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The Paso Robles AVA - Too Big to File

Tightly defined AVAs help both consumers and experts understand what to expect when opening a bottle of wine. You can categorize Carneros as moderately-cool climate and file the Mokelumne River AVA of Lodi under rich, ripe Zinfandel. But the Paso Robles AVA is too big to file. It’s the largest appellation in California that doesn’t itself contain any smaller AVAs. At roughly 614,000 square acres, it’s more than half the size of Rhode Island.

Being a huge AVA doesn’t necessarily have an impact on wine quality, nor does it make individual wines less distinctive. But the size makes it harder for consumers to know what they are going to get when they buy a bottle from that AVA. This is especially true with Paso Robles because there are substantial differences in climate, soil, terrain, farming practices and vineyard size between its various districts.

Vineyard altitudes go from from 700 feet to 2,000. Average annual rainfall ranges from eight inches to 45. (25 inches is the lower limit for viable “dry farming.”) Proximity to the Pacific Ocean and it’s cooling influences runs from less than 10 miles to almost 40. There are 45 different soils series in the AVA. There deep soils and thin, flat vineyards with mechanized viticulture and steep slopes hand-tended by the owners themselves.


Yesterday I wrote about the Mount Veeder AVA of Napa Valley. Its wide array of red varietal wines are united and identifiable by a similar tannic structure. The present Paso Robles AVA works for differentiating its wines from those of many others, such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Lodi, etc. However, in my view, it is too big for there to be a clear common thread between its wines, even for a single variety. That means that, unless the consumer knows the particular winery well, she won’t really know what to expect when opening a bottle of Paso Robles AVA wine.

The gamut of Paso Robles wines was brought home to me once again by yesterday’s Paso Robles Wine Country Grand Tasting Tour in San Francisco. 29 producers were on hand, each pouring at least four wines. There were high-volume wineries and low, critics' darlings and mass consumer favorites. Most every part of the AVA was represented in some fashion.

The wines were all well-made and, when made as a varietal, representative of their grape given the style and vineyard locations. But there was no umbrella under which you could put most of the red wines or most of the white, nothing that would describe their joint character in a way that is both consistent and uniquely identifiable. Ripe fruit and soft tannins would apply to the majority of reds but would also describe red wines from much of California.

Looking deeper though, diving into sub-regions, it was easy to associate differences consistent with geography. The Syrah-based wines of L’Aventure, Alta Colina and Eberle come from very different areas, three points on a large triangle. The wines are all quite good and also distinct from each other. But there were clear similarities in Cabernet-based wines from Justin and Halter Ranch, which are located near each other.

There’s also an epic difference between very high-volume productions, largely made possible by warm, irrigated and expansive vineyards on the east side, and the low-production wines of small, dry-farmed vineyards in the Templeton Gap. The differences aren’t based on geography alone. Intended price point and audience influence viticultural and winemaking decisions. However, the sub-region does limit the range of viable price points. Some areas can’t profitably produce an $8 red. Others are incapable of producing a Syrah that can fetch $85.

The TTB has been reviewing a petition for subdivision of the Paso Robles AVA since 2007. It would create 11 distinct and logical sub-AVAs. Three years older than the next-oldest petition still pending, adoption may finally be near. Steve Lohr of J. Lohr winery has been one of the leaders in the fight for this proposal. Yesterday he said he expects approval will come late this year.

Will so many AVAs be confusing? I don’t think so. A conjunctive labeling rule will require the overall Paso Robles AVA be listed on all wine labels along with whichever sub-AVA that may apply. Napa Valley has such a rule. It means casual consumers will be no worse off than before. For enthusiasts, it will be much easier to “know” 11 AVAs than the defining characteristics of wines from 185+ different Paso wineries, not to mention producers based elsewhere that buy Paso fruit.

My focus yesterday was on examining differences and similarities between the various wines and on talking to producers, not on scoring or detailed notes. Nor did I taste every wine. Therefore, I’m not offering any tasting notes here. However, the following wines were highlights and I highly recommend them.

2011 Adelaida Cellars Chardonnay HMR Estate Vineyard Paso Robles AVA, $40

2010 Alta Colina GSM Paso Robles AVA, $38

2010 Alta Colina Syrah Toasted Slope Paso Robles AVA, $38

2011 Eberle Winery Viognier, Mill Road Vineyard Paso Robles AVA, $23

2009 Eberle Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Paso Robles AVA, $34

2010 J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon Hilltop Vineyard Paso Robles AVA, $35

2009 J. Lohr Cuvée POM Paso Robles AVA (Merlot-centric blend), $50

2010 Justin Justification Paso Robles AVA, $45

2010 Justin Isoceles Paso Robles AVA, $62

2010 L’Aventure Optimus Paso Robles AVA (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot), $45

2010 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc Paso Robles AVA, $40

2010 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Paso Robles AVA, $55

2008 Vina Robles Syrée Paso Robles AVA (Syrah, Petite Sirah), $39


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