What started as a tipsy 4th of July fireside chat four years ago between nextdoor neighbors Aaron and Erin Culp, both 1999 Cal Poly wine program graduates, and Jeffrey and Kimberly Steele, more seasoned business types, turned into one more fortified American business.

As the Atascadero couples nibbled roasted emulsified sugar, the campfire conversation shifted to what was missing from the local Paso Robles wine industry. With visions of Portuguese Port-style fortified wines dancing in their heads, Roxo Port Cellars (Roxo means purple in Portuguese) was cooked up. It didn't hurt that Aaron Culp had tired of his practical corporate recruiting job, leaving only enough time to ferment a few bottles here and there in his garage.

The 2006 debut vintage, released last fall, included five wines. Most are so complex, whether earthy, fruity, or spicy, it's hard not to wonder why so many California fortified wines, such as those fermented for decades by Prager Port Works in St. Helena, rarely make an appearance on Los Angeles area restaurant wine lists.

Credit: Roxo Port Cellars

Credit: Roxo Port Cellars

Roxo Cellar's Negrette (a varietal from Southern France grown in limited quantities in Paso Robles) and Barbera are labeled as single varietals (although the Barbera also includes Zinfandel and a small percentage of Souzao, a Portuguese varietal). Blends include the Magia Preta (Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah), Paso Melange (Cabernet Sauvingon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot), Ruby Tradicional (Touriga Nacional, Souzao, Tinta Roriz, and Bastardo, all used in traditional Portuguese wine making).

The 2007 vintage, to be released this fall, will be bottled beginning August 15th (after the Culps return from Disneyland with their two young daughters; the Steeles are hanging behind to feed their pooches). Erin Culp says the 2007 harvest yielded “small, uniform berries with thick skins… that yielded dark, concentrated wines with deep and complex flavors.” Her pick for 2007 standouts are the Negrette, “brawny and inky dark…the 2006 was fruit forward and floral,” and the Magia Preta, a portion of which will likely be further aged before being bottled as a limited release. Roasted marshmallow optional.

Roxo Port Cellars, 3230 Riverside Ave. Suite 190, Paso Robles, (805) 464-0922

Private winery tours are available; a Paso Robles tasting room is scheduled to open later this fall. Bottles (375 ml and 750 ml) may be purchased directly from the winery. They are also available at Venice Beach Wines, Gourmet Wine and Spirits, The Wine Exchange and Wine Gallery.

LA Weekly