Cass Winery: A Destination Vineyard in Paso Robles

Imagine relaxing under a 200-year -old live oak tree, surrounded by gently rolling hills, and enjoying award-winning wines paired with a gourmet luncheon prepared from the chef’s garden nearby. Vineyards are all around, and as the soft breezes quietly brush across, you can touch, taste, see and smell the grapes ripening only footsteps away.

For many, this is “Wine Nirvana,” and its setting is Cass Winery, a destination winery 15 minutes from downtown Paso Robles, California. “We want to provide an all-around wine experience for our guests,” co-owner Steve Cass told The Grapevine Magazine. “We serve you at a table and offer a full-café menu with pairing suggestions. You can sit in the shade, under a veranda with your feet up on a chair, chatting with people around you.”

The quiet serenity of Cass Winery, along with its ideal environment for grape growing, is one of many jewels in the crown of the Paso Robles AVA.  Aside from the pure aesthetics of the tasting room and café experience, Cass offers guided wine tastings, catered luncheons, private parties and wine sensory seminars led by a Certified Sommelier. The Winery also hosts weddings, providing a picture-perfect location and reception venue that can accommodate guests both inside and outdoors. To Cass, these activities keep the building busy beyond tasting hours. Their tasting room accommodates 75 to 100 guests, with more seating outside. The winery seats an additional 20 people in the Library — perfect for small, private dinners— and 60 in the Barrel Room.

Before 2000, this picturesque winery was nothing but a barren piece of pastureland on the east side of Paso Robles. In 1999, Steve Cass arrived on the scene. “I had just retired from Charles Schwab and was looking for a second career,” Cass said.  “My wife and I drove to Paso Robles thinking about a vacation home, and I fell in love with the area. I saw wineries and vineyards all around and decided to come back and find a property suitable for planting a vineyard.”

Cass, along with a real estate agent and Paso Robles pioneer grape grower Jim Smoot, looked at nine or ten properties, and finally settled on the site that is now Cass Vineyard. The next year, Cass planted twelve varieties of grapes and added a residence and a barn to house the farming equipment. He hired John Crossland, formerly at Beckstoffer Vineyards in the Napa Valley, to manage the 145-acre vineyard.

In 2003 — just as the vineyards were beginning to bear fruit — Cass and a friend, Ted Plemons, took a golfing and wine-tasting trip to South Africa to celebrate the establishment of the vineyards and completion of the of the residence, designed and built by Plemons. During this trip, the two agreed to become partners and start a winery. They converted the barn into a hospitality center, and in 2005, with the vineyard in full production, the Cass Winery tasting room opened its doors.

Today, Cass Winery produces 10,000 cases of premium wines a year. All wines are estate grown. The vineyard is located in the Geneseo District sub-AVA and is inland enough to receive warm days ideal for ripening warm-weather grapes, and close enough to the coast to enjoy cool ocean breezes that enable the grapes to rest at night and develop mouth-watering acidity. The vines are planted on diverse alluvial soils, on large terraces above the Huer Huero Riverbed.

Because of the climate, Cass Winery specializes in Rhone grapes: Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Petit Syrah. The Winery also produces four clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and offers a variety of Bordeaux Blends. “With our location, I can ripen fruits that vineyards close to the coast have a hard time ripening,” Cass said. “For example, Paso Robles averages 3,200 hours a year of temperatures above 50 degrees in the growing season. Mourvèdre needs more than that. Where I am, on the hotter side of Paso, I have 3,500 hours a year.”

In his goal to produce “kick-ass” wines, Cass has selected clones for his Rhone wines that are certified by Etablissement National Technique pour l’Amelioration de la Viticulture (ENTAV), an agency of the French government that is dedicated to the improvement of grape growing.  ENTAV maintains a repository of clones that, through years of research and screening, are judged to mature evenly, be free of debilitating viruses, and can be matched to the soils best suited to their development. Growers can select clones by the descriptors of the wine styles produced by each. ENTAV and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have an agreement to allow distribution of these French clones through a limited number of licensed nurseries in California. Cass Vineyard was among the first vineyards in the state to be planted entirely in ENTAV-certified clones.

Cass Winery’s scores in the 2018 Central Coast Wine Competition are a testament to the quality of the vineyard’s fruit and the skill of its winemaker, Sterling Kragten. Cass entered 14 wines in the Competition, and all received medals: one Double Gold, six Gold, six Silver and one Bronze Medal. Cass’s Gold Medal-winning 2016 Mourvèdre won Best of Class in the Mourvèdre category, then went on to win the competition’s overall Best Red. The Cass 2017 Marsanne won a Double Gold and went on to win Best of Class in the Other White Rhone category. The Gold Medal-winning Cass 2015 GSM placed Best of Class in the Grenache-based Blends category. Based on the weighted points given to each medal, along with a Best overall red, Best of Class win and the high number of gold medals, Cass was a clear winner and received the 2018 Winery of the Year Award. They also took home the honor in 2015.

In producing wines, Steve Cass believes in minimal intervention. “In theory, if you’re intervening, you’re trying to fix a problem,” he said. “We don’t do extended maceration, as there are too many risks involved. Rather, we extract color for our reds through the “punch-down process.” The Winery ferments Rhone white wines — Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne — in stainless steel tanks. Reds are fermented in 40 percent new French oak and then aged in barrels between one year and 22 months, depending on the wine. It then stays in the bottle for half the aging time before release.

Cass Winery, like many others, has shifted from cork to screw caps to seal its bottles. According to Cass, the enclosures have different kinds of linings to allow varying degrees of oxygen into the wine, depending on the variety and aging process.  “Engineered enclosures don’t run the risk of cork taint,” Cass said. “They provide a consistency that a natural product can’t give you.” He hasn’t seen any resistance to the enclosures, nor have they affected his sales.

Cass, ever the entrepreneur, is not one to rest on his laurels and is continually coming up with new ways to tweak his business. Currently, he is developing a new barrel room to accommodate up to 200 people for events and make room for additional barrels so he can double his production capacity from 10,000 cases annually to 20,000 cases. He is also adding a bed and breakfast with eight rooms manufactured from shipping containers. Units will be mounted on heavy-duty red iron and elevated six to seven feet above the ground so guests can park beneath them in the shade. All will have floor-to-ceiling glass with spectacular views.

While Cass aims at increasing production, he does not see Cass as a big winery.  “We’re happy staying as a premium winery,” he said. They have a staff of 20 full-time employees, including hospitality personnel to manage events and weddings, and an executive chef with four sous chefs. The tasting room and café are open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

For Steve Cass, managing Cass Winery has become an ideal second career. “I’m not really a wine aficionado, but I know about business. I do like drinking wine, and it’s a fun product to sell,” he said.

With that in mind, Cass thoroughly enjoys interacting with guests who come to sip his wines in the oak-studded hills of Paso Robles. For those guests — many of whom are wine tourists — the Cass Winery hospitality offers a welcome break from the often hectic pace of trying to hit eight wineries in two days. “The longer people stay, the better,” he said.  “If I can get people to stay around for half a day, I’m the winery they’ll remember.”

Cass Winery is represented by Bronco Wine Company nationally and by Classic Wines of California in the state. Currently, Cass wines are available in 16 states.

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