Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Artisan: Paso Robles Pioneers

Everything has a beginning, and sometimes it takes passionate and dedicated people to forge ahead and create something new and great out of almost nothing.

For our first evening in Paso Robles, we were scheduled to dine at Artisan with three pioneers of the Paso Robles wine community. This would be our introduction to the history of Paso Robles and its wineries. I had done a bit of research about Artisan prior to my trip, and it had an excellent reputation so I was looking forward to dinner.

Artisan is the dream of two brothers, Michael Kobayashi (who works as the General Manager) and Chris Kobayashi (the Executive Chef). Chef Kobayashi creates seasonal menus, relying often on locally grown produce and foods, most being organic or sustainable. Their wine list features many Paso Robles wines, as well as top wines from other California regions. It is the type of restaurant I enjoy, and I anticipated some delicious fare.

There is an open kitchen area, which can be viewed by one of the dining areas. Open kitchens make me more confident about a restaurant, making it more difficult for them to conceal errors. You can watch them cook, see the care they take, how they work as a unit.

As you enter the restaurant, to the back you will see their wine cellar area, a walk-in cabinet where many local wines are displayed. It certainly adds to the ambiance of the restaurant. And I am seeing more and more of these wine cellars displayed in restaurants.

We sat towards the back of the restaurant, to the left of the wine cellar. A nicely elegant, but still casual, restaurant, this is the time of place you can go for a business dinner or a casual night out. Like the rest of Paso Robles, this is a laid back place and I liked its vibe.

During dinner, we would have some fascinating conversation with three local wine personalities. All three of their wineries were established in Paso Robles during the 1980s, noting that the Paso Robles AVA was only established in 1983. You also should realize that around 1990, there were less than 20 wineries in Paso Robles. So these three wineries were definitely some of the first in the region, and now each have more than twenty years of experience. They are the old veterans of the region.

As little as fifteen years ago, Paso Robles was considered essentially a dying cow town. But the last ten years, especially after the 2003 earthquake, have seen rapid and expansive growth. It is the wine community which has been behind much of the impetus for the resurrection of this community. Passion and dedication fueled this resurgence, wine makers showing the vast potential of the land and the wines that can be produced.

Above is Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard. Tablas Creek was established in 1989 with the purchase of 120-acres in west Paso Robles.

This is Justin Baldwin, of Justin Vineyards and Winery. In 1981, he and his wife, Deborah, purchased a 160 acre property in Paso Robles, planting 72 acres of vineyards in the following year. The terroir intrigued him. At that time, there were only about 8 wineries in the region, and only about 8000 people. Justin began with plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Over the years, he has added some additional grape varieties.

This is Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines. J. Lohr started planting their vineyards in 1986, completing their winery in 1988.

All three men were personable and down to earth, excellent dining companions. They see the potential of Paso Robles and relish its more laid back ambiance. It is not like Napa, and they are fine with that. Paso seems to have a close-knit wine community, where the people are often friends, and willing to help each other. There seems much less competition here among each other. The camaradarie is compelling.

And this is Chef Chris Kobayashi, a young and passionate chef, who took a little time from the kitchen to chat briefly with us. His food spoke volumes about his skills and passion.

Our first course was Firestone Ale-Battered Smelts with frisee and malted vinegar tartar sauce. The smelts were from the Great Lakes region and they were quite good, with a light crunchy batter and without a fishy taste. This is a sustainable fish, and a nice alternative to endangered seafood.

The first wine of the evening was the 2008 Justin Sauvignon Blanc ($15), which had not yet been released. This wine had an alluring fruit aroma, with plenty of grapefruit and lemon on the palate. A very crisp and pleasant wine, it went well with the fish. This will be a nice summer wine.

The next course was a caesar salad of Windrose Farm Little Gems (baby head lettuce), romaine, and white anchovy. This was good, with fresh produce and shaved parmesan.

The wine for this pairing was the 2008 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Blanc ($40), their flagship white wine. It is a blend of 65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, and 5% Picpoul Blanc. This is a very interesting wine, with an aromatic and floral nose and a melange of flavors, including honey, spice, herbs, pear and vanilla. It is not a casual wine, but something more to savor slowly, to relish each sip. Yes, it is pricey but it is geared more for the wine lover willing to splurge on a fascinating white. Paso Robles seems to produce some stunning Rhone-style wines.

The third course was Barbecued Pork Short Ribs, with pan fried brussel sprouts, pickled onions, and garnet yams. The pork was Kurobuta from a farm in Idaho, and was quite tender and flavorful. The yams were tasty too, just the right firmness with a touch of sweetness. This dish was paired with two different wines, both from the same producer.

The 2006 J. Lohr Cuvee St. E. ($50) is intended to emulate the Grand Cru wines of St. Emilion from the Right Bank of Bordeaux. It is a blend of 58% Cabernet Franc, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Merlot, and 2% Petit Verdot, and is only produced in good years. This dark red wine had an alluring nose of dark berries and spice. It was a big but smooth wine, with lush flavors of ripe plum, blueberry, mocha and spice. There was a lengthy and satisfying finish. An excellent wine for this dish.

The 2007 J. Lohr Estates Los Osos Merlot ($15) is from the Los Osos vineyard (which means "the bears"). It is a blend of 88% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. I was impressed with this wine, and think it is an excellent value for the price. The fruity smell was compelling and there was plenty of dark berry, plum and vanilla flavors on the palate. It was a smooth wine with some spicy notes and lots of character for a wine at this price point. Merlot can sometimes be simple and dull, but this shows how Merlot can shine, even at a value price.

The Grilled Hanger Steak came with cauliflower, carrots, aligot potatoes, and a bordelaise sauce. The steak was lean, tender and flavorful and the fresh veggies were quite good. Another excellent dish from the chef. Once again, we had two wines paired with the dish.

The 2007 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel ($50) is a blend of 44% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 6% Counoise. The grapes are the best lots of the harvest, and the 2007 vintage was their best vintage ever. This was a sublime wine, one that words are inadequate to express properly. Blueberry, plum, black cherry, vanilla, spice, and violet all mesh harmoniously together. Smooth tannins, a lengthy finish, excellent balance. A top notch wine that is worth the price. Another Rhone-style stunner.

The 2007 Justin Savant ($45) is a blend of 62% Syrah, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Malbec. This is a big, bold and spicy wine. I enjoyed this wine and can't complain about any of the wines we tasted. Justin mentioned how difficult it is to sell Syrah, a sentiment which would be repeated by a few other wine makers in Paso Robles. I never thought Syrah was such a hard sell, but it has made me think more about the issue.

Dessert was Barley Wine Profiteroles with bittersweet chocolate and candied cacao nibs. The Barley Wine came from the Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles. A delicious, sweet ending to the night.

Service was excellent, the conversation was stimulating, and this was a fine introduction to Paso Robles. I would recommend this restaurant, and you should definitely check out the wines I tasted. And after this dinner, I was raring to go, to experience the rest Paso Robles had to offer.

1401 Park Street
Paso Robles, CA
Phone: 805-237-8084

Artisan on Urbanspoon


Tara@whatwechow said...

Great write-up! I love the Paso wineries you mentioned (Justin in particular) but I hope while you were there, you had a chance to sample some of the wines coming out of the boutique wineries there. There are some beautiful wines coming out of these smaller producers!

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Tara. I did have a chance to taste wines from some of the small wineries in Paso, and have already posted about a couple before. Plus, I will post about more in the near future.