Vintage California | Paso Robles Wine Guide

Paso Robles Wine Guide

Three hours south of San Francisco and three hours northwest of Los Angeles lies the small town of Paso Robles, one of California’s lesser known wine regions. Paso Robles, or simply ‘Paso’, as the locals call it, was until the last few decades, referred to as a “dusty cowboy town”, known for cattle and nut orchards.

Paso Robles has done a lot of growing up since commercial wineries began experimenting in the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, 60 grape varieties are grown here, 40,000 acres are undervine, and just about 200 wineries are in operation. And that’s to say nothing of the food scene. Six Test Kitchen, a recently opened restaurant in the Tin City portion of Paso Robles, just received a Michelin star, making it the first restaurant in the town’s history to achieve this culinary feat.

While Paso Robles isn’t as well known as its neighbors to the north, Napa Valley and Sonoma County, the region is producing some great, if not under the radar wines. Because the region doesn’t have the spotlight on it that Napa and Sonoma do, most of the wineries remain family-owned. Wine lovers looking for a more personalized experience will appreciate the boutique, family-style approach that these wineries embrace.

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Harvest time in a Paso Robles Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Paso Robles AVA

The Paso Robles AVA is expansive. Beginning ten minutes inland, near the coastal town of Cambria, this AVA stretches roughly thirty-five miles east of the Santa Lucia mountains and twenty-five miles from north to south.

In 1983, Paso Robles officially achieved AVA status; and, in 2014, the area was further divided into 11 sub appellations:

  • Adelaida District AVA
  • Creston District AVA
  • El Pomar District AVA
  • Paso Robles Estrella District AVA
  • Paso Robles Geneseo District AVA
  • Paso Robles Highlands District AVA
  • Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA
  • San Juan Creek AVA
  • San Miguel District AVA
  • Santa Margarita Ranch AVA
  • Templeton Gap District AVA

With so many distinct sub-regional qualities, ascribing blanket descriptors to the area is tricky. For a while, most people looked at Paso Robles through an east to west lens, with Highway 101 dividing the two, but that doesn’t quite accurately describe the incredible number of soils and microclimates.

To help make sense of things, here are a few fast facts about the Paso Robles AVA:

  • The Paso Robles AVA has three major geographical features: the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, the Salinas River Valley and the Templeton Gap.
  • Vineyards east of the Salinas River Valley range from 700 to 1,000 feet, and have rolling hillsides. Vineyards to the west range from 850 to 2,000 feet, and are punctuated by small canyons and steep hillsides.
  • Over 45 soil series are found in the Paso Robles, with calcareous soils dominating the terroir.
  • The diurnal change in Paso Robles is massive - the largest in California, in fact - with temperatures swinging 60 degrees or more in a single day. Summer days can easily reach over 100 degrees, while night can cool to 40 degrees.
Paso Robles AVA
The Paso Robles AVA & Sub AVA's - Courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

What type of wine is Paso Robles known for?

One thing that stands out about Paso Paso Robles as a wine region is that it isn’t known for one singular variety the way Napa is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, or the way Sonoma is known for Burgundian-like Pinot and Chardonnay. When it comes to varieties, Paso is hard to pin down. Zinfandel is the area’s heritage grape - planted as far back as 1882 - but there are also Rhone varietals, Bordeaux blends, juicy red blends, and Italian grapes like vermentino and barbera.

Saxum, James Berry, 2007 - #1 wine in the world by Wine Spectator in 2010 and given a perfect score from Robert Parker.

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Smith has achieved an impressive feat: 38 of Saxum’s wines have been scored 95 points or higher by Wine Advocate, that’s in addition to the #1 wine in the world prize by Wine Spectator.

Part of what attracts wine lovers to Saxum wines, besides how well made they are, is the low-key way in which Justin makes his wine: the Saxum wines are quite literally made in an underground garage, in a space with no working bathroom, but a well stocked collection of vinyl records, and a record player, naturally.

Saxum’s GSM blends are hugely popular. Most of the wine is allocation only, and there’s currently a waitlist to join. While a few bottles do make it to restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, these are hard to come.


Stephan Asseo was already a veteran winemaker when he established L’Aventure in Paso Robles in 1998. In 1982, the same year he graduated from L'Ecole Oenologique de Macon, he created Domaine de Courteillac in Bordeaux, and went on to purchase two more wine houses: Chateau Fleur Cardinal and Chateau Robin in the Cotes de Castillion, Bordeaux.

Ultimately, Stephan felt he needed to leave France because the AOC regulations inhibited his craft as a winemaker, and prevented him from producing the type of blends that best represented the grapes he wanted to work with.

On his 127 acre westside property in Paso Robles, Stephan cultivates syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, roussanne, viognier, and grenache blanc for use in his energetic red blends, which he playfully describes as wines where “Rhone meets Bordeaux”.

L’Aventure is a small production winery, producing just 8,000 cases a year. This limited supply, combined with what respected wine critic Jeb Dunnuck calls “thrilling wines”, has made L’Aventure blends high demand wines.

Turley Wine Cellars

Those that know wine, know the Turley name. The brand makes over 50 different wines from 50 different vineyard sites across California, with a laser-focus on heritage Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

Turley Wine Cellars operates in both Amador County and Paso Robles. Unifying both outfits is the respect that owner Larry Turley and winemaker Tegan Passaluqua have for California’s heritage vines. The crown jewel in their Paso Robles portfolio might be the Ueberroth Vineyard, whose vines date back to 1885, making it one of the oldest vineyards in the area.

Ueberroth sits on what Larry Turley considers a perfect vineyard site: three contiguous slopes with calcareous limestone soils and 270 degrees of exposure. The incredible position of the land means that the vineyard receives sunlight throughout the entire morning, afternoon and late afternoon

The old vine Zinfandel from this site is complex, racy and punctuated by an acidic structure. Blue and dark fruits abound. The wines from the Ueberroth Vineyard are powerful, structured and age well.

*Banner photo credit : Courtesy of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance

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