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Paso Robles: Straying from the Beaten Path

Central Coast region emerging as most dynamic in California
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 23, 2011 11:00am ET

If you’ve ever driven Highway 101 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, then you appreciate the phrase “middle of nowhere.” It’s a long, yawn-inducing drive that’s made better only when you consider two things: Driving Interstate 5 is even worse, and Highway 101 takes you through California’s Central Coast wine country.

The halfway point on the drive is Paso Robles, a place I like to stop and realign my vertebrae. Since it’s one of the most dynamic wine regions in California, I’m not in a hurry to leave.

Whether you’re a collector or new to wine, Paso Robles and its wines are worth knowing better. The region built its early reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, but in the past decade, Syrah and other Rhône grapes such as Grenache and Mourvèdre have been making exciting wines. Top wines from producers such as Saxum, Denner, Linne Calodo and Torrin can be tricky to locate, but there are plenty of worthy, more obtainable alternatives.

The hearty red Rhône blends of France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape region find a counterpart in Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Paso Robles 2008 (88 points, $25), with its ripe notes of black cherry, nutmeg and spice. I also like the exotic Four Vines Zinfandel Paso Robles Biker 2008 (93, $25), which offers racy huckleberry, smoky pepper and licorice flavors.

Value-seekers should try J. Lohr Syrah Paso Robles South Ridge 2008 (86, $15) for its dark plum and spicy sandalwood aromas. And for the best value on the dollar, it’s hard to beat the short but impressive track record of Ancient Peaks. The 2008 Syrah, Zinfandel and Merlot are all best buys.

If you pick up the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, you can read James Laube’s tasting report on Syrah, which highlights Paso Robles and its Rhône-style wines. (WineSpectator.com members can find all our latest reviews of Paso Robles wines in our Wine Ratings Search).

Paso Robles remains something of a dichotomy in California wine. Winemaking dates back to 1797, when Franciscan friars first planted grapes, and it has been an American Viticultural Area (AVA) since 1983, predating notable regions like Rutherford and Santa Lucia Highlands.

But it hasn’t always won the respect it’s earning today. Even now, nearly 60 percent of the region’s grapes are sold to wineries outside the area and blended into mass-marketed wines. That $12 Merlot with a California designation or $10 Cabernet with a Central Coast AVA may contain plenty of Paso Robles wine. The 2009 Beaulieu Coastal Estates California Cabernet 2009 is 21 percent Paso grapes, for example, and the 2008 Robert Mondavi Private Selection California Cabernet is 30 percent.

Pass of the Oaks, as it translates from Spanish, is about 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean on the inland side of the Santa Lucia coastal mountains. About 26,000 acres are planted in vines. The flat lands and bench lands east of Highway 101 were the traditional locations for vineyards, and where 1970s pioneers like Gary Eberle set down roots. Since the late 1990s, winegrowing has increasingly shifted toward the hillier, and harder to farm, west side of town.

It can get hot in Paso, I can attest. Step outside your air-conditioned car on a sunny August day and you’ll soon dive for shade. But Paso Robles also has some of the largest temperature swings in California wine country, thanks to evening fog and cool breezes from the ocean. Summer days range between 85 and 105 degrees, but often cool by 40 or 50 degrees at night, especially on the west side. The soils on the west side, too, are more abundantly laced with rocky limestone and calcareous shale, which many winemakers believe lend the wines depth and natural acidity.

Despite the attention it has been drawing in the wine world, Paso Robles remains a small town. There are some 180 wineries in the area, and 95 percent of them are owned by families, most of them hands-on farmers. About two-thirds of the wineries produce fewer than 5,000 cases a year.

Paso Robles doesn’t seem like a place that will ever get too big for its britches, and that’s part of the appeal for people like me. Maybe being in the middle of nowhere is a good thing after all.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  February 23, 2011 12:31pm ET
Tim; thanks for your way of personalizing your journeys! Hwy 5 is WORST and I elect to either fly or drive thru 101 to So Cal. I am personally more involved with Paso Robles due to Foley buying EOS and now it's a new project for me. I'm drinking more Paso wines and find them to be quitessential California style; ripe, forward fruit, reflecting more climatic warmth and full sun than perhaps terroir. Very appealing; and best of all; AFFORDABLE. Very glad that WS is highlighting this region and showcasing the best it's capable of. Overall; high notes are Rhone Reds, Zinfandel and Bordeaux Blends. I'm also seeing excellence in Tempranillo and could be making great Spanish Red blends there too! I'm not so sure about white wines from yet; but this could be due to the preponderance of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc in Paso. I'm hoping that breakthru efforts of White Muscats, Rhones and Spanish varietals will happen.
Philip A Chauche
Germantown, MD —  February 23, 2011 12:53pm ET

Are you aware of the Rabbit Ridge Allure de Robles 2009? I find it to be a remarkable value.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  February 23, 2011 1:29pm ET
I agree -- I tasted thru Paso this August (it was not hot though...) and was amazed at the quality of the rhones. We went to Jada, Linne Caldo, Denner, Booker, Villa Creek and Terry Hoage and honestly, they were all excpetional with each one seeming to best the last one (and this was across a wide range of rhone blends and several vintages).
Dan Cozzo
Rancho Santa Margarita, CA —  February 23, 2011 1:48pm ET
I have always been struck by the passion of the growers and winemakers that have produced truly remarkable wines there. I enjoyed having Justin and Deborah Baldwin pouring tastings or meeting Stephan Asseo and seeing his wine stained hands, knowing that in each instance the wine they were producing said as much about them as it did the soil. The value of that connection cannot be overstated. I like seeing Bob and Jason Haas in the tasting room at Tablas Creek and speaking with Eric Jensen at Booker. What makes Paso Robles unique for me is that I can connect the place and it's people with the wine. I have not found that anywhere else in California.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 23, 2011 4:20pm ET
Thanks for joining the discussion everyone. Philip, I used to drink Rabbit Ridge regularly before the winery moved from Sonoma to Paso, but not much lately. Thanks for the recommendation.
Palmer Page
Pound Ridge NY —  February 23, 2011 4:42pm ET
We did the "sideways tour" through Paso Robles in 2005, what a fabulous place to spend a week. Good restaurants as well as vineyards. Challenges going around Europe.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  February 24, 2011 12:53am ET
First of all, I’d like to thank you and all the Spectator staff for bringing attention to this area. The new found notoriety is a double-edged sword though, making it more difficult to obtain those gems that you have found and distinguished with exceptional scores. One thing that is at least as impressive as the wines nonetheless, is the humility of the people involved in the industry here. Along with you and Mr. Cozzo, I am as impressed with the humbleness of the “hands on farmers” and am persuaded that even the accolades you and others have bestowed on them will not change that meekness. Prices will rise and allocations will be adjusted down, but the modest nature of the middle of nowhere county folk will continue to shine through. I’ve fallen head over heals for the wines, the people and the area.
Having just recently acquired a second home in Santa Maria and familiarizing myself with the regions wineries and terrain, Paso really is the most fun to visit. Not entirely for the wines, (there are other fine wineries in San Louis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties), but as mentioned by others, the variety and selection of good food is also worth a trip there.
In addition, I love the variety of terrain and the presence of wildlife around every corner. One is almost guaranteed to see wild turkey on any trip off the main roads and deer are everywhere also. I was surprised to run into elk on the hillsides and in vast meadows just 10-15 minutes north of town. I know there are wild pigs out there too, but they are a bit more elusive. Not far away are exotics brought in by the Hurst’s and others and at various times of year, when you pull yourself away from the wine bar, a quick trip to the beach will reward you with elephant seals, whales, otters, and a whole host of other marine wildlife. What’s not to love?
Thanks again Tim and Jim for recognizing not just the great wines from Paso, but also the great people and their dirt-under-the-fingernails humility.
Denner is my personal favorite.
Joe-janelle Becerra
Burlingame, CA —  February 24, 2011 11:52am ET
We travel to Paso Robles wine region at least once a year. I love the Rhone wines produced here. One winery under the radar is Pipestone. It is a biodynamic vineyard focusing on Rhone varietals. Try it next time in Paso.

One thing that surprises me is the cost of the Paso Robles wines. In many cases they rival the prices in the Napa Valley. How do these wineries survive and who is able to afford these wines?

By the way, the local Albertsons in Paso Robles is by far and away the best wine department in any supermarket I have been to. They even have a tasting bar and feature a local winemaker. The discounts on local wines are astonishing. Read about them here. http://bit.ly/i3FfFb
Justin Smith
Paso Robles, CA —  February 24, 2011 1:56pm ET
Hey, thanks Tim for shining some more light on our area. It is so wonderful to be getting such great recognition for Paso!

Cheers everyone!

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  February 24, 2011 5:40pm ET
Thanks for all the comments. And cheers to you Justin.
Craig Phillips
Pasadena, CA —  February 24, 2011 5:48pm ET
Great wines to be had throughout the area for sure. My personal favorites are Herman Story, Terry Hoage, Epoch, and Denner, but it's the people and their hospitality that keep me coming back. Justin's comment above is a perfect example what you can expect from the locals, no matter how "famous" or how much good press they've had lately. Keep up the good work!
Jennifer Tincknell
Healdsburg, CA —  February 24, 2011 8:02pm ET
I'm currently selling wine for a small winery in Paso Robles called VitaLuce Cellars. This brand has no winery and has been a bit of a sleeper because it wasn't well represented. I'm seeking distributors, both in CA and out that appreciate big, rich and chewy red blends, syrahs and cabernet sauvignon that are hedonistic and elegant that can retail for $15-$20 a bottle. Everyone that has tasted the wines loves them, especially friends and family but I'm getting push back from the trade because the AVA is relatively unknown and perhaps misunderstood. I find it hard to understand their reluctance to sell the wines, given that their books contain very obscure wines and grapes. Personally, I can't wait to return to Paso Robles again to learn more about the region and the see what's new. I really appreciate this article, and enjoyed the discussion.
John Kmiecik
Chicago, IL —  February 25, 2011 8:30am ET
I agree with you Philip/Alex....I love Rabbit Ridge for my value wines...It's the only wine club I belong to.
D S Cuppy
Phoenix, AZ —  February 25, 2011 6:54pm ET
Paso isn't as out of the way as people think. We flew into San Jose recently and headed south for just 2.5 hours to Paso. It makes for a great wine tasting trip... well worth a little drive.
D S Cuppy
Phoenix, AZ —  February 25, 2011 6:55pm ET
Paso isn't as out of the way as people think. We flew into San Jose recently and headed south for just 2.5 hours to Paso. It makes for a great wine tasting trip... well worth a little drive.
David Dickson
Sacramento, CA —  February 25, 2011 7:00pm ET
Just made a quick trip to Paso myself. I try to get there a couple of times a year. Each time I go it seems that I find another great winery that I had not heard of the previous year. I agree with Craig that the people are friendly and the wines are of good quality, albeit somewhat pricey in some instances. Loved Denner and Terry Hoage especially. Also had good experiences at Adelaida and Tablas Creek this last time.
Also, stop by Panolivo for a great lunch and wonderful baked goods. I should stop praising the town. One of the things I like best is that, unlike trying to visit Napa, there are not hordes of people clogging up the roadways and tasting rooms. More like Napa in the old days...not that I'm old enough to remember when the highlight of a Napa trip was the tour at Christian Brothers and tasting at Louis Martini's.
Tim Ballard
Gilroy Ca —  February 25, 2011 8:21pm ET
Pipestone winery is worth seeking for Rhone lovers. Jeff's Mourvedre and Grenache based wines can challenge those made in Southern Rhone wine regions of Vacqueyras and Gigondas. Try them.


Rick Hooper
Sea Isle City, NJ USA —  February 28, 2011 12:51pm ET
Tim, I'm from NJ and my wife and I are traveling to LA to visit my daughter and are taking a side trip to Paso Robles 4/4 - 4/6. I have a wineries on my wish list (Denner and Saxum) and I would appreciate a couple suggestions from you. I am going to try to stay on the West side, many thanks. Rick
Terry Hoage Vineyards
Paso Robles —  February 28, 2011 8:24pm ET
Thank you to everyone for spreading the word and the love about Paso. This is a unique area and a wonderful place to raise a family as my wife Jennifer and I discovered. The people may only be outshone by the wines. Terry
Christopher Sihler
Las Vegas, NV —  March 1, 2011 2:08pm ET
Tim I am going to be in that area in April, do you have any advise for visiting wineries there?
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  March 1, 2011 5:22pm ET
I've been absolutely in love with hug cellars ever since I tried them 6 years ago. Absolutely stunning stuff and very well worth the money.

I don't work for them but am part of their wine club.
Ramon J Vega Sr
chicago, illinois —  March 1, 2011 9:28pm ET
I visited Paso 2 years ago and really enjoyed my time there. I visited Booker, Caliza, and Robert Hall. I can't wait to go back and visit Booker.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  March 2, 2011 1:58am ET
Mr. Hooper and Mr. Sihler:
I am no expert, but I have some experience.
There are a handful of don’t miss wineries you should have on your short list, beyond that, do some self guided exploration. Unfortunately, the recent praise bestowed on the whole area has depleted availability and reduced the selections in many tasting rooms. Some wineries have been reduced to putting out wines early and decanting them for hours (even a day) to help prepare them for public evaluation. With that being said, my recommendation would be to call ahead less than a week prior to your visit and see what the situation is in the tasting rooms you REALLY want to visit. And here are my suggestions.
As a said in my prior post, Denner is my favorite. There may be a handful of wines that match or exceed their best, but everything they offer, top to bottom, is wonderful. They are one of the wineries hard pressed to keep product on the shelf though. Last time we visited, they only had two wines available for tasting, but your visit I believe comes at approximately the time of their next releases . . . call.
Booker is another very exceptional winery and is worth the visit to check them out. But they have been close to selling out of wine too . . . call.
Herman Story is on the other side of town (east of Hwy. 101) and is great, but is in the process of moving beginning this week and lasting through May 1st, so . . . call. It may be you can work out a visit and schedule it for after a lunch around the town’s park. There are a number of good choices there for a great bite and a chance to refresh your palate before visiting a couple more wineries.
Epoch has a tasting room that just opened the beginning of the year and they have some outstanding wines. They’re also located next to the old York Mountain Winery that was severely damaged by earthquake and is planned for restoration. It was the oldest winery in the area and I think one of the oldest in the state. It’s worth a historical visit by way of the Epoch tasting room even though you may not be able to venture onto the old wineries property. If your visit comes any time near sunset, venture west on Hwy. 46 to where the road crests a knoll and you can see the entire coastline, including Moro Rock. It’s a beautiful place to watch the sunset.
I could go on, but you can no doubt find gems on your own just by random visits at wineries throughout the area. It’s always fun to find something on your own that is “your” discovery. Share your experience with those who frequent these blogs when you get back home.
As for dinner, the Central Coast is famous for barbeque and meats grilled over open pit with oak. Three of those with the most notoriety are The Far Western, The Hitching Post and Jockos. On a budget, Jockos is the spot, with a five dollar corkage fee and a large steak sandwich that is from the pit and very tasty. It’s a good 45+ minute drive to any of these from Paso, (longer to the Hitching Post) so it might be a place to visit on your return trip home.
Have a great trip!
Tom Thornton
Austin, TX —  May 1, 2013 12:02pm ET
Any dining tips for summer travelers?

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