On fabled California highway 101, south of San Jose, the road passes through Monterey County, past endless rows of field crops, then open countryside studded with oil rigs around King City, and finally, the blacktop rolls across the invisible border into San Luis Obispo County and the temperature begins to rise.
An aside. A number of years ago, I was on another trip down 101, bound for Paso Robles. I had heard that what was rumored as "the largest contiguous vineyard in the world," was near King City, and, as it turns out, San Bernabe Vineyard was on the way.
Delicato Winery owns San Bernabe and the vineyard is big. In fact, there are places in San Bernabe where all you see is row upon row of vines, in all directions, as far as the eye can see.
The vineyard manager kindly offered to show me around, so we climbed into his truck, and after rumbling up and down a few dirt tracks, I spotted what looked like a monster mechanical grape harvester, resting at the end of multiple rows of vines. The unwieldy-looking machine, appeared to be a mash up of 10 or 12 harvesters, in a kind of Rube Goldberg-like contraption.
"What is that," I asked the vineyard manager?
He smiled and said, "That...is a big mistake. Some of the vineyard guys thought, if you can pick a single row in one pass with a single harvester, why not multiple rows with a gang of harvesters.
"Sounded like a good idea on paper, but when the tractor pulled it to the end of the rows, the turn-around space was way too small, so the harvester made one pass and now is a rusting conversation piece."
Back on 101, the town of Paso Robles is just ahead. Outside my non-air-conditioned VW Beetle, it was blistering hot.
An anonymous person once wrote: "History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there." To that, I would add that to know the essence of something is to know its history.
Since the late 19th century, when disappointed former gold seekers arrived in the area, looking to improve their luck at farming and grape growing, "Paso," as the area became known, has become a thriving wine region. Today, there are more than 200 wineries, growing 60 varieties, and successfully dealing with the heat.
|Mission San Miguel Archangel|
There is a lot of different facets to the history of Paso Robles, all of which influenced the development of the region's wine business. In 1797, Franciscan friars planted grapes, for sacramental (and personal pleasure) at Mission San Miguel Archangel. Then, in the 1880s, Paso's wild west reputation as an outlaw hangout had the bad guys drinking Red Eye and red wine.
Moving forward to the 1920s, the famous Polish concert pianist, Ignace Paderewski, planted Zinfandel near Adelaida and in 1955, James Dean, at the tender age of 24, crashed his Porsche Spyder near Chalome, not far from Paso Robles.
Two Sides to Paso
Since the early 1970s, when pioneers like Gary Eberle began making Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, at Estrella River Winery, east of Paso town, the sprawling east side has attracted winemakers and growers interested in Cabernet, Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. The region may have been known for high-octane Zinfandel, as far back as the 1930s, but today Cab has eclipsed Zin in planted acreage.
The thing about Paso Cabernet that makes it so appealing is high ripe fruit and low tannin, but still enough acidity and tannin to balance the wines and make them interesting. It's the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, drawing in cool breezes, that lower nighttime temperatures, pushing the grapes to maximum flavor. The diurnal shift is an impressive 50F, more than enough to fully ripen grapes.
On the west side of town, it's a different story. Cabernet and Merlot share vineyard space with a range of Rhone varieties, like Syrah and Grenache. The Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame and their U.S. partner, the late Robert Haas, are credited with introducing Rhone varieties at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Since the winery and vine nursery opened in 1989, Rhone whites like Marsanne and Roussanne have surpassed Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in new plantings.
For more than 20 years, Paso Robles Rhone-style wines have been showcased at Hospices du Rhone, held in Paso Robles town. In April 2024, the next Hospices du Rhone will be held in Walla Walla, Washington. For details, go to hospicesdurhone.org.
Connecting with Paso Wines
Robles, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a good place
for an overnight break and a reason to visit a few wineries before
resuming your journey.
All the information you need about where to taste wine, dine and stay the night is available at Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and its "Paso Wine" app that can be downloaded on Apple and Android devices. Also, go to pasowine.com and read my "Paso Robles Reds" blog, March 16, 2023.
Next blog: Savoring Soave
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