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.