Robert Hall Winery founding winemaker Don Brady is crafting exciting new wines under the Cavern Select label, available through the tasting room only. This portfolio of small lot production includes impressive Rhône style wines, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, zinfandel — and the new addition of vermentino.
Not many Paso winemakers are producing vermentino, a crisp fresh white wine native to Italy and France’s Provence and Languedoc- Roussillon regions. So I was delighted to stop by recently at Robert Halls’ hospitality center to savor this refreshing wine on a hot Paso afternoon.
The tasting lineup of the Cavern Select portfolio was conducted by assistant winemaker Amanda Gorter (Brady was out of town). Vermentino, I learnt, is Brady’s initial foray into crafting this varietal. He found the fruit in the El Pomar district tucked in the hills behind the winery.
Gorter was joined by Breck O’Neill, general manager and managing
director at Robert Hall Winery. In 2016, the winery (including production facilities, hospitality center, inventory, vineyards and brand) was acquired by Larkspur-based O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, the seventh largest wine producer in California by volume. Breck, who’s a fourth-generation vintner is based in San Francisco and makes weekly visits to Paso while overseeing the main winery in Fresno on a monthly basis.
“There’s not much planted in Paso,” Gorter commented on the vermentino, a wine well-suited for Paso’s hot summers as it makes ideal pairing with seafood and salads. The small production (229 cases) of vermentino, available in the tasting room only, is gradually gathering momentum with visitors as an alternative to chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
“You have to educate them and walk them through,” O’Neill commented on the new addition to Robert Hall’s lineup.
The 2017 vintage shines with citrus notes and fragrant aromas of white peach ending with a crisp finish. At 13.5 percent level, it’s also low in alcohol. “We wanted to make sure we respected its varietal expression,” Gorter affirmed.
With an annual production of 3,000 cases, the small lot Cavern Select portfolio is minuscule compared to the white label Robert Hall wines, the workhorse of a brand that’s available in grocery stores, O’Neill added. The white label wines are made to be approachable and friendly, Gorter offered.
The difference with Cavern Select lies in vineyard sources from Paso’s top notch vineyards in the Willow Creek, Adelaida and El Pomar regions. Plus the French barrels used are crafted by artisanal coopers for these high-end wines. “They get the best barrels, there’s diligent winemaking practice and we put extra TLC,” O’Neill said. All this effort enhances the wine’s aging potential.
However, the white label wines do see a good amount of aging in French and American barrels as well, Gorter commented.
The Robert Hall estate vineyards are planted to cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petit sirah and sauvignon blanc while the Rhône varieties are sourced from Paso’s various appellations.
Moving on to the Cavern Select lineup, we tasted the 2106 GSM, equal parts of grenache (Adelaida district), syrah (Adelaida, Creston and Santa Margarita districts) and mourvedre (El Pomar district). This was a lush peppery wine with fine-grained tannins and a smooth finish. Each pocket of the different appellations added its own expression and complexity to the wine.
The spicy, smoky and full-bodied 2016 mourvedre evoked the essence of Paso garrigue, redolent with traces of dry herbs and wild sagebrush. The 2016 zinfandel was unlike a typical Paso zin, which tends to be jammy. Produced from Dante Dusi ’s dry-farmed head-trained vineyard on the westside, this was a restrained zin singing with notes of herbs and white pepper, with balanced fruit and acidity on the palate.
From its estate Monahan Ranch, the 2015 cabernet sauvignon was blended with a splash of merlot and petit verdot. Packed with black currant and cocoa aromas and lush tannins, the wine begs to be opened two hours before drinking.
Besides offering its Cavern Select lineup, Robert Hall’s hospitality center is rocking with Friday night summer music series on the scenic terrace. An art exhibit by San Luis Obispo’s Pop Up Phantom Gallery is scheduled through the month of August.
O’Neill is excited about his family’s acquisition of Robert Hall. “Paso fits the bill — you’re getting incredible quality,” he said in comparison to Napa Valley. “That’s why we’re here in Paso, there’s room to grow, quality is getting better and people are great.”
The young vintner admits that while Robert Hall is well established in California, its national distribution could use further expansion. “We want to focus on big markets like Texas, Florida and Chicago — branch out and eventually cover everything.” Such an intensive national outreach will also help create an added awareness of the Paso region.
“Our philosophy is that you have to contribute to the region you’re in,” said the fourth generation vintner, poised to take the family business forward.