February 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Rhône Way On The Central Coast

by Larry Walker
The Rhone Way on the Central Coast
Steve Cass
When Steve and Alice Cass started thinking about planting vine- yards near Paso Robles, they had Rhône varieties on their minds. Paso Robles is considered a top area for those varieties, going back to the early days of the California Rhone Rangers in the 1980s. Cass Winery is located in the Templeton Gap on the west side of Paso Robles, noted for cool Pacific winds, but still warm enough to ripen the Rhône varieties.

In a recent interview with Wines & Vines, Steve Cass said he made the final decision to "go Rhône" during a visit to South African wineries. "They were doing a good job with small lots of Rhône varieties and I thought, 'We could do just as well in Paso Robles,'" Cass said. "We were just in the planning stages at that point, and we decided to go with the Rhônes." The 160-acre vineyard was planted in 2001 to mostly Rhônes, although there is Cabernet Sauvignon. At this point, almost all the grapes are sold.

Having tasted Cass wines, I remarked that they are fairly complex wines to be coming off young vines--most of the current releases are from the 2003 vintage. Cass credited this to his clonal source, ENTAV, Establissement National Technique pour A'melioration de las Viticulture, an agency of the French government which is responsible for the clonal integrity of grape varieties. ENTAV clones are used in more than 90% of plantings in France. ENTAV clonal selections are tested in the field for a minimum of five years to detect viruses or other problems. They are also tested for a minimum of three years to evaluate the wine potential. (For more information see entav.fr.) ENTAV clones were first licensed for sale in California in 1996.

"We had very few viticultural problems, because ENTAV had done the work in advance of our planting," Cass said. "They tell you what to expect and, for example, warn of incompatibility between clone and rootstock. They publish a booklet with all the information you need."

Cass said when he was thinking of planting Grenache, he went to the ENTAV booklet and found exactly the clone he needed. "There it was, clone 362."

One example of the importance of the ENTAV research is grape ripening. Cass said consistency in the plant material helps ensure that fruit ripens evenly in the vineyard.

Cass added, "There are very little, if any, federal or state funds available for that kind of research. In California, all the research is from private sources. There is a lot more we could be doing."

Growing grapes the right way is an important first step for a new winery. Steve Cass realized that in order to succeed, the wine has to be sold. He has put a good program in place for that. From his 160 acres of grapes, Cass is making only about 1,000 cases of wine at this point. "More than 90% of our grapes are going to other wineries. So it is very important that the wines I make are of high quality, so I can go to a potential grape buyer and say, 'Look, these are the kind of wines you can make from my grapes,'" Cass said.

Cass sells most of his production out of the tasting room. "On weekends, we may do between $2,000 and $10,000 worth of business," he said. In order to keep that kind of sales rolling in at the winery, which Cass says is really "in the boondocks," he has put a number of programs in place.

"We do a lot of events--winemaker dinners, fundraisers and other things to attract customers," he said. Cass also credits sales to the picnic tables that he has set up outside. "When people stop in for a tasting, we ask them if they'd like to sit outside and we bring the wine to them. So instead of standing around a tasting bar, they can sit down and relax. Maybe order more wine."

Cass also has a full service commercial kitchen in the winery, and offers cooking classes and various food and wine matches suggested by the winery chef, Jeff Marcove. Marcove, who also has a catering company, creates recipes that pair with Cass Wines. Wines shipped to wine club members come with complete cooking instructions and color photographs of the finished dishes. Cass also sells food items from the tasting room.

The eventual production goal is no more than 5,000 or 6,000 cases, according to Cass, with a jump next year to about 3,500 cases.

The Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon 2003--$32, 250 cases. There's plenty of fruit here, but also good balance and an elegant structure. The finish is long, with layers of inviting flavors.

Hacienda 2003--80% Mourvédre, 20% Syrah; $34, 230 cases. Good varietal definition; a smoky/minerally wine with good structure and layers of flavor on the finish.

Rockin One 2003--$34, 161 cases. A classic Rhône blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, the wine has bright but deep fruit and a concentrated finish.

Syrah 2003--$32, 250 cases. A more complex wine than would be expected from young vines; well balanced and food friendly.

Viognier 2004--$26, 230 cases. Barrel fermented and aged sur lie, this is a serious approach to the varietal, focusing on rich, viscous flavors, somewhat at the expense of the more subtle Viognier fruit. An interesting wine, capable of extended aging.

For more information on Cass Wines, see casswines.com.
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