, cedar, plum sauce, cocoa nibs, tar and cola. On the palate this wine is dry, with medium plus firm tannin, medium plus spicy alcohol, medium plus filling body, and medium acid. Flavors are medium plus intense, and include ripe black cherries, vanilla extract, cedar, roasted coffee, black huckleberries, cola, cinnamon and Chinese five-spice. The finish is very long and supported. Firm tannins carry throughout, with dense chocolate and black fruit flavors. Acid to balance. Outstanding. This wine is ready to drink, but has enough structure, depth and complexity of elements to last 5-7 more years.
2007 SYRAH $28
100% Paso Robles Syrah, 240 cases
Complex aromas of tobacco leaf, vanilla and smoke. Big flavors of ancho chiles and black pepper balance out this complex new world wine with an old world sweet cream, vanilla and chalky mineral notes. This is a wonderful wine that develops some gamey charater which adds counterpoint to it's strength and freshness.
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