Seeking out new wines always requires an open mind. We too are humans and carry a suitcase full of preconceived ideas and opinions about quality and style. At the start of our venture to Paso Robles, California, we met vast, sprawling land scattered with easy-going towns and locals that triggered memories of my formative years in the MidWest. The simplicity of the lifestyle led me to believe that the wines too would be as simple as the way of life or as wild as the sun-scored rolling hills. Although there are a few key players here (Tablas Creek, Saxum), the culture in Paso is humble and friendly. The Iowa girl in me respects this sentiment, but there are few flashy individuals that are shouting to the world the absolute potential for great wines in Paso Robles. Far from simple, Paso Robles is an AVA with 11 subzones, offering a diversity of styles and microclimates. There is something for everyone that looks.
The Paso Robles AVA lies within the larger Central Coast appellation, just Northeast of San Luis Obispo. The largest and fastest growing un-divided AVA in California, Paso encompassed a large range of soils and topography. Covering approximately 614,000 acres, the area shifts from cool, pacific-influenced Western districts though the lower-lying valleys of the Central districts, to the high-elevation hills inland with mucho sun and poco rainfall. To put it into perspective, the eastern, hilly districts receive about 20% more heat and 20 less inches of rainfall overall than the Western zones.
The Santa Lucia foothills border the Westernmost area of Paso, defining the region by high elevation, calcareous soils (clay based with limestone), and cold ocean air from the Pacific, about 5 miles away from the AVA’s border. Some suggest that the soils offer more minerality to the wines, although this could be because this type of soil leads to higher acidity in the wines! Comparatively cooler to the Eastside but not short on sunshine, Rhone varietals perform well here in a climate similar to their native home in France. In the Adeleida District, Tablas Creek has made a name for themselves in promoting the grapes of Chateauneauf-du-Pape and Cornas in California. A leader in the community, Tablas Creek was at the forefront of creating the 11 subzones in Paso. The coolest region in Paso Robles is the Templeton Gap which draws in cool air from the Estero Bay through low gaps in the mountains. The Willow’s Peak district sits higher in the mountains- up to 1900 ft.
We started our wine-hunting journey in the mountainous, Southwest district of Santa Margarita Ranch. A cooler area with mild temperature swings, the district is best known for its diversity of soils (ancient sea bed, shale, rocky alluvium, granitic and volcanic), which is highlighted on the label of Ancient Peaks Winery- the sole owner of the AVA’s vineyards. The first grapes were planted in 1780 by Missionaries, a common phenomenon in Central California. Currently, the property is sustainability run by three winegrowing families, the Filipponi’s, the Rossi’s, and the Wittstrom’s. Margarita Ranch is also one of the oldest cattle ranches in California, which lends to the old western romance in the tasting room, including a taxidermy shrine from their once-loved cow, Cinnamon. The wines, however, are more expressive of the ancient soils and cool air- complex, fresh, and vibrant. The 2016 Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from an area in which a gap in the mountains provides full access to ocean air. This affect gives the wine a zippy finish, with gooseberry, smoke, and saltwater on the nose. Zinfandel may be the star of the West Side of Paso and the Ancient Peaks 2015 Zinfandel was testament to that, with fresh red fruits, thyme and a lift on the finish. The wines of Western Paso often mirror this higher-toned, spicy style.
As we drove Eastward, the land stretched into the Estrella River plains, with more alluvial soils and river deposits. The land is flatter and drier, which lends itself to thicker-skinned Italian varietals. At Clesi, husband and wife team Chris and Adrienne Ferrara speak of the great parallels to central Paso and southern Italy. The temperature swings in the area mitigate the hot growing season with a 30-40 degree difference between day and night, ensuring a backbone to the ripe fruits. The wines were not jammy, but rather smart and savory. We loved the 2013 Barbera, with beautiful acidity, rose & cranberry. The 2014 Convivio red blend, a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend made in the style of a “Super-Tuscan,” seemed to have been perfectly suited for the climate, with both ripe black fruits and earthy aromas of smoke, leaves, and roasted red bell pepper. In addition to Italian varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals perform well in the climate of the 5 central districts: San Miguel, Estrella District, El Pomar, San Juan, and Geneseo (another Midwest shout-out- the name of my hometown! But I digress…).
We did not make it as far East as the dry, hot & hilly Creston & Paso Robles Highlands District. This was from a shortage of time, not interest; these two regions benefit from the largest diurnal shifts in Paso. This can lead to balance and complexity in the wines. These regions are sunbaked with less rain the Western side and high elevation- up to 1600 ft above sea level. Dry-farmed Zinfandel is a popular choice for winemakers here, as the heat and the lack of water concentrates the grape into a lush, inky wine. With a dry heat similar to Spain, the sun-loving grapes grown in the Iberian Peninsula are becoming of increasing interest. The wines on the Eastern side are bold and generous, but have potential to be made with great balance under careful varietal selection and winemaking.
As more boutique wineries develop in the area, the humble community is taking pride in the diversity of the region. Growers are taking chances with lesser-known varieties and finding the best spots for the more consumer-familiar grapes. I welcome this diversity in a great sea of California Chardonnay & Cabernet. Paso Robles is a quiet community full of winemakers who want to showcase the possibilities of the land. From the adventurous wine drinker to the comfort connoisseur, there is enough style here to satisfy all palates. -AT