“Paso and Cab were made for each other,” declared Gary Eberle. A puzzling comment from a vintner known for pioneering syrah planting in Paso. Cab, a slang for cabernet sauvignon, is also Eberle’s daily go-to sipping wine. Cab not only leads all grape varieties planted in Paso Robles but ageability makes it a collector’s dream. Which Gary is eager to prove. 

Eberle Winery’s older vintages
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

On a cold winter afternoon, I met the Paso pioneer at Eberle Winery, where he was ready with four older vintages that would express the agebility of Paso Cabs.

The Paso wine region has long held its prime spot as a Rhône zone. But Paso’s Cab Brigade is fast catching up, gaining popularity and garnering high scores from noted wine critics. Cabs here are opulent, they have the voluptuousness of Jennifer Lopez, with an elegance of Jackie Kennedy.

In recent years, I’ve noticed vintners dedicated to Rhône-style plantings adding cabernet sauvignon vines in their vineyards. “Cab is everywhere,” said Eberle’s winemaker Chris Eberle (no relation to Gary). “People are ripping out zinfandel and sangiovese and replacing it with cabernet.”

Getting through this together, Paso Robles

Syrah may be sexy but as the saying goes Cab is King!

Paso’s wine region encompasses over 40,000 vineyard acres of which over 49 percent is planted to Cab. Paso Cab fruit remains a good source for Napa wine producers for blending with local Napa grapes. 

“In the 1970s and ‘80s, two-thirds or more of the fruit we grew went out of the county; today it’s less than half, but that’s still a big number,” Eberle noted.

We begin Eberle’s lineup with the 1978 Estrella River Winery Cab, made by Eberle when he was at that winery. “It’s got a bottle bouquet on the nose,” he announced of the faint brick color wine. “It’s like grandma’s old attic.” He’s right, it does exude pot-potpourri aromatics. “I would not be embarrassed to serve this,” Eberle said. “It’s balanced and clean.” 

Another brick-hued 1982 Eberle Cab Reserve made by winemaker Tom Myers at Estrella River winery showed distinctive barnyard notes; and the 1987 Eberle estate-bottled Cab was fruit-forward and taut with tannins. We finished with the lush and lively 1997 Eberle Cab. 

Adelaida Vineyards & Winery

Adelaida Vineyards’ 1982 Cab was yet another testament to Paso’s aging potential. Evocative of classic cedar and cigar box notes, the wine showed freshness on the palate. This vintage was crafted by John Munch who had at the time established the Adelaida label with wines made by Myers at Estrella winery. 

Adelaida’s Cab program comes from Viking vineyard planted in 1991.

Of the total 150 acres of estate vineyards, some 35 acres are dedicated to Cab. “Elevation and soils go a long way to give a personality to structured Cabs,” noted winemaker Jeremy Weintraub of the limestone soils and vineyards that scale up to 1,700 feet in elevation. We savored some recent vintages of Cabs: the 2018 Vineyard designate, and the cellar-worthy 2016 and ’13 from the Signature series.

Steve Peck

“We are a Bordeaux house through and through— that’s where our strength lies,” declared Steve Peck, director of winemaking at J. Lohr Winery. He set up an interesting tasting of six wines dating back to 2007. From the Cuvée portfolio (barrel-aged for three years and bottle-aged for one), we tasted the Cab-driven PAU blends: the ’10 expressing a minty character, the ’09 truffle scented and ’08 dark and savory. Another trio of 2007s ranged from Carol’s Vineyard in Napa Valley to the local Hilltop and PAU, all still vibrantly youthful.

Justin Vineyards & Winery

Among other older vintages, I sampled Red Soles Winery’s 2006 Reserve Cab expressing old vintage funk yet with a layer of freshness; Justin Vineyards‘ 2012 vintages of a complex Reserve Cab and the flagship Isosceles blend, a rich complex wine expressing seamless tannins. “This is the best Bordeaux-style blend we can make each year,” commented winemaker Scott Shirley of the latter bottle.

Don Brady, director of winemaking at Robert Hall Winery also uncorked a 2012 Cavern Select Cab. “I don’t know if it’s 100 percent Cab,” Brady confessed. “Reminds me of something from Bordeaux, it’s holding up great,” Brady commented on the wine that was fresh on the palate backed by smooth tannins.   

Cavern Select, Robert Hall Winery

At the Cab-centric Daou Family Wines, co-proprietor and winemaker Daniel Daou produces his signature brilliant blends such as the flagship Soul of a Lion, Micho and Mayote along with the Estate Cab, bold wines that are elegantly supported by a fine minerality.

The recent Cab explosion has in part to do with the formation of Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux varieties) Collective (PRCC), established in 2011. It was Daou, who corralled support from local wineries such as J. Lohr, Justin, Adelaida, Eberle, Halter Ranch, Vina Robles Vineyards and Chateau Margene to form the organization. (A classic Bordeaux blend can be composed of five varieties, primarily cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot with lesser amounts of malbec and petit verdot.) 

This month the PRCC in collaboration with Somm Foundation resumes its CAB Camp, the annual three-day immersive experience in Paso, hosting leading sommeliers and wine buyers from around the country.

Sterling Kragten with son Soren

So, is Paso a Cab country?

“I think, it’s becoming that,” answered Dan Smith, winemaker at Villa San Juliette. “Here you have drinkability and aging potential.” Among the lineup, we tasted the 2017 Romantique, a Bordeaux blend, and a 2018 Reserve Cab, wines that hit your palate upfront with a rush of red fruits. 

“There’s a big push [on cabernets] especially because of the Cab Collective,” noted Sterling Kragten, winemaker at Cass Winery. While the focus is on Rhône-style wines at Cass, of the total 145-acre vineyard planting, some 70 acres are dedicated to Cab. The 2018 vintages of Cab-driven blends range from the dark and brooding Rockin’ TED which has  splash of mourvèdre (a Rhône variety) adding pepperiness; and the regular and reserve Cab crafted as classic Bordeaux blends.

Some Paso winemakers take the liberty of adding a Rhône variety to their Cabs, but not Soren Christensen. “I’m a traditionalist, I will not blend Cab with syrah,” said the winemaker at Hearst Ranch Winery. “Malbec and petit verdot get into all our blends,” explained Christensen pouring the 2017 vintages of the textured Proprietor’s Reserve and the well-rounded The Point, a classic Bordeaux blend.  

Soren Christensen

At the Cab-centric Hope Family Wines,where three-quarters of itsproduction is dedicated to Cab, the range extends from the lightly-oaked everyday Austin Cab to Treana and the cellar-worthy Austin Hope Reserve. I savored more bold complex Cabs at Niner Wine Estates:the 2018 Fog Catcher Bordeaux blend and the full-bodied Heart Hill Cab. At Victor Hugo Winery,the 2017 Opulence, barrel-aged for 27 months and bottle- aged for ten, was a classic blend and true to its name, luscious, rich and cellar-worthy.

At Vina Robles’ new state-of-the-art 73,000 square-foot winery, winemaker Kevin Willenborg lined up the 2018 and ’19 vintages of 100 percent Cabs. The Creston Valley wines expressed dark cherry fruit while the ones from Adelaida Springs were evocative of cassis and cedar. The wines have a delicious mouthfeel, a signature of Willenborg. “You can drink them now and age them,” he commented. “Tannins are stable, they won’t rip your mouth.” 

Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery

 The beauty of Paso Cabs and Bordeaux blends is its range of price points from Liberty School’s $16 Cab to Daou’s $275 Patrimony, the priciest wine in San Luis Obispo County.  

And the spectrum is wide, from large producers with vast acreage of Cab plantings to those who speak in terms of owning rows of vines, such as Denis Degher whose three-acre vineyard at Domaine Degher is producing noteworthy wines such as the 2018 Reserve Cab which received the Double Gold at the San Francisco Wine Competition this year.

Other small production wineries include Grosso Kresser, known for the structured Bordeaux blend, the 2013 Candére and a restrained 2015 Reserve Cab; and RN Estate, noted for its velvety Cab-driven blends like the 2018 Cuvée des Trois Cépages and Harmonie des Cépages.

Other Paso wineries producing distinctive Cabs and Bordeaux blends include Sixmilebridge, Ancient Peaks, Allegretto, Chateau Margene, Brecon, Paris Valley Road Estate, Grey Wolf, and more.