The Emergence of Paso Robles

Believe it or not, there are American wine regions beyond Napa. Image: trindade51 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Can anyone sell wine by the glass and not include Napa Cabernet?

Probably not, but the soaring prices, which are likely to tick up after the recent devastating fires in northern California (even though most of the damage was in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties), mean that most non-fine dining operators must look to the lower quality, mass-market brands to satisfy their customers. Even steakhouses, where, according to many sommeliers, Napa Cabernet can account for 70% to 80% of their wine sales, must compete hard for allocated, pricey brands.

There are, however, plenty of sources in California for the type of fruit-forward, highly extracted, high-alcohol, intense red wine made famous by Napa producers. Of the emerging areas, many wine buyers are looking for help from way down state in the vast area of California’s central coast: Paso Robles.

Paso Robles has a lot going for it: an already enormous area under grape that still has much room for growth; grape growers and vintners who are game to plant many different varietals in order to find the best match among the many AVAs and micro-climates; winemakers embracing stainless steel, oak and concrete fermenters in many shapes and sizes; and an ebullience about what the drastic daily temperature swings can mean for the region’s vinous potential. To that last point, one vineyard dealt with temperatures as low as 24 degrees for a few hours in mid-October, then saw those temps rise above 90 the following day.

Established brands like Eberle and Robert Hall are already well known to many fine wine buyers throughout California and across the country, for good reason. Meanwhile, other producers are looking to stretch beyond California as well, since many small- and medium-size producers sell most of their wines outside of The Golden State.

Many Central coast winemakers are also attempting to plant a Paso Robles flag to lay claim as the California region best placed to build a reputation for red and white Rhône-style blends, as well as single varietal bottlings of Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, and others. With many producers trying their hands at growing or sourcing the less well-known but permitted varietals employed in the Rhône, they’re building a buzz and creating a range of possibilities that could help that style of hot-climate wine become more popular in the US.

In fact, varietal experimentation may be one of the most interesting things about Paso Robles. Producers in the 11 sub-AVAs are finding that, in some cases, micro-climatic differences are allowing grapes such as Albariño, Primitivo, Malbec, and even Nebbiolo, to produce quality wines. Of course, there’s plenty of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay as well. In fact, there are few things, except perhaps many sparkling wines, that couldn’t be found during a few days spent traveling up and down the dramatic Paso Robles hillsides.

Right now, the issue for most operators looking to take a chance to be champions of an emerging region is finding the more interesting wines via distributors. Still, there are plenty of large producers already in place, and when it comes time to next shake-up to wine lists – be it a casual dining-by-the-glass compilation or a more upscale operation looking to stand out among the crowd – diving a little deeper into Paso could pay off. Whether operators take a chance on non-Napa Cabs, powerful Rhône blends, or off-beat combos created during the cold nights and hot days in the central coast, Paso Robles looks like the region delivering wines speaking to the consumer desire to order the unexpected.