Appearances are deceiving in Paso Robles, the Central Coast appellation located about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its idyllic tableau of postcard-perfect scenery -- windswept rolling hills dotted with massive old oaks -- belies the conflict bubbling to the surface of the winemaking community.
In essence, the issue is geographic. More than 80 wineries are active in the appellation, but last year, a handful of estates from the western half of the region formed their own marketing organization, the Paso Robles West Side Grand Crew.
At present, the group consists of nine producers, including some of Paso Robles' most esteemed estates, such as Justin Vineyards & Winery, L'Aventure and Saxum Vineyards. To join the group, wineries must be located west of Highway 101, which runs north-south through the Paso Robles appellation; they must also own their own vineyards and meet winemaking and viticulture standards accepted within the organization. The other members are Adelaida Cellars, Austin Hope Winery, Dunning Vineyards, Peachy Canyon Winery, Tablas Creek and Windward Vineyard.
The idea for the West Side Grand Crew grew from conversations between L'Aventure owner Stephan Asseo and Justin owner Justin Baldwin. "The west side has a different climate. The west side has different soil," said Asseo. "It's a different terroir."
According to Asseo, the area's relative proximity to the Pacific Ocean typically gives west side estates a longer growing season and their wines a more lively structure. The high limestone and clay content in the soil also tend to naturally reduce yields, he added. Whatever the reasons, nearly all of the finest wines currently produced in Paso Robles -- such as the Saxum Bone Rock Syrah, the L'Aventure Optimus and Justin's outstanding Cabernet Blend, Isosceles -- hail from west side vineyards.
Asseo, who made wine for 15 years in France before moving to Paso Robles, took inspiration from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a leading marketing organization for many top Bordeaux producers. A major difference, however, is that the Bordeaux estates must follow strict criteria on viticultural techniques -- such as trellising methods -- and can only grow specific grape varieties.
The Grand Crew doesn't aim for that kind of cohesiveness. Some of the estates focus on Rhône varieties, while others are best known for Zinfandel or Bordeaux-style blends. One producer only makes Pinot Noir. "I left France because of too much regulation," said Asseo. "We're not about specific rules. The [members of the Grand Crew] need to be committed to top-quality wines and have the same point of view about viticulture and the winemaking."
The early plan is for Grand Crew members to present their latest releases at an annual tasting at one of their properties. Asseo also hopes to organize tastings in major American cities, which would be hosted by the winemakers and owners.
But some east side vintners are clearly vexed about the new group. The wineries of Paso Robles already have an established marketing organization, the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association, which currently has 76 members (including all of the Grand Crew except Saxum and Austin Hope).
"I think a lot of people have no clue about what's going on in the industry, and this is a way to make themselves look better," said Gary Eberle, who started Eberle Winery, east of Highway 101, in 1984. "I think it's very ill-timed. [The producers of Paso Robles] are becoming a focal point, and suddenly people are starting to look at the region, so it's counterproductive to say it's the east side or the west side. A homogenous message is more effective."
Vintner Mat Garretson, owner of Garretson Wine Company, has a foot in both camps. He owns no vineyards, and his production facility is on the east side, but ninety percent of the Paso Robles grapes he purchases come from the west side. "In this economy, people will do anything possible to attract customers," he said. "The question I really have is whether it's the place of the [Grand Crew] producers to make qualitative claims about their wines. In the end, it's really the market that decides who's making the best wines."
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