Americans seem to have a built-in preference for single varietal wines. Much of that bias is traceable to Robert Mondavi, who relentlessly campaigned for varietal labeling throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Mondavi was struggling to rebuild the California wine industry after the ravages of Prohibition and World War II, and he was also battling the generic jug wines of the time, which tended to be labeled amorphously as “Chablis” or “Burgundy.”
However, few of the world’s great wine regions are monocultures, and there is a widespread feeling among winemakers that blends are better than single varietals because they become greater than the sum of their parts. Throughout Napa and most of Sonoma, the prevalent blend is a clone of the great wines of the Médoc—despite a warm, Mediterranean climate, and ignoring an illustrious 19th-century tradition of Rhône grape varieties in California. When in doubt, goes the prevailing wisdom, make it taste like Bordeaux.
One region that’s definitely not producing Bordeaux clones is Paso Robles, which has become the headquarters for Rhône-style blends in California. The region developed quickly: from 20 or so wineries in 1990, there are more than 200 today. Early pioneers were L’Aventure, Saxum, Linne Calodo, Peachy Canyon and Tablas Creek. The husband-and-wife team of Don and Susie Law fell in love with wine during a trip to Spain in 1976, developed an affinity for Rhône-inspired blends, and inevitably found their way to Paso to start their winery.
Philipp Pfunder has been the winemaker at Law Estate from 2016 onward. Originally from Germany, Pfunder moved to Miami at the age of ten and studied oenology and viticulture in New Zealand. He led a nomadic life for nearly a decade, working harvests in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, including stints at HdV, Château Angelus and Screaming Eagle. When he visited Paso Robles on vacation, it was love at first sight.
“I was floored by the quality of the wines,” he recalls. “I had no idea that any area in California did Rhône varieties that well. The community was so closely knit, and it was an incredible opportunity to make a wide range of wines at the same estate.”
Law Estate produces between 7,000 to 9,000 cases each year, depending on weather and yields. It’s not much wine to begin with, and most of it is snapped up by Wine Club members and direct-to-consumer sales. The nine grape varieties and 11 different blends push the boundaries of imagination and expand the possibilities of taste.
The 2018 First Tracks is an atypical combination of 42% Petit Verdot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Syrah. The dense, fragrant nose is filled with aromas of menthol, graphite and spiced blackberries. The wine is poised and ripe in the mouth, just as rich as it appears on the nose, with a core of mineral-inflected black fruits framed by pepper accents and stiff tannins.
2017 Beguiling and 2018 Aspire are mirror images of each other. Beguiling (85% Grenache, 15% Syrah) is compact and medium-bodied, with remarkable purity of fruit: fresh, balanced flavors of red raspberry, wild strawberry, cherry and rhubarb fill the mouth and expand on the finish. The winery describes it as “playful and lively,” and the description fits. Aspire (84% Syrah, 16% Grenache) is full-bodied and concentrated, with aromas of charcuterie and flavors of peppery black fruits. Wild and exotic, it finishes with hints of kirsch and menthol.
These wines sell in the $80-85 range, which is a significant value given their quality—there are many boring Napa Cabernets commanding three times the price. They are worth seeking out and will age well for five to 10 years under the right cellar conditions.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?