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Don't pass on Paso Robles wines

Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco sits Paso Robles. Like so many of its neighboring California AVAs, it has gained notoriety - although not nearly to the mass market grade as the more widely touted Napa Valley.

Why? The Paso Robles wine industry is fairly young. What? Wine grapes were grown here as early as the 1790s; the region's long, warm days and cool nights are perfect for a wide variety of grapes.

Still, the Paso explosion began barely a decade ago. Since then, Paso Robles has seen more than a five-fold increase from 35 to more than 180 bonded wineries. About two-thirds of Paso Robles wineries produce less than 5,000 cases. More than 95 percent of the region's brands are family owned and operated.

In addition to wineries with estate vineyards, there are nearly 120 Paso Robles grape growers who sell their fruit to wineries both within and outside the Paso Robles AVA.

The most widely planted varieties in the Paso Robles appellation are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc.

Let's sip now on two of those varieties produced by one of those family-owned wineries, Vina Robles.

With a Swiss owner and a Swiss wine maker, Vina Robles manages to capitalize on rich California fruit - while crafting the wines that are decidedly influenced by Old World styles - particularly those of France's Rhone Valley.

First up, Vina Robles 2009 Chardonnay ($20). To maintain the cold weather loving integrity of this grape, vineyards are picked early in the morning, pressed and chilled to 45-degrees F. The Monterey County juice is racked to barrels for fermentation - a couple of months - then moved into an eight-month slumber in French Oak barrels.

Expecting a butter ball? Guess again. The wine delivers nice acidity and citrusy bite. Yeah, there's that hint of butter and a pleasantly woody nose but the fruit flavors - like peach and pineapple - possess enough fruit to mellow out your anti-oak friend.

Please serve this one around 50 degrees - too cold and it will lose its character.

Bottle of red? Vina Robles 2008 Petite Sirah ($26) showcases carefully hand-sorted fruit that is coddled through an extraction process that insures dense, dark fruit characteristics. An oak program that includes 16 months in 45 percent new French oak is the backbone of the tannin profile.

This is not to be confused with Aussie Shiraz. This much more finessed wine possesses a strikingly balanced set of flavors that range across spices and black fruit to nutmeg and figginess. It is a ripe, mouthwatering wine that, once you try it, should become one of your more frequent "go-to" wines.