Swiss movement in Paso Robles

When Swiss businessman Hans Nef first came to Paso Robles and surveyed the vast carpeting of vineyards, he liked what he saw. He knew then that this could be the ideal place and time for his first venture into winemaking.

Mr. Nef grew up in small rural village outside Zurich, where he gained an appreciation for agricultural. He became a civil engineer, eventually establishing his own consulting firm responsible for many public projects around Zurich. He also became involved in real estate development there and opened two restaurants in that city.

He dates his fascination with wine from the early 1980's when he began to collect the great red wines of Bordeaux. To get his hands on some California wines, initially to sell in his restaurants, he started a wine importing firm, which brought in offerings from Eberle and Peachy Canyon, among others. Thus the seeds of Paso Robles were planted in his mind.

In 1996, he hooked up with fellow Swiss, Hans R. Michel, who headed up a California agricultural management and consulting firm. They decided on a serious winery start-up business plan, one that would emphasize the quality of the vineyards and thus, the quality of the wines.

They began planting a series of three vineyards in 1996, the largest of which is the Huerhuero Vineyard on the southeast edge of Paso Robles, which has south-facing slopes that reach an elevation of 1,200 feet. This nearly 1,000-acre ranch, only half planted, has diverse micro-climates, cooled by the evening Pacific Ocean air blowing in from the Templeton Gap, and diverse soil compositions.

The vine spacings are tight (6x4) to discourage plant vigor and thereby control the output and quality per vine. Sustainable agricultural practices are employed because they believe the vineyard will be in harmony with nature, thus resulting in better wine. Barley is planted as a cover crop and no sulfur dust is used. Owl nesting boxes are scattered throughout the vineyard for predator control, while neutron probe soil monitoring is in place to keep track of soil moisture.

The whole idea is to be minimally invasive in the vineyard so that the vines, and the fruit it produces, will be naturally in balance. Vina Robles actually uses only about ten per cent of the grapes for its own wines; the balance being sold to other quality oriented wineries anxious to get the grapes for their labels.

The last part of the Vina Robles equation is another fellow Swiss, winemaker Matthias Gubler. With a enology degree from the College of Wadenswil in Zurich, he has world wide winemaking experience, including Northern California, France and Italy as well as Switzerland. He brings a certain old world perspective to the new world of California viticulture and winemaking; he goes for balance in the wines, all the better to accompany food. I recently tasted through the following current releases, all of which I highly recommend.

Roseum 2005 ($13): Their distinctive name for a Rose, made from Syrah harvested from their Huerhuero Vineyard is very appropriate. After recently tasting dozens of newly released pinkies, this one was among the very best. Medium dry with a reddish salmon color, it shows intense strawberry and floral aromatics. The first blush of flavors is strawberries and cream, then a little sour cherry and watermelon, along with a spicy zip on the clean, crisp and long finish. It's power packed to stand up to just about everything on the summer patio dining table.

Zinfandel 2003 Westside ($26): Paso Robles has always seemed ideal for Zin and this one was sourced from an excellent Westside vineyard. Typical dark and plummy Zin fruit on the nose, with a hint of cocoa. Elegant, clean flavors rush to meet your palate's expectations: plum, boysenberry, raspberry, black cherry, wood spice and that touch of briaryness that defines the Zen of Zin. The fresh fruit hits the sweet spot in the mouth while layered on a great structure that acts like a solid foundation supporting it all. The flavors are amplified with each sip and the overall effect is cumulative on the palate. A sophisticated Zin, one that wears a tuxedo rather than blue jeans.

Petite Sirah 2003 Jardine Vineyard ($26): This red varietal, thought to be descended from the French Durif (a cross between Syrah and Peloursin) is making a comeback as more wineries throughout California are discovering its virtues. The Vina Robles version is dark as night with a big, chewy, dark fruit, heavy-hitter of a nose. Plum, blackberry, boysenberry, and blueberry come on like a big bad boy of a bruiser with ripeness of fruit and tannins. It's concentrated with flavors like something you find in fruit jam preserves. Big and rich with a boisterous personality, this red wine wears the blue jeans rather than the tux.

Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Estate ($18): True Cabernet character shows up in the aromatics: plum, cassis, wood smoke and spice. Aged for eighteen months in one-third new French oak, it's rich with ripe, sweet fruit flavors of plum, black cherry, red currants and brown baking spices. At fourteen percent alcohol, this is not a Cab that hammers your head but instead is more restrained and balanced than most. The fresh acidity and zing on the finish makes it seem on the mark for drinking right now, but it will probably age well for the next five years. Juicy, with well integrated and resolved tannins, it has a bright crispness on the finish that invites another sip. A screaming best buy.

Signature 2003 ($29): Here's a red blend that combines the best of what the winemaker found in the estate vineyards and then pieced the puzzle together in the winery to make the best red wine possible. A little over half the blend is Petit Verdot (a blending grape in Bordeaux) with the balance from Petite Sirah and Syrah for the second release of this proprietary red. The fruit aromatics just pop out of the glass: dark berries, blueberries, plums and spice. The flavors are rich and complex yet never over the top. Blueberry, blackberry and plum flavors float across the palate as well as background notes of peach, figs and preserved fruit. Silky, well rounded with refined tannins, it has great length on mid palate and a long lasting finish. This amalgam is a hybrid that exhibits plenty of Bordeaux style qualities but with somewhat of a Rhone-style finish. Very European in concept, you won't find too many wines quite like this being made in California. Wines of this quality and sophistication usually cost two or three times as much if the label says Napa or Sonoma.

Sept. 3, 2006

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