Thursday, June 23, 2011

A New Series of Wines From Don Sebastiani & Sons: Project Paso

Raise your hand if you know of Sebastiani winery and wines? Good, now raise your hand if you know that the winery and vineyards are no longer owned by Don Sebastiani...While he no longer makes wines under his own family name, you just can't keep Don Sebastiani from the wine business. He and his sons, Donny and August, are now running Don Sebastiani & Sons, based in Sonoma. Among their many projects as négociants are "The Crusher" and this blog's subject, Project Paso. As you probably guessed, the Project Paso wines are all made with Paso Robles grapes.

The following wines are designed to appeal to people who want inexpensive, high quality reds and whites from Paso Robles. Specifically, Project Paso aims to get Millennials drinking wine from that region by showcasing something beyond just fermented grape juice. While the Sebastiani's role is that of négociant, for Project Paso they partnered with Sam Balakian, a famous winemaker in the area who has extensive experience blending wines for the Sebastianis, especially their California series wines back when they owned Sebastiani winery. These wines highlight the 30+ year relationship between Sam and the Sebastianis.

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Project Paso 2009 Red Blend: A blend of seemingly a gazillion varietals..but in reality there are eight. 37% Grenache, 16% zinfandel, 14% petite sirah, 11% mourvedre, 9% barbera, 8% lagrein, 3% tempranillo, and 2% sangiovese. It's pouring as a nice dark garnet color, almost zinfandel-like. That should come as no surprise though because there is 16 % zinfandel in here. The bouquet is nice, loaded with a variety of ripe fruit elements. Some of the more prominent were cherry and strawberry. I also got some cola and a hint of earth. While not particularly exciting, the Project Paso does smell quite tasty.

When tasting a blend like this, with so many grapes in it, I often anticipate a highly complex wine as each varietal vies for attention. In the '09 Project Paso, you don't get a hugely complex wine as much as you get a well balanced red. Nice ripe fruit elements, good acidity and tannins keeping them in check, and a hint of oak. Solid at the $14 suggested retail price, one I'd gladly share with my buddies during a round of burgers or pizza. The fact that it can be found for less than $14 (closer to $10) makes it a huge step up from the "Menage a Trois" type wines that can be so unimpressive. B-, BUY recommendation.

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Project Paso 2009 Chardonnay: To me this is a chardonnay for those of you who love the "traditional" California style. Winemaker Greg Kitchens aged this sur lee for eight months on a mix of American and French oak. I could smell some ripe apple notes with a hint of apricot. The telltale sign of oak, a warm vanilla aroma, was present also. I think this wine sees at least partial malolactic fermentation too, I picked up the scent of buttery movie theater popcorn.

Right away I tasted more of the buttery oak that I'd smelled. Beyond that was some bitter acidity that didn't seem too pleasant to my palate. I did get notes of apple and a lemon juice component on the mid palate. As I searched, some tropical fruit like pineapple mixed with passion fruit, reminiscent of a can of Kern's Nectar showed up. The alcohol spiked on the back end yet it's "only" 13.9%. Definitely goes against my tastes and isn't my style, but at $14 SRP, you might like the lusher, richer California-style chardonnay. B-.

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Project Paso 2009 Zinfandel: Blended from three zinfandel vineyards around Paso Robles, this was almost exactly what I expected it to be. When you see the "Old Vine" designator on a bottle of wine, remember that it's generally accepted that the vines are 30+ years old. Old grapevines produce slightly different flavors than a young (10 year old) vine and a lot of people love this style especially in zinfandel and grenache. I loved the color, and elegant light-hued purple. There's 93% zinfandel and 7% lagrein in the 2009 Old Vine zinfandel, and I don't know why the winemaker chose or needed to add it in. My best guess is to add color and/or tannin to the wine.

An aromatic beast with red berry fruit, crushed white pepper, bubblegum and dark chocolate all coming out of the glass at me. The alcohol is 14.4%, not at all unreasonable in a zinfandel but it does show itself as a heaviness on the bouquet. That ripeness carries through to the taste too, lots of cherry preserves and white pepper with some very light tannins providing structure. Yes, the wine is rustic but that is part of the intent here, and it does work. I did get a bit of alcoholic burn on the finish, somewhat distracting but it would be covered up had I paired the wine with a buffalo burger or peppercorn steak. At $14 it's tough to justify buying a bottle because other wines like the Bogle Old Vine ($12) and Dry Creek Vineyards ($13) deliver beyond this one, but I've heard rumors of the Project Paso Old Vine zinfandel being on the shelf for as little as $10. B, at $10 it's a good bottle of wine.

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 2009 Project Paso Cabernet Sauvignon: The last of the Project Paso wines I tasted, this is a bit of a "frankenwine" because it's got the following grapes in it: 89% cabernet sauvignon, 5% petite sirah, 2% alicante bouchet, 2% grenache, 2% merlot. Yikes! The alcohol is only 13.6% so I suppose I can forgive Greg Kitchens for using the kitchen sink in this red wine. Despite the legality of saying this is cabernet sauvignon, I have a hard time considering it as that.

Right away I smell the 2% grenache, something I didn't think possible. Ripe raspberry and blackberry rushes up at me. I also got leather, sawdust, red currant, and a smokey campfire-esque aroma. Very, very interesting and I attributed this complexity to all the varietals in play.

My friend Dan was with me and said he really hit on the raspberry and oak flavors. I liked the leather, plum, blackberry and dusty flavors, a real melange of stuff. There was some nice firm tannins, giving the wine a really good weight on my palate. Both Dan and I liked the finish, it lingered nicely without overreaching and tapered off with surprising elegance. My ideal pairing: A Philly cheesesteak sandwich with potato salad. B. BUY recommendation. Sure it's got a lot of grapes making up for perhaps less-than-ideal cabernet, but it's fun and at $14 suggested retail, won't break the bank.

Instead of corks, the Project Paso line uses a closure called a "Zork", which has been available for years yet still isn't widely used compared to cork or screwcap. For some, the Zork closure is a nice middle ground, being more convenient and reliable than a cork yet classier than a screwcap. I like it, and I hope more wineries use Zork closures. It's neat and does really balance the line between traditional cork and new-age screwcap.

This is my second blog post about Don Sebastiani & Sons wine brands, and while both of the brands I've tasted are good,I have to go with The Crusher as being better wine. There's nothing wrong with any of the Project Paso wines, they're quite easy to drink and deliver at their price points. Unfortunately, they're a tad generic too, where the wines of The Crusher are great expressions of place. Still, the quality is consistent through all the Don and Sons wines, no doubt about it. I predict both lineups I tasted will be very successful.

The Project Paso wines were media samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

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