Someone once told me that richness in life shouldn’t be measured by how much stuff you accumulate, but by how many of your days are memorable. Too often we get stuck in our daily routines and don’t get out to adventure. And if you’re into wine, exploring wine country is an awesome way to add to your wealth of experiences.
It’s also a great way to increase your knowledge about wine. If you’re really into wine and want to learn more about it, I would say that visiting wine country is a requirement! You can read volumes of wine writing and gain a decent understanding, but you’ll learn far more when you visit the vineyards, meet the people making the wine and see the winery in production.
When you feel the fog, the hot sun and the cool breezes it’s an educational experience. When you see the shale, the loam, the chalk and the limestone that make up the soils it gives you a better understanding of the wine. You begin to experience what makes the wines from the region unique — and how that happens. And all that you’ve read about the wine makes more sense. You start to understand terroir.
The people are a big part of the terroir too. Meeting them and visiting their vineyards brings the wines to life. When you’re just pouring wine from a bottle and not meeting the faces behind the wine it can be impersonal and seem like a factory made product — and admittedly, sometimes it is. But tasting a wine made by someone you’ve met builds a connection that makes that wine more relevant to you.
Many folks advocate tasting wines blind, and we do plenty of that here. But wine is an experiential thing, and meeting the winemaker behind a bottle adds context to your experience every time you taste a wine made by that individual. Their story and your personal connection to them become part of your enjoyment of that wine.
When thinking of California’s wine country, Napa and Sonoma are all that come to mind for a lot of folks. I’ve been to both and they’re nice, but there’s more to wine country than just Napa and Sonoma. Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit Paso Robles, an up and coming wine region — and one definitely worth checking out.
By no means is Paso Robles an unknown wine region, but it’s less familiar to some wine consumers than some other regions. It’s seen a lot of growth in the past 10 years or so and has yet to reach its fullest potential. And for me, this is appealing for a couple reasons: 1) authenticity and 2) value.
Making Paso Robles Wine Unique
The authenticity in Paso Robles comes from the people here. There’s a bit of a cowboy feel to Paso Robles. The folks involved in wine here have grit, and a playful curiosity. Many of the producers are small, family operations with a lot of passion for their wine and an appetite for the hard work it takes to create it. They’re excited about wine and despite the work, producing it is fun for them. They’re experimental, working with numerous different varieties, terrains, soils and climatic conditions to discover what the land is capable of producing.
During my visit to Paso Robles I met with a few winemakers from the area, including Brian Benson from Brian Benson Cellars. I asked him what he wants to do that he hasn’t done yet. “I want to make a Tempranillo blend,” he said without hesitating. “I’m producing 1,500 cases a year — pretty much by myself. So there’s only so much I can do right now. But there are so many varieties that do well around here.” He went on to list half a dozen other varieties he wants to work with and I could tell that he’s having a blast experimenting with wine.
Paso Robles is a treasure trove for winemakers who want to work with a variety of grapes — and consumers who want to taste them. Rhone varieties and zinfandel seem to do particularly well in Paso, but there are plenty of others doing well too. “Cabernet sauvignon is Paso’s grape,” Gary Eberle commented over a glass of J. Lohr Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. And while he’s excited about cabernet, Eberle has also been a pioneer when it comes to syrah. “Before I started planting syrah, there were only 18 vines of it in California at UC Davis,” he shared. And now, vines propagated from Eberle’s syrah are found throughout Paso Robles and other parts of California.
The folks at Tablas Creek have also been instrumental in bringing Rhone varieties to Paso Robles, which apparently is not as easy as it sounds. I learned from Jason Haas, General Manager at Tablas Creek, that when they bring vines over from Europe they’re only allowed to bring six cuttings of each clone. Those cuttings then need to go into a USDA quarantine for at least two years to ensure they are free of diseases. It can take much longer than two years too. In 2004, they brought seven Chateaunuef-du-Pape varieties into quarantine and have only gotten two of them out so far.
Once vines are out of quarantine they can be propagated to eventually create thousands of vines from those cuttings. Tablas Creek has a nursery on site which they use to propagate vines for their vineyard and they’ve partnered with NovaVine in Sonoma County to propagate their vines for sale to other vineyards. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Tablas Creek vines can be found in vineyards throughout the US.
Diversity is a theme throughout Paso Robles. “Some people think Paso Robles is just a small place,” Janell Dusi of J. Dusi Wines commented to me, “but the AVA covers a broad area with a lot of variation.” And Paso Robles plans to capitalize on the nuances throughout the region by creating eleven sub-AVAs within Paso Robles, however these will be secondary and any wines labeled with these sub-AVAs will have Paso Robles listed as the main AVA.
One of the things that makes Paso Robles unique is the long growing season. Several winemakers commented to me about this. The growing season here is a few weeks longer than in Napa or Sonoma. Altogether, the harvest season lasts about ten weeks in Paso. The fruit that ripens early is harvested first while the other fruit is left to hang until full ripeness. I’d say the long growing season is not just an advantage for them, it’s a luxury! In other regions it can be a gamble to let the fruit hang, as the weather can turn against you. That’s less of a risk here.
The conditions in Paso allow the winemakers to produce some unique, and incredibly tasty wine. When the fruit is harvested at the perfect level of ripeness, they’re able to create wines with minimal intervention from the winemaker. Allowing a true expression of the fruit. This makes the wines in Paso Robles stand out.
When it comes to value, Paso Robles has plenty to offer too. I wouldn’t necessarily say that visiting wine country is cheap, unless it’s just a short drive for you, but you can “get your money’s worth” in Paso Robles. And those who work in the wine industry here seem really appreciative of visitors and make an extra effort to make their experience special — which adds value in its own way.
While Paso is home to some rather pricey, premium wines, there are also plenty of good, affordable wines to be found here. Although, when visiting wine country I think it’s important to keep pricing in perspective. Many of the bargains we find on our local wine shelves are from big producers who find economy in scale. They often buy grapes in bulk and manipulate the juice in the wine making process to create a consistent (although sometimes uninteresting) product. For the most part, that’s not what you’re going to find in Paso Robles.
Many of the producers in Paso Robles are small. In many cases, they don’t have national distribution and in some cases they sell all of their wine directly to consumers (i.e. none to distributors or restaurants). Something interesting I heard over and over from several producers is that they aren’t interested in manipulating the juice in the winery to make the wines taste identical from one year to the next. They want to work with each vintage to showcase the unique characteristics of that vintage.
Given the small production and significant overhead costs, I know that most of the producers here can’t sell their wines for $10 or $15 a bottle (although you will find some in that price range). I grew up on a small apple orchard and I know that a lot of money goes into producing the product at a small venture — not to mention the labor. So, I’m willing to pay a little bit more for a bottle of wine from a small, family-owned winery. When I know that their margin is, well… marginal, I’m OK with the fact that they may have to charge $25 or so per bottle. Admittedly, I’m not going to spend that for a bottle every day. But if it’s something special I’m OK with it, particularly after meeting the producer and feeling a more personal connection to the wine.
So, do seek out and taste some of the inexpensive wines from Paso. But if you really want to discover what this region has to offer, try some wines that are a little more expensive than you may typically spend. Most producers offer a range of wines from entry-level to premium. When visiting them it’s a great opportunity to taste the full range, experience the difference and find where you personally find the right quality to price ratio.
What to Do In Paso Robles
The choices are seemingly endless when planning which wineries to visit in Paso Robles. You definitely want to get out of town, where you can see the vineyards up close. But I’d also suggest planning a day to spend in town. There are about twenty different wineries that have tasting rooms in downtown Paso Robles. You can stroll around from one to the next, without having to drive. Make this a casual day. Don’t rush yourself. Make time to spend at each tasting room so you can talk with them and learn about the wines. Ask questions. Get to know the people behind the counter.
While wine tourism is burgeoning in the area, Paso Robles doesn’t feel at all “touristy”. Walking around downtown Paso Robles instantly makes you feel comfortable and at home. There’s a nice, open park downtown, where there was a farmer’s market taking place when I arrived, with about a dozen local farmers selling their goods. There are also plenty of small shops and some amazing restaurants showcasing the fresh, local produce — and the local wine, of course.
Once you get out of downtown, things are spread out. The Paso Robles AVA is a pretty big area. If you’re driving, plan your route and bring a paper copy of your map as mobile phone coverage is spotty once you get out of town. And don’t plan on seeing everything. Pick a handful of wineries that interest you and leave it at that. I spent two very full days in Paso and I barely scratched the surface in terms of what’s available to visit. A good place to read up on the different vineyards is at pasowine.com.
There are a lot of small producers in Paso Robles, but there are some larger ones too. You should try to visit producers of different sizes. A number of the producers have beautiful tasting rooms, you might even say some are extravagant. But they don’t have an elitist vibe. Everyone I met in Paso was warm and welcoming. And the wine community is truly a community, with producers helping each other out. This is small town America meets wine country. In some ways the friendly, small town ambiance reminded me of small towns near where I grew up.
If it seems like the options here are endless, you’re right. So, you could make it easy on yourself and let someone else plan your visit — and let them get you around. Coy Barnes runs a wine tour company called The Wine Wrangler with a fleet of different vehicles and a number of experienced guides. They can plan a tasting tour for you, based on your tastes and budget.
This can make a world of difference for your vacation. While I enjoy traveling, I hate, hate, hate all the planning that goes into it. I’ve not gone on trips several times because I just get too overwhelmed and annoyed with the planning part. In my opinion, paying someone like The Wine Wrangler to do that planning is money well spent. Then, you not only don’t need to worry about planning the trip, but you can sit back and relax while The Wine Wrangler team chauffeurs you around.
But even if you do have someone like The Wine Wrangler plan your trip, you should still do plenty of reading ahead of time though to get to know the producers before you visit them. It will make your visit more productive and you’ll be glad you did. But having someone send you an agenda in advance will narrow the focus of the homework you need to do.
Other things to do when visiting Paso Robles:
- Visit Hearst Castle. I didn’t. So, now I need to go back. Hearst Castle is only a short drive from downtown Paso Robles.
- Taste Rhone-style wines. Paso Robles is well known for these wines. If you’re not familiar with them, don’t pass up the opportunity.
- Taste some local olive oil. In addition to wine, there are a few olive oil producers in the area. I visited Pasolivo, where I tasted a few different oils, and it was an eye-opening experience.
- Stay at the Hotel Cheval. One of the reasons I seek out bargains in my wine is so that I can splurge on other things, like nice hotels. The Hotel Cheval is a small, luxury hotel in downtown Paso Robles that’s inspired by European hotels. It’s relatively new, very clean and very comfortable. In addition to the plush rooms, they have a nice wine bar and a courtyard with outdoor fire pits where you can relax in the evening.
- Relax and enjoy yourself. Visiting wine country isn’t a time to run around like mad, trying to do it all. Take your time. Soak it in and relax.
Disclosure: I visited Paso Robles on a press junket with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. My travel and accommodations where covered as a part of this trip. I was not required or even directly asked to write about Paso Robles. The opinions expressed here are 100% my own.