Everything is big in Paso Robles—pickup trucks, cowboy hats, bold red blends—but especially the more than 610,000-acre grapegrowing appellation itself. At three times the size of Napa Valley, Paso reigned as the largest undivided appellation in California for over 30 years. That changed in 2014, when the Central Coast region was divided into 11 subappellations, with the intention of giving both producers and consumers a better handle on the enological expanse.
Eight years in, winemakers are still evaluating how differing soils, microclimates and topographies delineate each district, from the limestone substrate of Adelaida and windblown rows of Templeton Gap to the rolling hills of Creston and sunny terraces of San Juan Creek. Debates remain on some specifics, as there’s plenty of viticultural variability within even the smallest of districts.
However, the consensus is that the breakdown effectively showcases the entire region’s maturation from a generic, bulk-growing land into a dynamic, distinguished home for premium wines. Bordeaux and Rhône grapes are now coveted as quality leaders, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah leading the charge.
Austin Hope, whose family planted wine grapes in Paso in 1978, believes this geographic diversity is the key to success. “I don’t think there’s any region in the world that can compare,” says Hope of being able to grow gamy, Côte-Rôtie-style Syrah in Willow Creek but jammy, Australian-style Shiraz in the Highlands District.
Hope Family Wines does produce district-specific wines. But like many prominent wineries in the region, its flagship bottlings combine numerous subappellations into a final wine. “We are able to take from each one of these particular districts and blend them together to make what we think is the perfect wine,” explains Hope.
The same is true for Scott Shirley, the winemaker at Justin Winery, whose founder, Justin Baldwin, almost singlehandedly elevated Paso as a premium region for Bordelaise grapes four decades ago. “I like having the flexibility to use whichever fruit performs the best given the growing conditions of that vintage,” says Shirley, who currently sources from 10 of the 11 districts but does not make a single subappellation designate. “Both Justin and I are avid proponents of blends. To do that, we have to source from all sites.”
To better understand what makes each appellation different, we turn to those Paso vintners who source from multiple subappellations. Opinions vary, but one truth is evident, best described by Andrew Jones, vice president of wine grape sales for Sunridge Nurseries and winemaker for Field Recordings Winery: “There are ‘honeyholes’ in all of the areas.”
San Miguel District
The first wine grapes ever grown in Paso Robles were at the San Miguel Mission, which sits at the northern edge of San Luis Obispo County. The 18,500-acre district spans both sides of the Salinas River, with both the Nacimiento and Estrella rivers adding to the deep alluvial soils. It’s dry, windy and hot, but that didn’t stop third-generation farmer Richard Sauret from planting Zinfandel a half-century ago.
Today, Field Recordings’ Jones owns an old Sauret vineyard. He says the district could be split down the middle: “The western edge above Adelaida is very different from what you get at Cross Canyon Road on the east side. You could toss the western part of San Miguel into Adelaida while the eastern side could easily be part of Estrella.”
This appellation is home to historically critical brands such as Tablas Creek and Justin. Adelaida is a 53,000-acre landscape of ruggedly steep hillsides covered by mossy oaks and undercut by limestone soils and is the wettest and highest region of Paso Robles. It’s situated on the northwest flank up against the Santa Lucia Mountains, where the limestone soils are tough on vines, leading to highly tannic wines.
Winemakers collectively agree Adelaida is the place to find a backbone for blends. “Adelaida wines are the most structured in our bunch,” said Steve Peck of J. Lohr, which sources from five subappellations.
The calcareous soils help in dry years, according to Kevin Willenborg of Vina Robles, which owns Terra Bella and Bear Valley vineyards in Adelaida. “In a drought, the vines kind of lick water out of the rocks,” he says. As a result, “You get that rich, concentrated fruit. That’s what makes these wines very ageworthy, with stable color, creamy tannins and acidity.”
But Daniel Daou of Daou Vineyards believes it’s the layer of clay on top of those white rocks that is this subappellation’s saving grace. “There’s enough organic material to build a full canopy,” he says. “The roots find their ways in there. It allows for dry farming.
Named for the nearby ridges that come together into the shape of a star, the 66,800- acre Estrella District is home to modern era pioneers such as J. Lohr and Eberle Winery. But the district is most noted for the Estrella Clone of Syrah, which Gary Eberle grew from Chapoutier cuttings in 1975 into one of the most prominent scions in the country.
Located in the north-central district of Paso, Estrella is a landscape of gently undulating plains with lots of clay loam and sandy loam soils. “It’s more of a flat plain that gets warmer but cools down at night because it’s a low spot,” says Willenborg, of Vina Robles, which owns the Jardine and Pleasant Valley vineyards here. “There are more diurnal swings than we’re seeing in Geneseo and El Pomar.”
Unlike areas west of 101, where steeper hills, calcareous soils and cooler weather make vineyard land more expensive, many grapes remain more affordable in Estrella, and those savings get passed on directly to consumers.
“People can afford to drink Cabernet around here—that’s exciting,” comments Jeremy Leffert, winemaker for Tooth & Nail Wine Company. “I’d much rather buy 10 $30 bottles of wine than one $300 bottle.”
Willow Creek District
Willow Creek is one of the coolest regions in Paso and is a preferred spot for Rhône grapes. “It’s kind of cold for great Cab here—we’re the first to get the blast of wind,” explains Rob Murray, owner of Tooth & Nail, whose windswept estate sits along Highway 46. “Everyone thinks Paso is so hot, but some places are too cold.” As such, winemaker Leffert blends from across the broader Paso Robles AVA.
“I’ve gained a much better understanding of Paso as a region because we source fruit from a lot of places,” says Leffert. “When blending across appellations and using Paso Robles on the label, you can really build layers and texture in the wines.”
Also in Willow Creek are the oldest Zinfandel vines in all of Paso Robles. Ueberroth Vineyard, planted in 1934 by the Pesenti family and now owned by Turley Winery, continues to thrive on the white, chalky calcareous soils.
“Limestone levels the playing field no matter the region,” says Eric Jensen, winemaker and owner of Booker Wines, whose estate vineyards are located in Willow Creek. “The greatest color levels I’ve ever seen have come from high lime soils, which are generally more found in the Willow Creek District.”
Leffert buys his Malbec from the Barr Estate Winery in the Geneseo District for Tooth & Nail’s The Fiend red blend. “It’s a lot sandier here than Estrella, so you get more blue fruit on this,” he says. “There’s also more [diverse] topography.” The 17,300-acre district was first planted back in 1884, and those sandy, clay soils drop down into calcareous rocks way below the surface.
Sherman Thacher of Thacher Winery buys Rhône grapes for his Working Holiday blend from Geneseo’s Cass Vineyard, which is also the site of a new hotel. “The crops are a little heavier, which is perfect for our blend,” he says. “I just wanted something that was light and elegant and approachable.”
Compared to the sprawling estates of the Highlands and Estrella districts, Geneseo is comprised of many smaller ranches. The district sits on the south side of Highway 46, a busy commercial corridor that’s home to numerous hotels, tasting rooms, a golf course and the Vina Robles Amphitheater.
El Pomar District
There’s an underlying belief among most Paso producers that the cooler, more mountainous regions west of 101 produce more nuanced grapes than the smoother, drier landscapes east of the freeway. But all that goes out the window when vintners talk about this 21,300-acre district of rolling hills with ample aspects.
“Even though it’s on the east side, it is first class,” says Daou of the El Pomar District, which is the geographic heart of Paso. “It often rivals places like Willow Creek and Adelaida. It’s directly in the Templeton Gap, and sunny in the daytime with cool weather at night.”
Vina Robles’ Willenborg enjoys a unique perspective on how important that Gap is: The winery’s 500-acre-plus Huerhuero Vineyard lies in both El Pomar and the Geneseo districts. “Because it’s more exposed to the Templeton Gap, it starts cooling earlier in the afternoon,” he says. The Geneseo grapes ripen more than a week earlier. “It’s not even that far away—just over a little ridge.”
Austin Hope, Peachy Canyon, Castoro and J. Dusi—including the 77-year-old Dusi Vineyard—are prominent Templeton Gap estates. Though a defined subappellation, the geographic name is often used by local winemakers as a term referring to the way cool air flushes through the entire region. Wild Horse Vineyard & Winery founder Kenneth Volk coined the term “Templeton Gap” in 1982, describing the dip in the Santa Lucia Mountains that lets in the persistent wind and fog from the Cayucos coast just 18 miles away.
Both the Salinas River and Paso Robles Creek cut through the district, and steep hillsides reach up to 1,800 feet in certain corners, catching about 20 inches of rain annually. Calcareous soil is sprinkled amid sand, silt, clay loam and—10 feet below the surface, pure rock. “This is transitional,” says Tooth & Nail’s Leffert. Such soil strata can support a wide range of grapes, from traditional Bordelaise varieties to more obscure grapes like Blaufränkisch.
The skies open wide above the gently rolling hills of the 47,000-acre Creston District, an alluvial plain that sits in a south-central location at the base of the easterly La Panza Range. Still home to many horse and cattle ranches, as well as a small town of the same name—where big steaks at the Loading Chute Restaurant and Barn are followed by cold beers at the Longbranch Saloon —Creston is cooled by winds that blow over the Templeton Gap to the west. But it experiences much warmer nights.
“It’s more of a terrace than a deeply carved valley,” says Willenborg. The fruit carries a dark cherry fruit quality, he explains, quite similar to some Napa Valley wines. “It coats your palate a little more.” His estate Cab uses fruit from here and the Huerhuero Vineyard in El Pomar. “I like blending the two because the aromatics are lovely and the tannins are softer,” he adds. “It makes for a complex blend.”
Paso Robles Highlands District
This 63,000-acre sub appellation, located on the southeast side, is home to French Camp, which, at 1,200 acres, is one of the largest vineyards in all of Paso. This vineyard—a verdant stretch of green amidst otherwise seemingly barren if golden hills—is a source for both quantity and, in some special blocks, quality. Thacher started sourcing own-rooted, half-century-old Chenin Blanc as well as Valdiguié from Shell Creek just a few years ago.
“We really enjoy the fruit that we get from out there,” says Thacher, who noticed in recent years that his home estate in Willow Creek gets close to 20 inches of rain while the Highlands barely catches five inches. “It’s a completely different situation. They believe that they have some of the biggest diurnal swings in all of Paso.” In these conditions grapes can attain a robust flavor profile while maintaining a refreshing natural acidity.
San Juan Creek
Despite being one of the driest regions with just 10 inches of rain annually, San Juan Creek became home to the earliest modern viticulture in Paso Robles when Robert Young planted vines in 1963. Today, the 26,000-acre, savannah-like region, which includes the tiny town of Shandon, is primarily a source for affordable grapes grown for quantity, but there’s quality to be found as well.
“There are some gorgeous plateaus out there,” says Booker Wines’ Jensen, who sources widely for his Harvey & Harriet blend under the My Favorite Neighbor label. “Most people are farming for price-point bottles, but when you get into some of those ledges and higher elevation, you get thinner soils that aren’t so fertile.”
Andrew Jones agrees. “The Truesdale plateau is in high demand,” he says of one specific growing area, and the prices are going up quickly, even rivaling hotspots on the west side. “San Juan Creek defies the normal thinking that the farther east you go the lower the quality.”
Santa Margarita Ranch
In the south of Paso Robles, just above the Cuesta Grade that rises from the San Luis Obispo coast, Santa Margarita Ranch is Paso’s only subappellation that doesn’t touch any other. The cool coastal area is dominated by a nearly 1,000-acre vineyard planted in the early 2000s by the Mondavi family, today farmed by Ancient Peaks, which runs a tasting room in the one-street town of Santa Margarita.
“The daytime highs are not as high, but the cold is colder than most,” says Mike Sinor, founding winemaker of Ancient Peaks, who struggles with hard frosts during harvest. “At the same time, as winegrowers who have studied the Old World, we know that when your vineyard is on the edge of ripeness is when you can achieve greatness.”
The five different soil types in this 18,000-acre appellation are especially unique, particularly the massive, fossilized oyster shells that poke out of the ground. “They are so dramatic and make a distinct difference in the wines,” says Sinor. “There is a lightness to the tannin and improved length to the palate.”
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!