There are those who say that the wine scene in Paso Robles, California, is what Napa Valley was 35 years ago. Such comparisons are moot—Paso is its own place, with a unique vibe and culture—and this winemaking region of central California stands on its own and treads its own path, defying comparisons to anywhere else in California.
What you will find in Paso is: superb quality wines in all price ranges; a high level of adventurism in winemaking, resulting in a heightened sense of discovery for the wine lover; a very chill but vibrant atmosphere that’s refreshingly non-pretentious and authentic; and, even though wine is big business, much lower-cost tasting room fees for visitors and a sense you’re not being sold to when dropping by a winery. Paso is a place that invites the visitor to let go of preconceptions and to verge off the beaten path to see what hidden gem you might find.
SHALE OAK, tucked away on a side road off of Highway 46, a main thoroughfare of Paso wine country, is such a hidden gem. You might mistake its multi-colored glass-stained window exterior for that of a Cathedral’s. It is a winery that treats environmental responsibility with reverence—the facility is GOLD LEED Certified, and practices sustainable farming methods and conservation standards, aiming to have next-to-zero impact on its surrounding environment. This high bar of discipline translates into a purity, freshness and vibrancy across Shale Oak’s extensive line of wines. I had an opportunity to taste through virtually every wine in the portfolio and was impressed, and charmed, by the consistently high quality and personality displayed by these wines. Below are reviews of my favorites. This is a young winery that wine enthusiasts ought to definitely put on their radar.
Owner: Al Good
Winemakers: Curtis Hascall and Kevin Riley
Location: Paso Robles, California
CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2010
$40 | 92 Pts
Throw in a bit of Grenache and Petit Verdot, and you have a delightfully killer Cab that resoundingly answers the question, “Why drink Cab from Paso?” (that’s not named Justin) Exceedingly soft tannins and wonderfully rich, expressive fruit flavors of blackberry, blueberry, ripe strawberry and red cherry overtake the palate. Precise and structured, yet generous, and also balanced—this is Cab that manages to be big but controlled and focused. Makes a strong case that beautiful Cabernet Sauvignon can be accomplished in the Central Coast. A pleasure.
KA (FIRE) 2012
$75 | 95 Pts
An adventurous blend of equal parts Syrah, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah, the kind of which you’ll pretty much only find in Paso. This is red-blend deliciousness that veers on overdrive. Man, is this big, bold and powerful—a beast that swallows you whole in flavors of dark, dark fruit, mocha and cacao. It’s immersive and you’re unable to swim out of its great length and depth. A refreshing grip of acidity comes to the rescue, however, bringing structure and balance. Only in Paso.
KU (SKY) 2012
$75 | 94 Pts
Mostly Syrah with some Zinfandel and Petite Sirah—all estate fruit from Shale Oak’s “backyard”—this is a beautifully complex prestige blend that’s ethereal while rich and full-bodied. Velvety and vibrant, somehow this very dark, heavily concentrated wine manages to have wings. Harmoniously in tune with the elements.
$45 | 92 Pts
Things get off to a great start with a bright, assertive nose of violets, white pepper and spice, dark cherry and blueberry, and the wine delivers upon its first impression. Zin is something of a Shale Oak specialty, I would say, as the fruit is sourced from head-pruned and dry-farmed vineyards, and it’s the artistry of the winemaking that allows the personality of the wine to shine through. There’s young energy and vibrancy that emanates from the intense concentration of fruit flavor. If you didn’t know great Zin was made in Paso, you do now.
$24 | 90 Pts
Soft and creamy, though dry, the excellent mouthfeel gets you through the day. Notes of strawberry cream soda and red grapefruit are uplifting and comforting, and minerality refreshing, for that easy and casual evening you’ve worked hard for all week. An estate rosé with handcrafted character. Made from mostly Grenache and some Syrah.
SUI (WATER) 2013
$42 | 92 Pts
Intensely fruity and alive with green apple and key lime pie flavor notes, along with a fresh minerality, this is a weighty and harmonious Rhone grape blend of 60% Viognier and 40% Grenache Blanc. There’s completeness and wholeness here, a substantial white wine reaching for something more than just being a pleasant afternoon sipper. By all means, it’s fun and bright but also casually elegant and sophisticated, hinting at greater depth beneath the liquid surface.
Great Wine: Prima Toro