Where can you find 26,000 acres of vineyards, 40 diverse wine grape varieties and 200+ wineries producing premium wines in the USA? Need a clue? Think West Coast! No. Not Napa, Sonoma or Monterey! Think Central Coast. The correct answer: Paso Robles.
Positioned 6 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, bordered by the Santa Lucia Mountains on the west and located between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso has been effectively keeping its wines under the proverbial “oak barrel” for decades. Now, finally it is making its reputation known through oenophiles, sommeliers and wine writers who have discovered the charm and excellence of the boutique and small family-owned vineyards producing complex, elegant and sophisticated award winning wines. Paso Robles is one of California’s largest American Viticulture Area (AVA) in terms of acreage under vine and the industry contributes almost $200 million into the local economy (2012).
Secrets to Success
• Weather. The Paso Robles temperature swings are among the most dramatic among the many California appellations, with 40-50 degree changes in temperature due to the power of the Pacific’s cool climate streaming through the Templeton Gap. Grapes thrive in the warm days, and have the time to fully ripen; the cool evenings control acidity and character.
• Geography. East Paso experiences hot and dry growing conditions in alluvial soil; West Paso – at higher elevations, receives more rainfall and fog, experiencing cool growing conditions in a largely limestone-calcareous soil.
• Wine Masters. The people responsible for the vineyards and wineries are innovative and creative, producing grape varieties the way master artists select palette colors to create a colossal canvas. Instead of paint, the wine masters blend Cabernet Sauvignon (38 percent of plantings), Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Roussane, Bordeaux, Rhone and Zinfandel, Grenache and Mourvedre varietals to create fruit-forward wines that are palate pleasing and pair memorably with food. The red wines are fruity, complex, with soft to medium tannins – hence, food friendly.
• Water. Paso Robles has a problem – dropping water levels in the water basin caused by 4 years of drought and over-pumping.
• A large percentage of San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles) covers the Paso Robles groundwater basin (largest underground reservoirs in California) with approximately 30 million acre-feet of water.
• About 67 percent of the water is used by agriculture, primarily vineyards (2006 study).
• California requires permits and licenses to take water from streams, rivers and lakes but not for groundwater.
• Wine industry members, farmers and home owners with different views on the same issue spend time in conversation without developing an acceptable action plan.
• Dry-farming (unirrigated, dependent on natural rainfall). Dry-farmed land vines are self-regulating and while the fruit is often superior from these vineyards the yields are likely to be low and the price per ton – higher; however, experts find they make some of the best wine.
– Dry-farming has a long history – particularly in the Mediterranean region. Crops include olives and grapes from Spain, Greece, France and Italy who have used this method for thousands of years.
– Key factors for dry-farming: soil with good water holding characteristics; sufficient space between grape vines to permit moisture from the soil; a minimum of 50 sq. feet spacing for the vines and more on the hillsides; vines planted on rootstock that seeks the moisture deep in the soil; vineyard cultivation as soon as rain stops to trap the moisture creating “dust mulch”; cultivation during growing season to allow plants to absorb moisture and nutriments from the soil.
– In some European regions it is illegal to irrigate wine grapes during the growing season because it is believed that water dilutes grape quality.
• Other options for working with the ongoing water scarcity include drought-tolerant rootstocks, more regulated deficit irrigation and drip systems as well as biodynamic farming with homeopathic applications of micronutrients.
From Water to Wine
In the late 18th century people came to Paso Robles for the waters, enjoying the hot springs and mud baths. Travelers from Oregon, Nevada, Idaho and Alabama found the bubbles from the sand at Iron Spring and Sand Spring sensational.
Almost simultaneously the Paso Robles wine industry was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries. Father Junipero Serra planted more than 1000 vines and the Padres produced wine for sacramental purposes, making brandy for export. Francisco Cortez, the Spanish explorer, determined the area was perfect for producing wine and encouraged settlers from Mexico and other parts of California to cultivate the land.
At the end of the 19th century, Andrew York, an Indiana settler, began planting vineyards, establishing the Ascension Winery (now York Mountain winery). Originally filled with apple orchards, York found the climate and soil were better used for vineyards. When he was able to grow more grapes then he could sell, he built his own small stone winery.
Following California’s independence in 1850, European immigrant farmers started to arrive (1860s). The first was Pierre Hippolyte Dallidet from France who started the first commercial winery on the central coast. He was followed by Henry Ditmas (1870) from England who started the first vineyard importing Zinfandel and Muscat grapes from France and Spain for his 560 acre Rancho Saucelito. Noting successes, Gerd and Ilsabe Klintworth planted Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet and Burger vines in 1886 and obtained a license to sell Zinfandel, Muscatel and white wine grapes in jugs. A few years later, Casteel Vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted and these wines were stored and aged in a cave cellar.
Wine continued to grow in popularity, as did the wine region of Paso Robles. In the 1920s wine making activity increased and Sylvester and Cateria Dusi started their vineyard (1924). The Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Biachi family vineyards followed.
Ignace Paderewski, the famous Polish statesman and concert pianist, visiting Paso Robles, purchased 2000 areas and in the 1920s planted Petite Syrah and Zinfandel in the Adelaide area. After Prohibition his York Mountain winery produced award winning wines and the areas reputation as a premier wine region was firmly established.
In the late 1960s Dr. Stanley Hofffman planted the region’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and a decade later the Hoffman Mountain Ranch Winery was the first large-scale modern facility in the area. In the 1970s the first modern commercial acreage of Syrah in the state was started at the Estrella River Winery (purchased by Nestle/Beringer, 1988).
In 1983 the 556,765 acre Paso Robles AVA was established. In 1994 fewer than 100 acres were planted with Rhone varieties but 2 years later, Paso Robles AVA expanded by 52,600 acres. In 1997 Justin Vineyards & Winery’s Bordeaux-style Isosceles was named the top 10 wines in the world by Wine Spectator. In 2010 the Wine Spectator determined that the Saxum Vineyard’s 2007 James Berry Vineyard Proprietary Red Wine was the number one wine in the world. Three years later (2013), Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Paso Robles the Wine Region of the Year. In 2014 the region won the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (with more than 1500 wineries from 25 states participating in the annual event).
New Economics Drive Change
The cultural landscape of Paso Robles has changed over the years, morphing from agriculture and cattle raising to viticulture. Wine tourism has also changed the nature of the environment. International visitors arrive in Paso Robles to experience the wines and explore the vineyards and wineries, spend time with personal visits to grape plantings and wine tasting rooms and actively engage in wine festivals and wine-tasting events. The landscape has also been altered by people moving from metropolitan areas to enjoy the Paso life-style.
Stay the Course
Despite the attention being thrust on Paso Robles, it continues to feel like a small town. There are approximately 180 wineries in the area, with 95 percent owned by families, most of them hands-on farmers. Approximately two-thirds of the wineries produce fewer than 5000 cases a year.
It may be impossible to find a bottle of Paso Robles on the shelves of local wine stores, on the menu of neighborhood restaurants or among the offerings to first and business class passengers on airlines…and this is just the way the wine makers want it. If you want their wines, come and visit them in Paso Robles and buy the wines in the tasting rooms and join their wine clubs – and they will send you a curated selection 2-3 times a year. This is a destination that should be on every oenophile, sommelier, and wine buyers to-do list. The geography is wonderfully beautiful, the wines are sophisticated and memorable, the wine growers are smart, friendly and creative, what more could anyone want? Spend a few days (a few weeks is preferable).
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” – Mae West