In September of 2013, the TTB published a notice of proposed rulemaking that gave a preliminary stamp of approval on the Paso Robles wine community's proposal to subdivide the Paso Robles AVA into 11 new sub-regions. I celebrated this milestone with an article on this blog where I laid out why I thought it was such an important development for our region. It's worth remembering that at the time there was some resistance to the proposal as being disproportionately complex given that up until that point everyone had used just the single overarching Paso Robles AVA. I tried to summarize why I thought it was important:
These new AVA's will be a powerful tool for wineries to explain why certain grapes are particularly well suited to certain parts of the appellation, and why some wines show the characteristics they do while other wines, from the same or similar grapes, show differently. Ultimately, the new AVA's will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.
The proposal was ultimately approved in October of 2014, and we started using our own sub-AVA (the Adelaida District) on the labels of our estate wines with the 2014 vintage. Our Patelin de Tablas wines, which are sourced from several of the sub-AVAs, continued to use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA. Of course, there was no requirement that wineries use these sub-AVAs. From my conclusion of that 2013 blog:
Wineries who wish to continue to use only the Paso Robles AVA are welcome to. And many will likely choose to do so as the new AVA's build their reputation in the market. Not all the AVA's have a critical mass of established wineries, and it seems likely that a handful of the new AVA's will receive market recognition first, while the reputation of others will take time to build. But I believe that it will be several of the currently less-developed areas that will benefit most in the long term, through the ability to identify successful winemaking models and build an identity of their own. We shall see; having a newly recognized AVA is not a guarantee of market success, just a chance to make a name for yourself.
All this came back to me last week when I fielded a call from veteran writer Dan Berger, asking my thoughts on the success of the AVAs given that most of the big Cabernet producers he sees haven't been using them. To my mind, that's neither here nor there, since those producers are typically large enough that they're sourcing grapes from multiple sub-AVAs and therefore can only use the umbrella Paso Robles AVA anyway. And there are exceptions even to this, most notably Daou, which uses the Adelaida District AVA on all its estate wines. But it did make me wonder the extent to which the different AVAs were appearing on labels and therefore being presented to consumers as a point of distinction.
The best way to measure this would be label approvals from the TTB, but I don't think there is a way to search their publicly available database by AVA. Origin, sure... you can search, for example, by California. But not by Adelaida District. But there are proxies available that can give a good indication: the major publications to whom wineries submit thousands of wines each year. So I dove into the review databases at Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator, and Vinous. Because each publication receives and reviews a different subset of the wines that are produced, I've included a summation of all three, with the number of reviews that a search for each sub-AVA produces for vintages since the new AVAs were announced. The total for the Paso Robles AVA (reviews that don't list a sub-district) is at the bottom:
|Paso Robles Wines Reviewed, by AVA, 2013-2022 vintages|
|Wine Enthusiast||Wine Spectator||Vinous||Total||% of Total|
|Adelaida District AVA||611||249||773||1633||16.8%|
|Willow Creek AVA||427||261||674||1362||14.0%|
|Templeton Gap AVA||154||26||115||295||3.0%|
|Santa Margarita Ranch AVA||49||33||38||120||1.2%|
|Geneseo District AVA||34||5||55||94||1.0%|
|El Pomar AVA||45||2||40||87||0.9%|
|Paso Robles Highlands AVA||44||9||27||80||0.8%|
|Estrella District AVA||28||2||49||79||0.8%|
|Creston District AVA||8||0||25||33||0.3%|
|San Miguel District AVA||5||0||14||19||0.2%|
|San Juan Creek AVA||0||0||0||0||0%|
|Paso Robles AVA||3531||709||1691||5931||60.9%|
So, nearly 40% of all the wines reviewed by these publications carried one of the 11 new AVAs on their label. Is that surprising? I'm not sure, but I do think it's an encouraging sign that the producers here think that the AVAs are or will become meaningful in the marketplace. When you figure that many of the rest of the wines (like our Patelins) weren't eligible for one of the sub-AVAs, the clear implication is that most Paso Robles wineries are using the smaller, newer designations when they can. Even J. Lohr, whose founder Jerry Lohr was quoted in Dan's article as saying "We’re not selling our Cabernets based on the sub-appellations," has used the El Pomar AVA on at least three wines, the Adelaida District on at least three others, and the Estrella District on yet three more.
And yet, while all the new AVAs except San Juan Creek have appeared on labels, it's worth considering why more than three-quarters of the wines that use the sub-AVAs are coming from the Adelaida and Willow Creek districts. Some of that is the profile of the wineries who have settled in these two AVAs, which include many of Paso Robles' highest-end producers often making dozens of small vineyard-designated bottlings each year. Willow Creek wineries -- including Saxum, Denner, Epoch, Caliza, Paix Sur Terre, Thacher, and Torrin -- and Adelaida District wineries -- including Daou, Alta Colina, Adelaida Cellars, Law, Villa Creek, and Tablas Creek -- account for a much more significant percentage of the wines reviewed in these databases than they do the percentage of production within the broader Paso Robles AVA. The choice that these high-profile wineries have made to put their AVAs on their labels encourages their neighbors to do the same.
Will the other districts -- many of which have more planted vineyard acres than Adelaida and Willow Creek -- eventually catch up? I'm not sure. As long as much of that acreage is going into wines whose production is measured in the hundreds of thousands or millions of cases, and therefore being sourced from multiple sub-AVAs, maybe not. But I've always thought that some of the AVAs with the most to gain are ones like El Pomar and Creston whose cooler climates and higher limestone soil content makes them more akin viticulturally to the more prestigious regions to the west, but whose location on the east side of the river tends to get them lumped in with warmer, sandier regions like Geneseo and Estrella to their north.
Paso Robles AVA map from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website
Ultimately, time will tell whether more of the 11 Paso Robles AVAs join Willow Creek and the Adelaida District as something that people look for on their labels. Meanwhile I think it's healthy that Paso Robles as a region remains centered in people's awareness. Although in Dan's article Gary Eberle implies that the decision to advance a conjunctive labeling law -- which requires that Paso Robles be used on the label alongside whatever sub-AVA is used -- was a controversial one, I don't know any producer here who opposed it. It's a good thing that the recognition for Paso Robles continues to grow even as people start to understand what makes the different parts of the broader AVA unique. And promoting Paso Robles isn't incompatible with also building recognition for the diversity within it -- in fact, doing so will help consumers understand why the wines that they love have the character that they do, and give them guidance for how to further explore this region.
What it comes back to, for me, is that the science for subdividing the Paso Robles region is pretty conclusive. This morning's Paso Robles agricultural forecast, as an example, shows different weather stations within the region recording high temperatures yesterday ranging from 74.2°F to 92.9°F, low temperatures yesterday morning ranging from 42.9°F to 55.7°F, and heat accumulations for the growing season from 1533 growing degree days to 2510. Vineyards in Paso also vary by elevation (between 600 feet and 2400 feet), rainfall (between 7 and 30 inches annually) and soils (a dozen major soil types encompassing everything from high pH calcareous to low pH alluvial and loam).
The roughly 60 local vineyards and wineries who together commissioned and funded the Paso Robles AVA proposal -- which included both Gary Eberle and Jerry Lohr -- agreed, as a region, to bring scientists in from UC Davis and Cal Poly, and to defer to their findings as to where the lines should be drawn between the different AVAs. We knew at the time that this would likely mean that there would be AVAs drawn that didn't have a critical mass of wineries yet to help spearhead that sub-AVA's recognition. And we decided that this was OK. If the lines were drawn in the right places, over time, the AVAs that were capable of doing so would achieve recognition in the marketplace. Back in 2015, I laid out in a blog why the wisdom of this decision would only play out over time. A decade in, I think that we're well on our way.