Recently, some friends and I stood around a campfire and enjoyed a vertical tasting of a wine from Paso Robles, Calif. Three vintages – 2005, 2006 and the current 2007 – of Vines on the Marycrest’s Heart of Glass, a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend that represents both the promise and, in contradistinction, the abuses of California’s “Rhone Rangers.”

Almost a generation ago. Randall Grahm, Steve Edmunds, Joseph Phelps and others began promoting the use of Rhone Valley varietals (22 are permitted) in Paso Robles and a few other regions of California, deeming the climate and soil more suitable to those French grapes than to the Bordeaux-based Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that prevailed.

Now, “Rhone Ranger” winemakers have a non-profit organization devoted to their work, and buyers seek out the wines. When Paso-based Saxum Winery’s GSM garnered a 100-point score from Robert Parker in 2007, the gloves came off; vines bent low from the weight of dollar bills hanging from them. And the wines, never shy, grew monstrous.

“The motto here is like, ‘When it’s time to harvest, wait another two weeks,’ ” said Vines on the Marycrest’s winemaker Victor Abascal. The will to over-concentrate grapes and produce sledgehammer wines in order to get Parker’s attention is widespread.

“People out here love that stuff,” Abascal said. “Wines with so much sugar left in ‘em they’d have been classified as dessert wines 15 years ago. I love the people out here, but I don’t like 80 to 90 percent of the wines.

“A lot of these guys know they can make the hugest possible wines, and some blind guy leading deaf people will write about them in some magazine, and people will buy. But I want someone to drink my bottle and buy another one. I don’t want to make the drinking of a wine an Olympic event.” (For the record, Abascal did talk of several Paso wineries whose approach and wines he admires, none currently available in Maine.)

If Heart of Glass by Vines on the Marycrest sounds like a pop-punk band’s recent update of the Blondie classic, it should. Abascal spends the half of his life not toiling in vineyards and crushing grapes as a music producer in Los Angeles.

Each week requires 600 miles in the car, missing his wife and kids, three nights sleeping on an air mattress in his L.A. office until the scampering feet of his employees wakes him up, and “often not getting around to brushing my teeth until 4 in the afternoon” because there’s so much to do. The music producer’s glamorous life.

Up in Paso Robles, it’s four days of what Abascal calls “Amish winemaking”: Planting, pruning, shoveling, harvesting, crushing, calling, loading, rushing, blending, marketing. When he needs a machine for something, like bottling a vintage, he hires the apparatus, but sometimes forgets to rent the generator to run it, half-stranding the pals he arranged to help him and losing the money that might have given him a chance of approaching the break-even mark. The winemaker’s glamorous life.

But Abascal is in it for the long haul, committed to the region and his unconventional place in it, using Paso Robles while not succumbing to its temptations. “Anything you want to make in Paso,” Abascal said, “you can. But I do everything I can to temper what Paso can deliver. I’ve got the reins pulled way back.”

(Abascal might be in the land of the Rhone Rangers, but I consider him more like Tonto, who famously asked his partner when warned in a spoof that “we” were at risk of an imminent Indian attack: “Who do you mean, ‘We,’ white man?”)

Abascal’s restraint means that Heart of Glass ($19, SoPo), at 15.7 percent alcohol, is actually a moderate wine whose irrefutable potency and red-fruit-drenched scrumptiousness are balanced by a French-roast earthiness, sinewy tension and herb-inflected acidity that render it yummy but sane.

There are plenty of 2010 Paso Robles reds for sale right now, made to impress but not to last. All chewy fruit and no transparent/fragile heart, you could blow bubbles with them.

By contrast, Abascal’s 2007 Heart of Glass is the current vintage, and it’s delicious, but the general favorite at our campfire vertical was the soil-flecked 2005.

VotMC wines are on wine lists and in shops with overall European orientations, a fact that Abascal cherishes. “Generally, the more educated palates are on the East Coast,” he said. (Abascal added that he feels a strong spiritual connection to Maine, and dreams of one day owning a place here.)

All this means that at around $20, VotMC’s wines are some of the least expensive, excellent California bottles you can find. Chalk it up to the wines not being conventionally “big” enough to appeal to ego-driven buyers, and the fact that Abascal is not a jerk.

In addition to Heart of Glass, Maine has VotMC’s strong, delicious Zinfandel; an elegant, smoky Petite Sirah; and a firm old-vines blend, “My Generation” (Zin, Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah). His Grenache-dominant rose is his “absolute pride and joy,” and a handful of cases are on a truck to Maine as you read this.

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: soulofwine.appel@gmail.com