So what do you get when you take a handful of diverse people like chefs, photographers, investment bankers, hippies, actors, financiers, studio drummers, brew masters, wine importers, engineers, developers, and an attorney-- place them on land in the gnarly limestone hills west of Paso Robles… and let each one craft their own unique vision of the perfect wine experience? Well, in short, you get the Far Out Wineries group, and it is my recommendation you start planning your trip now.
When I first heard about this group from fellow writer Tom Plant, visions of the 70’s danced in my head. Would I need to catch up on my 70's lingo: To the max, groovy, fab, and cool? No, but each one of those words definitely describes my experience there and I am sure I’ll be using them somewhere in this article. And in my estimation – they may be a moderate ways from the west side wineries - but once you’re there, there is a wonderful group synergy that makes the drive well worth the effort. Many of the wineries are close to each other, making wine tripping’ easy and delectable.
17 wineries make up this consortium of premium small lot, family owned wineries. Over my two day stay, I was lucky enough to do a luxury farm stay, visit three wineries, and relax with a couples vineyard foot soak. Fellow Wine Chix, Ginger Giordano was on another assignment, so I enlisted my husband to fill in for her. I am always on the lookout for the undiscovered, or under covered wine regions. Read on to see why this group is so special and deserving of more media coverage and a ton more tasting groupies.
We arrived late afternoon at the Dunning Vineyards Estate Winery guest villa. To my great surprise, my GPS was spot on. No problem finding it. Thank goodness as my husband is one who enjoys the adventure of finding his way on his own; no asking for directions as that breaks some kind of manly code. If it were Ginger and me, we’d me hanging out the window flagging every car and vineyard worker we could see for help.
The Dunning guest villa is a striking private retreat located in Paso Robles Wine Country. It’s a private 600 square foot Bed & Breakfast retreat featuring a luxurious one bedroom suite with panoramic vineyard and coastal mountain views. Located on 40 acres of gently rolling hillscape this is a private luxury VIP experience. Just us, the vineyards, the hawks, eagles, and assorted wildlife – big and small – left us to relax and reflect. Parking our car, we heard the sound of a patio fountain leading to our vineyard sanctuary. Inside classical music, a wine & cheese platter, chocolates and a delightful 2008 Vin de Casa rich red wine blend greeted us. Further investigation led to a huge fluffy king side bed, spa tub/two person "santi jet", flat screen TV with satellite, wireless Internet ( a must for hubby and me) , and full kitchenette. These amenities brought a gasp of appreciation from two weary travelers. As private as it is, it’s only 10 minutes from town and many many other wineries. 1-2 guests $219.00 a night (plus 9% bed tax); Midweek Rates (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday): 1-2 guests $189.00 a night (plus 9% bed tax). Dunning Vineyards wine club members receive an exclusive discount on all our Estate Wines. Whatever you pay – smile and be glad these opportunities exist.
Up the next morning we took an early agricultural tour ($25 per person) on property lead by owner/winemaker Bob Dunning. It’s a great way to learn the vineyard to glass story from a master. It’s fascinating and includes a private reserve tasting. Our tasting was led by owners Jo-Ann and Bob Dunning. The lineup reflects the care, focus, and passion of the owners. These are brilliant; well- aged food- friendly wines ranging in price from $24 - $38 (less if you’re a wine club member). We especially enjoyed the 2007 Meritage ($32) and the 08 Private Reserve Zin ($35). We also got a sneak peek of the 09 Private Reserve Zin still in the barrel. OMG. They’re selling futures like mad on this wine and I can see why. Co-owner Jo-Ann pretty much sums up what this winery is all about and why you should visit. “Come and share a little bit of our passion. See where the wine is made, make a connection with the two of us.” I’ll vote for that!
Back up the winding road to the villa, we were looking forward to our vineyard foot soak with Vino +Therapy Studio owner Nena Benson. She was waiting for us on the patio. The sensual aromas of grapes and natural oils caught up with us as we climbed the steps to the patio. I have to tell you, there is nothing like this where I come from. And in fact, Nena told me her spa services are based on a similar experience available in Tuscany. So now, nestled on top of a high hill with sweeping vineyard views and armed with a glass of Dunning’s 2008 Chardonnay, we soaked our feet in an infusion of natural winemaking byproducts of grape seed skin and stem antioxidants, nirvana has been reached.
Neena provides private spa services to those who request it, but her home base is in Atascadero (just 10 minutes from the Far Out Wineries). What she offers is a personal journey that begins the moment you arrive at her studio. This may be the only spa I know of that has a liquor license! So expect to be served a glass of wine and a total skin & body wine experience. Whether you are someone who enjoys a great glass of vino, or you're a wine connoisseur and love to take care of your skin, Nena has something for everyone. Neena will be franchising …and to my great delight perhaps in Temecula. Bring it on; my friends and I are ready for you!
Our next stop was Le Cuvier Winery. Again, our GPS was right on target. I was having a very good day. Le Cuvier is a 3.400 case winery is open to the public Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for wine tasting and specially paired foods. It is working towards becoming a winery that is open only to wine club members. Our 90 minute appointment reflected winemaker John Munch and general manager Mary Fox’s love of food and wine pairing. Assisted by wine club manager Tiani Bajema, we had a sit down tasting consisting of elegant wines and perfectly paired bites that I am not sure mere words can describe.
What you’re looking at with this winery is the wine experience as it was meant to be. Take a passionate winemaker (John), combine him with a focused organizer who loves to entertain (Mary) and throw in a creative self-taught from scratch chef (Tiani) and seriously folks …it doesn’t get much better. From the luscious elegant wines to the mouthwatering foods these guys have game. I’d love to bring my wine writer friends here for a press party because I know I would be a hero. Yup, they’re that good.
John sources his grapes off property. I see this trend more and more. It makes sense on many levels, both economically and quality wise. John explained, “I’ve been in this area many years. I know where the quality grapes are, so all I need to do is buy them and then work with the grapes to produce the best wine possible. Our vision here is entertain and educate, with a heavy emphasis on the educational component.” I certainly got that through the food & wine pairing my husband and I shared with him, Mary and Tiani. Each course was presented beautifully. A clear, precise, unhurried explanation was given as the paired food and wine was set in front of us. A relaxed conversation ensued that made us feel like a treasured member of the family. From the first course of a uniquely styled 2007 Viognier ($37) paired with Thai Peanut Sauce & Carrot Queens , to a second course of Cold Lentil Salad paired with a lovely 2007 Pinot ($38), to the dramatic third course 2007 blend L’enfant du Pape ($46.25) with assorted gourmet cheeses, to the luscious fourth course 2007 Cab ($46.25) paired with Blue Cheese and Cream Cheese with celery …everything was perfectly paired. I must say the celery with the Cab was an eye-opener – loved it – who would have known Cab and celery good be BFF’s? Our final course before we needed to dash out the door was a scrumptious 2006 Late Harvest Zin ($50) with the most amazing brownies EVER.
I am telling you here and now…especially those of you who think they’ve had exceptional wine experiences before – you must, must try this winery. Provocative wines, thoughtful pairings, warm hospitality embraces and a truly inspirational take on making clients happy, make the words “Far Out” take on a whole new meaning. John & Mary occasional give dinner parties in their home. If you’re going to the Paso area, make sure you check out their Web site to see if you can join them. Prices are reasonable for the total wine experience. Heck…even they weren’t I’d be pulling out my credit card anyway.
The last winery of our visit was Nadeau Family Vintners . Self-proclaimed as, “An estate micro-winery ,“ this tiny beauty is located in the Santa Lucia Mountains four miles west of Paso Robles and – yea – my GPS also found it. Sitting on the patio amongst the vineyards, tasting wines with owner/ winemaker Robert Nadeau, I couldn’t think of another place I’d rather be.
Dry farmed, hand-crafted wines, are carefully coached through their development by owners/vintners Robert and Patrice. The oldest vines on the property are about 13 years old. Approximately 6 ½ acres of land are under vineyard cultivation. According to Robert his vision for his winery is, “A self-sustaining venture allowing me to still find time to spend with my family. “ He explained, “Great wine begins in the vineyard. I am a serious farmer. Our tasting room is also our laboratory, so if you're into Pyrex and periodic tables, you'll feel especially comfortable here.” My husband the engineer was fascinated. I was groovin’ on the structured, fruit forward mountain-grown Zinfandel. According to Robert, “Besides Zin, we offer austere red Rhone Varietals. When you visit us be ready for full-blown red wines, generous in varietal character and gout de terroir.” I can also highly recommend the 2009 Roussanne ($23). A blend of 95% Roussanne and 5% Viognier, this wine is what a good white wine ought to be --smooth and complex. I enjoyed the lively aromatics of citrus, green fruit and honey with notes of spice and minerality. A good alternative to the usual Chardonnay, try it with crab, lobster, or any creamy garlicky white sauce pasta.
Robert has a strong enology and viticulture background. He’s bright, inquisitive, and focused. Several Paso wineries hire him as a consultant, and I can see why. After speaking with him and tasting his wines, I get the sense that he’s not afraid to try new things while keeping one foot firmly planted in the basics of fine viticulture and winemaking. You can expect each of his small lot vintages to produce consistently premium results…although I know he’s not afraid to craft an unusual variety for wine enthusiasts. “Just a barrel or two of something different -it keeps us humble.” And as for his opinion on wine awards and scoring from wine professionals, he gave me a quote that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “No one reads a magazine to find out what breakfast cereal to eat. What…I need to know that Cheerios has a 90+ rating to enjoy it?” He makes a good point. I think you’ll love this place when you visit Friday, Saturday and Sunday and most holidays 11 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Robert will be there behind the counter pouring fine wines and dispensing provocative discourse.
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Thai Peanut Sauce
Courtesy of Le Cuvier Winery
Pair with 2007 Le Cuvier Viognier
In the tasting room pairing, they show this with freshly cut carrot coins, but it can be enjoyed with celery, cucumber - even chicken skewers.
Word of advice: Do not be tempted to omit the fish sauce or other harder to find Thai ingredients. It just won’t turn out the same.
2 shallots or 1 small onion
2 to 3 cloves garlic finely chopped or pressed
2 Tbsp. finely chopped lemon grass or 1 lemon grass stalk bruised and finely chopped.
(Asian markets often carry lemongrass that is already finely chopped and sold in small tubs that are found in the freezer or refrigerator section. I highly recommend it since lemongrass is quite difficult to chop very fine.)
3 kaffir lime leaves torn
1 tsp. red curry paste
1/3 cup crunchy peanut butter
½ inch cinnamon stick
1/2 can coconut milk (shake well before opening)
3 Tbsp. tamarind juice or 1 ½ Tbsp. tamarind paste
2 Tbsp. palm sugar or light brown sugar
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
Juice of half lemon
¼ cup water
½ tsp. fresh grated ginger
Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a wok or sauté pan on medium. Add the shallots/onion and garlic and cook until softened.
Add the lemon grass, lime leaves, and curry paste. Cook for 2 more minutes.
Stir in the coconut milk, cinnamon stick, peanut butter, tamarind juice, fish sauce, sugar, and lemon juice. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 10 minutes or so stirring often so as not to burn.
When cool, remove the lime leaves and cinnamon stick. The sauce thickens significantly as it cools: if serving cold as a dip, gradually stir in ¼ cup warm/hot water until desired spoonable consistency.
**To prepare as an entrée, omit the water. Separately stir fry some cut up chicken breast or whole shrimp/prawns. When cooked through, incorporate with the sauce and serve over a bed of wilted spinach. (called Praram Chicken or Praram Shrimp)