In the course of traveling our way through some of the most important wine regions of the country, we just recently spent some time in Paso Robles, California. “Paso” as the locals abbreviate the town’s Spanish name of “Pass of the Oaks” is one of the country’s largest American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s). First created in 1983, this central coast AVA finds itself roughly at the midpoint between San Francisco and Los Angeles and about 25 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Since its inception, these 32 by 42 miles of vineyard acreage has seen a tremendous growth to the tune of over 200 wineries today. “Paso” at about 3 times the size of Napa, used to be one of the largest undivided AVA’s. But this changed in 2014 when it was subdivided into 11 sub-AVA’s to ostensibly allow for the expression of the different soils and microclimates. Some argue that it will be a while before those sub AVA’s really show substantial terroir differences.
Paso Robles is rather hot and for that reason it lends itself to varietals that appreciate a good suntan. This can result in alcoholic wines that can sometimes be a bit on the jammy side. However, the cooler sites that are closer to the west and sit at higher elevations are laden with the diurnal variations (cool nights/hot days) that help preserve acidity. This climatic feature is certainly the case in areas such as the Templeton Gap; a “gap” in the coastal range that allows cool Pacific Ocean wind to flow inland.
Paso Robles had been historically identified with Zinfandel. Nowadays, although this is still a flagship grape, the AVA takes great pride on its Cabernet Sauvignon (pretty big boys with heavy structure), Rhone Blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, etc.), and an irreverent group of interesting blends that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. I mean, what are you supposed to do when you grow close to 70 varietals? For instance, it is not rare to find Spanish grapes blended with French, Italian, and Portuguese reds/whites!
The actual town of Paso Robles is small and quaint. If you are looking for a swanky hotel with lots of white in the lobby and staff that greet you with “how are you feeling today”, go back to Yountville. Actually, some say that “Paso” is the way Napa used to be a few decades back. There are no black turtlenecks and slick back hair here. Hotels are few and the gastronomic scene, although flourishing, it still feels personal and the conduit of somebody’s passion.
The wineries are not set up one after the other as you would see down Napa’s Highway 29 (with its satanic left turns onto it!) or Silverado Trail. Although there’s a bit of more driving, there’s virtually no traffic and several of them have restaurants on the premises. The staff is very friendly and engaging. In fact, one of my favorite things was that wine hosts, after a brief introduction, would come and serve a flight of wines and leave you alone to taste with your friends.
For the “wow factor” Daou Winery carries plenty of punch. Beautiful property in a serene bucolic setting that really makes it hard to get up and leave. But for me, it was a very edifying experience to visit Tablas Creek Winery for its historical value. This property years ago struck a deal with Chateau Beaucastel (one of the most prestigious properties in Chateauneuf du Pape) to one by one bring all the 13 CDP varieties they grow in their Southern Rhone vineyards. After many years of quarantines (you cannot just bring cuttings into the country as they may have viruses and other maladies) and propagation, Tablas Creek makes virtually varietal wines from all these grapes. Very cool, I think.
Give Paso Robles wines a chance. I recommend their Rhone Blends and some of the other more restrained reds. It is a beautiful part of the country’s wine world and as it turns out, you can leave your black turtle neck and hair gel for the next time you go to the area between Rush, State, and whatever east-west street to the south you think defines its third leg.
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.