Robert Haas, Founder of Tablas Creek Winery, 1927-2018

I never met Robert Haas.

I had very much hoped I would, at some point, as I continue work on my ongoing Year in the Life of Wine documentary project, which is set at his Tablas Creek vineyard in west Paso Robles.

He died this past weekend at the age of 90.

There have already been several beautiful remembrances of his exceptional life (the best of which, appropriately, is from his son and Tablas Creek General Manager Jason Haas—I highly recommend taking the time to read Jason’s piece about his father’s life, which ranged much more widely than just this storied Paso Robles winery).

But though I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, I have come to know his vineyard and his winery, which both say so much about who he was and what was important to him.

When I started thinking of places I could base a documentary where I could explore and photograph and write about how wine is made, Tablas Creek was my first and only choice because of what I’d come to know of it over preceding years.

It wasn’t just that Haas had a visionary (and, at the time, crazily optimistic) dream of producing high-quality Rhône varieties in California’s Mediterranean climate.  It was also his approach to and sense of responsibility in the way the wine grapes are grown that will be an important part of his legacy.

But first, those wines.

Haas and Tablas Creek probably have more to do with my becoming an evangelically devoted Rhônehead than any other experience I’ve had with wine–an experience that is surely true for legions of other oenophiles who’ve made their way to the Tablas Creek tasting room.  I had turned my nose up at Rhônes for years, preferring the predictable comfort of the Bordeaux varieties I tasted my way through in the early 2000s in Sonoma County.  I found Syrah, especially, too harsh and funky and often just plain weird.  When my husband suggested we check out Tablas Creek a decade ago, it was specifically because of all those Rhône varieties that neither of us had really gotten to know well before.

I’ll save the extended exegesis on what a mind-opening, palate-expanding experience those wines were for me, but they have been critically important in the development of my wine knowledge and preferences.

Over on my documentary website (which I promise I will update soon, because I have a huge backlog of really amazing things to share from Tablas, with much more to come), you can read a quick history of how Haas decided to import Rhône vines from France, patiently waited through the long quarantine period, and ultimately decided to share those vines with other growers.

That decision is part of what cemented his place as an icon in the wine world, and especially in introducing American-grown Rhône wines to American audiences.

Rhône varieties were not that prevalent in California before Haas planted his Tablas Creek vineyard with them, and the clones that were being grown were often not the best quality.  Haas was now making available for anyone else who wanted to purchase them the very best vinestock from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  As a result, hundreds of acres in California are now planted to the Tablas clones.  That’s quite a legacy.

Vineyard marker at Lodi's Acquiesce estate, noting that the vines are Tablas clones.
Vineyard marker at Lodi’s Acquiesce estate, noting that the vines are Tablas clones.

But that’s not the only thing Haas did that captured my interest.

From the very first time I visited, I began learning about Haas’ commitment to caring for the land.  Tablas’ tasting room staff are some of the best-informed and most passionate you’ll find; they understand and are happy to enthusiastically educate visitors on their approach to growing wine grapes—organically, and as of a few months ago, officially certified biodynamically. They care for the land on which their grapes are grown, and it just shines through when you see this up close.

The Tablas Creek farmily.
The Tablas Creek farmily.
Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg checks on the Tablas bee hives.
Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg checks on the Tablas bee hives.

Sustainability is something of great importance to me, and it’s one of the first things that really resonated with me about Tablas (besides the delicious wines).  While I could (and just may, as the end result of my project) write a book on all the things involved in such an approach in a vineyard, you don’t really need to know all that detail to appreciate Haas’ dedication to sustainable practices.  It’s there in the sheep herd and the dry-farmed, head-trained vineyard blocks; it’s there in the wild-caught beehives that dot the vineyard; and it’s there in the great care and love those who work that land have for it.

Sunrise at the vineyard.
Sunrise at the vineyard.

I’ve now spent many mornings all by myself in that vineyard as the sun rose.  That’s my favorite time to observe any landscape, watching it come alive as the dawn first touches here, then there, before bathing the entire scene in soft morning light.  My favorite spot to do so is at the top of a hill behind the winery, under an old oak tree with an owl box, and a big block of Grenache vines spreading out before me.  I always spend a few minutes thinking about how this place must have looked when Haas first saw it—a 120-acre parcel carved out of the dense tangle of chaparral and scrub oak and rolling green hills of west Paso.

What a vision that must have been, and what vision it must have taken to dream of what now stands there.

RE:FIND Distillery is up to even MORE fun and delicious things

RE:FIND Distillery is still the best little distillery on the Central Coast.

I am somewhat biased about this, but trust me.  You need to try these spirits.

I stopped in for a visit last week to see what they’ve been up to since I featured them last year–because the Villicanas (owners Alex and Monica), with their mutual boundless energy, are always up to something fun and interesting.

The RE:FIND tasting room is in the distillery, so you get to see the stills and barrels and all working parts. Fun!
The RE:FIND tasting room is in the distillery, so you get to see the stills and barrels and all working parts. Fun!

Was I disappointed?  HAHAHAHAHA no.  Don’t be ridiculous.  They’re still making the same top-quality artisanal spirits (and they do MAKE these spirits from scratch, which is a distinction most craft spirit producers cannot claim).  But, ever focused on education as much as the sheer fun of this, they’ve introduced some new things that novice spirit consumers will enjoy, and will appeal to even the most jaded craft cocktail pros as well.

They’ve added a Kumquat Liqueur to their lineup (the fall/winter alternative to their Limoncello that’s so good for spring/summer quaffing).  I really love liqueurs generally speaking, but this one is just NEAT.  If you’re familiar with orange liqueurs, you might be expecting this to taste like those.  And you’d be wrong, mostly.  It still has sort of an orange-y quality (which is fine and lovely and delicious), but the Kumquat Liqueur is exotic and perfume-y in a way that no orange liqueur could be, no matter how hard it tried.  The nose on this just delighted me when Monica poured a taste–the immediate impression reminded me of the sharp floral burst you get when you twist a piece of orange (or in this case, kumquat) peel.  There is an almost aerosolized brightness that leaps out of the glass.  And that, naturally, makes one want to TASTE it.  What follows on the palate is equally perfume-y and exotic.  Definitely citrus, but not your dad’s Grand Marnier.  This is a fun and pretty and delicious liqueur.

So what does one do with a Kumquat Liqueur?  Aside from drinking it straight (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s fabulous in cocktails.  Monica made an on-the-spot RE:FIND cocktail using this liqueur and their “[e]” barrel-finished vodka (which tastes more like a whiskey, or whisky, which may explain that bracketed E in the name just a bit).  That riff on a classic cocktail works really well.

RE:FIND's Barrel Finished [e] Vodka alongside one of their specially crafted mixers
RE:FIND’s Barrel Finished [e] Vodka alongside one of their specially crafted mixers
*I will pause right here to tell you that tentatively sometime this coming summer, they will release their second bourbon.*  I am a bourbon fanatic, and may be unduly excited by this.  Okay, I’m SUPER excited by this.  Their first bourbon release sold out in three hours.  I missed that one, but (hope) I won’t miss this upcoming release.

Root Elixers' Grapfruit Jalapeno soda, which mixes with their vodka for a wild--and delicious--take on a Moscow Mule
Root Elixers’ Grapefruit Jalapeno soda, which mixes with RE:FIND’s gin for a wild–and delicious–take on a Greyhound cocktail

So back to the cocktail thing–this is now a thing at RE:FIND (and a very good thing).  They’re working with local artisanal soda and mixer producers to create exclusive mixers to pair with their spirits, which is great for these artisanal producers and even better for the RE:FIND customer.  In addition to their original spirits club, they now have a cocktail club which ships in May and September.  This is a brilliant idea, and a great way to give guidance to their customers on how to make best use of the spirits they take home from the tasting room.

The September selection (pictured here) includes their Gin, Barrel Finished Vodka, & Kumquat Liqueur, plus mixers & recipes.  The cost per shipment is $110 (before tax/shipping), and gets you a 20% discount on any of their spirits you buy in addition to this.  It makes a fun gift (especially a gift for yourself, of course).

The latest selection in RE:FIND's new Cocktail Club (and what a great holiday gift this would make!)
The latest selection in RE:FIND’s new Cocktail Club (and what a great holiday gift this would make!)

And because RE:FIND’s raison d’être is to recapture what would otherwise go to waste–specifically, saignee from the winemaking process that would otherwise be discarded–here’s an update on this year’s harvest.  Monica reports that they purchased saignee from 25 different Paso-area wineries, thereby reclaiming more than 60 farmed acres’ worth of winegrapes (and all the resources that go into farming those grapes).  It’s not often you can enjoy a cocktail while simultaneously helping to save the planet, but that’s what you’ll get with RE:FIND’s spirits.

The RE:FIND tasting room is part of the Villicana Winery’s tasting room–and I recommend you try both the next time you’re in Paso (start with the wines, and finish with the spirits).  A profile of their wines is still on my to-do list, but I will tell you that their wines are every bit as good as their spirits (they produce an outstanding Merlot, for starters).  They also offer the artisanal mixers for their spirits right there in the tasting room, so you can get everything you need in one stop.

Don't forget that the winery is what started everything. Make sure you START with a tasting of Villicana Wines when you head for RE:FIND
Don’t forget that the winery is what started everything. Make sure you START with a tasting of Villicana Wines when you head for RE:FIND

The Villicana and RE:FIND tasting rooms are located on the west side of Paso Robles at 2725 Adelaida Road. 805-239-9456, and are open daily from 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Quick update: Rangeland’s new tasting room is open!

You may recall my profile of Rangeland wines in Paso Robles last summer–beautifully crafted estate wines in a gorgeous west Paso setting.

The only catch was that you had to make an appointment to taste their wines–maybe you’re shy about that, or maybe it’s just a difficult thing to schedule on a weekend of wine tasting–but that is not the case anymore.

Their new tasting room opened a couple of weeks ago in Templeton (in the greater Paso Robles area), and you can now walk in any time Thursday through Saturday and belly up to the tasting bar.

Rangeland's new Templeton location
Rangeland’s new Templeton location

They’re sharing space with Nature’s Touch, a locally owned natural grocer, at 225 South Main Street in Templeton (trivia: Nature’s Touch was one of the first local grocers to sell Rangeland’s excellent organic pastured beef), and they have built a beautiful tasting area within the store.  For the time being (until they decide to expand their hours and add more staff), you’re likely to be served by owners Laird and Lisa Foshay, or their winemaker, Paul Hinschberger–and there is no better way to taste wine than when you can do so in the company of the people who actually make what’s in your glass.

A few of Rangeland's offerings
A few of Rangeland’s offerings

They were already up and running and hosting a wine club event when I stopped by last weekend, so they are ready to see you.  Their Bordeaux varieties are stunners, especially the Watershed Bordeaux blend and Limestone Cabernet Sauvignon, and they do the most elegant Petite Sirah I’ve ever tasted (seriously, this one alone is worth the trip).  There’s also a selection of Rhone blends (the result of their recently expanded estate vineyards), so there’s something for every palate.  This is one of Paso’s sleeper wineries, but now that they’ve got a public tasting location, expect that to change.

Rangeland's Current Tasting Flight
Rangeland’s Current Tasting Flight

Rangeland Wines, 11-5 Thursday through Saturday, 225 South Main Street, Templeton, California, 805-674-9232.

Markus Niggli and the importance of place.

I have been going in circles for months now over how to tell you about Markus Niggli and his incredible, challenging (and astonishingly good) wines.  Writer’s block isn’t generally something I struggle with, but I also rarely come across someone like Markus–or his wines.  And yes, I’m going to be throwing out a barrage of highly effusive superlatives here, because in this case it’s fully justified.

Flash back to last August, when I was in Lodi for the annual wine bloggers’ conference: I opted to go on the pre-excursion before the conference-proper began, and found myself in an intensive get-to-know-Lodi-wines experience.  One of those get-to-know moments was in a shaded picnic area at Mokelumne Glen vineyard, where we were introduced to a handful of winemakers who produce wines from the Koth family’s “experimental” vineyard of German varieties, the vast majority of which are the only such plantings in the U.S.

Markus Niggli, holding forth in the Koth vineyard at Mokelumne Glen last summer.
Markus Niggli, holding forth in the Koth vineyard at Mokelumne Glen last summer.

There was one winemaker in particular who really got my attention, along with his wines.  It was Markus Niggli.  My initial impression of these wines was that they challenged my palate and what I thought I knew about white wines in a completely confounding, wonderful way.  These are unusual wines in the best way–wildly aromatic, low-ish in alcohol, fantastically dry, and every bit as complex on the palate as they were on the nose.  And then Markus took his turn to talk to our group.  Tall and lanky, slightly intense, affable, and very, very Swiss.  Not your usual Lodi type, to be sure.

So how does a Swiss winemaker find himself in Lodi?  By way of Australia, naturally.  Niggli’s first career was in tourism in Switzerland, and as he moved up the corporate ladder in that field, he traveled the globe and developed a keen interest in wine–and eventually in winemaking.  He quit the tourism industry for a vineyard job in Perth, Australia, leaving his homeland–but never forgetting where he came from.  This sense of place remains a powerful part of what he does, reflected not just by what’s in the bottle, but also what’s on the bottle (more on that in a moment).

Markus Wine Co. wines on display in the tasting room.
Markus Wine Co. wines on display in the tasting room.

After a few years in Australia, Niggli moved to California to continue his path as a winemaker; he was working at a winery in Napa when he jumped to Lodi’s Borra Vineyards in 2006, taking on the job of winemaker for Steve Borra’s smartly styled wines.  But it’s his “sub-venture” with Borra, under his Markus Wine Co. label, where he gets free creative reign over a lineup of (mostly) white wines that are both unconventional and evocative of more traditional European (especially German and Swiss) styles.  Though it’s not his sole source of grapes for the Markus label, access to the Koth’s vineyard gives Niggli the opportunity to produce wines using varieties like Kerner and Bacchus, with outstanding results.

One of his most interesting wines is his Kerner-dominant Nimmo; rather than aging it in stainless steel or concrete (the more conventional approach for the European versions of this grape), this wine sees several months in new oak.  Now stop right there:  if your mind immediately thought of oak-y Chardonnay, you could not be further from what this wine is like.  The prominent terpene compounds common to these German varieties–Riesling, Kerner, Bacchus and so on–transform into something quite different with new oak; it’s an age-worthy, exceptionally dry, and (of course) highly aromatic wine.  It’s one of the most fascinating (and tasty) wines I’ve ever tried.

Niggli behind the bar in the tasting room, where he speaks passionately about the wines he makes.
Niggli behind the bar in the tasting room, where he talk passionately about the wines he makes.

Niggli’s wines will shake up your palate and make you think about what’s in your glass.  Most of his other wines–which include another variation on the Kerner grape, a 100% Gewürztraminer, a Torrontes-Traminette blend (all highly aromatic varieties)–are aged in stainless steel, and all of his wines are fermented with native yeasts, with no secondary ML fermentation.  You will taste (and smell) a range of white flowers, meyer lemon, lychee, green apples–with a backbone of minerality that lends terrific balance (and I deliberately use the somewhat controversial term “minerality,” because there is an unmistakable note of wet rock, a dustiness, a chalkiness, that lingers on the finish on Niggli’s wines).  I admittedly have a mile-wide soft spot for dry, aromatic white wines, and these have become instant favorites of mine.

Now, about what’s on the outside of those bottles:  I resist getting too hung up on wine labels, because they generally have nothing to do, really, with what’s inside that bottle, but Niggli has taken an interesting approach to his.  Most of the labels (and in one case, the actual name of the wine) commemorate his connection to a place or some experience in his past.  The label for his Nativo (the stainless steel Kerner blend) is an odd assortment of letters and numbers.  He decided to seek out the work of design students at University of the Pacific–these students have designed all of the Markus Wine Co. labels–but didn’t want them to be focused on the wine itself for the design–he gave them zero information on the wine inside the bottle, and instead gave them the combination “MBKW8872” and designated the color green for the label.  The significance of that text is this: M, B and K are the first initials for Markus and his two brothers, the W refers to his home town Weesen, Switzerland, and 8872 is Weesen’s postal code–a nod to his home and family.

His Nimmo (the oaked Kerner blend) takes its name from a mnemonic acronym he created when he lived in Australia and needed to remember how to find his way to his winery job–it’s the first letters in the names of the streets he needed to take to get to and from work; as the name of his wine, it’s an acknowledgement of where his path as a winemaker got its start.  Place matters, and Niggli never seems to lose sight of all the places that have brought him to where he is today–he makes thoughtful reference to this on his labels, but more important is that you also find the influence of all those places in what’s inside the bottle.  And what’s in the bottle is very, very good.

The tasting room for Markus Wine Co., in the heart of the beautiful Borra vineyard.
The tasting room for Markus Wine Co., in the heart of the beautiful Borra vineyard.

You can taste Markus Wine Co. wines at the Borra tasting room–they’re open the last weekend of every month, and also by appointment (which you can do directly on their website).  If you’re lucky, you’ll get to chat with Markus himself (something I highly recommend).

The 2016 Markus Wine Co. Zeal, a Rosé of Syrah. You need this wine in your life.
The 2016 Markus Wine Co. Zeal, a Rosé of Syrah. You need this wine in your life.

Borra and Markus Wine Co. hold an open house the last weekend each month; upcoming dates are July 28-30, Fri-Sun 12-5 and August 25-27, Fri-Sun 12-5.  Make sure to try (and take home a few bottles of) his 2016 Zeal–a rosé of Syrah that will knock your socks off.  It’s bone-dry, spicy-strawberry-rhubarb, with a bright acidity that’s perfect on a hot summer day.

Borra Vineyards/Markus Wine Co.
1301 East Armstrong Road
Lodi, CA 95242


Acquiesce: Through the looking glass with Lodi’s White(s) Queen

I hope Sue Tipton forgives (or at least has a chuckle over) the literary reference above.  As I sat down to write this piece, and thought about how to title it, I realized I was as confounded by how to properly describe her and her outstanding wines as I was the first day I tasted them.  And this is a very good thing.

Lineup of Acquiesce's wines
Lineup of Acquiesce’s wines

I have a great fascination with–and admiration for–winemakers who trust their vision enough to buck trends and defy norms and expectations.  Sue Tipton, owner and winemaker of Acquiesce Vineyards in Lodi, California, is one of those mavericks, and the resulting wines prove how great her vision is.

The day I visited her tasting room as part of last year’s wine blogger conference, it really was a bit of a through-the-looking-glass experience.  I knew very little about Lodi and its wines, but did know their reputation for producing tens of thousands of acres of red wine grapes, especially Zinfandel.  So, naturally, the first place I’m taken on the Lodi pre-conference excursion is Acquiesce, where you will find a lineup of outstanding Rhône varieties inspired by the wines of Chateauneuf de Pape–and not a single red among them.  (Way to shake things up, LoCA.)

That’s a bold choice for a Lodi winemaker.  Heck, that’s a bold choice generally speaking.

It all started with one sip of wine.

Like almost every winemaker I’ve talked to over the years, Sue began her journey as a winemaker after being wowed by a particularly memorable bottle of wine–in her case, it was an old-world white Rhône blend from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  She’d never tasted anything like it before, and wanted more.  She began seeking out more of those blends, both old AND new world wines, but that didn’t sate her growing fascination with this style of wine.

Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery (photo credit: Rodney Tipton)
Sue Tipton of Acquiesce Winery

So the wheels began to turn–she and her husband Rodney, who is her partner in the winery, had recently moved to Lodi and purchased a home that shared land with 18 acres of Zinfandel vines, which were already under contract to wineries and winemakers, a kind of built-in income source.  Soon, she began dabbling in home winemaking, using some of the Zinfandel grapes from their property to make a dry rosé.  But she couldn’t stop thinking about that white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so they made the choice eleven years ago to rip out some of those income-producing Zinfandel vines–an anxiety-producing move, to be sure–and planted Grenache and Grenache Blanc (the former of which is used in her bone-dry Grenache Rosé).

It didn’t take long for what had been a hobby pursuit to morph into something more–and they made the decision to go into business.  An old barn on the property was converted into a winery and tasting room, and they began purchasing the larger scale winemaking equipment needed to produce the increased amount of wine they were making.

Choosing to jump into a highly competitive business that’s subject to the vagaries of weather and consumer whims is not a choice made lightly, but it proved to be a very good choice indeed.  Tipton expanded her plantings to include Roussanne, Viognier, and Picpoul Blanc and they opened their tasting room in 2012.  As it would turn out, the demand for her wines exceeded their production every year, and Acquiesce was a bona fide success.

Picpoul Blanc in the Vineyard
Picpoul Blanc in the Vineyard

In 2015, she added two more Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties, Clairette Blanche and Bourbolenc.  Those varieties are rare even for their home turf in southern France, but as we already know, she’s not afraid to move ahead with what others might see as unconventional choices.  She hopes to see her first vintage of Clairette Blanche this year, and I cannot wait to taste what she does with it.

Let the grape speak.

Tipton chooses a minimalist approach to her wines–these beauties never touch oak, which lets the character of these grapes really shine.  Her location in Lodi’s Mokulemne River sub-AVA gives her near-perfect growing conditions with the area’s sandy loam soil and the added benefit of cooler nights thanks to the cool coastal air from the Sacramento-San Joachin River Delta that drifts in every evening.  Combined with the area’s Mediterranean climate, all these conditions come together to allow these varieties to be taken to appropriate ripeness (something that’s a challenge for their Châteauneuf-du-Pape counterparts), and this results in grapes that are bright and crisp with intense fruitiness, and great acidity and minerality.  If any of this surprises you, read all about Lodi’s Mokelumne River soils from LoCA’s Randy Caparoso.

Acquiesce’s very name comes from Tipton’s desire to let these grape varieties’ best qualities shine through:

Acquiesce verb: to surrender, to become quiet.  Acquiesce has become our mantra — to submit to nature, to yield to the vineyard, to acquiesce to the grapes so they present their own true character.  Attention to detail reigns here with sustainable vines that are lightly watered, grapes that are handpicked and then whole cluster pressed to create wines that are both classic and traditional.

Let the grape speak!
Let the grape speak!

So what about those wines?  They’ve won an impressive number of awards and accolades, and demand for her wines is so great that she had to close her wine club to new memberships for a long stretch.  She reopened the club to new members just two weeks ago, and the response has been so overwhelming that she told me she expects to have to close it again by mid-April.

Tasting a tank sample of the 2016 Grenache Rosé
Tasting a tank sample of the 2016 Grenache Rosé

My personal favorite of hers (although it’s really hard to pick a favorite) is the Picpoul Blanc–this is the wine that stopped me in my tracks when I tasted it last summer.  This variety is known for its sharp, citrus tartness–the name translates roughly to “lip stinger”–and hers is perhaps the best version of this variety I’ve tasted.  Dry, almost mouth-puckeringly tart, but balanced out beautifully with intense fruitiness and great body.  It is a gorgeous wine, and I’m impatiently awaiting her 2016 release of this one.

The entire lineup is impressive, though, and the 2016 Grenache Blanc, Grenache Rosé and Viognier are now available (and if you run REALLY fast, you can pick up one of the few remaining bottles of her 2015 Belle Blanc, a Rhône blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne).  Still to come this spring are the releases of that stunning Picpoul Blanc, the Roussanne, and the Belle Blanc.

Tipton produced 1400 cases of wine in 2015, and this grew to 2000 cases for the 2016 vintage.  She also has a sparkling Grenache Blanc in the works, méthode champenoise style, which she hopes to release in about a year (I may be excessively excited about this one, because BUBBLES).

Acquiesce is a most unexpected gem to find in the heart of Lodi’s red wine country.  The winery is open for tasting Friday – Sunday from 11 am – 5 pm, and each flight is expertly paired with a small bite, which is a wonderful touch (and a bargain at the $10 tasting fee).  Tasting fee waived with a bottle purchase–but I’ll bet you can’t buy just one.  They even have a Tesla charging station for your convenience.

Acquiesce is located at 22353 N. Tretheway Road Acampo, California 95220, Phone (209) 333-6102.


Home, home on the Range(land)

If you happened to run into Laird Foshay in town in Paso Robles, you’d quickly figure him for a local cowboy–the requisite boots and hat, perfectly placed (as an exiled Texan, I can speak to the subject of cowboy hats; more finesse is involved than you might imagine).

Rangeland's Award-Winning Wines
Rangeland’s Award-Winning Wines

But you’d be wrong–to an extent.  Foshay, whose first career was in tech publishing, is a Nova Scotia native who grew up in Palo Alto.  His startup INVESTools was one of the early web-based investment newsletters; he sold that and in 2000 purchased some of the sweetest west side Paso land you’re likely to encounter, Adelaida Springs Ranch, and moved the family to the burgeoning wine region.

Laird Foshay pouring a flight of his winesFoshay and his wife Lisa now raise cattle and sheep on the ranch (all grass-fed), and have 40 of those 1,500 acres planted to wine grapes.  This former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now spends his days as a bona fide rancher, a lot of that on horseback.

Just 12 miles from the ocean and at over 1,700 feet elevation, those 40 acres of grapevines thrive in the rich limestone soil and the cooler coastal air of the Adelaida District sub-AVA.  The Foshays initially planted 20 acres of vines in 2002, all to Bordeaux varietals, and have since doubled that and added Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and several Rhone varietals.

Estate VinesLiving in such a geologically and agriculturally rich location means that Foshay and winemaker Paul Hinschberger opt to take a mostly non-interventionist approach to their winemaking, preferring to let the wines show the beauty of that terroir to the greatest possible extent–a wise choice, clearly indicated in the quality of the wines.

Rangeland does not have a public tasting room–yet (more on that in a moment)–but is happy to set up a private tasting for you.  When you go (and, oh, you should go!), you’ll drive deep into the west Paso hills, through the ranch gate and arrive at their stunning ranch house–where you’ll most likely be greeted by Arrow, the ranch border collie.  And a green tennis ball.  You know what to do.Arrow the Ranch Dog

Once inside, you’ll enjoy a flight of their wines in a casual setting with breathtaking views to the west.  Their wines are a solid lineup, from the rosé (a blend of Zinfandel, Mouverdre, and Cabernet Sauvignon) to a GSM through a couple of red blends, Cabernet, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.  The latter two were easy favorites of mine–big, as you might expect for those varietals, but with a surprising amount of restraint.  The Petite was especially impressive.

View to the westThe first time I visited, back in February, they were hosting a vertical tasting of their cabs, capped off with a rustic lunch of a beef pie made from their own grassfed beef.  And that’s where you’re going to find yourself faced with a tough decision–the Foshays offer not just a wine club, as you’d expect, but they also offer a beef club and lamb club.  Join any of their clubs, and you’ll enjoy an across-the-board 20% discount on wines and meat.  I dare you to resist.  We’re beef club members, incidentally (yeah, I couldn’t resist that).Rangeland Glass

Try to make it up for a private tasting and ranch tour–and then look forward to their upcoming expansion.  I was delighted when Laird pulled out the map and plans for their future tasting room and winery; while the intimacy of enjoying a tasting in their beautiful home is a special experience, the new facility they have planned will be impressive in its own right–and with those same sweeping views.  I’m excited by what they have planned, and look forward to following up as soon as the new tasting room is completed and opened.Plans for the Future

Rangeland Wines (on Adelaida Springs Ranch) is located at 10425 Klau Mine Rd. in Paso Robles.  Use the contact form on their website to scheduling a tasting, or call 805-674-9232.


RE:FIND Spirits – A delicious lesson in sustainability

I’ll begin with a bit of understatement:  Alex Villicana is a high-energy kind of guy, who is passionate about what he does.

And that’s a very good thing for all of us.

Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery
Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery

He is the embodiment of the Paso Robles pioneering spirit that’s made this area such an interesting and exciting wine region.  He and his wife Monica began producing their estate-grown wines under their Villicana label in 1999–but that’s a story for another time (which I’ll cover in the coming months).  Just know for the time being that those wines are beautifully crafted and you should stop by if and when you’re in the area.  Taste some, buy some.

RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still
RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still

But it’s their secondary business that really caught my interest recently.

I’d seen their sign on Adelaida Road for years (there are a lot of wineries on Adelaida Road; I’m still trying to visit ALL of them).  And along with the sign directing you to their tasting room, there’s also a sign for RE:FIND Distillery.  While there’s no shortage of great wineries in Paso, I had never seen a distillery set up shop there, and never really seen anything stronger than port promoted at a handful of other wineries.

I was looking for someplace new to try on a trip a couple of months ago and decided to finally check out this Villicana/RE:FIND operation and see exactly what they were up to.

And what they are up to there is something pretty amazing.  Villicana had been bothered for years by the fact that there was nothing much to do with the saignée–the “bleed” of juice from some wines (mostly Rhone varietals) that was otherwise dumped down the drain.  It seemed unacceptably wasteful.

“Growing wine grapes has a pretty big carbon footprint,” Villicana notes.  “When you think about the cost and energy and water that goes into farming those grapes, it’s a shame to just pour out thousands of gallons of juice.”

Stills at RE:FIND
Stills at RE:FIND

And then he had an epiphany.  He stumbled on a grape-based vodka in the mid-2000s, and it was good.  “I didn’t know you could do that,” Villicana said.  “It was my ‘Aha!’ moment.”

So Villicana set about figuring out how he could take that otherwise wasted saignée and recycle it by turning it into spirits.  He visited Dry Fly Distilling in Washington state to learn how to use distilling equipment.  And then he began the long process–about three years–to obtain a license to run a commercial distillery, something that wasn’t widely done in California since before Prohibition.

Spirits in the Making
Spirits in the Making

“My local ABC guy (California Alcoholic Beverage Control) was very helpful in figuring our way through this, fortunately,” Villicana said.  The tricky part about the licensing process is that you must own a still before you can get the license.

“But stills are expensive, so we were torn about whether to make such a big investment before we knew if the license was a sure thing,” he said.  But as soon as the ABC official told him that it looked like he had a clear path to getting that license, “I wrote the check out that day [for the still], and sent it off!”

“We got our license in 2011, and produced 200 cases the first year,” Villicana said.  And with that, RE:FIND was on its way.  They initially had a single 60-gallon still–since those first few years, they’ve added another 60-gallon still and a 300-gallon still, and currently produce around 2,000 cases a year.

“With this setup, we can turn over as much as 50,000 gallons of saignée, and produce as much as 6,000-7,000 cases of spirits a year.”

The second year, Villicana had to shop around for enough saignée to produce the desired amount of spirits, which has led to ongoing relationships with other local winemakers to recapture their run-off as well.

A Lineup of RE:FIND's Spirits
A Lineup of RE:FIND’s Spirits

Villicana said he approaches his flavor profiles in distilling the same way he does with his wines, and the results are exceptional.  RE:FIND currently produces a vodka, a cucumber vodka, a barrel-aged vodka (which is actually closer to a whiskey in flavor and color profile, which makes this bourbon girl all kinds of happy), an extraordinarily lovely and aromatic gin (sold in the tasting room as a “botanical brandy”), a rye, and a limoncello.  Between my first visit and my visit last weekend, I’ve tasted through all of these spirits–they’re remarkable.  Every one of them.

Everything is hand-crafted–even the bottling process.  “We actually contracted with a bottling operation for our spirits, but at the last minute they told us their insurance wouldn’t cover the job because of the risk of explosion.”  So, they hand-bottle their spirits as well.  “It’s actually better,” he said, “because it gives us better quality control.”  Always glass-half-full, that Villicana guy is.

The distillation process, to put it overly simply, involves removing the bad alcohol (acetone and methyl alcohol) from the good alcohol.  And of course Villicana has found a way to recycle that, too.  “We use the bad alcohol as a cleaner!”

Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education
Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education

He also tries to use local producers whenever possible–something that’s a bit of a challenge when acquiring the grains and aromatics needed to craft the spirits.

“I’m now working with local farmers on getting the specific grains and aromatics we want, and we use the lavender we grow right here at the winery.”

Villicana has found a way to recycle his winemaking byproducts into something truly beautiful–and now produces almost the same amount of spirits as they do wines.

“One of the great things about this is that the spirits have kind of filled in some of the gaps that are part of the ups and downs of winemaking,” he said.  “This gives us greater flexibility to focus on the quality of both, and actually makes winemaking more fun. And it’s allowed us to take some risks we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

In an example of recycling writ large, the Villicanas recently purchased the dilapidated Fox Theatre in downtown Paso Robles, and plan to make it the new base for RE:FIND.

“We have the conceptual drawings and floorplan now,” he said.  “We hope to start construction around the end of the year, and expect about a 12-month build.”

When completed, the renovated (nee, recycled!) theatre will also house, among other things, a performance space and a professional kitchen.  Stay tuned; I’ll write more about the theatre in coming months.  It should prove to be a fantastic addition to Paso’s downtown scene.

Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room
Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room

Villicana’s dream to use an otherwise discarded product to turn out beautiful spirits has also opened the door for the competition.  But he doesn’t see it that way.  Currently 8-9 new distilleries are in the plans in the Paso Robles area, and Villicana is thrilled, going so far as to offer guidance with the licensing process.

“It’s a cool way to be sustainable,” he says.  I’ll second that.

RE:FIND Distillery and Villicana Wines are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2725 Adelaida Road (805.239.9456).



Meet the Russells of Rabbit Ridge Winery

Editor’s Note: There’s a reason I’ve chosen the Russells to be my first (of many, many) winemaker profiles, and it’s purely personal.  Their winery, Rabbit Ridge, was the first place I ever went wine tasting back in 2002.  They were still headquartered in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, and were the first of many wineries I would eventually explore along the region’s storied River Road.  I walked in a complete neophyte, and walked out with a new passion and a case of Erich Russell’s Nebbiolo.  While wandering the Paso Robles wine country a few years ago, I spotted a familiar sign with a familiar bunny logo–and that was the first I realized they’d completely relocated to Paso.  I stopped (I HAD to stop!), reacquainted myself with their wines and have enjoyed getting to know the Russells over the ensuing years.  And this is their story.

Rabbit Ridge Winery
Rabbit Ridge Winery on San Marcos Road in Paso Robles

Erich and Joanne Russell first met at a wine industry gathering at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1996.  And something clicked.  They hit it off, talking well into late hours over (of course) wine.  Joanne lived in Florida, and Erich returned to his home in California.  When he called a few weeks later to ask her on a formal date, his first question was “Do you have a passport?”

Erich and Joanne Russell
Erich and Joanne Russell

And that deeply romantic question led to an extended first date–a trip to Cannes, France–and a love story still being lived out in the rolling hills of Paso Robles.  “I thought a trip abroad was efficient,” Erich says.  “I already liked her from that first meeting, and wanted to find out if we can still get along well in a foreign country where things can and do go wrong (luggage was lost, among other things)–I figured if we still liked each other at the end of the trip, that was a good sign.”  The date wasn’t just efficient, it was also completely romantic, and continued all the way to Paso Robles–when they returned from Cannes, they went straight to what is now the winery property (which Russell had recently purchased), where they sat, with wine, in front of an old stone fireplace watching the sun set.  They were engaged

Live Oak Vineyard
Live Oak Vineyard

six months later, and married not long after that.

Rabbit Ridge Barrel Room
Rabbit Ridge Barrel Room

Erich Russell got his start as a winemaker by making wine at home.  When the winemaker at Chateau St. Jean tasted Russell’s wine in a winemaking contest, he offered Russell a job in the winery’s cellar.  Russell jumped at the chance, quitting his job in San Diego to move to northern California and begin a new career in winemaking.  After stints there and at Simi winery, he founded his own winery in 1981, taking his nickname from his time as a long-distance runner at San Jose State–the “white rabbit”–and Rabbit Ridge was born.

Miscellaneous hardware in the tank room, 22 feet above the barrel storage and tasting room.
Miscellaneous hardware in the tank room, 22 feet above the barrel storage and tasting room.

The Sonoma County winery did very well, and Russell quickly gained recognition as an award-winning winemaker, named Connoisseur’s Guide’s Winemaker of the Year in 1998.  While Russell’s star was rising, he was also on the hunt for new land to expand his wine grape growing–and he liked what he saw in Paso Robles.

The San Marcos Road property–where the winery and tasting room are now–was his first land investment in Paso Robles, and they now own three blocks of land in the Templeton Gap area totaling around 350 acres planted to wine grapes and olive trees (5 Italian olive varietals, and they bottle their very, very good estate olive oil under Joanne’s Olive Diva label).  The purchase would prove to be life-changing for the Russells.

Olive Tree Detail, Live Oak Vineyard
Olive Tree Detail, Live Oak Vineyard

“The more we came down to do work on the land, the more we realized we really liked Paso Robles.”  They loved the climate, the land, and the people.  So they closed up shop in Sonoma County and made Paso their new home.

The Russells decided to spare no expense on the construction of the new winery facility in Paso Robles.  They chose Mediterranean-style architecture (you might think you’ve ended up in Tuscany when you spot their beautiful villa from the road).  Ingenuity and high tech are engineered into everything–much of the facility is built into the side of a hill; the crush pad sits 22 feet above the press area and tank room, and in turn the press area and tank room sit 22 feet above the bottling room, barrel room and tasting room.  This layout allows them to move wine throughout the facility by gravity, which saves energy and is gentler on the wine.

A deer rests under the olive trees at the San Marcos Road facility.
A deer rests under the olive trees at the San Marcos Road facility.

That careful engineering is just one aspect of Russell’s meticulous approach to winemaking–he even has a wonderful primer on using oak in winemaking that you can (and should) read here.  He treats all the wines he makes–even the one large-ish production wine he makes for sale in Trader Joe’s stores–with great care and attention to quality.  Of that delicious $5.99 miracle in a bottle–the Allure de Robles Rhone blend–Russell says “It is my hardest wine to make as an affordable everyday priced wine; it is a challenge.”  But make it he does, along with a fantastic lineup of estate wines.

You can see all the wines they produce on their website, here.  Rhone varietals dominate, but you’ll also find excellent reserve Zinfandels, Petite Sirah and Bordeaux (and a mighty fine Chardonnay).  My favorite of his wines, the Russell estate Roussane, hasn’t been produced the last few years because yields have been too low during our multi-year drought, but their white Rhone blend, Blanc de Vine, is a fine stand-in (even after the Roussane reappears!).  In a nod to their sustainable farming practices, Russell pointed out blocks of vines during a drive through the vineyards that they’ve elected to sacrifice to the drought.  There’s only so much water to go around, unfortunately.  Conditions look a bit better after this year’s closer-to-normal rains, and Russell is optimistic about the coming vintage.

Vines Lost to Drought
Vines Lost to Drought

If you’re in Paso Robles, you’ll find them just north of town on San Marcos Road, west of Highway 101.  The tasting room occupies the front of the same building that houses their barrel room.  You can expect a friendly and relaxed tasting experience when you stop by, and most likely have your wines poured by a member of the Russell family.  That warm and personal environment, and the beautiful wines Erich Russell makes, have had us coming back for years.

Wall of Wine BarrelsThe tasting room is located at 1172 San Marcos Road, Paso Robles, California 93446, (805) 249-0252.  Tasting room hours are Friday-Sunday, 11am – 5pm.  They also have a tasting room called The Rabbit Hole for their sparkling wines (including the tasty “Bling,” a brut-style sparkling wine) in downtown Paso Robles at 1244 Pine Street, (805) 286-4692.