WanderCurtis Wine

Wine tastings, corporate events, reviews and recommendations

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California Part II – Wine, willingness and wisdom

California Part II – Wine, willingness and wisdom, October 2018

A lot can happen in a decade.  Precisely ten years ago, at the time of an American crisis (September 2008, global economic crisis – Lehman Brother’s collapse), two Kiwis and Englishman rekindled their early adult friendships with a 10-day wine exploration of Napa Valley.  Now exactly 10 years later, and again right smack in the middle of another American crisis (sexual crisis Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into Judge Kavanaugh, September 2018), we set off to explore the Central Coast Californian wine growing regions of Santa Cruz, Carmel Valley, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles).


So off we went, without an immediate awareness of how much we had matured or what this new wine holiday was going to become – not stuck in the anxious past and needing to relive our 2009 Napa fun, not needing to fixation on hedonistic days of the Blenheim vineyards circa 1994, or even rigidly adhering the antics of Miles and Jack in the Santa Ynez Valley Sideways movie.


This holiday vacation experience was to become something new, vibrate and refreshingly uncomfortable.  In the process of reflecting upon our past 10 years, both the day-to-day existences and to the extremes of family deaths, personal tragedies and significant life changes, we discovered what was of key importance and meaningful for us as individuals and what connected us as friends.  We found meaning in the suffering and pain of our daily existences, and this holiday was not an escape from any of this, but a reminder of something beyond the highs of a wine drinking holiday.


The wine tour ‘started’ with a pre-wine weekend of pleasure in Santa Cruz.  We drove across the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountain range for a hosted visit to the Ridge Vineyard, made famous for its role in the Judgement of Paris wine competition.


Upon collecting Nick from nearby San Francisco airport, we promptly dispelled the cliché that three-is-a-crowd – possibly because the three of us have been a tight group of friends for many years, but also due to the massive roomy interior of our SUV Cadillac, with plenty of room to lounge about as we blatted down the 101 freeway, straight on to the small community of Carmel Valley. Just like the Napa Valley experiences of small town California, we quickly made meaningful connections with the locals and enjoyed immersing ourselves in the village wine tasting houses  by day, and then  dive bars by night.  There was something wonderfully magical about our meeting of strangers in California.  We would arrive from a relaxed days of winery tasting to then sit in awesome bars and meet wonderful people like Paul-from-New-Zealands’ brother, underwater photographers with names that were anagrams of Jane Fonda and an influential local designer and architect.  One friendly stranger overheard me mouthing off about the highly developed sommelier skills of my good friend Adam – to then produce a Le Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit and challenging us to hours of fun banter as we identified the various aromas from small viles (I correctly identified “mouldy bathroom” from my experiences in my student flats, but struggled to pinpoint the familiar smell of cinnamon).  One of the more lasting connections was the chance meeting with Katy – our language guide (correct American pronunciation you don’t say the “T” Monterey or in Katy), entertainment guide (we were intrigued and obsessed night after night with a fast bar-top dice- gambling game), tour guide (good Big Sur cafe sitting in chairs) and wine guide (recommending the essential Carmel Valley wine tasting highlights and the beachside wine tasting houses of Santa Barbara). But Katy also played into Aaron’s irreverence and cynicism by turning the 2am bar conversation to religion and spirituality.  Much to Nick and Adam’s shock, Aaron took an early morning challenge to be hosted by the congregation of St Dunstan’s Episcopal Church and received a refreshing spiritual burst at 10am the same morning – probably attending to his wish for adventure, curiosity, and a connection to others, rather than any legitimate religious needs.


There must have been something in the Carmel Valley water, as by the second night in the village Aaron and Nick wandered the streets singing the Pink Floyd classic “Wish You Were Here”. The lyrics are not strictly in keeping with our focus on being present and mindful, but maybe 50 year old holiday makers needed some reminiscing as they deal with too many late nights in a row and the impact of late afternoon caffeinated energy drinks.


Like crossing the Golden Gate Bridge during the Napa trip, no visit to the central coast could miss the tourist highlight of Big Sur – the coastal wildness region and famous narrow cliff side Pacific Coast Highway.  The Big Sur drive was made into a key friendship moment by blasting and singing the 1960’s classics such as She’ Not There (the band are not actually from California, but from St Albans where I used to live in the UK!) as the cold sea mist raced up the cliff face and onto the road (this is apparent an important feature of wine growing!).


Our third wine region of Santa Barbara was a mixture of the urban tasting rooms in the inner city centre and then the surrounding rural valley’s making up the six American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) within Santa Barbara County.  At this mid-stage of the wine tour, I forgot my commitment to avoid needing to replicate the accomplishments of the Napa trip, anxious that we weren’t going to match the high number of winery visits ten years earlier.  It was already day five of the central coast trip and only five formal wine related visits so far and some mysterious inner force was making judgements on our performance and stamina (thanks to Aaron’s competitive mind).  But then Adam and Nick in their wisdom introduced me to something that was important to them and took me to the early morning swimming and vigorous exercise at the hotel facilities – and I discovered that this could be an important part of my daily routine if I was willing to make it happen (fast forward 7 months – I have attend the gym regularly, and have connected my need for adventure with becoming physically fit).


We exited the city of Santa Barbara north to the dry wine region valleys, to be hosed at the  Margerun Wine Company  in the Santa Ynez Valley and then onto the Bien Nacido Vineyards & Solomon Hills Estates in the Santa Maria Valley.   The whole time Adam coaching and commenting on the different winemaking philosophies, noting the contrasts between those that achieved incredible balance by expert blending and those that let the purity of the soil express their wine.  I was also coaching my friends on a newly discovered approach to wellbeing by being present with the moment (“here we are now, having a time together”), taking action toward what is important (early morning gym workouts) and opening up to unwanted feelings (an especially effective strategic response to feeling ‘homesick’ mid vacation).  Nick has a more subtle coaching style, preferring to demonstrate his skills by casually mentioning that he learned to swim in his mid twenties as he swam 40 lengths of the hotel pool and then working hard on his business tax returns during our downtime in the hotel.


After a long day of car travel discussions on wine making, values and life anecdotes we arrived at our fourth and final wine region of Paso Robles.   Walking around the small town and village square, we were reminded of Blenheim New Zealand, sharing a history of developing into a major wine growing industry in the 1970s, and then becoming recognised as a specialise region of a grape variety.  Blenheim internationally known for Sauvignon blanc, but Paso Robles now known for the Rhône varieties – transforming in the late 1990s by the “Rhone Rangers”.  Like Blenheim, there are an intense concentration of vineyards, wineries and tasting cellars within the town and within an easy bike ride of the township. and again, I was invited to join Adam and Nick’s fondness for physical exercise by biking the 30 miles needed as we stepped up to complete our wine tasting requirements on that day.  Although assisted by electric bikes that day, I’ve since harnessed the pleasant memories of warm central coast wine vistas to motivate my spin class exercise.


By the second day full day of visits in Paso Robles region, we thought we were at ‘peak wine holiday’ – completing the tour with hosted visits to the Santa Margarita AVA and experiencing and observing some of the theory and winemaking philosophies Adam had spoken about earlier in trip.   Seeing some wineries working to stay true to the traditional blends and tastes of Europe, others letting their local soils and climate guide their wine variety, or branching out and blending what you want away from the strict expectations of tradition (producing Bordeaux and Rhône Blends!).  The après-wine activities in Paso Robles  adding to this sense of a holiday high – more blending with the locals and other tourists playing pool in the dive bars, random introductions to the guitar making legend Gary Kramer, finally discovering real coffee in American at Spearhead Coffee, and being hosted by a winemaker in her boutique shop for after-work-drinks at the shop counter.


The holiday wasn’t the pinnacle of an experience – not ‘peak wine’ or a great holiday memory, but true to the cliché, just part of a journey.  We love California and small town California.  And meeting people in California.  And drinking wine.  We loved it the first time and we loved at the second time (I suspect I told many late night bar patrons this many times).  But the second time with less attachment to the past or future expectations, well connected with our friends and strangers at that very moment, and with a growing ability to articulate and really know what mattered.  And since then returning home to life struggles and tragedies and highs and lows – but now with a great ability to make meaning from these.


This piece is dedicated to my wine loving (hedonistic) mother in-law and the one person in my life who would have taken the most interest in this blog – but died before she could read it.  I miss her, but I wrote this for her.

Blog courtesy of Aaron O’Connell

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California’s Central Coast (4) – Paso Robles AVA

View towards Paso Robles from Daou Winery

Paso Robles AVA

This was once an area predominantly known for growing Zinfandel with few wineries and not a well known area on the wine map. This has changed dramatically in the last twenty years with hundreds of new wineries. The town of Paso Robles benefits from the commerce with a range of organic restaurants, artisan wineries and my favourite hangout, the excellent Spearhead coffee company. An advantage of the area for viticulture is the considerable diurnal temperature variation which  prolongs the growing season and helps the grapes develop physiological ripeness. Paso Robles AVA is 20 miles by 20 miles with areas as close as six miles or as far as forty from the ocean. The altitude also varies from 200 to 2,500 feet. There are now 11 sub AVA’s to reflect some of the differences.

Tablas Creek

Robert Haas in combination with Perrin family from Chateau de Beaucastel  started this venture in 1989. It took many years of quarantine by the US department of agriculture until cuttings taken from the Rhone  were released virus free.
They were pioneers of California’s Rhône movement and very much sparked the great interest and growth in this area.
They follow dry farm, biodynamic, organic methods.
Initially around 100 Acres the Estate is now 280 acres with a sheep and alpaca farm.
They Searched for 4 years for the best site to plant the vines
This area in Paso Robles was chosen for the Mediterranean climate and limestone chalky soils similar to the Rhone. The particular soils  help in many ways including retaining water and the alkalinity of the soils allowing the grapes to express the terroir. Seven varietals were initially brought in –
Grenache Blanc, Roussane, picpoul, Grenache,  Shiraz, Mourvèdre &Counoise

Wines Tasted

Tablas Creek Patelin De Tablas Blanc 2017
Grenache Blanc,Viognier, Marsanne, Roussane, Clairette Blanche
Classic Rhône white varietal. Marked by its texture smooth mouthfeel no overt aromas in the nose but lovely balanced finish

Tablas Creek Picpoul Blanc 2017
Lipstinger! Zingy acidity and freshness. Calling out for a San Fran Seafood Cioppone

Tablas Creek Marsanne 2017 100% hints of tangerine lavender and aniseed lovely mouthfeel with good acidity

Tablas Creek Côtés De Tablas Blanc 2017
Viognier 44 Marsanne 24 Grenache Blanc 20 Roussane 12
Lemon hint floral mineral bright acids full bodied textural and layered

Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2015
Roussane 55 Grenache Blanc 28 picpoul Blanc 17
Flagship Tablas Creek white. Lovely smooth satiny texture savoury layers richly layered fat wine lanolin concentration.Certainly comparably to Chateau du pape Chateau de Beaucastel

Tablas Creek Patelin De Tablas Rose 2017
Grenache Noir 64 Mourvèdre 28 Syrah 5 counoise 2
Estate vineyard and 7 top Paso Robles Vineyards good crisp Rose

Tablas Creek Grenache 2016 100%
Pale colour red fruits restrained style with good finish

Tablas Creek Mourvèdre 2016 100%
Light red and blue fruits,some earthiness

Tablas Creek Esprit De Tablas 2015

Flagship red Mourvèdre 49 Grenache Noir. 25 Syrah 21 counoise 5
Elegant, violets on the nose, blueberries, fresh concentrated long finish
Needs some ageing.

Tablas Creek Vin De Paille ‘Sacrerouge’ 2014  100% Mourvèdre
Treacle figs coffee chocolate unctuous 225g/l rich concentrated length ++
A truly delicious Vin Santo style

Law Estate Wines

We cycled from Paso Robles along Peachy Canyon road and reached elevations of  their Vineyards between 1600 to 1900 feet. Cycling gave us the best sense of the geology as pieces of calcareous limestone rock were scattered on the sides of the roads.
This is a new no expense spared winery and tasting room which boasts panoramic views of the area.
They pride themselves on low intervention and have a spotless state of the art winery including gravity fed concrete fermenters. They have a multinational wine making team to bring the potential into reality.
The wines are  small production Rhone and Priorat style, powerful and concentrated and certainly have ageability and are showing their sense of place.
We were kindly Hosted by General Manager Oliver Esparham
Most of the wines are already allocated to their wine club members which we found to be common practice in general in California.

Wine tasted

Law Estate Rose 2017
GSM and Carignan blend
Lovely acidity and balance strawberries and watermelon nose

Law Estate Beguiling 2015
Grenache 85% Shiraz 15%
Good depth richness and concentration hints of black pepper and blueberries

Law Estate Audacious 2015
Interesting blend of Grenache Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon and petit Syrah
Powerful wine Very good core of black fruit with baking spice and chocolate on the finish
Law Estate Beyond Category 2015
Tempranillo Carignan Mourvèdre Grenache
Another very interesting blend full of blue fruits with lovely spicy, tobacco and lavender notes

Seriously good wines which will age well

L’Aventure winery  Willow Creek AVA

Set up by Frenchman Stephan and Beatrice Asseo founded in 1998 producing Bordeaux and Rhône Blends. South West of Paso Robles 127 acres
Beautiful setting with a new winery and tasting room, solar powered sustainable agriculture low yield.
We were looked after by the engaging Leanne and later fortuitously met Beatrice in her boutique shop in Paso Robles and we shared a nicely chilled bottle of her Estate Rose to celebrate Friday evening.

Wines tasted

Estate Rose 2017
GSM and petit Verdot 100% tank ferment
Lovely crisp delicate and refreshing subtle red fruits

Optimus 2016

Syrah 50 Cabernet 30 petit Verdot 20
14 months barrel 60 new French oak
Deep ruby rich concentrated blackberry touch of violets savoury textured
Delicious though has a long way to go. A baby.

Cote à Cote 2016

Grenache 55 Mourvèdre 25 Syrah 20
Concrete tank amphora and oak barrel
Loads of ripe fruit full bodied lots of ripe tannins
Phenomenal potential again needs tucking away for 10 years if you could keep your hands off it

Estate Cuvee 2016

Syrah 52 Cabernet Sauvignon 32 petit Verdot 16 100% new French oak 15 months in barrel. Full bodied concentrated deep colour great structure cassis cedar graphite

Stephan’s wines are very much my style.
Rich concentrated well balanced big wines with great ageing potential. Some of my favourite in California and I highly recommend arranging to visit if you’re in the area.

There are now hundreds of wineries in Paso Robles AVA and it’s hard to choose where to visit.

Other notable tastings and visits for us were-

Ranchero cellars – highly talented winemaker Amy doing some terrific things with Carignan

Venteux boutique winery with a lovely selection of wines making only a few hundred cases each dry farmed estate.

Daou vineyards
Well worth a visit for the panoramic mountain top views and immaculate grounds food and wine pairings available


Santa Margarita AVA


Ancient Peaks

The southern most AVA in Paso Robles.
Santa Margarita AVA with fve different soil types, one of Paso’s coolest regions due to marine influence of the ocean.
Kristin marketing director of ancient peaks gave us a wonderful tour of Santa Margarita ranch. They have 14,000 acres mostly a cattle ranch one of the oldest in California. First planted with vines in 1780 by Franciscan missionaries. In 2005 Ancient Peaks winery established. A wide array of grape varieties now grown.

Wines tasted

Ancient Peaks Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Closer to the aromatic Style than we’ve had so far lovely touches of white flower jasmine and citrus

Ancient Peaks 2017 Chardonnay
Guava good acidity

Ancient Peaks 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon

Good core of fruits mainly black and plum

Ancient Peaks 2016 Merlot

Rounded fruit hint of spice alcohol a little prominent

Ancient Peaks 2016 Zinfandel

Black cherry and fruit some fig raisin and dry fruit

Ancient Peaks 2016 Renegade
Dark ruby pepper cherry plum

Ancient Peaks 2014 Oyster Ridge
More rich and concentrated
Vanilla chocolate spice good texture and good tannins likely to age a few more years


Our visit to Paso Robles was memorable. We were impressed by the wide variety of wines, terrain and climactic conditions. The locals warmly welcomed us. The town has everything you need to make it an ideal base. I would love to return for one of the special festival weekends.

Aaron’s top wines of the central coast tour-

M5 Margerum  red/Ridge Montebello Chardonnay/Law Estate Audacious 2015

Nick’s top wines

Ancient Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2017/L’aventure Grenache Rose/Tablas Creek Late Harvest Mourvèdre

Adam’s top wines

Au Bon Climat Pinot Runway/M5 Margerum white/L’Aventure Cote a Cote 2016


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California Central Coast(2) – Carmel Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands

Route 101 South from San Jose took us through the fertile plains of the Salinas Valley known locally as  the ‘salad Bowl’ of California. We were greeted by fields of endless ripe orange pumpkins, lettuce in pristine rows and the sulphurous aroma of fields of brassicas. Then a turn South on the route 68 and we climbed into the Santa Lucia mountain range. Most of the  tasting rooms are in the small town of Carmel Valley one of the eight sub AVAs of Monterey AVA. In the 1960s A.J Winkler and Maynard Amerine from UC Davis produced the Winkler scale, a classification system describing the climate of wine regions. It characterised Monterey County as comparable to Burgundy. Due to its proximity to the Pacific and Monterey Bay it is blessed with cool days throughout the growing season.

Talbott Vineyards

Wines tasted

Sarah Case Chardonnay 2014

From Sleepy Hollow Vineyard thirteen miles South of Monterey Bay, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Golden colour, very oaky nose, coconut, butter, some stone fruit, brioche butterscotch 90% new French oak barrels. Delicious but this one is for the full oak lovers.

Diamond T Chardonnay 2014  

A vineyard site in SL Highlands closer to the ocean eight miles from Carmel Bay and more cool climate in character. Crisper more mineral and Burgundian some Meyer lemon notes, Crème brûlée finish.

Audrey Chardonnay 2014

From a highly selected parcels of the Diamond T Vineyards deep honeyed colour Creamy buttery oaky.

Sarah Case Pinot Noir 2015

From exceptional parcels in sleepy hollow Vineyard lovely notes of ripe red fruits red cherries strawberries soft tannins long length like a concentrated cherry bonbon

Diamond T Pinot Noir 2014

Cherry plum spice more spice than Sarah case crisp soft tannins.


We dropped in to other tasting rooms and also liked some of the Pinot’s from Bernardus. The Wine House is a good place to go and relax in their gardens and have wines by the glass recommended by their sommelier they also have some interesting bin ends from around California.




I was  impressed with the Pinot’s which showed the high quality which can be obtained from the cooler areas of Central Coast such as Santa Lucia Highlands. The Chardonnays were perhaps over buttery and rich, but I still enjoyed them as the fruit still showed and the quality was obvious.





For evening entertainment we headed to the old Cowboy bar ‘The Running Iron’. The locals were very welcoming and entertaining. Their 805 beer went down well with a six dice game called One Four Twenty Four introduced by Katy and Casey.  When one of the regulars turned up with a version of  Le Nez De Vin with forty aroma essences I was in my element!