Note: This guide originally appeared in the April 30, 2017, issue ofWine Spectator, "Italy's Allegrini Family."
Carving its Niche: A Look at Willow Creek
When Justin Smith's parents planted vineyards in an obscure corner of Paso Robles 30 years ago, it was serendipity that it turned out to be in one of California's sweet spots for growing Syrah, Grenache and other Rhône varieties.
That sweet spot, Willow Creek, has since been favored by Paso vintners for its cool temperatures and limestone-rich soils, but it wasn't until 2014, when the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau divided the Paso Robles AVA into 11 new subregions, that consumers got a more precise taste of what makes the area's wines unique.
Fans of California Rhône-style wines should start paying attention to Willow Creek. In this year's report, 27 of the 34 wines labeled as Willow Creek rated 90 or more points, with five classic ratings (95 to 100) among those. An additional 14 wines from vineyards within Willow Creek received 90-plus ratings as well, including two more classic, giving Willow Creek seven of the report's 19 classic-scoring wines.
Located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Paso Robles AVA was created in 1983 and until 2014 was the largest un-subdivided AVA in California, at approximately 614,000 acres. Eleven subregions might seem like overkill, but Napa Valley, by contrast, has 16 sub-appellations across just 225,000 acres.
For growers and vintners, the goal was to better delineate Paso with these additional AVAs, distinguished with respect to various soil types, rainfall, elevations and temperatures. Carving the area into sub-appellations was not intended to create limitations, but rather provide guidelines for consumers.
Paso's regional division used to be thought of simply in terms of east and west, split, more or less, by U.S. Route 101. Generally, the east side is warmer, relatively flat and easier to farm. The west side is cooler, with a landscape shaped by rolling hills and sharp peaks ranging from 700 to 2,200 feet. Early on, many farmers avoided the west side because of its steep sites and the cost of developing vineyards in the rugged, rocky terrain.
Beyond these generalities, however, the largest wine region within the Central Coast is extremely diverse, with 30 distinct soil series and a variety of microclimates and topographies, and these differences came increasingly into relief as the area's wine industry developed. Producers hope the sub-regions will bring some clarity, although they acknowledge that it will take time for several of the new AVAs within Paso to express their different styles and show what they do best. In fact, many of the recently created appellations are still relatively undeveloped.
The Willow Creek and Adelaida districts, meanwhile, home to long-established wineries such as Justin, Tablas Creek and Justin Smith's Saxum, have already forged their identities and are beginning to maximize their potential.
Willow Creek, in the coolest corner of Paso's west side, is known for its chalky, calcareous soil. Smith's James Berry Vineyard, the source of Wine Spectator's 2010 Wine of the Year, epitomizes Willow Creek: Its hilltop terraces are chock-full of fractured shale, rocks and even fossils (the west side of Paso was once an ocean floor). There's a reason why Willow Creek has the densest concentration of vineyards and wineries in Paso Robles, and it begins with the soil.
The terroir of Willow Creek shows in its wines. The best expressions are richly textured and precisely structured, with mineral or loamy accents and ripe tannins.
"Willow Creek is not the only good spot [in Paso Robles], but it's clear that Rhônes do best here," explains Smith. "There aren't many warm, dry areas that retain natural acidity, and lots of people believe that's because of the calcareous soils."
As grapes ripen, malic acid is metabolized through the process of respiration. Acid levels begin to drop during the ripening stage as sugar levels rise. The biggest secret to Willow Creek's success may be the high pH level of the soils, which helps the grapes retain natural acidity even as they reach ripeness.
Torrin's Scott Hawley, who sources vineyards mostly in Willow Creek, agrees: "Main thing first, you've got to start with the dirt." According to Hawley, the limestone-rich soils in Willow Creek often exceed a pH of 8.0, which is highly unusual. The pH in nearby Adelaida, by comparison, typically ranges from 5.5 to 6.5.
Much of Willow Creek sits at what Epoch winemaker Jordan Fiorentini calls the mid-slope: neither too high nor too low in elevation. "Willow Creek is in the perfect location to get the full effect of the Pacific Ocean's breezes funneling through the opening in the Santa Lucia Mountain Range," she says.
Epoch's two Willow Creek vineyards are only about a mile apart as the crow flies. Catapult is cooler, sits at lower elevation and has lower pH levels. The wines are typically bright, with racy acidity and tannins. Paderewski is slightly warmer, at higher elevation and has high pH levels. Its wines are often ripe and savory.
"A lot of times, low pH is driven by temperature swings, which also helps retain acidity," explains Fiorentini. The grapes' acids form during low nighttime temperatures and metabolize at high temperatures. Often, the loss of malic acid is more pronounced in warmer climates, which makes the generally cooler temperatures and diurnal temperature swings in Willow Creek another boon for growers.
With many viticultural advantages, Willow Creek is ripe for continued exploration. And Smith believes the sub-appellation's best is yet to come. "What you're going to see, as we continue to learn, is that our full potential has not been realized. We're just now getting dialed in."
As Paso Robles continues to grow, its winemakers are maturing along with it. "It still feels young and exciting," says Hawley. "The potential is unbelievable, and it's cool that it's happening on our watch, with winemakers that have aspirations to do things that reflect who they are and contribute to the evolution of the area."