Our wine club’s debut last Fall featuring our Santa Barbara shipment was super successful and predictably well loved by our members and friends. I knew it would be, as the wines selected reflected the region’s great diversity from Pinots to Super Tuscans. It had something for everyone, yet every one of the wines brought something to the party. 

Paso Robles is up next, and it will be very intriguing to hear the reaction to its palette-stretching wines. While Santa Barbara wines can generally by fruit-forward and flavorful, Paso wines can be luscious and daring. There’s loads of quality in the taste; but it’s a big mouthful of taste!

Though California’s Central Coast is home to both regions, and only about 90 miles apart, Santa Barbara and Paso Robles’ wine countries have very little in common. Both, however, have one common achievement in that each is its own creation. While Santa Barbara wines excel in reflecting the virtues of its notable terrior – where the ocean meets the coastal mountains and its desert conditions – the wines from Paso Robles reflect winemaking in the Wild West.

Cowboys & Cattle Drives

Paso is still one of the most unspoiled communities in this half of the country. It’s not hard to re-imagine its recent past with cowboys and cattle drives, native Americans and cavalry settlements, and 1800s European nobility discreetly hiding in the hills and staking their claim to the new American dream. Paso is authentic Western Americana, and its wines are every bit as wild at heart.

Those of us who know it well are familiar with its East Side – West Side demarcation. Its more recent incarnation is the town-central cul-de-sac known as Tin City, where the young and restless wineries are beginning to draw a crowd of their own. Each of the three areas has its own following: West Side wines have the hills, the slight ocean influence and the volcanic calcareous soils at the root of their operations. These unique soils are super high in limestone, yet vary significantly in Ph and nutrients due to ancient volcanic activity that formed the land. It’s said there are 45 different soil types in Paso’s West Side, and many evident within the same vineyard. This is a blessing and a curse for vineyard managers, but the winemakers delight in what it offers, as nothing is ever the same and its diversity is its strength.

Just across Highway 101 is Paso’s East Side. It’s topography is more even, with far fewer hills, higher temperatures and a rich, loamy soil mixed with clay and sand. The vineyards here tend to stray from the dense Rhones on the West Side and thrive in the production of tannic Bordeaux-style grapes. Plus, the land is flatter, easier to work and more predictable in what it produces. Thus, more of the region’s large commercial operations are planted here, taking up more space and dwarfing the smaller, boutique wineries. But, they are there to find, and very-much worth the time. (We’re are featuring two East Side boutique wineries in the coming shipment, stay tuned for our forthcoming announcement!)

In Paso’s city center is the new Tin City area that mimic’s Santa Barbara’s popular “Wine Ghetto” where smaller, upstart wineries are the hot new kids on the block. These operations often tend toward the new model of not planting a vineyard, rather they cherry-pick from some of the best, large vineyards from both sides. Here’s where you might find the “mad scientists” of the region who stake their reputations on being interesting and daring. The Tin City troop definitely strikes a distinctive new note on the Paso Robles scene.

The thing about Paso Robles is that it’s still a bit wild. It’s authentic, and intriguing, yet ripe with community and warmth.

The wines truly reflect that, though they aren’t really that approachable, at first. Paso wines are for those ready to take the next step. I generally describe them as wines that are not so much as “made” as they are “tamed.”

Let me use the original Paso wine as the example: Zinfandel. When wine began to flourish on the Central Coast in the mid ‘80s, the Santa Barbara Pinot Noirs and Paso Robles Zins are the wines everyone heard about. While Pinot flourished along the temperate south coast, Zinfandel grew wild in the hot and dusty climes of Paso Robles. Zin’s huge grape clusters, thick skin and super-high sugars were a mystery for many winemakers who puzzled as how to corral this exotic grape. Sweet wine was easy, but the Paso Zins had a hidden character found nowhere else in the world. It took a decade, but we all lived through the white Zinfandel curse and were rewarded with today’s great, classic Zins that have become the region’s first milestone.

I believe this odd phenomenon set the tone for Paso’s wine culture today. It’s as if one has to pass through fraternity rush week of winemaking to prosper as a winemaker in Paso. In other words, it’s their right-of-passage in mastering their brand of winemaking. Thus, Paso’s winemakers aren’t afraid of big wines, huge tannins, small yields, dry farming and dropping fruit to increase flavor density. They just invoke their bull whips and tame that wine right into the bottle. Yee Hah!

I reside in Santa Barbara’s wine country, and I love it. Great wineries just down the road. But whenever I can, I grab the wife and kid and head north for a couple days in the Old West of the New World. It’s a vital key component in the wine adventure we all crave, and the perfect companion to lovely and tame Santa Barbara. 

I truly can’t wait to hear what you all have to say when you crack open your first Paso Robles shipment next month. Whatever you might have to report, I’m sure it will be a mouthful!

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