Paso Robles: Boundless Diversity

BY ERIC GUIDO | MAY 18, 2023

My trip to Paso Robles, in the absence of Josh Raynolds, was a somber affair. I was quite worried on the first day, as the news of Josh’s passing was made public. I went to Paso thinking I was doing a friend justice and trying as hard as I could to cover a region he so loved. Within three days of being on the ground, the light of an industry icon had fizzled out. I tried to push our friendship and memories to the back of my mind because I was in the field. However, everywhere I looked, I saw his shadow. Josh’s flame burned so bright that he left a mark on every producer, restaurant and location he ever encountered or set foot in. The loss of our dear friend and colleague will be felt for many years. I am honored to be able to pick up where Josh left off. Still, while in Paso Robles dealing with grief and loss, I found that every grower and winemaker had a story about Josh that brought smiles and enlightenment to each passing day. This town loved him, his quirkiness, charm, caring being, knowledge (so far beyond wine) and undying endurance. We will all be telling stories about Josh Raynolds for many years to come. I miss you, my dear friend. But on to Paso, as you would prefer the focus to be here.

Dry-farmed Zinfandel vines at Lone Madrone.

This is not California, or maybe it is. It certainly doesn’t feel that way. I’ve traveled to Napa and Sonoma many times. I’ve witnessed the grandiose tasting rooms and large vineyards and heard the marketing lines and all the hype. This is not it. Producers here communicate a human desire to do better. To help build the community over time. They are selfless and eager to pay respect to those who mentored them and helped them achieve their status. This is the country. Visitors will find the tourist crowd in the downtown areas, but will discover an entirely different group throughout the vineyards of Paso. Winemakers are maybe a bit less polished, happily so, and tinkering nonstop to better understand how they can push themselves and the entire region forward. Paso Robles is just primed to be the next tourist hot spot for wine lovers in California.

The Wildly Unique Terroir of Paso Robles

The first thing to understand is how Paso Robles producers can succeed in many ways despite challenges that most assume would hinder them. The region, located along US Highway 101, lies halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the Santa Lucia Mountains defining its western border and the Cholame Hills to the east. The region’s biggest obstacle is the combination of high daytime temperatures and low average rainfall (around 21 inches a year). There’s no issue with achieving extremely ripe fruit. It’s the opposite. In Paso, finding balance is the hurdle, and luckily (outside of irrigation), Mother Nature provides several ways producers can do just that.

Looking out across the massive vineyards at the DAOU winery.

These are not rich, fertile hills, but a mix of bedrock-derived soils from weathered granite and marine sedimentary rocks. While the blend of sand, silt, clay, stone and shale changes from location to location, nearly any producer in the region will generalize the ground beneath their feet as calcareous, especially in the higher western elevations. The daily effect of warm air rising creates a vacuum within the region that pulls cool air from the Pacific Ocean through the Templeton Gap, a small area of lower elevation within the Santa Lucia Mountains. These winds create temperature swings of up to 50 degrees between day and night. Extreme diurnal shifts balance the day's heat, allowing grapes to retain acidity and extending the growing season, which often lasts from March to early November. These unique attributes explain much of the character of Paso Robles wines.

In the best-case scenario, Paso Robles producers can push their fruit to perfect phenolic ripeness with stimulating acidity, classically refined tannins and gobs of fruit, making powerful yet elegant and balanced world-class wines. The downside is that some wineries overdo it, resulting in mammoth-scale wines of power, high alcohol and residual sugar, masked by refreshing acidity within. This kind of wine can get you quickly into trouble after more than one glass. 

It’s essential to mention the York Mountain AVA when discussing Paso Robles. Firstly, because, while unique, it shares a geographically natural border on the western side of Paso, connected to the Adelaida, Willow Creek and Templeton Gap districts. And secondly, because it’s a hotspot of activity and the talk amongst top producers in the region. The first that comes to mind is Epoch, which has already established a highly successful vineyard in the AVA. However, many others are sourcing from here or beginning new projects, such as Saxum, which has acquired a 222-acre property in Shadow Canyon and is planting its first 15-acre Grenache parcel shortly. The York Mountain AVA is very attractive for a producer in Paso Robles who has been watching temperatures rise and water become scarcer. Its location is just seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, with elevations between 1,500 to nearly 1,700 feet and sitting at the opening of the Templeton Gap. The soils are much different in York Mountain, a combination of sand and sandstone, receiving twice the average rainfall than Paso Robles. It’s an exciting terroir that can allow Paso Robles winemakers to further diversify their portfolios. 

Adelaida's winemaker Jeremy Weintraub talking terroir within Anna’s vineyard.

Boundless Diversity

Speaking of diversity, another beautiful aspect of Paso Robles is its menagerie of grape varieties and the wildly unique wines and blends they can create. There was a time when the average wine lover with a general knowledge of California would think of Paso Robles as being focused on Rhône varieties. However, today that is no longer the case. 

The plantings in Paso Robles are constantly changing, with Cabernet Sauvignon now accounting for 52% of grown varieties (and increasing), followed by a classification of “Other Red Varieties” that makes up 18%. The latter category is where things get interesting, as vineyard managers and winemakers constantly experiment to see what will grow best within their unique terroir. Grenache, Malbec, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and Cinsault are covered, as well as some unexpected varieties that find a happy home in Paso, including Tannat, Graciano, (which was initially thought to be Mourvèdre when it was first planted), Counoise, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Sangiovese and Barbera. All are included in this open-ended category. The red grapes not included in this group are Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Noir, all found in plentitude. Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape in the region. Yet, Paso also offers a large selection of well-known but obscure white grapes, including Clairette Blanche, Viognier, Roussanne, Chenin Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Arneis and Albariño. Grenache Blanc was a true standout that I was repeatedly impressed by during tastings this year. 

Not only are Paso Robles producers constantly tinkering with all the aforementioned blends, but they go even further with mono-varietal wines, adding an unprecedented number of wines emblazoned with fantasy names. Luckily for consumers, the varieties are listed on the back label. This can cause some confusion, but with some guidance and an idea of your preferences, finding the best wine to fit any occasion is not too difficult.

The L'Aventure barrel aging cellar.

A Regenerative Revolution

A topic that comes up often when speaking with winemakers in Paso Robles is Regenerative agriculture. In the last few years, I’ve been fascinated by the number of regenerative farms that have gained popularity in the United States. However, these farms focus on breeding livestock within an entirely natural ecosystem while helping to rebuild soil health and eliminate any adverse environmental effects. It’s a noble idea that, while an expensive option for the average consumer, is worth supporting. I should have realized that these same principles are now applied to vineyards. Paso Robles is already ahead of the game, with most producers working organic, yet Regenerative takes things to a whole new level. 

Tablas Creek Vineyards, which has followed organic and partial biodynamic practices since its inception in 1989, was the first winery to receive an official certification from the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA). When discussing the decision to switch to Regenerative with winemaker Neil Collins of Tablas Creek, he stated, “Biodynamics is very process based, but there are pieces of that process that are not very scientific. Regenerative has taken biodynamic and made it into a tangible thing.” He explained that Regenerative requires a winery to create an environment that sustainably nurtures itself from the inside out. This includes a focus on soil health, biodiversity, no tilling, active flocks of sheep, processing grasses into natural fertilizer, sustainable energy and paying all workers a living wage to better everything within and attached to the farm. It was a difficult conversion, yet Tablas Creek has led the way, and many other wineries in the region have taken note. Of course, as these things go, Collins did issue a warning: “I just hope that they can guard the integrity of that word [Regenerative]. You know, ‘sustainable’ has been compromised so much.”

Tablas Creek's Regeneratively farmed vineyards.

The Radiant 2019s, Turbulent 2020s and Highly Anticipated 2021s

While the 2020 vintage presented severe challenges to growers in the area, Paso Robles fared better than I had expected. Not only that, but the region was blessed with two excellent vintages surrounding it, 2019 and 2021. 

The 2019s I tasted on this recent trip reassured all the high praise Josh Raynolds previously gave this excellent year. His words were: “Wines show distinct clarity and fine detail, with fresh fruit character and harmonious tannins.” The 2019 vintage was defined by a long growing season without any extreme heat events and higher-than-average rainfall. Frankly, when tasting between vintages, the 2019s stand out for their radiance. Most are just entering their drinking windows, and nearly all have the capacity to mature evenly over time. Many new releases detailed in the accompanying notes are well-worth consideration.

Then there was 2020, a year that consumers have been talking about since word of multiple, widespread wildfires reached us over social media and the news. The 2020 vintage presented many challenges to winemakers through a Global Pandemic, late-season heat waves and the fear of smoke taint in the finished wines. Luckily for winemakers in Paso Robles, often at the expense of cutting production but also due to the region's natural ventilation, the result was less impactful than feared. Even still, there are wines that do have issues with smoke taint, often resulting from location. 

Guillaume Fabre discusses sustainability within his Clos Solene vineyards.

One area was hit much harder outside Paso Robles in the York Mountain AVA. Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch reported cutting production by 30%, losing most of her red varieties from York Mountain due to its proximity to the Big Sur fire. There were also other casualties, as she found issues with the Mourvèdre from their Paderewski vineyard in Willow Creek. Making the responsible choice not to bottle wines that show any sign of smoke taint is a familiar story amongst the region's top producers, which should ease some of the fear around this challenging year. 

In the western Adelaida district, one of the higher elevation areas of Paso Robles (900-2,200 ft), and home to many of the region's top wineries, reports of possible smoke taint were much more encouraging. Daniel Daou of DAOU explained, "2020 was very similar to 2019 as a vintage, with only some ash and smoke, yet the winds quickly carried it out.” The winds he speaks of are the cooling air currents pulled daily through the Templeton Gap. As old smoke settled into the region by day, it would be carried back out overnight. Jeremy Weintraub, the winemaker at Adelaida, had an equally positive view, saying, "As far as smoke impact, non! We’re going to make wine the way we normally would, but if it sucks, we dump it. I love the 2020 vintage. I would taste anyone on these wines." As he should because I found no smoke taint during our tasting. Weintraub added, "It’s all about where the vines are located and how everything is planted. Breeze and elevation helped. All I can take credit for is not picking the fruit early in July or August. Prior to the smoke, the vintage had been great, so we thought, let's make wine from a great vintage."  

In the Willow Creek district, also on the western side of the appellation with elevations between 960-1,900 ft, Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo had an interesting take on the year. He explained that the smoke was more of a high haze that added something of a cloud cover, saying, "Take what you get from a vintage,” suggesting that any smoke in the atmosphere could be considered a matter of terroir during that vintage. Yet followed up by saying, "I didn't see any smoke issues relative to my production." Nor did I. 

Law Estate's barrel aging room.

It’s important to note that it's common for wineries to source fruit from vineyards across the Central Coast, not just within Paso Robles. Moreover, vineyards further north or in the lower elevations to the east suffered more than those to the west and further south. Some wines show nuances of ash or even barbeque-like-smokiness on the nose or finish and astringent tannins. Ultimately, 2020 is a vintage where readers need to be selective. Even within some of the highest-scoring portfolios, wines are more docile or rounded, pleasing with their elegance and ripe fruit character, yet lack the balance associated with the top years. My suggestion is to look to the most trusted producers, those who were willing to make sacrifices to make the best wines possible.

Mention 2021 to most Paso Robles producers, and they’ll smile from ear to ear. My early tastings of this vintage revealed some exciting wines that tempt the imagination. I have already tasted at several top estates that showed wines from barrel, and my expectations are very high. The white wines are particularly stunning, with vivid fruit and crisp acidity. The 2021 vintage can be considered a cool year overall, with very little precipitation. The region received around sixteen inches of rain, mainly through the winter but also at a timely period during the fall which helped to extend the harvest.

Moreover, no significant heat spikes coupled with extreme diurnal shifts resulted in some of the highest average acids seen in the wines since 2011. Daniel Daou described 2021 as a perfect combination of 2019 and 2020 (if not for the smoke), stating, "There was no rush into harvest.” This will be an exciting vintage to follow over the coming year.

The Mourvèdre (B2) block within Saxum's James Berry Vineyard.

I tasted nearly all the wines for this report in Paso Robles in March 2023, through a combination of producer visits and with the help of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, who expertly organized four days of intense, focused tastings. My hat is off to them for their level of professionalism, organization and communication.

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