Paso of the Past
Situated in California’s Central Coast, the Paso Robles AVA is defined by a long and warm growing season balanced by cool evenings, which coaxes extraordinary flavors from wine grapes. Located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this region is ripe for producing some of the state’s most thought-provoking wines as well as some of the meatiest wine debates.
Paso Robles has long been associated with its Wild West past, even in winemaking. But there’s also a long-standing argument about which side of town produces better wines. Historically, the Paso Robles AVA was delineated by wines from the east side or west side of the Estrella River; or, even more simply, Highway 101. In the condensed version of the story, the Paso Robles of the past – the east side – was known for having higher temperatures, with ultra-ripe Rhône varieties producing high alcohol wines, while the west side was known for its stronger influence from the Pacific Ocean, resulting in cooler and wetter mesoclimates, and, consequently, more finessed wines made from Bordeaux varieties.
When the Paso Robles AVA was first established in 1983, there were a mere 17 wineries. Fast forward to today, where, according to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, it has become California’s fastest growing AVA, and the home to over 200 wineries and 40,000 acres of vines. Since the establishment of 11 distinct sub-AVAs in 2007, a deeper and more inclusive understanding of the region’s unique geographic characteristics has emerged that is permeating the broader wine community.
Paso of the Present
Today, there’s a marked shift in the conversation, moving away from this old story from Wine Spectator about the divisive Paso Robles West Side Story. “I think the east versus west depiction of the Paso Robles AVA was based on people outside of the region generalizing Paso into one versus the other. This was an older way of looking at Paso that, since the creation of the 11 nested AVAs, has been generally put to rest,” says Chris Taranto, Communications Director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. Evidence of this paradigm shift can be seen in the recognitions from Wine Enthusiast in 2013 for Wine Region of the Year and from Sunset Magazine in 2016 for Best Wine Region in the West.
“The east versus west debate has become less pronounced as people wrap their heads around and start talking about the sub-AVAs,” says Jason Hass, partner and general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard. “After all, the river never defined a meaningful viticultural boundary. But there’s enormous variation within what people used to call ‘Eastside’ and ‘Westside’ and it’s relevant that two of the sub-AVAs (San Miguel and Templeton Gap) straddle the river.”
Xochitl Maiman of IDTT Communications also maintains that the public makes more of a contest between sides these days than the locals do. “While many of the premier and famous vineyards are on the west side, that doesn’t mean that there is lesser quality fruit being grown on the east side,” she says. “Remember there are 11 sub-AVAs in the greater Paso Robles AVA, and for good reason. Each offers unique qualities and provides optimal growing conditions for different grape varietals. Rhônes grown on the west side are decidedly different from Rhônes grown on the east side, for instance. It’s all a matter of taste, like everything else in wine.”
Comparing east side to west side isn’t quite apples to apples though. There are so many different factors that affect the grape vines and ripening across the region, from soil types, vineyard development, and farming practices for each program. Kurt Ammann, Vino Robles’ CEO says it’s not as simple to say that Paso’s Rhône-style wines come from the west and the Bordeaux grapes are from the east. “There are both great Rhône and Bordeaux-style wines grown on both the east and west side,” he explains. “I personally don’t like to look at it as one side is better at something than another. When you actually get out into many of the vineyards, regardless of which side of the highway you are on, you will find both Rhône and Bordeaux varietals are grown.”
Haas explains that it’s easier to farm mechanically on the east side of town (with gentler slopes, fewer big rocks, and less wooded area), which tends to attract wineries who prefer this model. The west side requires most things to be done by hand, which has attracted wineries looking to produce a more labor-intensive and premium product. “The one change that I’d say I’ve seen in recent years is more wineries moving to areas closer to the coast because of the greater rainfall out here,” he says. “As California’s climate warms and stresses on shared aquifers grow, the higher rainfall amounts that we get out here are more and more valuable, whether you’re dry-farming as we are or looking to irrigate.”
Why We Should Overcome Geographic Preconceptions
But consumers are coming around to the shift in conversation. Hass feels that consumers still gravitate to one side or the other. “We find we need to do some education to make people realize it’s not as simple as maybe they were led to believe,” he says. “For example, people think that the west side of town is cooler than the east side of town. That’s just not true, the coolest part of the AVA is actually in the south, and it gets warmer as you go north.” He does an excellent job explaining the geographic differences between the east and west here in the Tablas Creek blog.
Ammann also believes education is the key. “It’s important for producers to educate the consumers and also for consumers to educate themselves so they are not getting tied up on ‘north versus south’ or ‘east versus west’,” he says. “I hear all the time about people being surprised because they had a wine from a certain region that they didn’t think they would like; or, that one time they had a wine they didn’t like so they’ve categorized all wines from that area to be like that, but then tried some others and it completely changed their perspective on a region.”
Perhaps consumer preference has been based more on an individual’s geographical attraction. “Both sides are beautiful in their own way, with more rolling, open hills with long vistas east of town, and more rugged, wooded, and mountainous [terrain] on the west side of town…I’m sure that people do have preferences for which they find more appealing,” observes Haas. “But my experience is that the variety of landscapes and styles is more important and appealing to people than anything else, and most visitors visit wineries throughout the broader Paso Robles AVA.”
Some areas do seem to attract more visitors than others. “The Adelaida and Willow Creek AVAs tend to see more visitors simply because there is a more critical mass of tasting rooms to visit there. However, brands along the main corridors of Highway 46 West and Highway 46 East also see plenty of visitation,” Taranta says. “It comes down to location, location, location. The AVAs, to the general consumer, are not that well known. Truly, the difference in AVAs speaks more to the trade audience as they want to get more into the detail of what makes the Paso Robles AVA unique.”
Caine Thompson, managing director for Robert Hall Winery thinks consumers likely go there with specific impressions and gravitate specifically to one side or the other. “I think there is an appreciation for both, just like there is in other wine regions of the world – [for example] Left Bank versus Right Bank Bordeaux,” he says. “The difference and diversity needs to continue to be celebrated and appreciated. We’re all Paso Robles at the end of the day.”
“As growers and producers we know how special all of Paso Robles really is, and trying to divide into one side or another is not what Paso Robles is really about,” Says Amman. “We all help each other out and we each want to make the best product possible to really show off how special Paso Robles as a complete region is.”
“I think the wine consumer has a good understanding of the diversity of Paso Robles, which we celebrate,” Thompson says. “If you’re based on the east or west side, it’s still Paso Robles. A lot of wineries located on the west and east side have both vineyards or growers located all across Paso Robles. The physical location of the property doesn’t necessarily mean sourcing only from that particular AVA.”
These days, it seems less about which side of town you’re on and more about experiencing extraordinary wines in a casual environment. Ammann sums it up well: “What really makes Paso Robles unique is not east versus west but how everyone really comes together and just enjoys making wines for their consumers.”
Wines to Try
A Paso Robles version of the classic Rhône blend, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Counoise, with a small amount of Tannat, from 8 of the 11 AVAs. On top of its base of dark fruit, mineral, and spice, you’ll find a bright and fresh acidity, and a beguiling combination of structure, finesse, and intrigue.
“Each region brings slightly different characteristics to the table; and, given the range of grapes in the Rhône family, having multiple Paso Robles sub-AVAs to work with gives us the best opportunity to get the mix we want,” explains Haas “But it’s important, I think, to point out that even if we could source all our fruit from our own district, we wouldn’t. The sandier soils in some of the heartland (Estrella and Geneseo Districts) produce a specific character in Syrah that we love: more open and fruity to complement the more savory and meaty Syrahs that we get out here on calcareous soils. And the lower farming costs [of the area] allow us to source fruit for wines that fall into the by-the-glass price.”
A Rhone style blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and Tannat. Vina Robles has vineyards planted in 5 of the 11 Paso Robles districts because each vineyard and district provides something a little bit different.
“That is what really makes Paso Robles such a unique wine region,” says Ammann. “The Arborist is only one of our wines that really shows this off well. We have fruit coming from the El Pomar, Geneseo, and Adelaida Districts, from three different vineyard sites, and even Grenache and Petite Sirah in the blend that we take from multiple vineyard sites.” By using fruit from multiple districts, they have the benefit of pulling different characteristics from the same variety and clones. “Jardine Vineyard Petite Sirah is some of the darkest Petite Sirah I have ever seen, but by adding the Huerhuero Petite Sirah, we now get a wine that is dark in color with excellent flavor,” Ammann explains. “Then we have the Grenache coming from Terra Bella and Huerhuero. Terra Bella brings bright cherry and pomegranate flavors, while Huerhuero provides just enough softness to the wine that really helps round out the blend.”
Showcasing how well fruit from both sides plays together, Castoro Cellars basically throws traditional winemaking rules and preconceptions out the window. Longtime producers have been blending Rhône and Bordeaux varieties since they started in Paso Robles. Sourcing Rhône-style Syrah from two diverse westside vineyard sites as the base, and blending with eastside Bordeaux varieties like Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot for depth and complexity, and Tannat for tannin and structure, this wine is interesting while also being approachable.
This lovely Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux blend in the classic “Left Bank” style comes from some of their favorite vineyard sites in Paso Robles’ Adelaida District. Balanced by silky Merlot and luscious Cabernet Franc, this wine is expressive with aromas of sandalwood, herb, and cassis, and flavors of blackberry preserves, cigar box, and molasses.