Along Kiler Canyon Road on Paso Robles’ west side lies an unmarked and seemingly abandoned narrow dirt road. If by accident you turn onto this road, you might find your car so hemmed in by the menacing forest. You might have to back up in reverse for half a mile.
I know. It happened to me once. The second time I traveled down that road, though, I was expertly guided in a four-wheel-drive truck by winemaker Janell Dusi, owner of J. Dusi Wines. For this is the road that leads to Paper Street Vineyard.
Few locals know of this vineyard. Winemakers do or at least those who source fruit from this spectacular hillside vineyard that straddles the appellations of Willow Creek and Adelaide District.
“We call it driving to Middle Earth,” quips Janell as we drive along the treacherous bumpy terrain. She is referring to the brooding landscape in “The Lords of the Rings” films. As her rugged truck snakes through the hardscrabble terrain, brittle calcareous rocks crumble off the hillsides as she dodges fallen tree logs, rocks and piles of dirt.
Although you feel like you’re miles from civilization, this woodsy pocket is no more than three miles from J. Dusi winery on Highway 46 West as the crow flies.
Leave it to Mike Dusi, Janell’s father and third-generation Paso vintner, to venture into this unapproachable parcel where others would not dare. But for him, unreachable as it was, it was perfect.
The veteran farmer saw a diamond in the rough. He recognized its potential. A perfect mix of steep hillsides and the limestone deposits, this is where great quality fruit comes from, Janell declared, echoing her father’s belief in the abandoned ranch, then devoid of water or power. Although back in 2013, when Mike acquired this 360-acre parcel, his family thought he had gone bonkers, Janell recalled with a laugh.
For the Dusis, Paso’s multi-generational farming clan, it was a true family effort to navigate the many hurdles it took to turn the rough into a diamond. Over three years Mike and his sons Matt and Michael hauled dead trees with chains and bulldozers up steep hills, and, yes, there were accidents, like a tractor rolling off the hillsides.
“And someone lost a finger,” Janell recalled.
This is extreme farming riddled with continuing challenges. At harvest time, a couple of hundred tons of fruit get trucked down the treacherous hillsides. And should there be a problem with the vehicles, help is hard to reach due to a lack of cell service in the area.
“There’s always something every harvest,” marveled McPrice Myers, the vineyard’s principal customer. Last year a low branch nearly cracked someone’s head and a tracker fell over. No one thinks the vineyard’s fruit is not worth it though.
The Paper Street vineyard came across my radar when I tasted J. Dusi’s Paper Street wines — The Narrator, a Rhône style blend; Cornflower Blue Mourvèdre; and a zinfandel. The wines are delicious, complex and well structured. I was intrigued. That’s when Janell offered to take me on this adventure.
The road itself is so unapproachable that it has no address, therefore its name Paper Street. That’s the general name for a street that appears on maps but, in reality, does not exist. “It exists on paper only, there is no physical address or road,” Janell explained.
After a good 15-minute bumpy ride, we pop up on top as if shot out of a cannon, transported to a completely different landscape, a Zen-like magical piece of terrain.
This hillside ranch, once home to 40 acres of almond trees, is now transformed into a patchwork of well-manicured vineyards that cling to undulating hillsides. Groves of Manzanitas and olive trees make up the vast landscape.
Currently, 110 acres are planted to ten varieties, mostly Rhône-style grapes. Janell pointed to some of the blocks — a head-trained grenache, clairette blanche on steep hillsides, mourvèdre, syrah, cinsault, carignane, petite sirah, tempranillo and naturally zinfandel, a variety Dusi family’s vineyards are known for. “We added cabernet sauvignon in 2018,” Janell noted.
It’s a perfect spring afternoon and Janell drives around the open space, stopping to take in the sweeping views of Paso below us. We come across Mike on his daily visit, that particular day overseeing replacement of petite sirah with cinsault and counosie, he explained.
Fruit from this vineyard is contracted by half a dozen or so Paso winemakers who produce distinctive Paper Street-vineyard designate wines for wineries such as Barton Family of Wines, Bodega de Edgar, Clos Solene, Turley and Robert Hall.
Before Mike began planting, he needed commitments from winemakers who would contract to purchase fruit from Paper Street vineyard. Veteran winemaker McPrice Myers of his eponymous winery was the first to sign on. He committed to a 52-acre parcel to be planted to Rhône-style varieties, zinfandel and graciano. “He took the biggest bite,” quipped Janell.
“When we went to the bank [for a loan], we needed someone to sign on to buy the fruit,” said Matt, who farms the vineyard alongside his father. “It was a huge leap of faith,” he said of Myers’ support.
Matt and Janell set up a tasting for me at J. Dusi Winery to meet with two winemakers/customers of Paper Street vineyard fruit, Myers and Steve Glunz of Glunz Family Wines & Cellars.
“I was nervous,” said Myers of his commitment. “But it was a good bet knowing the legendary farming family,” he added, referring to Paso’s pioneering Dusi family. Besides Myers was confident of the terroir, the steep rocky terrain and the soil.
“There’s a purity to these wines,” Myers commented. “They are exotic and there’s plenty of energy.” His annual production of wines from this vineyard is just under 2,000 cases.
While some winemakers commit to acreage others purchase by tonnage. “We get six tons each of grenache and zinfandel and some cabernet sauvignon,” said Glunz who hails from Chicago’s multi-generational beer and wine family that dates back to the late 1800s
“We go back with the Dusis to Chicago,” said Glunz. The relationship continued when they established their Paso winery, starting with its first vintage of 2012 zinfandel sourced from Dante Dusi vineyard.
Janell organized a good cross-section of Paper Street vineyard wines. We began the tasting with Myers’ 2017 clairette blanche, a floral wine with bracing acidity. “This grape is really well suited for Paso,” Myers commented on the white Rhône variety. Another fresh and vibrant white was an anise-scented grenache blanc from Barton Family Wines.
Among the reds, we experienced a zinfandel spectrum from three vintages — a lush, ripe 2017 J. Dusi, a 2018 Glunz exuberant with fig and black plum flavors and Myers’ 2019, rich and smooth hitting all the markers of classic zinfandel.
To show the depth and intensity of the vineyard, Myers took a unique approach in his 2019 Cuvée of syrah, grenache, mourvédre, petite sirah and graciano, a rollicking blend of fruit from various blocks, aged in different barrels with different fermentations. “It shows the diversity of the ranch,” Myers explained.
At 2,200 feet elevation, Paper Street vineyard is surrounded by some pretty impressive wineries such as Daou, Law, L’Aventure and Booker. “Serious wine is made here,” said Matt of his family’s vineyard which is starting to garner a buzz with winemakers and wine aficionados.
Just don’t go looking for it.