Paso Robles wine just got a lot more complicated—but many local winemakers say that's for the better. Seven years after it was originally petitioned, the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has approved 11 new American Viticultural Areas (AVA) within the existing Paso Robles viticultural area. The move will subdivide Paso’s 614,000 acres—the largest un-subdivided AVA within California—into more distinct winegrowing regions.
By comparison, Napa and Sonoma are both smaller in terms of acreage, but contain 16 sub-AVAs each.
“I think it’s super,” said Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyard. “Just the thought that the recognition of the region has grown to a point where these meaningful distinctions can be made is great.”
Located at the midway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Paso Robles AVA was created in 1983, when there were only five bonded wineries and less than 5,000 acres of vines planted. It’s now one of the fastest-growing regions in the Golden State. When the petition to subdivide was originally submitted in 2007, there were 26,000 vineyard acres; today there are 32,000 acres and more than 200 wineries.
The 11 new viticultural areas are: Adelaida District, Creston District, El Pomar District, Paso Robles Estrella District, Paso Robles Geneseo District, Paso Robles Highlands District, Paso Robles Willow Creek District, San Juan Creek, San Miguel District, Santa Margarita Ranch and Templeton Gap District. The hope is that these distinct regions within Paso Robles will adequately reflect the region's diversity of soil types, rainfall, elevation and temperatures.
“I am extremely excited to start using the AVAs on my labels,” said Saxum’s Justin Smith. “We source fruit from mainly the Willow Creek AVA, but also have a vineyard in the Adelaida AVA. Saying Paso Robles on the label didn’t really tell you a whole lot about the wine. Paso was just too huge and diverse.”
At one time, there were two different proposals to divide the area—the 11 AVAs proposal and a separate application to form a Paso Robles Westside appellation. The latter plan was rejected by the TTB in 2009 after supporters struggled to prove the large sub-AVA was a distinct region. By subdividing Paso into 11 subregions, the vintners hoped to cover the entire Paso Robles area, anticipating future plantings.
Subdividing comes with some separation anxiety. Will the move help wine lovers make more informed decisions, or will it confuse them? Will the reputation of Paso Robles lose its impact?
To prevent that problem, in 2007 then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a state law requiring that wines bearing the proposed subappellations must also include the name “Paso Robles” on a label. Napa already had a similar “conjunctive labeling” law in effect, and recently a similar measure was adopted for Sonoma wineries.
“I think [the new sub-AVAs] will help people understand the diversity of this region,” said Haas. “I think people assume the appellation is a lot more uniform than it already is. That it took seven years might be a good thing, since we are so much more established now.”