Wine: Seeing Red
Discreetly tucked within the 27-page wine list of the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel’s Dining Room is perhaps the ultimate blended red wine. Treana Red, a full-bodied wine comprised predominantly of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah, with smaller amounts of mourvèdre, petite sirah, and grenache, is the flagship of a Paso Robles, Calif., vintner, who modestly hides the vintage on the back of his bottles. The fact that the little-known Treana appears among far pricier, classic Bordeaux-style blends on the wine list is a testament to the impression that it has made on the oenophiles who have discovered it.
It was not my first encounter with this limited-production wine. A few years ago, I happened upon Treana’s initial offering, a 1996 vintage blend of cabernet, merlot, sangi-ovese, syrah, and petite sirah. I remember making tasting notes on its intense body and fruitiness. And now, here it was again, with a few different varietals. I immediately ordered a bottle of Treana’s 1998 vintage (the 1999 will be released in March).
The sommelier poured a ruby red splash into the bulbous Riedel glass, releasing a bouquet of smoky blueberries. A quick swirl produced a whiff of fresh raspberries and creamy butter, and each swirl thereafter brought out another facet of Treana’s complex personality, with nuances of black cherries, orchids, nuts, and finally, a delicate mustiness from the tannin.
This bold yet silky wine is the creation of 28-year-old winemaker Austin Hope, whose father, Chuck, started Treana as an offshoot of his grape-growing business in Paso Robles. “I’ve always wanted to make an exceptional red blend that would showcase the best that Paso Robles has to offer,” says Austin.
In this case, standing out in the crowd meant breaking away from the pack. While most vintners usually set grapevines six to seven feet apart, Hope plants his vines only five feet apart. This produces a struggle for survival that results in hardier, more flavor-intensive grapes. Once they have grown, he trims each plant to 10 to 12 grape clusters, compared to the 30 to 40 clusters normally found on vines, enabling each plant to channel its energy and nutrients. Although yields are low, Treana’s grapes have an extremely high skin-to-juice ratio, which results in a highly concentrated balance between bouquet, flavor, and body.
The uniqueness of Treana is also witnessed in the aging process. While many wines are aged before blending, Hope blends his wines first, then ages them for 18 months in French oak, which contains more tannins than American oak and is four times as expensive. Treana Red is then bottle-aged for an additional seven months. Like many Paso Robles reds, Treana’s intensity enables it to age faster than similar wines from other regions, which means that it can be enjoyed while it is still young.
There are more than 60 vineyards in Paso Robles, and wineries such as J. Lohr, Eberle, Wild Horse, and Treana are changing the image of this sleepy farming community. In the last five years, vineyard prices have doubled and now average $18,000 an acre. But money isn’t everything. “It costs us three times more to produce one-third less fruit,” says Hope. “Many vineyards are committed to producing as much wine as possible, whereas Treana is committed to producing the best wine possible. That’s our only goal, and whatever it takes to make that goal happen is where we’re headed.”