The old-timey square in rural downtown Paso Robles (pronounced "ROBE-less" by purists, "RO-bulls" by locals), California, is covered with summer's lush, green grass and a sea of smiles — the setting for the Paso Robles 25th Annual Wine Festival. It's difficult to believe this sleepy, virtually unknown wine region has been producing wine for a quarter century, but when you taste the quality, you quickly realize this former cow town has eagerly come of age.
In the mid-1880s, Paso Robles (translation: "the pass of oaks") became a town for settlers drawn to the healing hot springs bubbling up in the hills. The pastoral Paso Robles Inn, opened in 1891, still sits grandly in the center of town, attracting tourists to its private springs and leisurely pace of life. As early as 1882, an Indiana settler named Andrew York started growing grapes, spearheading a new economy that began thriving 100 years later.
Now, more than 170 wineries call Paso home. Down-to-earth with the light of success and humor flickering in their eyes, the players exude a confidence reserved for those in the fast lane. Most wineries are still family-owned and -operated, but even those corporately owned, such as Wild Horse Winery, have maintained a loyal, family-esque devotion over the years. This sentiment helps produce wines that are inspiration-filled and consistent, an effort reflected in each glass.
But it wasn't easy getting there. Many wineries in Paso weathered lean years before people noticed this enormous grape region equidistant between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Hope Family, who produces the Treana, Austin Hope and Liberty School labels, started out as grape farmers in 1978 and moved into making wine in 1984 when they smelled potential success in the air. Around the same time, Jerry Lohr, one of the highly respected early pioneers originally from northern California, set up camp. Jerry and his son Steve built a wildly successful winery, J. Lohr, which now boasts 1,200 acres of grapes birthing an annual 600,000 cases of wine.
Other trailblazers have made a strong mark on the entire California industry, such as Gary Eberle, a fantastically gregarious and genial man widely considered the wine pioneer in Paso Robles. He introduced the syrah (aka shiraz) grape to California in 1980 by bringing over a vine cutting from Chapoutier, one of the foremost syrah producers in France's Rhône region. Due to Gary's efforts, syrah now thrives up and down the West Coast.
Grapegrowers attribute the region's success to three factors : 1) intense heat and the wide shift in daily temperature (up to 50 degrees in the summer); 2) enough rainfall to potentially farm without watering; and 3) the limestone- and calcium-rich soils.
It shows in the glass. Paso Robles specializes in grapes that thrive in heat: cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel, and 40-plus others, like luscious and fragrant white viogniers and well-made yet rare red gems like grenache. Also worth seeking out are juicy, full-fruit sauvignon blancs, jammy petite syrahs, and fantastic red blends that will open your eyes to the possibilities of this burgeoning region. With this quality and their sense of wild west adventure, one thing you'll feel in Paso Robles is that anything is possible. The growing community anxiously aspires to be as household a name as Napa . . . but hopefully without the snooty factor. M
Four Vines 2005 Naked Chardonnay Santa Barbara A chardonnay made without ever seeing an oak barrel or a pat of butter. Pure chardonnay flavor with ripe, sweet grapefruit, lemon, and a refreshing, steely finish. $14. ****
Liberty School 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles Soft and approachable with bright cherry, vanilla, and a bit of spiciness. Great value for the quality. $15. ****