Oh my goodness, I thought. I cannot possibly drink this big, full-bodied red wine in this heat – I’ll pass out! Nevertheless, there I was, in Paso Robles during a heat wave (100˚ in the shade), on a wine tasting tour. “Oh, no, this isn’t normal for May” they said “…but it’s great practice for the summer when it’s 110˚ for months!” A pale Seattle girl, I wiped my brow, took another swig of cooling water and headed determinedly back to the bar.
I’ve been reading about Paso Robles – haven’t we all? It’s the “next Napa”, or “we hope it’s not the next Napa” as some locals say. Known for their big, ballsy red wines and with an increasing reputation (even the French are getting in on it) the area may – or may not be the Next Big Thing.
What I can say is that it’s a beautiful land, split by Highway 101 into West and East sides. The West side has the tight hills and roller coaster roads, while the East side is flatter and faster to get around. Lucky in their varied terroir, they have the heat for big red varietals, cooling ocean breezes to provide balancing acid, nutritious yet well drained calcareous soils for minerality and earthiness, and despite an aquifer that Washington State would kill for, many wineries use low water, or “dry farm” for the most concentrated flavor. It’s still the Wild West in Paso, where anything goes. While they tout their Zinfandel, they also make, and freely experiment with irreverent Rhône and Bordeaux influenced blends.
As I toured, I discovered that the Paso wines can be characterized as deliciously ripe and round, with good berry fruits, spice, licorice, and a bit of earth and minerality – a refreshing change from the straight up fruit and oak bombs produced by some of their more northerly neighbors.
What I did find odd was the fact that at every tasting, the pourer would jauntily say “And it goes great with barbeque!” – meaning the famous Santa Maria Tri Tip Beef Barbeque as well as traditional ribs. Already wilting in the heat, I shuddered at the thought of drinking red wine and eating barbeque. I poked around the winery buildings looking for shade and noticed that nearly every one had a huge built in barbeque pit with one, sometimes two and even three grills that were bigger than my bed. Raised and lowered on massive chains and pulleys, they were so huge that I wondered if they were barbequing their beasts whole.
I finally had the chance to try one of these famous barbeques – and discovered something else: it cools down in the evening, making it all possible. Paso’s proximity to the ocean creates a temperature drop of 40 – 50˚ at night, making for delightfully cool evenings. I joined some friends on the patio as the hickory perfumed smoke drifted upwards from the grill, sipping one of those big red blends. Ah, I thought, this must be what makes the grapes happy – hot days and cool nights, resulting in daily spurts of energetic growth and nights of cool, sweet rest.
The barbeque was delicious, especially with the traditional Santa Maria sides of toasted garlic bread, smoky sweet grilled corn and spicy pinto beans. Somewhere between the third beef rib and the second helping of beans, I had a classic “duh” moment. One of the time honored rules in food and wine pairing is “what grows together goes together”. It may be a bit of a stretch to say this in reference to raising beef, but in this case, I was willing to go with the flow because it delicious!
So don’t be afraid to bypass the beer and reach for a red wine at your next barbeque. Just be sure to go big and bold, not refined, so that the wine can take it. Zinfandel with it’s rich fruit and balanced spice is perfectly suited for barbeques, and Merlot works pretty well too, especially with pork ribs. We had both, as well as enjoying the “Slo Meritage” 2002 Bordeaux blend from Adelaida with it’s blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec – a rich wine with notes of berry, licorice and a little chocolate that matched the smoky meat extremely well.
That night as I wiped the barbeque sauce off my chin, I mentally tipped my sun bonnet to all of the cheerful winery folks in Paso – they’re right, their robust, earthy red wines are a perfect match for barbeque!