Paso Robles is a promising, often overlooked wine region in San Luis Obispo county
While the American economy waxes and wanes, California's wine industry remains red hot, and a strong Canadian dollar makes a trip to the Golden State that much more appealing.
But if the thought of squeezing into a bustling tasting room amongst hordes of gawking wine tourists in Napa Valley is enough to drive you to drink, you're in luck - there are other options.
About halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles - hundreds of kilometres south of the relative hustle and bustle of Napa Valley - sits San Luis Obispo County. Nestled in the county's northern region is Paso Robles. The city and its surrounding wineries are often overlooked. As a result, there are some truly beautiful wines being made in Paso Robles that are relatively good values and which fall slightly outside the mainstream appeal of Napa.
With the cooler regions of Monterey County to the north and Santa Barbara to the south, Paso Robles' typically massive, concentrated reds bring weight and quality that often shock first-time tasters. While a variety of elevations and microclimates (not to mention dozens of soil types) affect which varietals are grown where, Paso Robles is, for the most part, far warmer than either of its neighbours. The intensity and concentration of Paso's monstrous reds comes in part from the drastic swing in temperature between day and night - as much as 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (that's around 4 to 10 degrees Celsius) in the summer.
Paso Robles' mix of wine styles makes it an ideal stop for every level of taster. However, Paso is big (26,000 vineyard acres), so it can take some planning to maximize your time spent in the area. It is best to research which of the area's wineries you'd like to take in, and plan day trips accordingly.
Luckily, even larger-scale producers in Paso Robles have a reputation for quality that eludes many large California producers. While J. Lohr's offices are based out of San Jose, most of its reds are sourced from Paso Robles. Their best-known cabernet sauvignons, for example - the mid-range Seven Oaks and the premium Hilltop Vineyard - come from Paso.
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot make up the lion's share of plantings in Paso Robles, but it's also not uncommon to find big, heady zinfandel or petite sirah from the region - most reds are big and beautiful. Rhône varietals also do quite well in Paso Robles, and plantings of red and white varietals are on the upswing: rousanne, marsanne, viognier and mourvèdre aren't nearly as rare as they once were.
Many Paso Robles wineries whose focus is cabernet- and merlot-based reds are anything but typical or traditional. While the emphasis at Justin Vineyards is on the red Bordeaux blends, like Isosceles and Justification, the winery treads a fine line between large-scale producer and avant-garde rule-breaker. Founded in 1981 by Justin and Deborah Baldwin, Justin Vineyards' Isosceles Center is an architectural sight to behold; its angular, bright yellow-and-red exterior jumps out from the brown hills in the background, and contrast the extensive, quiet cellar held within.
Central Paso is worthy of a day trip, in and of itself. Estero Bay cuts inland from the Pacific Ocean, and is the mouth of Templeton Gap, stretching through the western Santa Lucia mountain range to the eastern edge of Paso Robles. This proverbial wind tunnel brings with it cooling influences from the ocean, and a trip down Highway 46 West will take you by a lot of unique wineries before the ocean opens up in front of you.
Let the road take you towards the west side of Paso Robles, where a group of wineries calling themselves the Grand Crew have banded together to lobby for their own distinct appellation. Grand Crew members hold that their terroir is unlike the rest of the county's, and their push for a westside American Viticultural Area (AVA) has been met with mixed reviews from wineries, both inside and outside west Paso Robles. Taste for yourself and be the judge.
Buried beneath the varied geography and soils are some serious fault lines; in December 2003, the area suffered a 6.5-magnitude earthquake. The effect and aftermath of the quake have long since dissipated, but precautions for the next "big one" can be found at almost every winery in the region. The sprawling Robert Hall Winery was established by its Minnesota-born namesake in the mid-‘90s; Hall's passion for wine and business led him to set up shop in the formerly quiet region. The sprawling winery includes an underground cavern built to withstand 8.5-magnitude earthquakes.
These larger wineries, such as J. Lohr and Robert Hall, push Paso Robles wine on to the national and international wine scene, while winemakers at smaller properties continue pushing the envelope.
Take L'Aventure, for example. In 1996, winemaker Stephan Asseo left Bordeaux in search of a winemaking region where he could make wines outside of the constraints of French regulations. He ended up in Paso Robles; Asseo's high-octane, massive reds combine his knowledge of Bordeaux varietals with his Rhône Valley upbringing, with many of his biggest bottles featuring a blend of syrah and cabernet sauvignon. L'Aventure wines run from $45-$80 and are tough to come by outside of the region; rave write-ups and massive scores mean Asseo's big wines are often in short supply.
If you need a day off from wine tasting, it's easy to turn from the vine to another of the area's burgeoning gastronomical treats. Tasting rooms have grown beyond wine, beer and spirits, to olive oil, which is one of the area's real hidden treats. With more than 45 acres of olive trees planted, Pasolivo owners Karen Guth and husband-and-wife team Joshua and Joeli Yaguda make some of the world's best premium and flavoured olive oils. Orchards are also in great abundance in the area, although they're increasingly being ripped out and replaced by vineyards.
With nearly 200 wineries in the region, the city of Paso Robles has expanded to
accommodate the rising influx of wine tourism: restaurants, hotels, wine tours and trails. Yet there remains a small-town, intimate vibe to the area. The wines are world-class and the people are as warm as a sunny summer afternoon in the town square.