Desparada Wines of Paso Robles – The Most Important Winery In The Most Important Wine Region In California

                     Just a Few of Vailia’s Must-Haves – Desparada Wines


Centered at the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Paso Robles has been one of my favorite hunting grounds for unique, thoroughly one-of-a-kind wines for years. It’s where I first discovered the Rhone Ranger glories of L’Aventure, and stumbled upon the mind-bending Syrahs grown in the western reaches of Paso Robles by Justin Smith of Saxum. Also home to some of the most prized bottlings in my personal collection – Linne Calodo – Paso Robles is one wine region I simply cannot visit often enough.

In the early days, the A-listers could be counted on a few fingers, to include the aforementioned and – of course – the ethereal Zins of Turley. That’s all changed though, with a new group of settlers finding their way to Paso Robles over the past decade, lured to the gentle rolling hills of this chaparral environment. Vineyard owners seem to be everywhere these days – eager to rent their homes when you come to town – thanks to the need for high quality grapes by some big name producers here.

But I’ve fallen in love with the wines of a winery I hope remains as boutique and under the radar as they’ve been for years. That winery is Desparada, and its owner Vailia is among my top 5 – make that 3 – very favorite people in the wine business. My wife and I recently paid a visit to Paso Robles, and our two hours in the cellar with Vailia were unforgettable.

The first thing you notice about Vailia is that smile. It’s real; never departing from her face, it reaches all the way to her eyes. That smile is as real as the wines she makes, wines that now fill at least 50% of our small 15 case “cellar” at home. Wines that speak of Vailia equally as much as Paso Robles and the single vineyards she sources from. Wines that perfectly speak of varietal – she works with so many, so unique – and, just as important, wines that allow each unique vintage to share their story. Vailia is a tremendous winemaker. As such, she thoroughly understands and respects her role as steward.

Working with some of Paso Robles’ great single vineyards and perfectly tended vineyards, Vailia has shown me bottles of shockingly delicious blends spanning multiple vintages. My first experience has turned into a vertical of “Sackcloth & Ashes”, a multi-site, multi-varietal blend which I first encountered with the 2012 vintage. Now into my fourth vintage, I will attest that this striking wine – Cabernet, Petit Sirah, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec; hailing from the Happy Canyon, Coghlan, Roadrunner, Santa Barbara Highlands and Vogelzang vineyards – is one of the most profound of its type; worth 2-3 times what we pay.

Then there’s the vertical of “Borderlands” I cannot keep my hands off. Another stunning blend – this time equal parts Cab, Cab Franc, Grenache and Syrah – from the Coghlan, Santa Barbara Highlands, Spanish Springs and White Haw vineyards, it is so immensely irresistible that I’ve asked my wife to hide two bottles of each vintage from me. How Vailia bottles such deeply soulful wines at these earthbound prices is one of life’s great mysteries.

But there’s so much more – so VERY much more. So many shockingly delicious versions of Sauvignon Blanc; one that I’ve “blind” tasted my Francophile buddies on and convinced them it was La Mission Haut Brion Blanc (go ahead, look up the price difference). Amphorae fermented and aged wines of every type and description. Barrel fermented, stainless fermented wines based on the same varietal – just so Vailia can follow their evolution. Italian varietals, Spanish varietals – that truly and completely honor their native land while reflecting Paso Robles AND Vailia.

I’ll close now – probably said too much already (just can’t keep a secret) – by encouraging you to (at the very least) sign up for the

Desparada newsletter

the wines will quite possibly change your outlook…



2007 Palmina – Steve Clifton’s “Perfect” Vintage

Often, after a trip through our favorite regions of Burgundy or the Rhone Valley, I’ve told my wife that if I ever muster the resources to exit the tumultuous retail side of the wine business I’d like to move to one of those parts of the world.  “Too far from my family”, she quietly, lovingly responds, and the conversation moves on.  Then I taste something as alluring as the wines I sat with over a 3 hour lunch this afternoon.  And then my thoughts begin to consider the sun kissed hills and valleys of Santa Barbara….

Before we move forward, for those who have yet to suffer though my soap-box diatribes, let this serve as enlightenment to my antipathy for soupy, over-manipulated, high alcohol wines; the type most often offered these days when wine-makers and / or their representatives from most parts of the West Coast come calling.  Don’t label me, necessarily, a French wine snob, nor a California wine hater.  It’s just that, with my love of natural, terroir driven, non-intervention style wine making, the vast majority of the stuff presented to me these days – from good ‘ol California – simply sends my palate and olfactory senses to places I rather not experience.  I often find myself speaking aloud, “If I want to drink Port, I’ll drink Port.”

Then came today’s effortless, multi-course, hours-long luncheon.  I had been exposed to the wines from this fabulous wine-maker through the writings of an old acquaintance, Josh Raynolds – now the co-author of Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, and Josh’s prose, admittedly, had stirred quite some interest for me.  But searching for wines to represent from the West Coast often results in unreturned e*mails, disregarded social network messages, or non replies to repeat voice mails.  No matter the size, popularity or the amount of critical acclaim – or, interestingly, the lack of these attributes – bestowed upon many a winery in California, relationship building with a retailer appears of minor importance. 

So it was of double good fortune that my host for today’s luncheon had the foresight of becoming a paying mailing list client of the winery I now so enjoyed with my 5 course lunch BEFORE approaching with a request to become their broker.  Indeed, my host, now the exclusive broker for Palmina for the State, had been in just the right place at just the right time.  His phone call to Steve Clifton on that late evening several months back could not have come at a better time.  And the fact that my friend A.J. had long been receiving mailings from Mr. Clifton was all it took to begin the movement of these highly regarded cases into my State of residence and professional locale.

Steve Clifton, of Brewer-Clifton fame, launched this project in 1995, aiming to offer the consumer and avid Italian wine drinkers “”food wines” with a balance of fruit, tannin and acid”, that both honor the grapes of Italy but at the same time “interpret the history and importance of the wines and have them still have a sense of place here in Santa Barbara County.”  As I tasted these wonderfully pure and flavorful wines, this philosophy became more apparent to me. These are wines, based on traditional Italian grapes, with the inherent acidities, fruit components and tannins one expects, yet grown in the warm Santa Barbara appellation, resulting in just a bit more of what I find so intriguing in these grape types in the first place: exquisite beauty.  Each of these offers is simply beautiful.

Recently, Steve Clifton sat down with Josh Raynolds, as mentioned, for a comprehensive tasting and report for the December issue of Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar.  I mention that review in particular as I have a great respect for that magazine, and for Josh and his palate, finding I have calibrated my palate to his over many years of tasting with him and now reading his writings.  To view Josh’s comments and the words on Clifton’s project when described as “moving as close as possible to those of traditional Italian producers” further hearing Steve himself being described as drawn to “wines that are unadorned and pure…” further convinced me that I was drinking the juice of one seriously like-minded soul. 

I trust you’ll find as much to love in these pure and wonderfully expressive examples of Steve Clifton’s work as I do.  With rare exception have I enjoyed an Italian styled wine as much as these – from within Italy or beyond.

For details on wines available and pricing, please contact me at the shop.

All the best in wine and life,

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier
2439 Times BLVD
Houston, TX 77005