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It had been nearly a year since my last journey to Paso Robles, and the memories had faded, along with the heat as I made my way back up California’s famous coast. The 27th Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival, the largest of its kind in California, drew me back. Held annually in downtown Paso Robles the third weekend of May, the Grand Tasting is quite the spectacle with 93 area wineries offering about 400 different samples of their latest vintages, a sea of some 500 wine devotees that come to celebrate their common love of wine, and local area chefs on-hand to demonstrate their culinary skills.

Everyone in attendance is festive as they stroll throughout the park to a soundtrack of classic oldies; the most jovial even taking time out from the wine to dance with varying levels of grace. In my mind, it is tough to envision a more ideal afternoon.

The chance to sample the vast range of varietals and styles of wine the region has to offer, while enjoying the warm summer sun, is tough to beat. During the course of the afternoon, I stopped by roughly 30 booths. The red wines from the region tend to have very approachable tannins, a grand expression of fruit, and a springtime backdrop of fresh flowers on the nose. Among those I sampled, I thoroughly enjoyed the work of Ranchinta Canyon,Martin&WeyrichVina RoblesSculpterraHalter Ranch, and Pipestone.

Returning to the area for the festival weekend, I was eager to see what developments had taken place in my time away. Since the area experiences dramatic 50 degree diurnal swings, has more loam and calcareous soil with larger amounts of limestone and calcium than Napa or Sonoma, a great diversity of micro-climates, and a flair for experimentation, there are a number of unique and exciting wines coming out of the region. Thus, the following day, I went to visit a few of the wineries I had gotten to know last year.

At Martin&Weyrich, winemaker Craig Reed continues his affair with the Nebbiolo grape. I stopped by for a quick tasting of his most recent vintage, and my first impression was that the 2004 bottles are just as good, if not better than the 2003. The quality is a testament to Craig’s persistence. He laughed, telling me about his first few vintages and how awful some of them were, but he learned and stuck to it. A winemaker he met recently had given up on growing Nebbiolo after ten years without much success. Craig’s words for him were, “You did not wait long enough.” Thankfully, Craig possesses a great amount of patience, and we can enjoy the fruits of his labors.

Out at Halter Ranch, they’re building up the winery with new structures and great promise. They’ve got a new barn and are working on a new tasting room as well. Their good friend Mike Del Fosse hangs around sometimes making his delicious wood-fired pizzas. Even with the construction, the grounds are still beautiful and serene, with a cozy little patio and vines that stretch out back behind the property. Along with the bucolic setting, their wine is consistently first-class. The winemaker, Bill Sheffer, was named San Luis Obispo County’s winemaker of the year in 2008, and the sample of his 2005 Cabernet and Syrah are a testament as to why.

Over on the eastside, out at Sculpterra, Paul Frankel, the son of owner Warren Frankel, has taken over as the head winemaker, and his new enthusiasm shows. For one, he’s working on producing an estate grown Pinot Noir. With all the heat Paso Robles can get during the summer, one might think Pinot Noir would take some wrangling, but Sculpterra’s Vineyards are located just a few miles east of the city in the Linne Valley. Because the valley provides some shelter, it creates a unique micro-climate, which averts some of the summer’s heat and creates conditions Pinot Noir has the potential to flourish under. A barrel sample of the 2008 vintage showed a good deal of promise. I’ll look forward to sampling the finished product.

After a few visits and a variety of samples, it is clear to me why Paso Robles is poised to become California’s next great wine region. Vintage after vintage, the wineries are producing top quality wines, and there is still room for growth. As the vines continue to age and winemakers continue to refine their techniques, the quality will only increase. Whether it is a seasoned veteran, like Craig Reed, or new young blood, like Paul Frankel, it is abundantly clear that the torch has many carriers, and they are all going to contribute to the growing prestige of Paso Robles.