Grapevines at Villa San Juliette

Paso Robles Meets Hollywood at Villa San Juliette

Paso Robles plays Romeo to American Idol’s Juliette

When the two men who brought us American Idol first announced that their next project would not be for Fox, ABC or even MTV, but for the Paso Robles wine industry, the food and wine world paused.

Did these gentlemen realize that wine is about farming, not viewership? Do they know that singing to the grapes will not stop the rampage of phylloxera? (Did they even know how to say phylloxera?) And why, by the way, when you have conquered the television ratings in both Britain and the US, would you want to hang your hat in a sleepy, central Californian town? Aren’t regions like Napa and Bordeaux more up to the slick standards of TV’s talent show giants?

But it seemed the foodies would have to wait for some answers.

Finally, more than two years after staking their claim in Paso wine, in the spring of 2009 British transplants Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe were ready to share with the world why the Paso Robles wine industry was going to be their next big thing…. Or were they?

On May 15 the pair hosted an inauguration dinner for their Paso passion project, now dubbed Villa San Juliette. The party was probably like none the Central Californian locals had ever seen. American Idol alum Michael Johns performed, tickets to So You Think You Can Dance were auctioned for local charity and the celebrity pair spoke with zeal about  the region and the pleasure of wine. Not exactly your average dinner in the vineyard!

Oh, and by the way, the dinner wasn’t in a vineyard – or at the winery. There was no inhaling the scent of the barrel room or discussing the virtues of French oak. Why? Because the winery is yet-to-be-built! (Not exactly true, there is a winemaking facility and the first vintage has been released. However, the showpiece fitting of a name like Villa San Juliette that will one day greet guests is still under construction).

So the grand fete to debut the wines of Villa San Juliette took place in the town of Paso, several miles from the Villa’s pretty little vineyards. But winemaker Adam LaZarre was on hand to shed a little light on the project and to share his first release like a proud papa taking his kids to their first dance recital.

From LaZarre, guests learned of plans for a state-of-the-art winery, tasting room and visitors’ center in picturesque San Miguel, (just a short hop north from Paso’s city center). The winemaker also discussed the current vintage, the concept behind pricing the wines and the varietals planned for feature in Villa San Juliette’s lineup. (LaZarre also explained the name selected by Lythgoe and Warwick for the winery is in honor of William Shakespeare, their fellow artist and Brit.)

The wines, all the sort of bold and bawdy bottlings we have come to expect from the Paso region, are aggressively priced little numbers. LaZarre is well known for producing approachable, good value, good time wines. The project with Villa San Juliette has him sticking to his comfort zone, much to the delight of wine drinkers hit hard by the current recession. The most expensive wine in the current line-up is a $30 Cab/Syrah blend.

Villa San Juliette wines go into national distribution this summer and the winery’s tasting room should open some time this summer as well. To order wines or check on the progress, visit http://www.villasanjuliette.com.

As for Lythgoe and Warwick’s decision to build for retirement in Paso Robles, the move just might be a case of longing for that which you don’t have. Much more so than glamorous Bordeaux or Napa, Paso Robles is a world away from Hollywood. Here, people consider throwing on a clean shirt to be dressing for dinner. Paso folk make honest livings from the land, greet each other in the streets not to ask for autographs or a place at the head of the audition line, but because they’re old friends catching up on the news of the day.

Or it might be two gamblers looking for the next high stakes game. After years of climbing one of the highest mountains in the world, the American television ratings, it seems Lythgoe and Warwick need a greater opponent. And it looks like they’ve found two worthy opponents in California’s heartland. First they have to get through the red tape of local and state codes and once they make it with the natives, they will still have to tackle a forever-evolving opponent. Good luck, gentlemen, in the tango with Mother Nature.

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