By Lisa Pretty
This month in their “best of year” issue, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Paso Robles as the Wine Region of the year. Each year, since 2000, the magazine’s editors select the stars of the year. And reveal them in December.
Being named Wine Region of the Year is a major milestone for a region that got its start in the 1700s when the padre’s planted the first grapes around the Mission San Miguel. Through the years, and centuries, the Paso Robles wine region grew. At first the rolling hills, dotted with oak trees, were known as a grape growing region with few actual wineries – most of the grapes grown in Paso were sold to wineries throughout the State. As the number of wineries grew, so did the quality of the grapes.
Not only did the Paso Robles wine industry grow, but once it started to expand it grew at a rapid pace. Known as the fastest growing California region in the early 2000s, with great diversity, it isn’t surprising that Paso Robles attracted a new wave of winemakers. In 1980 there were less than 20 wineries, in 2000 there were more than 40, and in 2013 there are well over 200 wineries producing Paso Robles wines.
The people making wine in Paso Robles are as diverse as the grapes that thrive in the region. For some, such as Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure, they came from a winemaking family in France wanting to escape the very restrictive French laws. L’Aventure is where “Rhône meets Bordeaux” – in France the grapes from these two wine growing areas could not be combined. The style of wine is certainly bold. Stephan creates intense, concentrated fruit from estate-grown grapes, aged in new oak a short period of time – with the wines typically rating in the 90-point range by most critics, L’Aventure clearly has a winning combination. No one cares that it isn’t a traditional Bordeaux or a traditional Rhône. It is all about the end product.
Some of the wineries, with a background in winemaking, who came to Paso did not do so to escape the traditional blending of grapes. Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, longtime importer and founder of Vineyard Brands, partnered to found Tablas Creek Vineyards. After searching for a great deal of time, they found the ideal growing site in Paso Robles to produce a wide range of Rhône varietals, very similar to their vineyards in Châteauneuf du Pape: limestone soils, a favorable climate, and rugged terrain. They worked through the USA system to have several varietals imported and have the varietal names certified to be used on wine labels – showing not only a dedication to their beliefs but also a true show of patience. Following traditional techniques, they are now known for producing top notch estate-grown Rhône varietals and blends. With a busy tasting room, distribution in several states and consistent top ratings, Tablas Creek is likely one of the first names that comes to mind when thinking Paso Robles.
Another recent change in Paso Robles, is that families who have been long time grape growers in the area have started to make wines to showcase their fruit. The two that come to my mind are Steinbeck Wines and J.Dusi Wines.
The Steinbeck family have been farming in the area for seven generations. Grape growing continues to be their number one business; however, they take one percent of their own fruit to create Steinbeck wine. The tasting room is a museum-like old structure located on the vineyards and is a great place to learn the history of Paso Robles. They also offer jeep tours through the vineyard for those who are interested in learning a little more about how grapes are grown.
Janell Dusi was born and raised on the Dusi Vineyard where her grandfather Dante taught her the old world Italian style of winemaking. The Dusi family has been growing grapes in the area for more than 80 years – Janell is the first in the family to make wine commercially. The tasting room is definitely a family venture and most days you can find Janell working alongside her Mother and Grandmother. Her tag line is “A family tradition with a new perspective.”
There is no doubt that Paso Robles attracted several first time winemakers. Justin Smith, the young owner of Saxum Vineyards, clearly helped put Paso Robles on the map when he was awarded the number one wine in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2010.
Over the past few years, people have given up their successful careers to build Paso Robles Wineries and produce high quality wine. Examples include Tom and Kathleen Maas of Pear Valley Estate Wine, Pam and Carl Bowker of Caliza Winery, the Niner family of Niner Wine Estate and Georges and Daniel Daou of DAOU Vineyards & WInery (just named winery of the year in the December edition of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine).
Wine Enthusiast editor Steve Heimoff, gives credit to “the infusion of youthful passion,” quoting winemaker’s from ONX and MCV wines (I personally had never heard of either and now plan to try both). Others are giving credit to the unique wines and new blends. While there is no doubt, the new additions to the area help to make Paso Robles attractive, I believe a large portion of the credit should be given to the names who are well known around the country for producing consistent, quality wines from Paso Robles. A few of the wineries who helped to build the Paso Robles region include: Eberle Winery, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, JUSTIN Wine, Tablas Creek Vineyards and Robert Hall Winery. These wineries make traditional wines and have played key roles in building Paso Robles into the brand it is today.
The bottom line is that Paso Robles is a top notch wine region due to the small and the large, the old and the new, the traditional and the rebels. I feel extremely lucky to call Paso Robles home and my mission is to explore the wine and the food made by the wonderful people who pour their passion into their creations.