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Proposed new Paso Robles AVAs an object lesson for all of California



I’m glad to see the Tax and Trade Bureau finally has published a notice of proposed rulemaking (bureaucratic phrase-making) to establish 11 new AVAs within the greater Paso Robles appellation.

This means that the public now has the opportunity to weigh in, pro or con, before the Washington pointyheaders make their decision. However, I think it’s fair to say that the cake is in the oven. The new AVAs will be approved.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. The Paso Robles people have been talking about sub-dividing their big AVA (the fifth biggest in California, with 666,000 acres) almost ever since I’ve been a wine writer. At one point, some of them wanted a simple division into east and west, with the 101 Freeway the dividing line. As things turned out, that proposal ended up going nowhere, for a variety of reasons: It really was too simplistic. Can you imagine dividing, say, Napa into east and west, with the Napa River down the median?

Readers of this blog know that while I’m generally a supporter of more refined AVAs, I recognize that sometimes, they make no sense. The most reliable AVA, I’ve always held, is the individual vineyard. Harlan Estate might be an AVA (theoretically, I mean; in reality it never will be) because it shows an absolute consistency of terroir from year to year. Ditto for, say, Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard, always so tannic and brooding, or Rochioli’s West Block Vineyard. But those, too, will never enjoy elevation to AVA status.

In Paso’s case, the appellation is so huge that the subdivision is entirely warranted. For years Paso suffered from the reputation that it was all the same: a hot, broad swathe that extended practically to the Central Valley. That never was the case, but the critical media never took the time to investigate the truth; and when the A team wrote that Paso was too hot for wine, the B and C teams parroted it, as so often occurs in reporting of all kinds, not just wine; and so it became the accepted wisdom. Perception, as they say, is reality.

I plead guilty to that same crime, in part, although I think I was less susceptible to it than some others, mainly because I took the time to visit Paso with some regularity, to get to know the players, young and older, and to sample seriously the wines and listen to the points of view of many vintners and growers. Over the last several years I noticed something exciting happening in Paso Robles that alerted me to the fact that true journalism consists in abandoning one’s preconceived notions (no matter how difficult that may be) and perceiving the world with fresh eyes.

I haven’t at all studied the 11 new AVAs, so I can’t pretend to understand them, much less summarize them. It will take, at any rate, many years, even for the most diligent student, to grasp their intricacies. After all, we’re still working to understand Napa Valley’s sub-AVAs. But this event down in Paso Robles should be celebrated by all wine interests throughout California. When the final approvals go through, Paso Robles will have been the most thoroughly analyzed of all petitioning AVAs in the history of California, and I have no doubt that other big regions will be watching to see how things go. That includes Russian River Valley, another big AVA (the 21st largest in the state), which also is overdue for sub-dividing.

  1. Steve, when you say that an AVA is due for subdividing, what do you base that on? Presumably size alone is not a reason, though it may be an indicator?

  2. Kim: It’s mainly size. A big place like RRV has so many different micro-terroirs.

  3. Jake the snake says:

    11 AVA’s (I believe that they are referring to them as districts) seems like a lot in that area. However, if I were traveling to that area to taste wine, I would find it more interesting with them (the districts) then just Paso.

  4. Kim: I don’t speak for Steve — he already spoke for himself, anyway — but I’d add that with places like Paso Robles and the Russian River Valley they size of the existing AVA doesn’t give wine consumers a clear idea of the area the wine is from. In Paso’s case, the terroir on the west side that has given birth to great wines from now-well-known folks like Saxum is nothing like the “broad swath” of hot terroir Steve mentioned above.

    I was just speaking with a couple of Paso winemakers last night, and they all seemed pleased by the proposed subdivision. Personally, I’m with them… though I’m not a winemaker myself, just a drinker.

  5. Thanks for this article Steve, it’s great.

    This is an interesting topic that has been bouncing around for years! I remember when the ‘Westside’ AVA was first proposed and began the argument over Paso Robles’ sub-division; as I recall, it prompted Gary Eberle and several other well-known Paso winemakers to speak out against this division vehemently. They then took the time (and spent the money) to have a proper scientific assessment completed to back the 11 AVA division, something the proponents of the Westside AVA proposal obviously did not.

    At the same time, Gary Eberle didn’t hesitate to say that dividing Paso Robles was not a good idea at this stage (this stage was several years ago now) because it(was) such a young region still. He regretfully had to make the petition as he felt it was the only way to stop the ‘Westside’ debacle, a clever marketing campaign that got far too out of hand.

    While the ‘Westside’ of Paso Robles does produce some great wines, saying the rest of the region is a ‘broad swath of hot terrior’ is ludicrous. Wineries east of the 101 produce plenty of wines to rival, if not best, their ‘westside’ counterparts.

  6. Thank you for a concise article on this sometimes confusing subject. We are looking forward to the culmination of all the hard work that has gone into this endeavor. POALILLO Vineyards will be in the Willow Creek AVA on the westside. Westside and Eastside alike produce wonderful wines, plan some wine tasting on both sides of the highway to truly get the Paso Robles wine Experience. Susan Poalillo

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