Feeling The Heat In California: Are Paso Robles Wines Too High In Alcohol?

Vinted on November 17, 2011 binned in crowd pleaser wines, elegant wines, on the road, overachiever wines, wine review

There’s one thing you need to know about Paso Robles wine country.

It can get hot.

And I’m not talking about the Summertime temperatures, or even the Indian-Summertime temperatures, which had busted through the 100F mark not too long before my visit to Paso in October.

No, I’m talking about the wines.

After tasting through a small score of the vino on offer from several of Paso’s wine producers, the most prominent takeaway was that there were so many wines that were made from very, very ripe fruit – wines that generally exceeded 14% abv in the whites and regularly hit over 15% abv in the reds.

That is not an inevitable conclusion for Paso Robles wine.  And I know this because it wasn’t always the case.

During my Paso visit, I dined at the home of Gary and Marcy Eberle, who own Eberle Winery in Paso. Over the course of our meal (also attended by representatives of several other Paso producers), Gary opened a few bottles of Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from the early 1980s. Those wines were a far cry from being dead – in fact, they were vibrant, with juicy red fruits underpinning aromas of dried herbs.  In other words, those wines were refined, food-friendly, and eminently drinkable.  The abv? About 13%

So… what happened in the thirty years since Eberle harvested those Cabernet grapes?  Why are Paso wines these days so… well, so damn hot?  Is it the inevitable conclusion of having to pick grapes at higher ripeness in order to preserve and emphasize the ripe fruit characteristics of the region?

A member of my traveling group (Mike Dunne, who judged with me at the Lake County Wine Competition this year and with whom I was lucky enough to have as my traveling companion earlier this year in South America) was keen enough to pose this question directly to some of the winemakers in Paso. Towards the end of our trip, we had a Q&A / tasting session at the gorgeous Niner Wine Estates, with a panel of winemakers that included Nick de Luca (of Vina Robles), Neil Collins (Lone Madrone), newcomer Blake Kuhn (Clayhouse Wines), Amanda Cramer (Niner), Kevin Jussila (Kukkula) and Jason Diefenderfer (Hope Family Wines).

Bristol, England native Neil Collins (also Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek) was quick to respond to Mike’s question – and his answer was as direct and refreshing as his wines:

“I fundamentally disagree [that Paso grapes need to be picked at high ripeness],” he said. “You only need to pick at high ripeness if you’re chasing high scores in the press.”

Amen, brother!

I’m not sue all of the panelists agreed with Neil (some of the wines we tasted during the Q&A were certainly on the ripe, high-abv side of the spectrum), but I know I sure as hell agreed with him.

I’m not saying that all high abv wines are unbalanced, nor am I saying that all Paso wines are too high in alcohol; in fact, I tasted several wines from Paso producers that showed beautifully – and exhibited a high degree of finesse despite being from grapes picked at high degrees of brix! But I also had my fill of Paso wines that traded too much finesse for too much fruitiness.

What’s clear is that Paso is more-than-capable of making great wine – actually, it’s capable of making elegant, epic, age-worthy wines. But chasing after ultra-ripe flavors in favor of balance is probably not going to consistently get them to that happy tasting place.

Below are a few recommendations from that Q&A session at Niner of Paso wines that I thought really struck the right balance between ripe fruit and… well, and balance:


2010 Vina Robles White 4 (Paso Robles)
Price: $16
Rating: B

This wine makes a great case for blends in Paso, and it’s a bargain of a tropical mouth party. Verdelho (aged in stainless tell), Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino (all aged in neutral oak) are included, and while these type of “kitchen sink” blends normally taste disjointed and somehow less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts, White 4 strikes a great balance – the four elements come together here like the Rat Pack in Vegas. No malolactic fermentation took place, but there was some lees-stirring action which gives the wine a little bit of body to balance all of the acid and jumping citrus and tropical fruits, and a tiny bit of spice for good measure – and the 14.2% abv is hardly noticeable. Try this if you fine yourself bored with CA white wine.


2009 Lone Madrone La Mezcla (Paso Robles)
Price: $22
Rating: B

Balance is the name of the game in this Grenache Blanc / Albarino blend. There’s acid to spare here, and I’d run out of room for food pairing possibilities if I listed them, but I think it’s telling that we’ve got a Paso wine here that’s clocking in at 12.6% abv despite the majority of the blend being Grenache Blanc which can get pretty hefty pretty quickly. In other words, they went with acid balance instead of ripe fruit flavors, and the wine benefits immensely from that decision, as the minerality, tropical fruit and hints of lime zest are prevalent and inviting. While it’s certainly not a standoffish  wine, I fond myself generally impressed by the elegance of the package and convinced that it could even benefit from a couple of years in the bottle. Oh – and I changed my mind about the food pairing, it wants scallop ceviche!


2007 Niner Wine Estates “Twisted Spur (Paso Robles)”
Price: $25
Rating: B

Ok, this one isn’t too big, either (14.1% abv) but it’s also probably one best consumed on the younger side, because it’s tasting great right now and is just… well, it’s just so damn fun.  Actually, it’s kind of like a rodeo: a little woody, a little leathery, a little dusty… that kind of fun. Mostly Merlot with helpings of Cabernet Franc, Syrah and a pinch (2%) of Petit Verdot, the wine is all ripe red fruits, plums and blue flowers – and they are all on the vibrant side. I dug the fact that there were also some little bits of dried herbs and wood spices in the aroma – a great option to use to turn your friends onto Paso wine.






  • Henry

    I love the wines from Tablas Creek and not just because I visited them on my honeymoon. Recently I met a wine merchant in London who tells me that their wines are dealcoholised by reverse osmosis or some such process. Do you know if this is true? I'll still enjoy them if is it but I like to think that they aren't.


    • 1WineDude

      Henry – No idea if those tricks are employed or not at TC, but my gut tells me it's probably *not* the case, because many of the TC wines are really well-balanced; not saying it isn't possible to achieve that through some of those "tricks of the trade," just that it's unlikely. Cheers!

  • art predator

    I joined Eberle's wine club years ago (2001? 2002?). I think Gary's team is making great wine at reasonable prices. The wines went to the cellar at my grandfather's then I got pregnant etc. The upshot is I cellared those wines longer than I would have expected–and they were all very good. I attended an industry/consumer Paso event last spring and found that while many were too hot and unbalanced (and I had to be sure to taste and spit!), plenty showed that not everyone is chasing that particular palate/profile that wants high ABV with a lot of fruit on the side..

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, ap – yeah, the longevity and vibrancy of some of those older Paso wines was border-line extraordinary to me; the potential for that style of fine wine is absolutely there, judging by those examples. Cheers!

  • Roberta

    Great article. Go Paso!

    We do make great, world class wines here and love to share them with other wine lovers.

    • 1WineDude

      Roberta – Go Paso, indeed! :)

  • Wayne

    Hey Joe. I am always a bit cautious of broad generalizations; Paso is a big place making many different wines. On one hand, some of the biggest wines I have ever had came out of Paso, but there are hundreds of wineries sourcing fruit from there and I would never say the only thing one needs to know about Paso is that it can get hot. The story of Paso is way bigger than that.

    I did want to point out that Nick de Luca, a good friend of mine, has his own label he is just releasing called Ground Effect, and his focus is on finding balance (in the vineyard and wines). Really great stuff.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Wayne – understood, and typically I do not go for the broader generalizations either (ok, maybe in the titles, but usually the articles are as balanced as I can make them, I think). Please take this for what it is – a introductory point to generate thinking and conversation around the broader topic of going for a fruitier, higher abv style vs. potentially more balanced approaches. I would add that Paso seemed to have a higher percentage of those high-ish abv wines in my personal experience, which led me to pose the question (and hopefully generate comments like your! :). Cheers!

      • Wayne

        You are right though that many producers go big in Paso (sometimes for the sake of going big sadly). 2011 might be a bit different for a lot of these guys. Fruit came in fast, maybe we will see more mid 14's than 15%+.

    • Matthew Plympton

      Yea, check out producers like above mentioned Ground Effect, also Giornata, Broadside, Wind Gap, and Broc Cellars are all based in or using fruit from Paso Robles and making wines in a more "restrained" style. I once had a vintner/grape grower tell me that you can't get "terroir" in Paso without 28º or more Brix. I choked when he said that. Or maybe it was his 17º alcohol Grenache that I choked on. I forget.

      • 1WineDude

        Matthew – ha! Love it. A very famous French wine critic once told me that more ripeness simply gives you more terroir. Not sure I swallowed that one, either!

  • Mark

    Great blog.

    I only found out about your blog today, and it is impressive! I have just started my WSET courses (level 2 first, then onto the level 3) and I really love learning about wines from countries that are difficult to find (I live in Spain, and it is nearly impossible to find any imported wines)

    My hope is to one day become a sommelier, (I spent a few years learning to be a wine waiter in the UK) and I love the way you describe the wines. It can be so easy to become a wine "snob" and use silly terms that are beyond the understaning of Joe Public, but yours are clear and concise with no "pretentiousness" which can be off putting to the majority of people.

    Keep up the great work, you have a new fan!

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Mark – very kind of you! Hopefully I won't scare you off too soon! :)

  • @clivity

    This is why Paso Syrah and Grenach can't touch what some of the folks like Maison Bleue, Bunnell Family and Syncline Wines are doing in Washington. Too boozy. I had a wine at a Rhone Rangers tasting here in Seattle from Paso and it was 16%. 16% is that vodka dawg?

    • 1WineDude

      @clivity – I am not gonna go quite that far, but for sure I tasted unbalanced 16%+ abv wines in Paso that were… not so awesome!

  • Carl Helrich

    Again, Joe, right on the mark. From a viticultural standpoint, Brix and phenological maturity have only a loose-correlation, and that changes from hot to cool climates. Vines, generally speaking, stop producing flavors–stop "ripening"–at about 86F. The stomata in the leaves close up with a survivalist mentality. At that point, the vine is only producing sugars. Hence, why hot regions require ABVs of at least 13-14% (and some 15-16%) to achieve ripe flavors where cooler regions can do it at 12-13%. (Keep in mind that most grapes over about 25-26 Brix suffer from deydration, which in warner climates is combated by "watering back" with a garden hose.)

    Each region has its "dirty little secrets". Cooler climates chaptalize for alcohol (Bordeaux, Burgundy, eastern US), and hotter climates water back, dealcoholize and acidify. But I think the nail head was hit by the question about why to do any of it to an extreme: for scores which help sell wine. We're all guilty to some extent. Producers for doing it and consumers for wanting them to do it.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks Carl – like the current state of air travel I suppose, we are partially responsible as consumers for the bed in which we lie. Cheers!

  • Vinogirl

    An English winemaker at Tablas Creek…no wonder I have always enjoyed their wines :)

    • 1WineDude

      Vinogirl – :). In the past I would have inserted some joke about British wine here, but the are quickly developing into a producer of fairly world-class sparkling wines so I'm gonna keep my mouth uncharacteristically shut.

      • Vinogirl

        Thank you :)

  • Terrence Jones

    During a panel last weekend at Paso Robles' Garagiste Festival, the topic of trends toward lower alcohol came up. The panel all agreed (Neil Collins included) that the numbers don't matter but rather the balance is what is important. This is what I hear most winemakers in Paso Robles say. Paso is blessed with grapes that can maintain acid through ripeness and it seems that this serves as justification for higher alcohol because the wines can be said to be "balanced".

    My feeling is that alcohol shouldn't be treated on equal footing with acid, tannin and fruit in the balance equation. Yes the wines can support higher alcohol but the alcohol isn't adding anything pleasurable aside from heft. As Neil Collins at Tablas Creek/Lone Madrone consistently demonstrates, Paso Robles can produced finessed wines with both beautiful fruit and great structure without the burden of high alcohol.

    @clivity points out above that Paso cannot do for Syrah and Grenache what true cool climate regions can and that is true. But it is not because of ripeness or alcohol per se; the growing season is just two warm with some extreme highs. Yet, Paso can produce restrained and elegant versions of these varietals that are true to terroir of Paso Robles and true to those varietals in warmer climates.

    • 1WineDude

      Terrence – thanks for the great and well thought out comment. I am very interested in the idea of holding alcohol as a minor player versus those other components that you mentioned, for a couple of reasons: 1, I think I might already be doing that unconsciously and 2, those other components have a much greater potential impact on the longevity of a fine wine, I think. Serious food for vinous thought there, cheers!

  • Randy Caparoso

    Are Paso Robles grown wines too high in alcohol? The answer is simple: if, say, a 15% alc. wine tastes hot, heavy, clumsy, then probably. If a 15% alc. wine tastes rich, full, juicy, impressive — then no, it's just right. This goes for wines from Napa Valley, Sonoma, Walla Walla, Lodi, Willamette Valley, Chateauneuf du Pape, Madiran, Priorat, Barolo, etc., etc. Level of alcohol is, and never has been, an indicator of quality in itself. It's just one of many — at least for most sensible wine lovers.

    I had an interesting discussion recently with Guillaume Fabre, the winemaker/owner of Clos Selene whose Paso Robles based wines have been attracting quite a bit of attention from the geekier cognoscente; and for good reason: his wines are extraordinary. Fabre is French, so I asked him how this jibes with the fact that his wines are not exactly ungentle, hovering around 15%+ alcohol. Guillaume's response was brutally frank, basically saying that he firmly believes these big, intense styles are true to the terroir: if Paso Robles grown wines are best, and perfectly well balanced, at full alcohol levels, then that's the way they should be produced. And you know what? He has a good point.

    If you don't like wines like Clos Selene, of course, you don't have to buy 'em (and you'll save the $100/bt. cost, too). As it were, there seems to be droves of people waiting in line to buy 'em; so I say, power to the people!

    • 1WineDude

      Hey Randy – he does have a good point; and I certainly had a handful of 15%+ abv reds in Paso that were excellent wines. You are right of course that we could ask the question of just about any fine wine region with a sunny, warm-to-hot growing season, and I chose Paso because the experience was fresh and the unbalanced wines were not an insubstantial percentage of what I tasted there. I think the cool thing is that it got us talking about the situation and many who have commented have expressed that they are looking for that harmony in wine, and not summarily rejecting Paso wines just because of the abv on the label; good news for Paso since that means us geeks are willing to try those wines and will discover the better of them from Paso. Cheers!

  • Randy Caparoso

    Indubitably. If a wine happens to be 15% or 16% alcohol, and tastes good-god-almighty good, then simple sweeping statements like high-alcohol-bad-low-alcohol-good are simply inane. 'Nuff said… keep ride 'em, cowboy!

    • 1WineDude

      Randy – yeeeeee-haaaw! :)

  • David Savi

    I moved to San Luis Obispo 3 years ago and shortly thereafter began touring the county's wineries. In Paso I was struck as you where by the unnecessarily high alcohol. When I mentioned it to those behind the bar, they either shrugged and said ".that's how it is here in Paso", or gave a spiel about the daytime/evening temperature differential. I, like you, prefer my wines "cooler" and more balanced. Now, I simply save my money for the balanced wines that do exist in Paso. Perhaps some of the "Far Out" wineries in west paso, those closer to the Santa Lucia coastal range, tend to have lower alcohol content due to the slightly cooler average temps. I enjoy stopping into Tablas Creek in that area and am a member of nearby Halter Ranch.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, David. Interesting that you mention Halter Ranch, I found their wines a bit hot but also interesting and tasty. So there's a broader spectrum I think than hot vs balanced. Cheers!

  • Charmion

    A high abv wine might taste balanced for the first 5 minutes. But less likely to taste balanced when you are trying to finish the bottle after 45 minutes and it will feel more unbalanced the next morning. when you feel like crap.

    • 1WineDude

      Charmion – always remember, water is your friend when drinking powerful vino. :)

  • Dial a Bottle

    In my opinion when we talking about Paso wine made of Paso grapes ,I am confident enough that Paso wines gonna rock and get appreciation for its amazing taste from the entire world.Congratulations !

    • 1WineDude

      DaB – yeah, what you said! Though I'm not 100% sure I understood what you said, actually…

  • Wine of the Month

    A very cool region in Northern Sonoma producing many of the best Pinot Noirs in the state as well as classy and stylistic Chardonnay.

  • Wandering WIno

    I liked reading your post, while sharing information in true journalistic form, you did not appear to take a position on high alcohol or low alcohol. Reading this alone, I would guess you lean to low? It seems nearly everyone I speak with on the subject has an opinion, and curious to yours?

    • 1WineDude

      Wandering – thanks. I do not actually have a stance or preference on abv. There is no right answer to me. If a wine is balanced, then the abv does not really matter. Personally I lean towards wines that exhibit balance and generally I think hat is trickier to do when the abv is high – but it certainly is not impossible. Cheers!

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