Growing Strong

Paso Robles capitalizes on soil, climate, and community.

Janice Kleinschmidt

“When we came, there were 17 wineries. Now there are 170,” says Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Winery as he describes the growth of the Paso Robles viticultural area. Lohr, which also runs a winery in Napa Valley, came south halfway to Los Angeles in 1985. However, it’s only been in the last decade that the number of wineries there tripled.

“Paso really began as Napa’s dirty little secret,” says James Judd, a part-time Palm Desert resident in the process of building the James Judd & Son winery in the Paso Robles area, where he owns three vineyards.

“California state law doesn’t require that you state exactly where your grapes come from, so a lot of the vineyards in Paso were planted by Napa growers who had simply run out of room and couldn’t keep up with their demand. They developed Paso grapes to supplement their wines; and many, many Napa-labeled wines contain Paso grapes.”

According to Dennis Collins, general manager of Treana, large Napa vintners pulled back when they reviewed their marketing plans. Business professionals attracted to the wine-country lifestyle filled the gap by opening boutique wineries where land could be purchased for a quarter of the cost of Napa land.

The 670,000-acre Paso Robles viticultural area distinguishes itself in its diversity of soils and climates — and thus grape varieties. Within even one vineyard, growers deal with a mix of calcareous shale, clay, and decomposed granite soils and microclimates due to elevation changes (from 760 to 2,000 feet), ocean breezes through the passes, and rainfall from less than 10 inches to more than 40 inches a year depending on location. The area also has a greater diurnal temperature swing than even the neighboring wine-growing San Luis Obispo. For example, in August, Paso Robles experiences an average 40-degree drop from daytime high to nighttime low, compared to San Luis Obispo’s 24.7-degree and Napa Valley’s 29.4-degree shifts.

About 40 growers and wineries culled their resources to hire geological and legal experts to develop and submit a plan to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau by the end of 2006. They hope to create nine to 10 subappellations. “We’re doing this work for 10 to 15 years down the road,” Lohr says, referring to long-term marketing strategies. 

Meanwhile, Paso Robles wineries take advantage of diversity to expand their product lines. Although zinfandel grapes were the initial standard bearer (first planted in the 1920s and ’30s), they have fallen to fifth place in acreage. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and chardonnay (in that order) account for the largest acreage.  But changes are afoot. Lohr says about 50 types of grapes are grown in Paso Robles, literally ranging from A (alicante Bouschet) to Z (zinfandel).

“Grapes to be on the lookout for are verdot, malbec, and cabernet franc as the area becomes more and more known for Bordeaux and Rhone varietals,” he says.

“The Rhone varietals are a big part of our future here,” says Terry Culton, Adelaida Cellars’ winemaker. Many Paso Robles vintners are expanding into Rhone-based grapes (i.e., rousanne, viognier, grenache, and mouvedre).And many vineyards are head-pruned and dry farmed. Paso Robles winemakers generally are more interested in big flavors than big yields. For example, Christian Tietje of Four Vines Winery notes, “Zinfandel has to have lower yields to have gumption and balls.”

While Paso Robles wines are widely distributed, some of the area’s boutique wines are made in such small quantities that they are available only at the winery. But exploring the variety is part of the fun in visiting Paso Robles’ wine country.

Judd notes that traffic has grown drastically since the movie Sideways, which featured wineries in the Santa Ynez valley further south. That trend could continue with the spotlight thrown on Paso Robles itself in two reality television shows. Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes debuted Nov. 22 on the Fox Reality network.

The show (which concludes this month) follows the trials and tribulations of Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick — executive producers of So You Think You Can Dance? and America’s Got Talent, respectively — as they try to produce wine on a 168-acre vineyard in Paso Robles.

Set to air this spring on PBS is The Wine Makers, in which six men and women compete for a chance to launch their own wine label. That show is set in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, where the candidates try their hands at viticulture, oenology, sales, and marketing.

Winemakers welcome the attention.

“Our grapes and our wines reflect our uniqueness,” Judd says. “And I am confident that — as [Paso Robles winemaking] continues to grow both in size and recognition — places you visit will reflect the truer spirit of our surroundings.”

Well-established wineries don’t begrudge the neophytes. “We embrace other people coming into our area,” Lohr says. “Basically, it comes down to more ambassadors for Paso. It helps when other people are telling stories too.”
Courtesy Paso Robles

Map of the Paso Robles viticultural area

Click here to read about Paso Robles winemaker James Judd


Worth Checking Out
Thirty miles south of Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo also is known for its wine. Among the highlights: a demonstration vineyard at Edna Valley Vineyard, where visitors can take a self-guided tour of 14 rows of different types of grapes, and the architecturally stunning Tolosa Vineyards tasting room, where visitors can compare side-by-side an oaked and unoaked chardonnay from the same vineyards and vintage.

Recommended Paso Robles wines

Scott Morgan at Wild for the Vine in Palm Springs, 325-9930:
2005 ZinAlley Winery Zinfandel
2004 ZinAlley Winery Zinfandel Port
2004 Robert Hall Winery Grenache
2003 Turley Wine Cellars
Presenti Vineyards Zinfandel
(nonvintage) Midlife Crisis Winery
Sydney’s Surprise Sparkling Wine
(Raspberry flavored)

Patrick Alles at Los Angeles Wine Co. in Palm Desert, 346-1763:
2001 L’Aventure Optimus Red
(a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel, and petit verdot)
2004 Norman Vineyards “The Monster” Zinfandel

Michael Judson-Carr at Palm Springs Wine & Art in Palm Springs, 325-9991:
(nonvintage) Dover Canyon Renegade Red
(a blend of zinfandel, sangiovese, barbera, and syrah)
2004 Dover Canyon Cujo Zinfandel
2004 Zenaida Cellars Zinfandel
2005 Anglim Rousanne

You can add your own wine recommendations below to our list.

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