Sunday was one of those freakishly perfect Central Coast days. The hills along Highway 101 were still green, and the weather was a steady 80 — and climbing. As Jenny and I headed north, we felt the familiar Paso Robles heat build its layer on our skin. We were going to visit Andrew Firestone, former ABC “Bachelor” and third-generation vintner, at his family’s new winery. He serves as the general manager. The vintner is no stranger to Paso fruit over the past few vintages, and the area in general. The Firestone Walker Brewing Company has been in Paso since 2001.
The location was prime: nestled between Martin & Weyrich and Eberle on Highway 46 East, and down the street from cult cab maker J.Lohr on Airport Road. They’re in good company, obviously. Firestone Vineyard was Santa Barbara County’s first estate winery, and a consistently high quality producer. They make some of my favorite value Reisling, in addition to winemaker Chuck Carlson’s out-of-this-world Rhone varietals at their second label, Curtis Winery. His 1999 Reserve Syrah, all blackberry marinated bacon, goes down as Jenny’s favorite wine of all time. (Yes, she’s had Opus One).
However, the new Paso Robles winery, with its sleek, split level masonry structure, will focus on small lots of Paso Robles-grown Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and maybe Zinfandel, a local darling. Production will be 4,000 cases annually, and the inaugural bottling is a 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, which we we tried. Think of those Dove chocolates melted down, sprinkled with some fall spices and finished with drippy dark fruit. It was silky and lovely, especially at $18 a bottle. Per usual, it reminded me of Napa Cabs that cost up to twice as much.
On to Andrew, which is probably the reason you’re reading this post. Yes, he’s handsome. Yes, he has a new girlfriend. He also moved to Paso and bought a Ford truck since, as most locals can confirm, you’re not a legit dude in San Luis Obispo’s North County unless you drive one. He was wearing a fitted T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a tan when he shook our hands and gave us a tour. The 12,500-square-foot facility features a tasting room, conference and banquet room, barrel cellar, kitchen, patio and gardens with picnic areas. Yes, picnics! We got a gander at his new $9-video, Wine Ways, which introduces folks outside of California to wine country and demystifies winemaking operations.
At the tasting bar, we sampled the featured wines, at no fee (no, that wasn’t just for me. There are many wineries in Paso that still don’t charge). While the Cab was the only wine on the list showcasing Paso fruit, it was nice to get acquainted with the recent vintages overall. Perhaps the heat put us in a white mood, but boy were they delicious. The 2005 Sauvingnon Blanc Reserve ($25) was so crisp and minerally, with aromas and flavors of nectarine and peach tarts.
The 2004 Chardonnay was our kind: medium-bodied with enough control and restraint as to not overwhelm (read: little to no butter) the palate. I really think if a big name like Firestone is producing Chardonnays like this — bright honey and citrus yet still round — that the California butterball of this wine is truly on its way out. Sweetly enough, it’s only $15 and scored a gold medal for Best of Class at the SF Chronicle Wine Competition. Jenny liked the Curtis 2003 Syrah and chances are in a couple of years she’ll love it like the 1999 Reserve. It has less meat than its older brother, but just as much black fruit and mocha.
Andrew told us a great story about the last and best wine I tried that day. It’s The Ambassador, a 2003 blend of all five Bordeaux grapes that’s made from their most prized estate blocks. It’s literally the best of their best grapes, to honor his late grandfather, Leonard, the US ambassador to Belgium during the Nixon administration. At $60 and only 200 cases, it’s their show-off wine, and it certainly wowed us. So much depth and complexity and yet so….settled.
When he meets up with his buddies at Ruth Chris in SF (Andrew used to live in the Marina), they always bring expensive bottles — we’re talking $200 and up. They have the sommelier decant the wines, and then they drink them blind. Andrew says he brings The Ambassador and he’s proud to say that his wine consistently stands up to everything else at the table.