If Napa Valley is famous for its cabernets and Sonoma for its pinot noirs, what wine comes to mind when you think of Paso Robles?
Probably Rhône wines.
For more than 20 years, the area’s Hospice du Rhône auction has focused attention on wines made from varieties from the Rhone Valley, even though the event welcomes wineries from elsewhere — including many from the French homeland of the grapes.
Likewise, the Rhône Rangers are active there and local producers like Tablas Creek are noted for their Rhône varietal wines.
Rhone grapes account for only 17 percent of the plantings in Paso; Bordeaux varieties, notably cabernet, far outnumber them.
And cabs are hot, while American Rhônes remain a hard sell to wine lovers.
Now a group of local growers and wineries in the Paso Robles region is trying to change the area’s vinous image. They want to make its cabs pre-eminent in the mind of wine lovers, though they acknowledge that unseating Napa in the market would be tough.
In the process, however, they hope to snatch some of the dollars headed for Napa and raise the prices they can charge for their wines.
Inspired by Daou Vineyards owner-winemaker Daniel Daou, who grew up in France, Bordeaux growers and winemakers formed the Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux) Collective two years ago to promote the idea. They hold co-joined trade days and consumer events showcasing these wines.
The Paso Robles experience
To step back for a bigger picture, Paso Robles itself is a pleasant city of 30,000 halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It lies at about 750 feet in altitude.
Few Bay Area residents are likely to choose it as their favored wine destination but it’s a natural attraction for Southern Californians.
“They have to drive through Paso to get to Napa!” complained winemaker Michael Mooney of Paso’s Chateau Margene on a panel discussing Paso Robles Cabs at the recent CABs of Distinction conference.
Early growers were inspired by Andre Tschelistcheff to plant cab, but Gary Eberle really proved the region’s suitability for the variety starting in 1973.
The Paso Robles (and the residents seem to be trending toward the Spanish pronunciation, not “ro-buls”) American Viticultural Area occupies much of the northern part of San Luis Obispo County. The southern half across a mountain range is significantly cooler and grows different grapes in Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley.
Though it’s an oversimplification that upsets many local growers and winemakers, the Paso region is conveniently split in two:
The part west of Paso Robles (and Highway 101) tends to be hilly, or even mountainous, and cooler and wetter.
The east is flatter, hotter and drier, though it has a wide daily temperature swing even on hot days. Still, claims David Parrish of Parrish Family Vineyard, “Paso Robles has a Goldilocks climate — not too hot, and not too cold.”
The area has applied to split into 11 AVAs, a prospect that some locals say will help elevate their areas, but is likely to be lost or even confuse most wine lovers. They did learn from Napa, however, and will require the labels to feature “Paso Robles,” even if they mention a smaller division.
Most of the grapes come from the warmer, drier area and go to wineries like J. Lohr, Hahn, Beringer, Constellation and Gallo. They mostly go into moderately priced wine that’s a good value.
Naturally, local wineries tout their “better” wines. Although the area is hot in the summer, the wines tend to be more restrained than those of Napa, though whether that’s style or conditions isn’t clear.
Local growers admit that they learned from Napa’s replanting after phylloxera damaged vineyards in the 1990s and chose rootstocks, cultivars, configuration and vineyard practices optimum for their conditions. Some went for high production, others opted for higher quality. Some of those wineries producing in high volume, like J. Lohr, produced excellent wines that achieved wide acceptance.
A big question for the area, however, is water. The east side has had to institute water restrictions, including prohibiting new plantings in many areas, due to the drought, and is trying to find long-term solutions as the area doesn’t receive enough water to grow grapevines.
The city of Paso Robles averages about 15 inches of rain, but eastern areas only get about 8 to 10 inches even in an average year, though the mountains west of the city can accumulate 40 inches from the nearby Pacific Ocean. Grapevines need the equivalent of about 30 inches -– but not all applied in the winter — to be productive. Lack of water could limit Paso Robles’ future as a wine-growing region.
Visiting Paso Robles
Like Healdsburg and Sonoma, Paso Robles is built around a plaza, creating the epitome of a wine country destination.
A few years ago, Paso Robles was hit by a devastating earthquake, but it has recovered. The south side of the plaza features a museum and arts center, with shops and restaurants around the north and east, and the sprawling Paso Robles Inn completing the picture.
Unlike Napa, Paso Robles has many streets lined with retail stores aimed at locals as well as tourists, not just restaurants and wine tasting salons.
I spent one night at the new Oaks Hotel a little north of downtown. It’s a number of steps up from the usual business hotel, with a spa, restaurant and bar, but reasonable and comfortable. The owners are omnipresent, friendly and helpful, a good sign you’ll enjoy the visit.
I also had a splurge night at Just Inn, the three-room B&B, plus cottage, at Justin Winery. Not only does it have luxury accommodations but a gourmet restaurant, both outlawed at wineries in Napa Valley. It’s good to have the restaurant onsite since it’s a fair ride from town over winding hills. Naturally, the food is as good as the accommodations. It would be a delightful romantic getaway.
Back in town, Paso Robles has changed dramatically from the days when it didn’t even have an Italian restaurant — in an area noted for red wines. That deficiency has been corrected in spades, including with the excellent Buona Tavola with Northern Italian food from Piedmontese Antonio Varia.
Many other restaurants of all types becko but Artisan on the plaza serves innovative small and large plates highlighting, well, artisanal producers, many local.
And if you think we’re obsessed with wine in Napa Valley Paso Robles boasts a radio station that bills itself as the Krush with numerous programs about wine including ones focusing on “garagistes” (small innovative owner-winemakers who may even make their wine in their garage!). It also has commercials for winemaking supplies and equipment like corks and presses, and regularly broadcasts geeky wine information like transpiration and botrylis indices.
Paso Robles has many wine festivals during the year, but remember that it does get hot in the summer. Fortunately, it’s only a hop across the mountains to picturesque Cambria on the coast and a short drive from there to Hearst Castle or Morro Bay.
The region is four hours down Highway 101, or you can take the train from Fairfield or Martinez, even an Amtrak bus from Napa. The train stops right in the middle of Paso Robles.