The Remarkable Rise of Paso Robles
May 27, 2011
In the course of my work with Tablas Creek, I work closely with winery associations like Rhone Rangers and Family Winemakers of California that bring me into contact with winemakers and winery principals from other American wine producing regions. One refrain I've been hearing for the last few years has been "Wow, Paso Robles is on a roll". The follow up is usually either a question like "How did you do it?" or a comment that "I wish that my region could do what Paso has done."
It's not that long ago that Paso Robles was a relative unknown. When I started selling our wines in the early years of the 2000's, I would routinely meet wine industry professionals who didn't know where Paso was, or even that it was in the Central Coast. Those who did know it thought of it as a place to grow rustic Zinfandels or inexpensive Bordeaux varieties.
So how did Paso Robles go from backwater to next-big-thing in a decade? I think that there are six principal reasons that Paso has been able to be as successful as it has.
- The inherent quality of the terroir. I'll start with the most obvious. Paso Robles has a remarkable combination of soils and climate. These characteristics led us to choose Paso in 1989 as the home for our at-that-time-unnamed Rhone project, even though there were no Rhones in the ground there, it was on no one's list of the next great California wine region, and it had no cachet that would help make the wines more marketable. All of the below factors wouldn't mean much if the region wasn't capable of making remarkable wines. Between the notable concentration of calcium-rich soils, the largest diurnal temperature swing in the state, the rainfall in the western hills that permits dry-farming and the long growing season with limited threat of harvest rainfall it's a tremendous spot to plant and grow grapes.
- The leadership of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. I speak to producers from other regions who point again and again to the work that the PRWCA has done over the tenure of Stacie Jacob as Executive Director. They launched an annual road show, began regular work bringing both media and key restaurateurs and retailers out to visit Paso Robles, refined the annual series of events in Paso Robles that exposes the region to thousands of consumers each year, and began targeted marketing and advertising campaigns that did a lot to bring the region into the public eye. What's more, they did it in a way that united the region's growers and winemakers, as well as the wineries large and small, east and west. In 2005 it was not at all clear that the Paso Robles region would remain a single unit, with work underway for a Paso Robles Westside AVA and real friction between vintners and growers. By producing clear benefits for all the different constituencies that make up the Paso Robles wine community the PRWCA has managed to have an enormous impact.
- The willingness of the major winery players in the area to work to support the region. The PRWCA's efforts would not, I don't think, have been possible without buy-in from all the major players in Paso Robles. The leading wineries on the east side (such as J. Lohr, Eberle, and EOS) as well as west side (like Justin, Tablas Creek, L'Aventure) have all participated actively in the Wine Alliance's efforts, and other than us all have served on the PRWCA's board of directors. Paso Robles is a wine community of joiners with principals willing to work together. That's rarer than you might think; I know that many regions' associations have trouble even getting their members to attend their events, let alone support the association with funds for coherent marketing.
- The city of Paso Robles' welcome embrace of wine community. Justin Baldwin is fond of telling the story that when he moved to Paso Robles, the best dinner in town was the tuna melt at the bowling alley. By my first visit a decade later, the best food was the Denny's. In the 1980s and 1990s you didn't go into Paso Robles to eat, or shop (except for groceries) or relax. Downtown vacancy was over 40%. It was a dying ranching town, without many prospects for renaissance. But the wine community's growth, and the tourism that followed, has brought the town back to life. There are now amazing restaurants, fun shops, and a vibrant downtown park surrounded by the decade-old city hall/library and movie theater. The continued willingness of the community to embrace the local wineries -- driven in no small part by the relatively recent memories of how depressed Paso Robles was -- has allowed the community to focus on outreach rather than waging the internecine not-in-my-back-yard battles seen in other California wine regions.
- The rise in wine tourism punctuated by the release of Sideways. Most people associate Sideways, released late in 2004, with a dramatic growth in Pinot Noir sales and an associated decline in Merlot. And those effects are indisputable. But I would point to two other impacts of the movie. First, it romanticized and personalized the experience of going to wine country to taste wine, which was an important factor in the growth of wine tourism around the country. Second, it was set in Santa Barbara County, which drove home the point that there was wine in California outside Napa to an audience largely unaware of the fact. No, we didn't see the busloads of movie-crazed tourists that the Santa Ynez Valley did, but we had perhaps an even better result. The southern California wine lovers who typically patronized the Santa Barbara County wineries featured in the movie skipped over the tourist hordes and came to the next region north: Paso Robles.
- Advocacy from key members of the wine media, principally Robert Parker. With the recent recognition of Paso Robles as the home of the Wine Spectator's wine of the year, it may be hard to remember the impact of Robert Parker's declaration in June of 2005 that "there is no question that a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills, and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley". The media buzz has built from there, with notable contributions from Steve Tanzer and more recently James Laube in the Wine Spectator. This media enthusiasm led uncounted numbers of wine enthusiasts and collectors to explore Paso Robles, and eventually pulled along the wine trade (typically more conservative than either consumers or media due to entrenched relationships and the sheer inertia of size). A scroll back through our press links will give you a good sense of how consistent the press attention has been over recent years, particularly in the late 2005-mid 2007 period when Decanter, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset and Food&Wine all wrote feature articles about the Paso Robles wine region.
When we bought the land that would become Tablas Creek in 1989, there were seventeen wineries here, and no Rhone varieties in the ground. This year, there will be over 220 wineries, and Paso Robles has California's largest acreage of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. And the region has a lot more potential for growth; even in the prime vineyard land out west of town less than one-third the cleared plantable acres have been planted to grapes. With many of the top vineyards less than 20 years old the future is bright. In the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive: You ain't seen nothing yet.