30-35 Degree Slopes in Paso Robles. Picture credit: 100% lifted from Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed
Welcome to 2018, Good Vitis style! I’m very excited to kick the new year off with my favorite title of any post thus far. When I received a collection of samples from Paso Robles and pulled out a bottle of Aaron Wines, I thought it might be a practical – and very endearing – joke by the PR firm. I looked up the winery and realized it was no joke, and then emailed the firm and asked for an interview with the owner and winemaker, Aaron Jackson. A few weeks later I sampled the wines, confirming their quality and appeal, and a few weeks after that we were on the phone, confirming my suspicion that Aaron was a wine lover’s winemaker.
The lineup at Aaron Wines is strongly weighted towards petit sirah. When I asked Aaron why he chose to focus on that varietal, he said it was for the same reason that I felt motivated to ask the question: “Because you had a reason to ask “why petit sirah?” and I had to have an interesting answer. If you asked winery owners in Napa why they made cabernet, the honest answer would be that “it’s most popular and what people want, and I want to make what people want.” With real inquisitive wine people, there are questions. Petit sirah is undiscovered and there are still things to discover.” Aaron Wines is sixteen years old, but he’s still trying to discover. That’s a wine lover’s winemaker.
Aaron Jackson got into the wine business in Paso Robles, near where he grew up, as a teenage in the late 1990s as a summer vineyard hand. At that time, Aaron describes Paso as going through an identity crisis in which the industry was trying to emulate Napa Valley, making predominantly red Bordeaux varietals and chardonnay because that is what people bought. The problem, though, was that when consumers thought about California cabernet, merlot or chardonnay, they thought Napa, not Paso, and so a few wineries began searching for other varietals to begin carving out a niche in the market.
However, shifts in varietal plantings are slow, long changes due to the significant monetary risk of introducing something completely different into the market and the timeline of (re)planting vineyards. And so, well into the 2000s, it was the Bordeaux varietals that remained the bulk of Paso’s wines. As Aaron worked his way through several wineries, he become quite adept at dealing with these varietals, though they didn’t ring authentic to the region to him.
Aaron (Author) tasting Aaron (Jackson) Wines
“It’s a really authentic region and people,” Aaron said. Comparing Paso to Napa, he said Paso is “like good barbecue, it’s not white table cloth. Winemakers spend time on tractors; I’ve never worn a polo shirt or button up to work.” Most interesting to me, he boasted about how the fluid narrative of Paso as a wine region is driving innovation. “The wines are unique and speak to consumers who like big, powerful wines. Within [more] established regions there’s a high degree of rigidity; you can’t go into Napa, make a red that isn’t based on cabernet or merlot, and know you’re going to survive. Russian River grenache? That’s a risk. There are big waves going against you. In Paso there’s still experimentation, a lot of energy and exciting wine, and really cool people.”
Aaron wasn’t the only to have this observation that emulating Napa wasn’t the route Paso should be pursuing, however. Thanks in large part to efforts like the partnership between California’s Haas family and France’s Chateau de Beaucastel called Tablas Creek Winery, a few people in Paso began to embrace the varietals of the Rhone Valley, namely syrah, grenache and mourvedre. He recalled, “over time you saw developments and interesting wines [being made in Paso] as people wrapped their head around those varietals. With Rhone varietals they had international benchmarks [to compare quality], but not really any domestic ones, so in that sense they were writing the book for American Rhones at the time.” It was exciting because it was new.
Harvest 2017. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed
However, when Aaron decided to open his own winery, the Rhone varietals weren’t exciting him enough to be his impetus because at that point they were common, even if they hadn’t replaced cabernet and merlot as the standard of Paso Robles. Aaron was motivated by a desire to “bend the status quo.” He was “looking for my own way to put my fingerprint on the region” and so, driven by a particularly fond memory, he chose petit sirah as the cornerstone of Aaron Wines.
When he worked at Four Vines Winery, Aaron had a chance to make a wine from old vine petit sirah. “It blew me away, it was incredible, and no one was making it,” he said. “Benchmarking the wine was difficult [because] the thing about petit sirah is that there’s no benchmark anywhere. Trying to make Chateauneuf de Pape or Cotes de Rhone in Paso, you can do that [because you have these well-established regions to learn from and their name recognition to trade on]. With petit sirah, it’s uncharted territory.” He saw it as “a huge opportunity to do what I wanted, to make my own mark.”
Aaron began by meeting growers, forming relationships and using his skills of persuasion to talk them into planting petit sirah in areas where he hoped to source grapes. Though he still sources all his fruit, he would like to have some estate fruit eventually. In the meantime, he continues to fine tune every year what he wants for each site as the climate changes in ways requiring significant modifications. For example, the common preference for southern facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere is no longer true, Aaron says, at least in Paso where average temperatures have been rising dramatically each year. Now, rather than seeking out the heat of southern facing slopes, there’s a need to find less exposure to the hot sun, and the preferred exposure has become northern.
New Mourvedre Plantings. Picture Credit: Aaron Wines’ Instagram Feed
Having never been to Paso myself, and with little exposure to its wines, I asked Aaron to describe it for me and explain why it’s a great place to grow vitis vinifera. He began by comparing it to the geography of Spain’s Priorat, describing it as featuring “incredibly steep hills with vines clinging to the side of hills. You can’t drive through it and say the wines are not going to be unique. You look at the vineyards and you just know they will be [unqiue].” Driving into Paso Robles from the coast, it takes less than three minutes after you’ve lost sight of the ocean and you’ve entered these steep hills with white soil. Terroir-wise, “it looks different; every aspect – the soil, orientation, etc. – is extremely varied.”
Aaron’s wines offer uniqueness as well, even within Paso. Aaron Wines is just him and one full time employee, so there is a personal touch on every detail of ever wine; “no big marketing campaign, no smoke and mirrors” used to sell wine. “Everything is supposed to tell an authentic story.” Each named blend has a genesis story. Sand and Stone, for example, came from his desire to make a grenache-heavy wine. In Paso, there wasn’t a lot of grenache being made in the mid-2000s when Aaron took a brief break from California to study enology in Australia. Living in Adelaide, Aaron was exposed to the old vine Grenache grown in the sand dunes of Mclaren Vale that blew him away (“if you drove your car into the vineyards you would get stuck in the sand”). Upon his return, he went to work at Saxum, famous for its grenache, where it was grown in limestone. So, when it came time to make his own, he combined the sand of Australia with the stone of Paso to produce Sand and Stone. “I don’t want to be corny, but I do want people to see what we’re doing is real and legitimate and understand why we make our wines the way we do.”
Speaking of his wine, it’s quite good. The 2014 Sand and Stone (44% petite sirah, 43% grenache, 13% syrah) has a hedonistic nose that, while boasting concentrated aromas of dark plum, black currant and blackberry, isn’t fruit-driven. Rather, it’s the moist Earth, dung, loam, fungus and white pepper that give it a nose that is surprisingly mature for its age. The body is blessed with dense but linear and refined tannin. There’s just a tick of an alcohol that’s more spicy than boozy in affect. The acid is ripe and drives juicy red, blue and black fruit, especially Acai and Pomegranate. There is complementary lilac, violet, graphite and orange rind. It finishes with a bit of bacon. It’s bright and refreshing now, but I’d suggest giving it at least 2-3 years to further develop, though it will do well for a good deal longer than that. 91 points, value B.
Having recently done a library tasting of his own wines, I asked Aaron about the experience he had with the aging curve of them. He mentioned that the 2002 vintage (his first) is still very much alive but on its downward slide, while the 2003 is drinking nicely, with tons of fruit still left, but has probably peaked. The 2006 was the best of the line-up. While the wines do have immediate appeal, Aaron believes some can be two-decade wines.
The wine I’d be most interested in cellaring is the 2014 Citizen (53% petite sirah, 47% syrah), whose nose is still a bit reticent and requires a lot of aeration to coax out strawberry, iodine and dense smoke. The palate is lush and polished on entry, while the body is medium in stature and boasts crisp acid. On the flavor front it delivers a decidedly Earthy profile with iodine, fatback, thyme, cherry, blackberry and huckleberry. The finish brings in saline and rosewater. I believe it will benefit with five years of cellaring and could be one of those two-decade wines Aaron referenced. 92 points, value B+.
Aaron told me that the tannins on the wines I tasted are reserved compared to the older school Paso style, and that is purposefully done so they can be approachable upon release (I’ve read that something like fewer than 2% of wine sold in America is aged). Aaron commented that only in the last decade have Paso winemakers learned they should trim their yields and pick earlier to tame tannins. Paso is full of limestone, which Aaron called a “builder of acid.” This is evident in his wines, which all delivered higher doses of acid that I wasn’t expecting, but was happy to find. In fact, Aaron sources from one particular site that is relatively low in acid development in order to blend it to tame the acid on some of his wines as well.
The 2014 Trespasser (61% petite sirah, 27% mourvèdre, 7% syrah, 5% grenache) was the most acidic of the flight for me. The nose is quiet but pretty, with aromas of lilac, lavender, scorched Earth, cherry juice and crushed SweeTart. The surprisingly plush and buoyant palate offers a cornucopia of Acai, pomegranate, blackberry, rose petal, tar, smoke, pepper and sage, while it finishes with saline and bacon. 92 points, value B+.
Finally, we come to Aaron’s signature grape, and he doesn’t disappoint. The 2014 Petit Sirah (100%) offers a particularly high-toned nose of plum, maraschino cherry and something (?) stewed. The full body has an almost creamy feel as the tannins are impressively managed. The wonderful fruit is all over the place: cherry, blackberry, Acai, pomegranate, apricot and orange. There is also chocolate covered rose petals, lavender and a slightly peppery kick. The integration, balance and structure of this wine are all quite impressive. A beast of a wine, it knows how to be graceful. This is impressive winemaking. 93 points, value A.
I hope someday to visit Paso Robles. Between Aaron Wines and the other samples I received from the region, which will be reviewed in a future post, I’d like to experience more. For those searching out exciting big-styled wines, Paso is a great place to begin.