Most people think of Napa Valley when it comes to California wine. However important it is to the West Coast wine industry, Napa is relatively small at just 4 percent of California’s wine production. There are other emerging regions that are producing interesting wine for far less money. That’s the case with Paso Robles where the growth in acres planted to vineyards is unparalleled.
Located in northern San Luis Obispo County in the center of California’s Central Coast, Paso Robles is huge – roughly a rectangular 35 by 25 miles. It was established as an American Viticultural Area in 1983 and has expanded twice since then. The diurnal shift in temperatures is greater here than anywhere else in California – as much as 104 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night. Although the heat sounds like a challenge for growers, the cooling effect from the Pacific Ocean just six miles away is the region’s saving grace.
The soil here is more diverse than other regions, too. More than 30 soil types are found in Paso Robles, but the dominance of calcareous shale provides the pH values needed to balance the lush, ripe character with acidity. Although it has half as many wineries as Napa Valley, it has twice as many grape varieties planted.
First planted by Franciscan friars in 1790, Paso Robles was initially known for zinfandel, which thrived in the heat. In the 1980s, Rhone grape varieties led the region and today cabernet sauvignon has been added to the list of 69 grape varieties planted here.
We recently met with Jason “J.C.” Diefenderfer, winemaker at Austin Hope Family Wines, who remembers once needing a map to show people where Paso Robles was located. He said several factors account for Paso Robles’ rising star.
“First, critics gave very high scores to wines from producers like Saxum and Linne Calodo. Second, we went from a zinfandel region to Rhone varietals and then in the late 1990s added cabernet sauvignon. Finally, a cabernet sauvignon group formed to bring more attention to the area,” he said.
In fact, cabernet sauvignon is now the most planted varietal in Paso Robles today.
Diefenderfer, a fifth generation Paso Robles resident, said cabernet sauvignon’s thick skins from the cool nights provide necessary tannins and acidity to balance the lush character of the wines
Ted Ross, winemaker and owner of Hayseed and Housdon, is one of the many family owned producers who account for a whopping 95 percent of the wineries in Paso Robles. He said the evolution of the region’s preferred grape varieties is more cumulative than successive.
“We’re becoming known for more than Rhone varieties,” he said. “It’s not a shift in focus. There’s just been more demand for cabernet sauvignon.”
Ross is among the majority of small producers in Paso Robles. In fact, 66 percent of them produce less than 5,000 cases a year. You’re not going to find these wines on shelves beside larger producers, such as J. Lohr. Tablas Creek or JUSTIN. But, if you’re willing to order wines directly from the producer, you’ll be rewarded with some very interesting wines.
Ross said consumers like the experience of visiting a small producer where they can meet with the winemaker, pay little if anything for a tasting and order wines not commercially available anywhere else.
He sees nothing but growth ahead for the region. Land and grapes are much cheaper here and there is even an interest in adding Italian and Spanish grape varietals.
Consumers would be wise to pay attention to this region.
Austin Hope Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($50). Ripe blackberry and raspberry fruit with hints of coffee and vanilla. Good balance and plenty of fine tannins, this wine has garnered several 90-plus scores. Long finish and age-worthy.
- Hayseed and Housdon “The 4:19 to Paso” Grenache Rose 2018. ($26). We literally had to talk ourselves out of finishing this electric, rich rose. Generous strawberry, fresh character and low alcohol make for a delightful sipping wine.
- Hayseed and Housdon Warrior 2016 ($38). With 30 percent petite sirah added to the cabernet sauvignon, this blend shows off a deep color and considerable palate weight. Blueberry, cassis flavors with a touch of tobacco and herbs. Profits of all H&H wines are shared with Operation Surf, a non-profit organization that helps wounded and injured veterans.
- Cass MR Blanc Paso Robles Geneseo District 2018 ($18). We recently met with Ted Plemons, co-owner of this winery, to taste several of his wines. This was our favorite white. Made up of a blend of the Rhone white varietals marsanne, roussanne and viognier, this stainless-steel-fermented and aged wine gets its brightness from the roussanne, and its creamy texture from the marsanne, said Plemons. Apple and citrus notes are complemented with some floral elements.
- Cass Mourvedre Paso Robles 2017 ($30). This grape variety can produce some big wines in California, but this balanced version is Plemons’ “pinot noir.” Bright, bing cherry notes with some interesting accents of mocha and licorice.
Lohr Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($100). This venerable producer wanted to make a statement with this luxury cuvee of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and an unusual Bordeaux grape variety called Saint-Macaire. The statement is that this region is equally capable of producing prestigious wine. Using the best grapes from the Beck Vineyard in the Creston District, winemaker Steve Peck has created a supple and approachable blend that is deceivingly complex.
- Lohr Pure Paso Proprietary Red Wine 2017 ($27). We know J. Lohr makes consistently delicious and approachable wines across the board, so the introduction of this new blend is exciting news. Designed to show off the cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah from Paso Robles, this blend is rich with layered complexity and length. Aged 18 months in French and American oak barrels, it has vanilla and toasty oak notes to add to its ripe black cherry and blackberry flavors.
- Fulldraw Honey Bunny 2018 ($85). A blend of 93 percent syrah and 7 percent mourvedre, this complex wine packs a lot of power. Lush, layered black berry and blueberry fruit, dark color and gritty tannins.
- Volatus CAVU 2018 ($28). The acronym is pilot talk for “ceiling and visibility unlimited,” a common phrase for perfect flying weather. Its owner, Hal “Bull” Schmitt, is a former Navy fighter pilot and Top Gun instructor. A good percentage of viognier (67 percent) combines with roussanne to make a sexy wine with copious pineapple notes and a hint of minerality.