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19 Mar 2014

Sniff the Cap: Going Back for the Bitch in Paso Robles

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Winemaker Frank Nerelli is the great-grandson of one of the first winemakers in the Paso Robles region. Winemaker Frank Nerelli is the great-grandson of one of the first winemakers in the Paso Robles region. Deidre Pike

An older couple in a BMW drove randomly, stopping in directionless confusion at one busy intersection before zipping illegally around a car parked at a stoplight and lurching up the Highway 101 onramp.

“I’m going to assume everyone on the road is sloshed,” said Dave.

Fair assumption. Drivers might be three sheets to the wine wind anywhere. But Paso Robles—not quite a five-hour drive from Palm Springs, just north of San Luis Obispo—sports 120 wine tasting rooms sprawled over a twisting, hilly maze of country roads.

It’s no wonder the Paso Wines website recommends swishing and spitting when tasting. Or hiring a driver.

Speaking of hired drivers: I must give a shout-out to my extremely responsible husband, who limited himself to tiny tastes so that I could drink. Which is why I was three sheets to the wine as I wrote notes for this column in the front seat of his Honda Civic.

A weekend of delicious fermented goodness! Paso’s Wild Wine Festival weekend, no less! It was close enough to my birthday to qualify as my gift.

Dave booked an ocean-view campsite at Hearst San Simeon State Park. Paying $20 a night for a campsite instead of $200 a night at a bed-and-breakfast meant we could buy more wine to take home.

And the stars were glorious.

Before we hit the road, I created a “zinful itinerary” on the Paso Wine website, focusing on wineries in West Paso, many that specialize in Rhone varietals. Dave also made a Google map with wineries we knew or that were recommended by friends. (Drop me an email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I’ll share the map with you.)

Of course, my smartphone died, and the battery in Dave’s iPad ebbed to almost non-existent. So when Sara Hufferd, serving wine at Cypher Winery, handed us a booklet with a print map, we were grateful. Print on paper—still so useful.

Hufferd introduced us to Cypher’s rule-bending wines, from the 2010 Freakshow Anarchy ZMS ($40, zin-mourvedre-syrah) to the raging 2011 ZinBitch ($30). Dave purchased the 2009 Peasant GSM ($40, grenache-syrah-mourvedre), and we drank it that night by our campfire.

We went back Saturday so I could buy the Bitch.

Paso’s March event once celebrated zinfandel exclusively, but has expanded to include “other wild wines.” Coming soon: Paso’s 32nd Annual Wine Festival, May 15-18, with a Grand Tasting—60 wineries and gourmet food fare—on May 17. This event tends to sell out, so plan ahead.

Festival goodies varied by winery but included free food pairings, barrel tastings, live music, winemaker dinners, vineyard tours—and piles of people.

Some tasting bars were three-deep in sippers. But the Paso folks kept things running remarkably smooth. At many wineries, tasting bars were set up outside or spread out in large sprawling buildings. At Tablas Creek Vineyard, we received plenty of personal attention from Cindy, who took us through the featured wines and food pairings—and even went off-menu, rustling up a delicious 2011 mourvedre ($40) and a fun obscure 2011 tannat ($40). “Because it’s your birthday!” she said.

Everywhere we went, servers were friendly and attentive, even when wildly busy. When we walked into the jam-packed wine bar at Whalebone Winery, Victoria the Temp behind the bar made eye contact, grinned and managed to pass me a taste of Whalebone’s 2012 Ballena Blanca. She gave me tasting notes so that I could read about this tasty white ($28, marsanne, grenache blanc, roussanne). Victoria works in a law office by day. She’s a fan of the 2011 Boneyard ($33, mourvedre and friends), which we buy.

Obviously, Paso also didn’t disappoint on its original promise—zinfandel.

Stand-outs? At Adelaida Winery, one tasting bar was devoted to library zins bottled more than a decade ago. The bar was, again, swarmed, but a kind server walked around the bar to meet me with a bottle of 2002 zinfandel and tasting notes printed on card stock. The aged velvet fruit hit my tongue, and I wrote “holy shit!” at the top of the page, followed by “redolent with zinness.” At age 12, the wine’s tannins have matured, disappeared, leaving smooth fruit and spicy black licorice.

I stood in the shade, enjoying this zin and watching a mass of joyous humanity. A woman played guitar and sang “Wagon Wheel” as the server roamed back around to me and delivered a 2002 reserve zin ($60)—even better than the first. The grapes came from 80-year-old vines in a dry-farmed vineyard nearby.

I tasted three more zins before moving on to the winery’s current release, the 2011 Michael’s Vineyard zin ($36). After so many leathery old wines, this one clambered for attention like an adolescent. No matter: We know what he’s going to be when he grows up.

Speaking of young, Adelaida’s 2012 zinfandel was still in barrels. Inside the winery, a woman dispensed tastes by inserting a phallic glass tube, or “thief,” into the barrel’s bung. Tasters lined up, three or four at a time, and she dispensed an ounce or two in each glass. Barrel tasting excites folks.

We had arrived in Paso Robles on Friday afternoon when the wineries were less populated by swarming hordes. We drove past dozens of tasting rooms, looking for one recommended by several friends. Zin Alley is right off Highway 46 West, next door to Cypher. Inside, a partially lit fellow was drinking and buying a T-shirt with a clever logo: “If found, please return to the nearest winery.”

“I just had to have it!” the man said, face glowing.

“The nearest winery,” I replied, happily, “because any winery will do!”

“Exactly!”

Zin Alley has plenty of such kitsch, including a sign that notes: “Wine is how classy people get shit-faced.”

The guy left, and we had the place and winemaker Frank Nerelli to ourselves.

Nerelli grows grapes, makes small batches of wine and pours for folks in the tasting room. It’s not surprising that he’s a skilled wine-making fiend. His great grandparents Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli owned one of the first vineyards in Paso Robles, which they bought in 1917. Frank Nerelli bought his property from his uncle in the 1970s.

When I cast him as a hard-working guy, though, he shrugged.

“I play quite a bit,” he assured me. “You gotta know how to prioritize.”

On a weekday morning, he might work, say, pruning a row or a row and a half of grapes. “If I start at 6, I’m done at 9,” he said. “Then I can drink beer all day.”

We liked this guy.

Nerelli’s award-winning wines were as amazing as my friends’ rave reviews suggested. Nerelli’s Generation 4 ($47) is a blend of 80 percent syrah with 20 percent grenache. Dry-farmed. Never any pesticides. The grenache balanced the rich, dark syrah expertly.

We liked this wine.

Nerelli looked at my business card. “Sniff the Cap,” he said and chuckled.

Dave and I felt right at home. Paso Robles, we’ll be back.

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