Paso Robles "California's Hidden Jewel"
By W. Peter Hoyne
While recognized as the third largest wine-growing region in California, Paso Robles remains in an obscure and secluded region of California's Central Coast. It was never popularized like the north coast wine growing regions of Napa or Sonoma being midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but this distance has allowed it to retain a fabric of rural charm along with a vibrant personality. Unlike the wine scene in Northern California, Paso Robles has the feel of a small town community that is bonded tightly together. Wineries and tasting rooms have a contemporary flare yet there is a down to earth feel within the entire region. Paso Robles has become more than a grape growing region with an infusion of culinary creativity, community and diverse winemaking personalities that are dedicated to pursuing a passion for producing some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-styled blends and Rhone varietals in the world. This is why Paso Robles remains one of the hidden jewels of California.
In 1797 Spanish Conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries introduced grape growing to Paso Robles. In 1882, Andrew York, a native of Illinois, initiated commercial winemaking and established the first bonded winery in the Central Coast. This historic site, purchased by the Armstrong family, would become the home of Epoch Family Wines. In 1983, Paso Robles was recognized as its own American Viticultural Area (AVA). By 2014, Paso Robles had been divided into 11 smaller sub-AVA’s or districts. These designated growing regions vary by soil types, terrain and unique microclimates with elevations ranging upwards of 2,400 feet. Each of these AVA’s has a distinct topography and identity contributing to an individualistic style of wine grown in each district.
Paso Robles has grown to nearly 250 wineries encompassing 40,000 acres of vineyards planted with 60 different grape varietals. Zinfandel in this region dates back to the 1880’s. Although Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most widely planted varietals in Paso Robles, the intriguing Rhone blends crafted from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre are the reasons why wine enthusiasts frequent this destination with regularity. Paso Robles is six miles from the Pacific Ocean and the climate can have dramatic fluctuations from summer daytime highs in the 100’s to breezy, cool evenings near 40 degrees. The cooling airflow from the Pacific Ocean is funneled through a series of gaps in the ridgeline of the Templeton Gap accounting for a large diurnal shift of temperature. This fluctuation is beneficial in preserving the acidity and freshness within the grapes. As you look around you’ll notice calcareous shale, sandstone, sedimentary rocks and limestone soils. It is these distinct soils and the moderating temperatures that define the intriguing and balanced style of wines from this region. Paso Robles is a diverse viticultural growing region and is more easily understood when separated into three areas; the northwestern elevations of Adelaida, the southwestern hills of the Templeton Gap and the eastern sector. The Salinas River runs parallel to Highway 101 and can draw distinctions between the more barren rolling hills of the east and the steeply terraced and oak lined slopes of the west.
Traveling to the northwestern range of the Adelaida District you gradually move to an elevation of nearly 2,200 feet and are in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Also referred to as the Adelaide District, this is one of the wettest growing regions with calcareous soils interspersed with limestone. In 1989, the Perrin family, of French Chateau de Beaucastel fame, formed a joint venture with importer Robert Haas establishing Tablas Creek Winery. Using rootstock from the Rhone Valley in France, Tablas Creek introduced Paso Robles and the world to a new era of winemaking. Adelaida Cellars with their expansive properties are situated along these winding roads.
Along the rugged rolling hills at 1,600 feet elevation is Justin Winery with its captivating views. If you prefer a shortened journey, you can visit their tasting room in downtown Paso Robles. Justin Baldwin and his wife Deborah set up residence and an ultra premium winery in the volcanic ash and limestone soils with a focus on meticulously crafting Bordeaux–styled wines. Trying the Justin Isosceles and Justification is a testament to why this region is ideally suited for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. If time permits, savor a degustation culinary experience with vineyard views at the Restaurant at Justin.
Moving to the southwestern perimeter is the Willow Creek and Templeton Gap wine growing districts. Just west of Highway 101 there is a contrasting landscape of rolling hills draped with lofty oaks and a fog line of cool breezes which define this region as the ideal location for Rhone varietals. Willow Creek is described as Paso Robles “Grand Cru.” Within this district resides a collection of the intellects and visionaries: Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure, Justin Smith of Saxum, Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo, Eric and Lisa Jensen of Booker Vineyards, Austin Hope and many others. Each is pursuing their own interpretation of these distinct varietals. As you visit these hidden wineries you will fully understand the passion behind their intriguing labels.
In the warmer and dryer eastern corridor you will locate varying elevations of alluvial soils. Within are the districts of Estrella, Geneseo, El Pomar, San Juan Creek, Creston and the Highlands. Jerry Lohr was among the first pioneers in the terraced foothills of the Estrella. Jerry believed in the potential of growing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon in this terrain. While J Lohr Vineyards and Meridian are larger scale production wineries in the northeastern area worth visiting, it is also essential to explore Eberle Winery. Gary Eberle is an icon, educator and pioneer, frequently referred to as “the godfather of Paso Robles.” He started producing Syrah in 1973 and is credited with producing the first 100% American Syrah known as the Estrella Clone Syrah. Eberle Winery has a cozy wood-toned tasting room offering many distinguished Paso varietals in addition to Syrah, for tasting. Other wineries of merit that are worth visiting are Robert Hall and Hearst Ranch wines which are eclectic in their design and wine styles. With over 150 tasting rooms spread through the region, you can easily choose an experience that captivates your senses.
Your sojourn through Paso Robles will introduce you to exotic Rhone blends and richly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon that are unlike wines from other regions of California. To most, the wines from Paso Robles may be less familiar than Napa or Sonoma, yet the overall quality level of these wines along with their value is unsurpassed. Napa Valley should be looking through their rear view mirror as Paso Robles continues to excel in crafting pleasurable, stylish wines with the consumer in mind. These are wines that you can easily afford to drink any day of the week. Let’s also remain hopeful that Paso Robles will never relinquish its innocent and creative identity that has made it a truly special destination.
(Credit is given to Chris Taranto of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance for providing assistance in developing this story.)