Zinfandel Traditions Tour


Fruit from vineyard just south of Lake Lopez. Dry farmed. 3 acres of Zin vines date from 1880. Full expression of unusual terroir.


Southern ranch right over the Cuesta Grade from SLO near source of Salinas River. Cool climate.


Old Pesenti Ranch. Incredibly flavorful fruit. Now owned by Helen Turley’s (Marcassin) brother, emergency physician Larry Turley from Napa.

Stay: PASO ROBLES INN, Paso Robles

Eat: ARTISAN, Paso Robles

  • J. DUSI                       

Fourth generation daughter of a prestige grower family.

  • OPOLO    

Surprisingly successful neighbor pair know how to have a good time.


Avant garde couple sell rapidly growing label in order to concentrate on much smaller, more focused operation.


Small, slightly eccentric, definitely cult status. Expensive blends of Zinfandel w/ Syrah and Mourvedre. Make appointment well ahead.

Stay: PASO ROBLES INN                                           

Eat: VILLA CREEK, Paso Robles

  • CASTORO                  

Niels Udsen has acquired a lot of vineyard property operating a custom crush operation. Throughout he has made excellent Zin at real good prices.


Couple former teachers move to Paso, buy a Walnut grove. Start making Zin in the late ‘80s. Sons enter business, and it quickly becomes much bigger enterprise. Everything from value to quality single vyd Zins.

  • DONATONI    

Former airline pilot whose small winery in Los Angeles sourced grapes in Paso Robles. Full-time attention and the move north are good additions. Makes Zin from excellent Sauret Vyd planted in 1940’s.


High traffic location on route into town from Central Valley presents vigorous merchandising opportunity. Can quality withstand the pressure?

Stay: PASO ROBLES INN            


There are inland areas of Santa Barbara County perfectly suitable for growing high-end Zinfandel. Same with Monterey County. In fact San Benito County, on the eastern side of the Gabilan Mountains which border Salinas Valley, does grow some exceptional Zinfandel, and areas around King City have lots of Zin acres planted. But none of that has the historic precedent enjoyed by Paso Robles. Today Paso is celebrating its enormous expansion of wineries (from 20 in 1990 to over 200 today), and pointing to many successes with Rhônish wines and with Cabernet Sauvignon. Those winners are unmistakable and noteworthy because their price points are significantly more modest than those of other statewide competitors. It is understandable that Paso Zinfandel’s light would seem more of a twinkle today than a klieg-like beam. Moreover, fine Zinfandel competition is widespread throughout California. Connoisseurs who lose perspective on Paso Zin, however, will be considerably deprived for their oversight. Paso Zin is better today than it was as a solo act 30 years ago. It just doesn’t seem as loud with a crowd shouting around it.

Zinfandel was the best wine of the Paso Robles area in 1900. Italian immigrants preferred it, and they knew from whence they spoke. They were not inclined to part with a premium price just to show off for friends.

One can argue Zinfandel was the only wine of the Paso Robles area in 1975. Other games were afoot, but they had not found any traction yet. Dr. Hoffman’s big gamble with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (using André Tchelistcheff as a consultant) was failing miserably. Meanwhile Zinfandel successes were all over the place: Bay Area Zin master Paul Draper (Ridge) imported Benito Dusi Vyd grapes; locals such as Mastantuono did a brisk high-end business; and stalwarts like Pesenti and Rotta thrived on screw-cap half-gallons. In the next fifteen years new names such as Peachy Canyon and Tobin James brought the excitement of fresh meat to Paso Zin, while acclaimed Bay Area gumshoe Kent Rosenblum started importing Sauret Vyd grapes. Almost below the radar custom crusher Niels Udsen began producing extraordinary Paso Zins under is own Castoro label. Now Udsen owns many hundreds of newly planted acres on the east side of the appellation.

One distinction to look for in teasing apart Zinfandels from Paso Robles is the age of the vineyard. Another distinction is warm climate location vs. cooler climate. There will be further distinctions. That’s why we do these Suggested Theme Tours. We want you to compare (i.e. see up close and in the vineyard, then taste side-by-side) reasons wines taste different from each other. One distinction is going to be vines planted on a steep hillside vs. vines planted in the flat. For the time being, let’s focus on identifying warmer vs. cooler locations. Pull out a Paso Robles Vintners’ Assn map showing the boundaries of the Paso Robles AVA. It’s huge: runs all the way from the coastal ridge to out by Parkfield, where all the earthquake sensors are deployed. A gross oversimplification is to divide the hot eastern section from the cooler western portion by using Hwy 101 as a dividing line. Ask winery people to point out from whence cooling influences arrive. Don’t be too surprised when you get wildly disparate responses. Everybody wants to claim some cooling effects. Note the existence of the Templeton Gap. Note as well temperature evidence from the south part of the AVA (Santa Margarita) close to the Cuesta Grade (Hwy 101 out of San Luis Obispo). I’m prepared to believe claims of cool breezes there. If all else fails, harvest dates are a good way to compare temperature in two Zinfandel vineyards.

Most of the eastern section of the AVA is fairly hot. That is where a great many new vineyards have been planted recently. Much of the land there used to be in alfalfa, but there is hardly any rain at all. It takes 13 acre-feet of water to raise an alfalfa crop ~ cattle feed worth about $800 per acre. Federally subsidized water at $10 per acre-foot made that land productive, but how long can it continue when the plumbing cost to deliver the water is closer to $100 per acre-foot. Grapes require less than two acre-feet of water per year, and it can be delivered with great accuracy and timing using a drip irrigation system. Even bulk grapes for jug wine deliver on the order of $5,000 per acre in value each year.

Eastern Paso Zinfandels made from young vines are soft, balanced, fruity, and reliable. They are enjoyably predictable. Relaxed. They often come in under $20 per bottle. Sliced from the past, they are too often overlooked today. That’s a shame. Given a ten or fifteen percent stiffener (Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Tannat, Petit Verdot), those wines can stand up to an ice cube on a hot summer day in the backyard. Wedge of blood orange rarely hurts either. Food is not necessary, but I wouldn’t say no to a Reuben sandwich. That salty – vinegar combination is hard on some wines, but works perfectly well with the broad strokes of an Eastern Paso Zin. Try Taj Mahal playing Why Yo’ Bacon Fat?  Taj has been around, seen a few things. He’d like an agreeable Zin.

Young, newly planted Zin vines from the cooler parts of the AVA (i.e. in the western hills or in the south) are going to be purchased by more ambitious, more artsy wineries, perhaps those making a design statement. Those wines will seek impact. They will expensive and chewy. You won’t be drinking three of them with a couple friends over cheese and crackers. The best examples will be simultaneously classic and unique. Call it unexpectedly good quality. You want a notable dish. Sophisticated, hearty, but not ostentatious. Try a Tuscan Ragout [porcini, Portobello, canned tomato, garlic, pancetta, chili flakes ~ serve on spaghetti]. Tastes like meat, but doesn’t have any in it. It’s not comfort food; it’s the sort of evening that gets tweeted. For music, I suggest Bob Dylan at his abrasive best (when he was in danger of being deified as a young man) playing On the Road Again. Unfortunately the Copyright Sheriff won’t let you hear Bob himself doing the song on YouTube, and that scratchy voice is part of the allusion I’m making. You’ll have to ask your grandfather to play you the CD. This link is for a creditable cover by Raymond Crooke, whom I take to be an Englishman.

Older Zinfandel vineyards around Paso Robles tend to be located in the cooler western hills. Pat Mastan (Pasquale Mastantuono) had some cockamamie notion that they were all surrounded by native Black walnut trees which influenced wine flavor. I don’t know about a causative effect (Black walnut trees tend to poison anything growing in close proximity), but I do find the image useful ~ old Paso Zins seem to share a bitter / spicy finish. The wines are medium-bodied, with a good track record for developing handsomely between they’re fifth and seventh birthdays. Reasonably priced, they’ve historically held a lot of appeal for hard working people. Not as generically similar as the young vine / warm climate wines, these old-time players show surprising taste notes with express individuality. The perfect cuisine pairing is Chili. Of course there are as many versions of Chili as there are grandparent couples in Texas. Play classic country blues. I’d suggest Rachel Brooke whose easy yodel enlivens Weary Blues by Hank Williams.     


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