"When the Spaniards came, they had to give everything they saw a name... The suggestions sometimes came from the nature of the place itself: Tassajara, a cup and saucer; Laguna Seca, a dry lake; Paraiso, because it was like heaven..."
--from East of Eden by John Steinbeck
For the Smith family and Paraiso Vineyards, this is a tale of two names. One is a nondescript version that is as plain as it is common. The other invokes passionate dreams of a perfect life, or even a perfect afterlife. One name suggests Vanilla while the other evokes Rocky-Road stuffed with Strawberry Buttermilk and topped with Double Fudge Sprinkles. One is forgettable, while the other is not.
But the two are inexorably linked. Though the name may not stand out in a crowd, Smith is a name that inspires admiration and respect in Monterey County. Some thirty years ago Rich and Claudia Smith planted the first vines in the Santa Lucia Highlands, an AVA that runs along the Salinas River in Monterey County. Back then there were only 10 acres of vines in Monterey, now there are 40,000 with more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined.
It was at this moment that Paraiso Vineyards was born. Since then the Smith's have planted almost 3,000 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Riesling and a few others, always with one simple philosophy: To grow the best grapes they can that express the most terroir of the unique microclimates of the Santa Lucia Highlands, all the while keeping a keen eye turned towards sustainable agriculture and a healthy dose of respect for the land. It is, after all, Paradise.
"Rich is a farmer. He drives a tractor and constantly has dirty hands," explains Scott Woodward of Appellation Wine Company, a small family-run outfit that promotes the wines of Monterey County. Rich is also the chairman of the board of Wine America, a national association dedicated to advancing the cause of American wineries and winegrowing. His help in regards to the community through the free-sharing of ideas and expertise is invaluable. "He is the go-to guy for knowledge about the area," says Scott.
Most of the grapes grown by the Smith family are sold to other local wineries, with many big names in the bunch. Hess, Morgan, Saintsbury- the list goes on and on. Through three decades of grape growing the Smith's have maintained a cutting-edge attitude towards clonal development and crop management. It wasn't until 1998 that they started producing wine in tiny amounts from some of their best blocks of grapes. But since then, the family business has really taken off.
The Smith family runs all things Paraiso. All members of the family are involved in one manner or another, even the in-laws as winemaker David Fleming got his start with Paraiso by marrying the boss' daughter Kacy. Rich and his son Jason manage the vineyards along with the numerous boards and panels that Rich serves on.
Despite all their hard work, Rich might tell you that it is in the other name where their true success lays: Paraiso. Perhaps the real genius was in selecting such a great location. The Santa Lucia Highlands offer a wonderful and unique blend of soil and climate that is unmatched elsewhere in California. Though the AVA is a mere 1/4 mile wide, the elevation ranges from fifty to seven hundred feet, thus providing a wealth of diverse microclimates. At 2pm in the afternoon a cool breeze kicks up from Monterey Bay. As Scott described it "The leaf cells close when the wind reaches 12 m.p.h. The winds continue up to 30 m.p.h. and blow until 6:15pm at which time a fog bank rolls in until 10:30 the next morning. It never gets above 82 degrees during the day."
The area offers a true Region One rating in terms of average temperature, just like Burgundy, except that the moderate temps last well into the fall. "In Burgundy if the grapes hang for 100 days they start dancing," explains Scott, a little homesick twinkle in his eye. "Our grapes always hang for 100 days. The place is a Mecca for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and even a beautiful area for Riesling."
Riesling? That's right. Paraiso boasts the oldest Riesling vines this side of San Francisco Bay, planted in 1973. Some crazy guy named Smith thought that the porous alluvial soils would make a good home for the grape way back then. Millennia ago the place was completely under water, and as the water receded sedimentary run off started coming down the hillsides to collect at the bottom. The higher up in the Highlands one travels, the less soil there is in which the grapes can grow. As many winemakers will tell you, a stressful environment is the key to quality grapes.
Each variety of grape receives a different climate and a different soil type. Over the years the Smith's have had plenty of time to experiment with different clones and soil types, and now it seems they have it down. The grapes are given minimal treatment in the winery to emphasize the individual nature of this unique AVA. As winemaker David Fleming puts it "the wonderful Santa Lucia Highlands fruit I work with makes my job easy — I try not to get in the way of that special sense of place being expressed in the bottle."
The wines themselves are testament to the beauty of cool climate wines. They are fresh, fragrant and balanced with just the right amounts of acidity in the whites and tannins in the reds. Another wonderful aspect of the Smith family and Paraiso Vineyards is their commitment to providing high quality wines at fair prices.
The 2003 Chardonnay is practically a steal at $17.99. Compare that to the prices of Mer Soleil located right down the road. It is big, rich and creamy from the barrel fermentation and lees stirring. The tropical fruit and caramel notes really provide a broad canvas to play on.
The 2004 Riesling offers more true Riesling character than can be find anywhere else in California. Intense petrol notes on the nose give way to ripe pears and candied orange note on the palate. Lively with acidity, but also sporting just the faintest touch of residual sugar, I dare anyone to tell me that this 2.88ph Riesling is sweet!
The '03 Pinot Noir is a study in cool climate Pinot. Soft aromas of cherries and raspberries give way to flavors of sweet black fruit, orange zest and earthen tea leaf tannins. A lot of wine for $24.
The '03 West Terrace Pinot Noir hails from a vineyard that borders the more famous Pisoni vineyard (think Patz and Hall, only $50 less per bottle.) This wine had a juicy richness, cassis, black olives, violet perfume and a wonderful balance of weight and acidity. A fantastic wine, but sadly less than 300 cases were produced.
If you can find one of the 100 cases produced of the 2003 Wedding Hill Syrah then I suggest you grab it. The nose was absolutely dripping with perfume and sweet black fruit, while the palate followed course but added notes of smoke, earth and toast. Very tasty and very long, and I want more.
It seems that family and friends still rule the roost in this part of California, where people are still farmers and tasting rooms are new inventions instead of the norm. It is in this vein that Scott's company promotes their wines. Baileyana, Tangent Winery, Graff Family Vineyards, Paraiso- each winery they represent is a family-owned estate with connections to Monterey. Or as Scott puts it "In a land of consolidation, we wanted to start a company for the little guy."
Scott's family has been involved in the industry for decades, and through that time he and the Smith's have always been close. For the advice and help that Rich has provided to Scott and his family has been crucial to their success in starting a little winery called Chalone. Yes that Chalone, but what's in a name anyway?