Paso Robles is a curious blend of rugged roots and refinement. It’s not unusual for diesel pickups to rumble through town with Mozart on the radio or for their drivers to stomp mud off their boots as they discuss the nuances of Chave Hermitage. But the region’s unique combination of authenticity and elegance extends beyond its culture. The earth seems to exude it in liquid form.
The sculptural oak trees (robles in Spanish) that line the appellation’s rolling hills lend Paso Robles its name, meaning “Pass of the Oaks.” Franciscan friars first began making wine on the Central Coast in the 1790’s to serve as sacrament at the California missions. Since then, Paso Robles has evolved into a powerful California winegrowing region—and one that has become increasingly acknowledged by wine cognoscenti.
The region’s wines—red Rhône varieties in particular—appear to be in the midst of a fluid evolution. Earlier this year blends from Denner and Tablas Creek received well-deserved recognition. And it’s evident that, when compared with past vintages, Paso’s Rhône reds reflect increased complexity. For along with their trademark deep-toned fruit, richness, and velvet-like tannins, current releases reveal additional minerality and subtle, multi-faceted flavors.
“Most definitely the wines are coming into their own,” says Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo. And a pickup ride around the area’s back roads offers earthy insight into this development. Trevisan, who farms several vineyards off Vineyard Drive, explains that rather than follow conventional cash crop methods as in years past, farmers are now focusing on wine quality via lower yields and less intervention—a sort of agricultural transparency. As we pass weed-lined walnut orchards and wooly hay fields, it becomes apparent that a beautiful, back-to-basics wisdom forms the foundation of Trevisan’s farming philosophy. When he sees that the area’s older generation of walnut farmers have waited to turn weeds under, he decides to follow suit—a decision that ultimately helps him preserve natural resources and precious topsoil when rains arrive later that week. “They always know,” he says with a thoughtful smile. Along with this sensitivity to the land comes better understanding of the area’s climate and planting regions.
Geographical awareness has helped farmers in recent years select better vineyard sites and balance fruit in the field. Paso Robles is well known for its sun-soaked climate. In fact, temperatures often reach the 100’s during the summertime. However, it also claims the most dramatic temperature fluctuations of any other California appellation—often more than 40 or 50 degrees. These diurnal shifts are inspired by an inlet of cool marine air that is channeled through the Templeton Gap over the Santa Lucia Mountains. That cool air settles in Paso’s western corridor, causing dramatic cool downs and low overnight temperatures—a circumstance that not only reduces transpiration rates in grapes (allowing them to retain natural acidity) but offers extended hang time for optimal phenolic development.
“We’re too young to talk about terroir yet,” says Villa Creek Cellars’ Cris Cherry. “But we can talk a lot about what the specific sites contribute to our wines.” Dramatic differences in rainfall create a multitude of subclimates. Clouds approaching from the Pacific skim the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and drop the majority of their rainfall within about 11 miles of the ocean. Thus, precipitation levels drop for every mile traveled east along the HWY 46 W. Each subclimate along that spectrum offers a distinct flavor profile and texture to Paso’s intriguing blends.
The region’s diverse soil composition also contributes to the multi-faceted flavors emerging. Paso Robles pioneers like Bob Haas, Gary Eberle, and Kenneth Volk joke that the area is so geologically diverse that if you don’t like the soil you’re working with, simply take a step back. In fact, there are more than 45 different soil series found in the Paso Robles AVA. Though these soils are primarily composed of marine sedimentary stones, shells, and fossilized whale bones (remnants of an ancient sea bed) they are often covered by a layer of loam or clay. The abundance of calcareous shale provides high pH values and calcium carbonate levels that promote nutrient uptake by roots and result in enhanced flavor development.
“The Central Coast is one of the few places in the world where you can grow such a diverse number of grape varieties,” explains Volk. And he should know. Volk is an accomplished ampelographer and produces a myriad of wines from heirloom grape varieties. Together he, Eberle, and Haas have brought more than twenty different varieties, clones, and rootstocks to the Central Coast over the years, expanding the region’s spice rack.
Blends are particularly exciting for Steve Lohr, Executive VP/COO Vineyards of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, for the endless possibilities they provide. “There are just so many things you can do,” he explains. “By blending different varieties and fruit from warmer and cooler parts of the area, we can create infinitely more interesting and more complex wines.” Lohr explains that the evolution of winemaking styles and a movement away from big, bold, overly ripe wines have allowed finer nuances to emerge. “As winemakers have become more willing to throttle back on ripeness, it’s allowed more subtle tones to come forward,” he says.
“Paso definitely has this provincial component with its cowboys and pickup trucks but we’re influenced by global benchmarks,” Cherry says. In the cellar, Paso winemakers are raising the bar by observing the methods of other successful winegrowing regions. “We’re continually looking to be inspired by the great terroirs of the world and channeling them into ours,” Cherry explains. Daniel Daou of DAOU Vineyards accomplishes this by using techniques employed by first growth Bordeaux vineyards—practices such as extended maceration and saignée, or off-bleeding—to intensify flavors and produce wines that he feels evoke the power and elegance of the French wines of his homeland.
“Besides learning from other wineries, other regions, and other countries, we are building on history—blending old-world awareness with innovation,” explains winemaker Janell Dusi of her approach. Dusi’s family history is grounded in Paso Robles wine culture, having cultivated vineyards in the area since the 1920’s. “During Prohibition,” she says, “’Two hens and a redneck rooster’ meant that a customer wanted two gallons of grappa…delivered.” Dusi learned to make wines first-hand by helping her grandfather Dante. “Everything starts in the vineyard,” she says. Members of the family’s three generations still prune, train vines, and harvest together by hand. Like other long-time Paso producers, theirs is a profound connection to the land, its history, and its bounty—an intimacy that they feel contributes to the texture and depth of their wines.
And it seems clear that the future of Paso Robles wines lies buried beneath the soil. “The roots are a big part of eliciting the complexity in wines,” Trevisan explains. The imminent maturity of the region’s Rhône vineyards makes him particularly optimistic. “The area’s oldest Syrah plantings are only about 20 years old,” he says, its Grenache and Mourvèdre even younger. “The tide is just starting to turn for Paso,” Trevisan predicts. “When those roots begin to show some age the whole area is going to explode with terroir.” Some might say that’s already begun.