Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, quality wines elevate a region.
Perhaps nowhere in California is this more true than Paso Robles. This rugged Central Coast region is the largest geographic appellation in California -- and the fastest-growing. In the past 15 years, a new generation of creative vintners has settled here, developing a reputation for unconventional blends and a keen understanding of Paso's microclimates, particularly to the west, where cool ocean breezes moderate a climate once thought too hot for serious wines.
Paso pioneers such as Gary Eberle and East Bay native Justin Baldwin have been crafting memorable wines since the 1980s or earlier, but many of the newer wineries are helmed by young winemakers who gave up posts in more famous regions, such as Napa, to work in Paso. They chose Paso because there was no pretense and no trademark varietal or style to put their stamp on.
If you wanted to make a chardonnay without oak, like Christian Tietje of Four Vines Winery did in 2000, or a Rhone blend with zinfandel, which he did a year later, the cellar was your candy store.
"Coming here was like the Wild West," recalls Tietje, who maxed out his credit cards to buy grapes and barrels. He grew Four Vines to 140,000 cases and sold it in 2010. The following year, he launched Cypher, an eclectic winery specializing in zinfandel and premium blends. "We did these novel things, and they became cornerstone trends," Tietje says. "I think the friendships and camaraderie here also help to foster that creativity. It's not about competition."
His next project: Sea Monster, a series of white wines from Santa Barbara County, due in May.
Yet for others, it was a desire for tradition that drew them to Paso Robles. In 2007, brothers Georges and Daniel Daou began restoring a portion of the historic Hoffman Mountain Ranch in the hills of Adelaida. They wanted to grow ultra-premium Bordeaux grapes, and chose this mountain property where, in the late 1960s, legendary enologist Andre Tchelistcheff helped plant some of the region's first cabernet sauvignon.
The brothers completed and opened Daou Vineyards, a majestic Spanish-style winery 2,200 feet above sea level, in 2011. Their inaugural 2010 vintage scored 96 Parker points. Nowdays, they receive as many as 600 visitors a day.
"We chose Paso because we believe the calcareous soil here is the best in the United States to make collectible, premium cabernet sauvignon," Georges explains. "We believe that if Robert Mondavi had gone to Paso (instead of Napa), Paso would be Napa today."
But, winemaker Brian Brown of ONX likes that Paso is not Napa -- and likely never will be.
Instead of sticking to traditional varieties, ONX owner Steve Olson planted a mix of Rhone, Spanish, Bordeaux, Portuguese and Italian varieties on his estate vineyard in the Templeton Gap, giving ONX the ability to create unique cuvées, which by the time they launched in 2008, was something consumers were coming to expect from Paso Robles.
The constant compliment he gets from consumers is on Paso's excellent quality price ratio, or QPR, says Brown, who came to Paso after stints at Trefethen, Vineyard 29 and most recently, Round Pond, which he left last year to focus full-time on ONX. "The cooler vineyards on the west side have the ability to produce beautiful, dense, formidable wines."
And, with lower costs than regions like Napa, Paso winemakers are able to pass those savings on to consumers.
ONX continues to thrive. The winery grew from 500 cases in 2010 to 3,000 cases in 2012. This year, they will plant another 30 acres, adding petit verdot, souzao (a Portuguese grape) and Argentine torrontes, and find a location to build a brick-and-mortar winery -- something most newcomers can only dream of.
"There's just a lot of interest in Paso these days," Brown says. "People know Rombauer chardonnay and Silver Oak cab. Those are chocolate and vanilla, and (Paso winemakers) are simply offering more flavors."
Reach Jessica Yadegaran at firstname.lastname@example.org.