Paso Robles wine region takes pride in its diversity, with more than 40 different grape varieties planted throughout 11 sub-appellations. At any given winery it’s not uncommon to see a spectrum of wines ranging from Bordeaux and Rhône style varieties to Spanish and Italian and, of course, Paso’s heritage grape, zinfandel, all produced under one roof.
There are a few exceptions such as Windward, exclusive to pinot noir, or Clesi and Giornata, both focused on Italian varietals.
Even in such a landscape of variety, winegrower Craig Stoller stands apart, establishing two wineries and a vineyard estate, each one dedicated to a specific style of wines expressing the spectrum and essence of the wine regions along California’s Central Coast. These holdings span the counties of San Luis Obispo (SLO) and Monterey with a collective planting of 500 acres under vine.
In the Paso Robles region, Stoller captures the best of Bordeaux varieties at his eastside Paris Valley Road Estate winery. On the westside Rhône style blends, zinfandels and a few rare under-the-radar varieties blossom at Sextant winery. Then further south in Edna Valley’s cool-climate appellation Windemere’s Burgundian style wines showcase the best of pinot noir and chardonnay in tiny lots produced at Sextant.
So quietly, without the fanfare and flash of many California wine operations, Craig Stoller has cobbled together an impressive portfolio of Central Coast wines from A to Z — from arinarnoa to zinfandel.
Let’s start with 100 acres under vine planted to no less than 24 different varieties at RBZ vineyard in Paso’s El Pomar district. This is the predominant source for Paris Valley Road Estate and Sextant wines. Meanwhile, some 30 acres were planted at Paris Valley Road Estate in the Estrella district a few years ago and will be ready for its first harvest this year.
All this has developed since Stoller’s first vineyard was planted over 20 years ago at Chalk Knoll in Monterey County’s San Lucas appellation with a planting of 320 acres.
On a sunny spring afternoon, I met Stoller at Sextant winery and tasting room located along Highway 46 West. We got settled, safely distanced, on the picaresque and expansive terrace.
“I grew up in a nursery,” remarked Stoller, who calls himself a third-generation farmer, with each generation following a different path. What began with his grandfather William planting olive trees grew to his parents Glen and Terrie starting the Sunridge Nurseries in Bakersfield specializing in propagation and grafting of grape nursery stock. Stoller expanded the nursery’s operations into wine production.
“My dad has been propagating grape vines for 50 years,” said Stoller, who graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in 1991. “When Davis released plant materials we were one of the first to propagate earlier varieties of grape stocks from France,” recalled Stoller of the family’s early acquisition of plant material from Foundation Plant Service at UC Davis.
Soon Sunridge established a connection with ENTAV-INRA, a French alphabet soup designating the Establissement National Technique pour l’ Amelioration de la Viticulture and Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique. France’s Ministry of Agriculture certifies these agencies to maintain a national repository of accredited clones and to oversee administration of the trademark to protect the official clones internationally.
“They have a living library and we tapped that library early on in the 1990s,” Stoller noted, adding that all their French clonal selections come from the ENTAV-INRA repository. Sunridge is among five nurseries licensed to sell ENTAV-INRA trademarked products in the US. Sunridge’s vitis vinfera catalog contains some 30 grape varieties and over 100 clones.
“We can grow a lot of varieties here,” he pointed out, noting that experiments usually begin with small amounts. With access to his family’s nursery, Stoller not only planted the popular Bordeaux and Rhône varieties at RBZ, but he also began experimenting with such rarities as arinarnoa, marselan, caladoc (all three native to France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region) and Rioja’s native variety macabeo (bottled as sparkling wine) in addition to tempranillo, graciano and verdejo.
“People seem to want something different,” Stoller commented on his rare wine production.
Stoller acquired the property along Paso’s Highway 46 West in 2011. It was an empty barn that was once meant to be a winery. Stoller embraced it as Sextant Wine, a name inspired by the family’s love for sailing and fishing. (Sextant’s second tasting room is located in Edna Valley’s historic town-site of Old Edna.)
Crafted by winemaker Alex Frost, Sextant wines are produced from RBZ vineyard fruit and the entire portfolio boasts some 23 different wines that are rotated on its 6-wine flight tasting.
The focus here is on Rhône style wines such as Caverio, a GSM blend (grenache, syrah mourvedre) with hints of spice and fragrant with rose petals, and Passage, another GSM blend with a touch of muscle-flexing petite sirah. There’s an impressive selection of zinfandels and various iterations of Rhône style blends.
I also savored a lush and velvety Kamal cabernet sauvignon and a couple of rare varieties: marselan, a full-bodied wine rocking with a burst of cherries which is a hybrid of cabernet sauvignon and grenache; and caladoc, a hybrid of grenache and malbec, redolent with its signature raspberry and current notes.
Paris Valley Road Estate Winery
Inspired by their memorable travels to France, the Stoller family decided to dedicate their next winery to Bordeaux-style wines. The fortuitously
named Paris Valley Road Estate is a nod to a little-known two-lane road where the family planted their first vineyard Chalk Knoll which was predominantly planted to merlot. A significant amount of the fruit was originally sold to Robert Mondavi Winery.
True to its name, a Gallic theme runs through Paris Valley Road Estate reminiscent of grand salons and domaines of France. Exquisitely appointed rooms and alcoves offer intimate tasting nooks, in addition to the airy terraces, where the wines can be enjoyed paired with chef Joe White’s bistro-style fare.
Under the craftsmanship of winemaker Doug Hidinger and produced from RBZ vineyard, these wines are well structured and reflect the complexity of Paso’s terroir. These range from a grenache blanc and sauvignon gris sparkler to a watermelon-laced malbec Rosé and melony sauvignon blanc.
Among the 2017 reds the cabernet franc evokes earthy, wild brush notes of Paso garrigue, a deliciously velvety petit verdot shows hints of cloves and an age-worthy L’Entente, a classic Bordeaux style blend, is layered with spice, dark fruits and cocoa. The 2016 Reserve cabernet sauvignon displays a fine tension of well-knit tannins and a lengthy finish.
Drawn to Burgundian varieties, Stoller looked toward the cool region of Edna Valley, prime pinot noir and chardonnay country. In 2006, Stoller was fortunate to acquire the 12-acre historic MacGregor vineyard which was planted to pinot noir and chardonnay by its owner Andy MacGregor in 1975. Currently, a total of 200 cases of pinot noir and chardonnay are produced annually under the Windemere label and available at the Sextant tasting room at Old Edna’s townsite.
Both Craig and his wife Nancy run their vast wine empire like a tight ship. “She’s the glue that holds us together,” Stoller expressed. While he oversees the financial and production side, she handles HR and hospitality.
Stoller recalled his earlier days of winemaking with his first vintage from Chalk Knoll vineyard in San Lucas. “I made some wines initially but I said, ‘I’m going to need some help,’” he mused. His skills lie in the blending process and prefers to collaborate with his winemaking team.
“I’m not a winemaker,” Stoller remarked. “I’m a winegrower.”