Every wine region starts out as undiscovered country – until the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting, Napa Valley was pretty much an agricultural area with a handful of ambitious winemakers struggling to earn international recognition.
Nowadays, the not-so-new frontier for fine American wine has shifted south to Paso Robles. They’ve been making amazing wines in Paso for some time, but it’s only been in the last 10 to 15 years of production that the rest of the wine community has started to take notice. The Paso Robles wine region is located in San Luis Obispo County, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
There are some key factors that make Paso Robles a unique region worth knowing. For one thing, the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is huge, with lots of variety within its boundaries. The cooler western section of Paso Robles is influenced by the nearby Pacific, whereas the eastern, more inland growing areas see a lot of sun. This is one of the very rare wine-producing areas where you can see grapes as different as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel thriving. With more than 26,000 acres planted to vines and counting, this AVA is growing – some say almost too quickly. Every time I drive up there, I notice new vineyards and wineries, like mushrooms that have sprung up after a rain.
While Paso Robles’ main claim to fame has been Zinfandel, for me, the region’s most exciting grapes are the same ones that thrive in the southern part of France’s Rhône Valley, whose climate is comparable to Paso in some key ways. Look for Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, and for my favorite aromatic white Rhône grape, Viognier.
Another distinction of Paso’s pioneering spirit is that the winemakers there aren’t afraid to be unorthodox. Here you can find all kind kinds of crazy blends in a given bottle, whereas it’s pretty unlikely to find a Zin, a Cab and a Syrah together in any other California region. Value is another factor that makes Paso appealing; it’s a good choice when you’re considering inexpensive wines for everyday drinking, although the region certainly produces high-end labels.
One of the best ways to get to know Paso wines is to go there! While there are regional airports in the area, it’s cheaper and more fun to fly into either SFO or LAX, rent a car, and enjoy the gorgeous drive along the California coast. Unlike Napa, where tourist traffic on Highway 29 and snooty tasting rooms all too often rule the day, folks in Paso are happy to host you. Your dollar goes much further here when it comes to hotels and restaurants.
A great time to check out Paso is during one of its two main wine festivals. My favorite is the upcoming “Hospices-du-Rhône,” now in its 20th year. It’s a celebration of only Rhône-varietal wines from around the world, and it is a world-class opportunity to taste some amazing wines in the course of a single weekend. Or if you’re a Zin fan, consider the Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival held each March for a tooth-staining, dangerously yummy celebration of the grape. Below are a few recommendations to help plan your tasting or, better yet, a visit to Paso Robles wine country.
Niner Wine Estates
Summerwood Winery & Inn
Black Oaks Motor Lodge
Paso Robles Inn
Thomas Hill Organics