I’m not your usual winery intern. At 60 years young, I’m a little late to the “learn by doing” game. But my passion for understanding the inner workings of a destemmer and the precise positioning of cordons in a Vertical Shoot Position trellising system is real.
My friends wonder why I can’t be happy just drinking the stuff….
It was this pursuit of higher education that drew me to the exciting Paso Robles wine region for harvest 2017. My first, front-line experience with a vintage was in 2016 in the gobsmackingly beautiful North Canterbury region of New Zealand. The combination of viticulture work and cellar experience was truly illuminating. I love writing a Romanée Conti case study as much as the next person, but there’s nothing better than taking 6 years of wine theory and putting it into practice. Plus, when you spend your 9-5 days in front of a computer as I have for most of my life, the shift to real physical labour is near nirvana.
Why Paso Robles?
Paso’s reputation for superb winemaking has been on my radar for a while. They’re not a headline grabbing region like their neighbours to the north and they don’t have rock star winemakers (ok – yes, Justin Smith – in a low key, Adam Levine kinda way – and Jerry Lohr and Gary Eberle in a Jagger /Jerry Garcia kinda way) but they are getting the kind of high-score buzz that translates into $$$.
Plus, wine, along with water and scenic rolling hills are kind of a package deal for me.
I find my wine appreciation soars exponentially if I have an exquisitely scenic backdrop to help frame the pickin’, bin washing and barrel tasting!
Of course, Paso Robles offers all of this and more. The region’s sun-drenched hillsides are gloriously warm and welcoming, the gentle ebb and flow of vineyards providing context for the moniker “The Golden State”. Cattle ranches dot the plateaus, with herds spilling over the vast landscape in every direction. True to the English translation of Paso Robles “pass of the oaks”, majestic oak trees line the roadways and the hot harvest sun is always present.
While the beauty of the area is captivating, it was the full agricultural experience of Rangeland Wines in the Adelaida Road region that ultimately drew me in. There, I found a gutsy winemaker – and reluctant YouTube star – who embraced the California/Canada free trade opportunity and agreed to test my wine-savvy mettle (see Paso – part 2 – coming soon). And so it was that Paso Robles was ordained my #vintage2017 destination!
The Paso Robles appellation lies inland, on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range in San Luis Obispo County. Located 30 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo (SLO) and mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this 612,000-acre Central Coast community is considered the third largest wine region in California. Close to 250 wineries have set up shop with 40,000 acres planted to vines. The wine region is exploding with new energy and new approaches to winemaking, earning it Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” in 2013.
What intrigues me most about the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the sheer diversity of grapes grown in the region. According to Chris Taranto, Communications Director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, there are 46 registered grape varieties grown in the area. Mission grapes – planted in the 1700s by local missionaries and used for religious purposes – were the earliest cultivars. The cuttings were shared amongst the missions and were described in the historic literature as “field blends”. Over time, the influence of European immigrants in Napa and Sonoma migrated south and by the late 1800’s the commercial wine industry in Paso Robles was underway.
Zinfandel is Paso’s “heritage varietal” with vines dating back to the 1880’s. Today, Paso’s idyllic grape growing terroir features a broad swath of red and white grape varietals led by northern and southern Rhone blends – Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Mourvedre, Counoise, Cinsault, Carignan, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette and more. Bordeaux style varieties are also a critical success in these parts – Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc. Burgundian varieties – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, also find a home in the cooler coastal region and in higher elevation sites and Italian varietals – Vermentino, Aglianico and powerhouse French reds like Tannat add diversity.
Paso’s got it going on
I don’t have a crystal ball but it would appear Paso Robles is well positioned for the future. Here’s why:
They make exceptional, full-bodied wines
Paso vineyards are maturing and so are the winemakers. Many prominent vineyards have vines in the 15 – 25 year old age range. Plus, there’s just so much going on in this community: new energy, new vineyards, new investment and new approaches around winemaking and business fundamentals. Everyone we talked to spoke of the improved research and increasingly shared knowledge around winemaking in this super-hot region – like how to manage heat through early-ripening clone selection, how to mitigate high alcohol through blending, how to manage moisture challenges through dry farming and shade management, and how to optimize the holy trinity – tannin, acidity and alcohol, so the wines are balanced.
I drank a lot of wine in Paso (an intern’s curriculum), and while they are often high alcohol, most were consistently delicious, artfully crafted and beautifully refreshing.
Microclimates in Paso provide an amazing tapestry for grape growing. This terroir diversity is acknowledged in 11 recent sub-AVA’s*
The incredible matrix of geology and soils in the Paso AVA (chalky, absorbent, acid–rich, calcareous limestone in the west – sedimentary, alluvial loamy clay with granite patches in the east), precipitation (35” in the north west Adelaida District – 8” in the east San Juan Creek), elevation (650 ft. in the east – 3,000 ft. in the west) and weather patterns provides producers with huge varietal options.
Indeed, producers in the expansive Paso AVA recognized long ago, the extreme climate, soil and terrain differences in their grape growing districts. In 2007, the region submitted a petition to the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to divide the region into 11 distinct sub AVA’s or districts. In 2014, after 7 years of dogged work and multiple submissions, the proposal was approved providing wine lovers with a clear delineation of the area’s diverse terroir and regional strengths.
Marine Layer Fog: A cool example of weather idiosyncrasies in Central Coast Terroir
Utterly naïve to the idiosyncrasies of the “marine layer”, or as locals call it, the Fog Belt, I merrily flew from LAX to San Luis Obispo (SLO) for my September harvest experience. As most locals know – the California Current’s conveyor belt effect brings cool Alaska air with it, regularly meeting warm inland air and shrouding coastal communities and the beautiful Santa Lucia range in dense fog. I learned my first lesson about this foggy conveyor belt the hard way. United Airlines 5020 was unable to land and we had to return to LAX and bus back up to SLO.
While this hiccup added 6 hours to my journey, the birds eye view of the undulating topography and the fog soup below offered a fascinating glimpse into the predictably, unpredictable weather patterns producers encounter in the region.
Paso’s hot days, cool nights – the most extreme temperature swing in California – combine to produce balanced wines with vibrant acidity
Paso is 25 miles inland from SLO and is typically hot and dry. But a window in the coastal range’s Santa Lucia Mountains – the Templeton Gap – pushes that marine layer inland late each day lowering temperatures and providing a huge diurnal temperature effect. Those cool Pacific evening breezes result in average high/low summertime temperature swings between 91.6F (day) and 52.3F (night)! The daytime heat ensures ripening, sugars (aka potential alcohol) and softer, more approachable tannins. The cool maritime temperatures provide critical moisture, a natural hardening of the grape skin (adds tannin) and the air conditioning (aka -Templeton Gap effect) adds coveted acidity.
This diurnal weather pattern – particularly evident in the western side of the AVA – is a key ingredient in Paso’s wine-making success, providing important well-balanced grape acidity and tannin.
Paso’s vibrant community of young winemakers are leaving old stereotypes in the dust
The perception of Paso as a one-trick-pony town generating full throttle, unbalanced, alcohol-heavy wines is fading. New winemakers are bringing a craft beer approach to their brands, experimenting with non-traditional blends and fresher, more vibrant wines. The community is definitely in lockstep with the Paso brand message: focus on the natural acidity that comes from the high PH soils and unique – fog in/fog out cooling patterns.
According to Chris Taranto, Paso typicity will always include fruit forward, full fruit character wines because of the heat. But he believes the move away from giant wines to balanced, structured wines is happening organically as new winemakers move into the industry. “No one feels the need to make giant wines anymore.” Paso typicity? According to Taranto “Full bodied wines with fresh acidity and softer tannins making them easier to drink on release, but with structure to be cellarable in many cases.”
- Almost all of the winemakers, assistant winemakers and viticulturalists we met are Cal Poly graduates and they’ve got something to prove
The 360-degree agricultural perspective that these young, energetic Cal Poly winemakers have bodes well for grape growing and local cuisine. Based in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly offers a hand’s on curriculum, in a foodie rich community with deep roots and deep respect for the land. Food and wine pairing is helping drive the reinvention of wine styles in this community and this shake-things-up attitude is visible in local annual events like Blendfest – where producers square off around unconventional blends that spotlight the diversity of wine grapes in the County.
Welcoming wineries securing more high point scores = more tourists = better hospitality services
Paso oozes hometown hospitality. We couldn’t believe how darned nice people were….everywhere! There is a strong sense of community that’s warm and welcoming, reinforced by an eclectic mix of cowboy hospitality and youthful exuberance.
The growth of the wine and craft beer industry has fostered the growth of the hospitality industry. The economic environment in Paso is healthy and there’s a growing cadre of restaurants, particularly in the downtown park core of the city.
Chris Taranto says right now Paso is more of a destination for serious wine enthusiasts and premium wine drinkers who appreciate the idea of appellation. “The city is still limited by hotel rooms and services and there’s no Michelin starred restaurants,” he says, “but we’re growing and we think we have something ‘new’ to offer”. The hope is a younger, new audience of wine explorers, keen to discover the fun in wine will make Paso part of the great LA to San Francisco road trip.
The tasting room prices are not insanely expensive here and gouging wine- loving tourists is considered bad form
Bloated cellar door fees are not an issue here. As part of my “homework”, we visited several wineries including Adelaida, Tablas Creek, Treana, Calcareous, Denner, Rangeland, Justin and Daou. Most charged $10 – $20 and often the tasting fee was waived with the purchase of a bottle (or two). The most expensive tasting room in the region is Daou, but you’re paying for the breathtaking views and glorious terrace. Option B: opt for a glass of wine vs the $45 tasting fee and bask in the glory of the this exceptional experience.
Amazing value wines but you have to travel to Paso (recommended) or join the club to experience them
Paso wines offer some of the best value in the wine world. Even the top wineries (Justin, Tablas Creek, Denner) offer exceptional wines in the $20 – $40 price range. Yes, you can pay more….but even for the top Bordeaux blends or estate wines, prices rarely climb over $80.00. Plus the marketing push in California, behind VIP/Wine Clubs, which generally offer 20 – 25% discounts on wines, make Paso wines seriously great value. Compare these prices with Napa and Sonoma and you’ll wonder why you didn’t go sooner/buy more (Canada customs and import duty rates, for two….)
For Canadians reading this post, most of the wineries in Paso produce small lots of wine with 50 – 100 cases for a particular varietal and 70% of producers fall into the boutique category (< 2,000 cases) so they rarely hit the retail shelf in Paso and beyond. In Canada, Paso producers J. Lohr and Liberty School Wines are widely available and both offer tremendous value.
Tin City – offers a brilliant concept in approachable, experiential, wine tourism
Tin City, an ‘industrial chic’ boutique wine, craft beer and craft distillery emporium on the outskirts of Paso is generating a lot of excitement. With 18 producers on site, visitors can make a day of it and experience Paso hospitality and local winemaking in a small intimate setting. Garage doors are open to visitors who want to taste, see the cellar in action and meet the winemakers. Tasting room hosts happily share kickstarter funding histories and producers offer up startup success (“my entire family has invested in this winery”) and horror stories (“the gophers ate all my Cabernet Sauvignon”). It’s brilliant, sincere, grass-roots brand building and you walk away feeling you have a personal stake in their success. This kind of experiential marketing takes wine tourism the next level and is key to attracting new consumers. It also takes intimidation out of the too-often pretentious wine experience.
The sea is close
I mean who doesn’t want to dip their toe in the Pacific Ocean and drink wine at the same time? Thirty minutes from Paso and you’re on Cambria’s beautiful Moonstone Beach or Morro Bay eating fish and chips by the ocean. How perfect is that!!
There are a LOT of wineries and no single wine route
I was looking for highway or roadside markings for the Paso “wine route” and there really weren’t any. I asked a few locals about this and the response was always “that’s because there are wineries everywhere.” While this approach may differ from many other famous wine communities, Paso looks at things differently. According to Nicki – the lovely host at Treana winery, ”the whole region is our wine route and the whole region has a stake in the success of Paso wine. I think that’s the best way to look at it.”
So smart and so true. Bottle that!
*TTB Approves 11 new districts in Paso Robles
El Pomar District
San Juan Creek
Santa Margarita Ranch
San Miguel District
Templeton Gap District
Willow Creek District