On California’s Central Coast, roughly 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, is Paso Robles. While American AVAs—and specifically California ones like Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley—have developed ardent fan bases around their wines for decades, Paso Robles has come up more slowly. The region, which encompasses some 614,000 acres split into 11 sub-AVAs, has found stable footing in relatively recent years, and is now seeing its star rise.
Part of Paso’s attraction lies in its considerable varietal diversity. Atop the list of grape types at winemakers’ disposal is Cabernet Sauvignon, widely considered the region’s premier offering and its greatest tool for pulling in consumers from other regions. Other Bordeaux varietals also flourish in Paso, as do a wide array of Rhône and Italian grapes.
Major temperature swings set the region apart from its fellow California AVAs, with daytime summer temperatures soaring into the triple digits and then falling by as much as 50 degrees after sundown. Multiple microclimates also exist among the sub-AVAs, creating distinct variations in varietal expression. In addition to greater familiarity with Paso’s unique climate, single-vineyard wines and higher-end offerings are also buoying vintners, putting them in direct competition with higher-profile regions around the world. Paso is primed to become as well-known as its northern neighbors in the years to come, and win a more prominent role in the global wine conversation.
Cabernet Is King
Paso Robles pioneer Gary Eberle, who first came to the region in 1973, has won numerous accolades for his wines. “I planted the first Syrah vineyards in the U.S. in the early 1970s, and made the first Counoise in the States as well,” says Eberle, who has owned and operated Eberle Winery since 1979, after serving as winemaker at Estrella River Winery & Vineyards. “I was also one of the first people to make Viognier stateside, and certainly the first to make one in Paso. But I don’t get much credit for championing Rhône wines here, because when people ask me what my favorite wine is, I always say Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Though the Eberle portfolio lists 14 wines, spanning from Barbera to Sangiovese to Muscat Canelli, Cabernet Sauvignon is in fact the winery’s most popular offering, and its flagship. Eberle’s first Cabernet was vintage-dated 1976. The 1980 vintage was the first wine to have the Paso Robles AVA on its label; previously wines made in the region used the San Luis Obispo County designation. Today, the Eberle portfolio offers two Cabernet Sauvignons: Estate ($48 a 750-ml.) and Reserve Estate ($100), aged for two years in French oak. Eberle keeps a library of Cabernet Sauvignon vintages at the winery dating back to 1977.
At Riboli Family Wine, which owns around 700 acres of vineyards throughout the region, fourth-generation winemaker Anthony Riboli also sees great potential for Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s definitely the major varietal for Paso Robles,” he says. “If you look at our data, you can clearly see it’s driving the entire region.” Riboli’s Maddalena and San Simeon brands each have a Cabernet Sauvignon within their lineups, with Maddalena priced at $25 a 750-ml. and San Simeon at $35.
While Riboli notes that prices across Paso have risen in recent years in line with the region’s quality and increased notoriety, pricing generally remains well below that of Napa and Sonoma, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon. “In Napa and Sonoma, prices aren’t going to come down,” he says. “They have to rise to meet the cost of farming, labor, and other realities. How many Napa Cabernets are under $40 a bottle? In Paso, we can deliver at beneath that price point, and we do so well between $25 and $35.”
Such super-premium price points are a strong suit at J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, which is among the region’s most sizable wineries. Of the 1.7 million cases produced by J. Lohr, nearly 1 million cases are Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of the Cabernet volume comes from the winery’s Seven Oaks Cabernet ($17 a 750-ml.), which is part of the J. Lohr Estates tier. More emphasis, however, is being placed on the Hilltop Cabernet, priced at $35 and offered within the more upscale Vineyard Series lineup. “Cabernet has really evolved in Paso Robles over the last couple decades,” says J. Lohr president and COO Jeff Meier. “And that’s in part due to the way we’re farming it—we’re looking for lower yields, greater color density, and overall higher quality.”
Bordeaux varietals are the sole focus at Justin Winery, which offers a portfolio predominantly comprised of upscale, Cabernet-based red blends. “Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon is outstanding; it’s one of the varietals, along with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec, that the region handles extremely well,” says Justin sommelier and wine educator Jim Gerakaris. “We’re about a degree and a half warmer than Napa, and about three and a half degrees warmer than Bordeaux, and those differences lend themselves to fresher, softer wines.”
Justin’s workhorse is its core Cabernet Sauvignon ($18 a 750-ml.), but such luxury offerings as Isosceles ($76)—a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot—and Justification ($60)—a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot—have garnered a cult fan base. Also in the portfolio is Right Angle, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah, and Malbec retailing at $35. “Right Angle is an odd blend, and Paso Robles has really become known for that,” says Gerakaris. “We’re not afraid to combine grapes that don’t exist in heritage. Ultimately, each one serves a point in the blend, and they’re put together in a way that makes sense.” Justin owns nearly 1,000 acres of planted vineyards, and works with roughly 30 different growers each year, producing around 275,000 cases in 2018.
As a means of further elevating the status of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals within Paso Robles, Justin and J. Lohr established the CAB (Cabernet And Bordeaux) Collective with fellow local producer Daou Vineyards & Winery in 2012. The non-profit strives to promote the belief that the best red Bordeaux varietals in the world are grown in Paso Robles, and that the wines produced are therefore worthy of international acclaim. Lohr’s Meier notes that in recent years, the media has taken a more active interest in the CAB Collective’s work. “It’s not because we’re doing anything new or especially different now,” he says. “It’s because we’re focusing our efforts purely on that educational piece for Bordeaux varietals and blends.”
Rhône And Beyond
On a smaller scale, and from a different perspective, Eric Jensen is also placing more emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon with the advent of two new releases. Jensen—known first and foremost for Booker Wines, which is focused on upscale Rhône-style red blends—has recently expanded beyond Booker with two standalone brands that have potential for much greater volume. The first, My Favorite Neighbor ($80 a 750-ml.), is Jensen’s response to cult Cabernet Sauvignon iterations from Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Comprised primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is rounded out with Syrah and Petite Verdot. Last year, the label hit 12,000 cases, and is set for further expansion this year.
The newest addition to Jensen’s stable is Harvey & Harriet, which launched in June 2019. Retail-priced at $50 a 750-ml., the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend is also made with Petit Verdot and Syrah, and marks the first wine from Jensen that falls below $75 a bottle. “We made this wine because it has the ability to touch more Americans and show them true price-quality potential,” Jensen says. Harvey & Harriet’s inaugural run consists of 2,900 cases. Later this year, Jensen is set to expand even further with the debut of a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon label, which will initially be available via direct-to-consumer channels in limited quantities.
The Booker Wines portfolio, meanwhile, is intended to compete favorably alongside luxury wines from Napa and other prestigious California appellations. The top-performing wine in the lineup is Oublié ($80 a 750-ml.), a blend of Grenache, Counoise, and Mourvèdre that ranked No. 10 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2017. Oublié and portfoliomate Fracture, a 100% Syrah, comprise around 3,500 cases each. Across all wines, Booker currently stands at around 8,000 cases, with other expressions including Ripper, a 100% Grenache made only in select years; Vertigo, a GSM blend; and Tempranillo.
Located near Booker is Tablas Creek Vineyard, a longtime champion of the Paso Robles wine industry. The winery was born out of a partnership between Robert Haas and Jacques Perrin of Château de Beaucastel, who started exploring California wine regions in 1985 with the intention of finding an area that would enable cultivation of Rhône varietals. “They felt there was such a small footprint for Rhône wines in California,” says Tablas Creek partner, general manager, and second-generation Haas family member Jason Haas. “So they searched for areas where Zinfandel—which is originally from the coast of Croatia, where the climate is almost identical to that of the southern Rhône—was planted, as they thought it would be a marker for those areas that would do well with Rhône varietals.”
Eventually, this brought Robert and Jacques to Paso Robles, and they founded Tablas Creek in 1989. While Tablas Creek was the 17th winery in the region, it was the first to focus solely on Rhône-style wines, according to Haas. “Paso is now the epicenter of California Rhône production,” he says. “And we were at the forefront of that.” The winery offers several tiers of wine, starting with the super-premium Patelin de Tablas, which includes red blend, white blend, and rosé wines. At the $30-$35 price point, the Côtes de Tablas line is made with 100% estate-grown fruit, and includes a Grenache-Syrah-Counoise-Mourvèdre red blend and a white blend comprising Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne. Finally, the Esprit de Tablas tier is modeled after Château de Beaucastel’s red and white wines, and features wines made from the top 15%-20% grapes from Tablas Creeks’ estate vineyards.
When former NFL player Terry Hoage opened TH Estate Wines in 2004, he was focused on Rhône varietals. “I grew up with the Rhône-centric world developing around me and that was what my palate became accustomed to,” he says. To that end, Hoage’s portfolio primarily consists of such GSM wines as The 46, 5 Blocks, and The Pick. More recently, Hoage’s wife, Jennifer, released Decroux, a Pinot Noir line that features fruit sourced from Santa Rita Hills, as a counterpart to TH Estate.
As Paso Robles establishes a greater presence both in the U.S. and internationally, winemakers are keen to continue cultivating the region’s diversity through the creation and promotion of its various sub-regions. According to Robert Hall winemaker Don Brady, the advent of official sub-AVAs has lent more credence to the region as it rises. “The sub-AVAs are a much better way to describe Paso than what was previously proposed, wherein the region would be split into East and West Paso,” he says. “Putting proverbial fences up tells a much better story, and helps consumers differentiate between their preferred styles, as the different sub-AVAs are truly innovating in unique ways.” He points to a tasting that the CAB Collective organized last year in which five different sub-AVAs of Paso Cabernet Sauvignon were represented, each offering its own distinct taste. Robert Hall owns 150 acres of estate vineyards and also works with a wide network of growers from across the entire region; as a result, a number of its wines are labeled with sub-AVAs, including the Cavern Select Syrah ($45 a 750-ml.), taken entirely from a single vineyard in the Willow Creek district, and the Cavern Select Dusi Zinfandel ($42), sourced from Dusi Vineyard’s Dante vineyard in Templeton Gap.
While Meier of J. Lohr notes that the inclusion of these newer names on labels can be a source of confusion, they ultimately add a layer of depth to the region. “With the sub-AVAs, you get to see all the nuances within Paso, and understand more of why we have such diversity in our varietal expression and why we can grow Rhône to Bordeaux,” he says. “We’re working to educate on the subtleties of the microclimates in each of these sub-AVAs, and how they bring out varied characteristics in the wines.” Today, there are 11 sub-AVAs in Paso Robles, ranging from Adelaida District in the west to San Juan Creek in the east.
Sustainable farming practices have also been adopted by a number of wineries throughout the region. Tablas Creek, a longtime advocate of sustainability in the vineyards, received its biodynamic certification in 2017. The winery recently implemented dry-farming practices as well, which Haas says has proven successful. “It’s a bit hard to wrap your head around the fact that it’s possible to dry-farm in a place like this, where it stops raining in April and doesn’t rain again until November, and it can routinely be 90 degrees during the summer with only 10% humidity,” he says. “But there are plenty of old Zinfandel vineyards that have been dry-farmed for 100 years, so clearly it’s possible. You get a little more elegance, character of soil, and minerality from those dry-farmed vines.”
While Justin doesn’t dry-farm, the winery does follow a strict watering policy. “We practice deficit irrigation—typically if we water, it’s maybe once or twice a year,” says Gerakaris. “We put water on at a time when the plant will grow in the way we want it to, so it’ll develop grapes properly.” Justin’s estate vineyards are all sustainably farmed, and are certified by SIP (Sustainability in Practice). While the winery can’t regulate its growers, it both encourages and educates them on adopting sustainable practices.
From his vantage point at TH Estate, Terry Hoage believes there’s no better place in the world to grow grapes than Paso Robles. “All the boxes to tick for growing wine grapes, Paso has,” he says. “People do Cabernet Sauvignon here, some do Pinot Noir—you can find niches and places and pockets in Paso with the right environment to grow almost anything. It’s just the perfect place for winemaking.”