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Paso Robles - Zinfandel and so much more

Paso Robles, named for its local oak trees, has for decades been known as a spiritual home for Zinfandel in California.  Beginning in the 1850s Europeans settling in Paso Robles brought the first cuttings of Zinfandel from Europe.  In the late 1870's Andrew Jackson York began planting Zinfandel on his farm with such success that in 1892, he established Ascension Winery, later renamed York Mountain Winery.  The Winery laid claim to the longest continuously operating winery until 2010 when its owners went bankrupt following the Winery's near destruction in the Paso Robles earthquake of 2003.  Happily, the vineyard is being restored by new owners operating under the Epoch label.

Until the introduction of large scale wineries in the 1980s, Zinfandel was the predominant grape variety of the area.  When J. Lohr Vineyards began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and other red varietals in then little -known Paso Robles region in 1986, the region began to gain recognition for the large expanse of available vineyard friendly land able to support grape varieties other than Zinfandel.  Since then, well-known national brands including, Estrella River Winery (Bronco Wine Company), Cellar360 (formerly Meridian), Ridge, Wild Horse Winery, Liberty School (Hope Family Wines), Rasmussen and Turley have established major production centers in the region.

Beginning in the 1990s, an influx of small family owned businesses, focused on Rhone varieties, began the next generation of wine making.  Acres dedicated to Rhone varieties grew from fewer than 100 acres in 1994 to an estimated 3,000 in 2010 and over a dozen Rhone only wineries were opened in that same timeframe.

Today the Paso Robles area is a vibrant blend of commercial scale and small boutique wineries crafting everything from high volume red wines to unconventional “crazy blends”, blends of grape varieties seldom assembled in other parts of the world.

The Wines of Paso Robles

Despite the regions rich history with Zinfandel, The Paso Robles AVA, established in 1983, now boasts three varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah) with more vineyards planted than Zinfandel.  Thanks to the pioneering efforts of many small family owned vineyards, over 40 different grape varieties are grown, including little known varieties such as Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Lagrein, Picpoul, Tinta Cao, and Tinta Madeira.  Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for over a third of all vineyard acreage, and since the 1980's has been the variety that has kept Paso Robles on the viticultural map.


Adding to the unique nature of the region are the prevalence of Rhone Ranger wineries, where vintners dedicated themselves to educating consumers about and promoting Rhone varietals in the U.S.  These vintners now have measurable plantings of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne.  Wineries producing single varietal wines include Olson Ogden (Margaret's Mandate Marsanne), Cass Winery (Roussanne), and the Mooney Family (Grenache Blanc) and dozens of wineries are producing award winning GSM blends reminiscent of the best of the Rhone Valley.

Growing Grapes in Paso Robles

Located just inland from the Pacific Ocean, 200 miles in either direction from Los Angles and San Francisco, the Paso Robles AVA is California's third largest AVA and contains a diverse variety of valleys and hillsides of varying elevations and orientations yielding dozens of small microclimates.  The influence of the Pacific is felt via cooling breezes and fog that travels all the way from Monterey Bay southward down the Salinas River, or over one of the many deep valleys carved through the Coastal Mountain range known as the Templeton Gap.  Rainfall varies from over 45 inches per year in the west to less than 10 inches in the east, and elevations from 700 feet to over 2,000.  About all that is uniform in the AVA are warm days and cool nights, and a long growing season allowing grapes to fully mature before the October harvest.

These wide variations in climate, geography and soil conditions have led some vintners to propose breaking up the AVA into smaller regions, an idea that has to date been singularly unsuccessful in garnering sufficient support.  In considering establishing a new AVE the Treasury Departments Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB) cited, “a marked lack of unanimity among the commenters concerning the appropriateness of establishing the proposed Paso Robles Westside viticultural area”.  This lack of legal standing has not stopped groups of wineries from forming their own network, such as the Paso Robles “Far Out” Wineries, 17 award winning wineries west of the city of Paso Robles.

Regardless of legal wrangling, the diversity in climate results in the AVAs ability to grow such a large number of grape varieties with unique terroir based differences.

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