Paso Robles, California
During my many visits to Paso Robles, there are a few wineries that stand out in my mind. Each one stand out for a variety of reasons. Memories of the funny conversations had with friends and family, the random characters met during vineyard tours, and the almost endless nights talking with winemakers about their craft are a few examples. But then there are the memories seared into my brain of the insanely good wines. These wines inspire me to do what I do everyday.
Niner Estates’ Heart Hill in Paso Robles stands out from Highway 46 like a beacon in the night. Almost everyone passing through Paso Robles wine country has seen the grove of oak trees on the west side in the shape of a heart since the mid 1950’s.
This amazing natural landmark isn’t what gets a sommelier excited. Sure, the estate also boasts one of the best winery restaurants in the country, snagging multiple top ten awards from the likes of Food & Wine Magazine and USA Today, but there’s something even more exciting behind the doors of this massively beautiful facility.
Niner estates has not one, but two dedicated and talented winemakers. The reasons for this tandem are vast, but the main reason is the hard work involved in making several different varietals, a couple of which require an almost entirely different set of rules during the winemaking process.
Enter pinot noir, one of the most finicky grapes if there ever was one. In the world of wine grapes, pinot noir has always needed special attention, perfect placement, and perfect conditions. Picture your grandmother’s garden, full of so many colors and what seems like an endless variety of flowers. Most of these could just take the occasional watering and simple gardening and do just fine, but there was always that one special flower that required just the right amount of water, sunlight, temperature, and extra care – this is pinot noir.
This is where the tag team of Molly Bohlman and Patrick Muran come in. Molly handles pinot noir and chardonnay, Patrick handles everything else. The proof of the payoff is in the aroma and tasting notes of each of their wines.
Molly’s pinot noir is something extraordinary, with full fruit forward notes of delicate ripe red berries, yet still maintaining the earthiness desired from true pinot noir lovers. During my time in the tasting room I spent so much time just sniffing my glass of pinot, and enjoying every nuance, that it felt like a week had passed by before I finally took my first sip.
Patrick’s ability to showcase the full potential of rare grapes, like caménère, are other worldly. This particular grape hardly ever has the chance to shine on center stage, but when it does it can result in mind blowing wines. When the tasting room attendant was wrapping up my experience, he said, “you have to taste this one!” He poured my glass with the Reserve Carménère. I was transfixed. Ripe fruit, followed by spices, wet tobacco, espresso, and a subtle minerality gave this one a complex finish that seemed to have no end.
Safe to say I left their tasting room with two bottles of my own that day.
Niner Estates grows their grapes in three separate vineyards, two inland and one closer to the coast. It’s the coastal vineyard that produces some of the amazing pinot noir Molly gets to work with. These grapes need the cooler temperatures, early morning fog, and midday sun the coast provides.
In addition to pinot noir being a difficult grape to grow, it also has numerous clones, all with different characteristics. This alone is reason enough for someone to focus all of their attention and dedication into this one varietal. Hell, by law the entire region of Burgundy only allows this one red grape to be grown, mainly due to its complexity. But Burgundy definitely reaps the benefits of its selectiveness and toil, its wines are some of the most prized (and expensive) in the world.
Niner’s ability to see this same kind of potential in specific Paso Robles subregions, and then go the extra mile to bring two talented people on board to handle each varietal with care is something special.
If you’re ever planning a trip through Paso Robles, I highly recommend taking the time to make reservations and enjoy yourself here, both in the tasting room and the restaurant, I can assure you won’t be disappointed.
Micah Sampson is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and just launched his own wines: https://llamallamawine.com/