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A tale of two Pasos


Every time I start thinking that Paso Robles has turned the corner on red wine, along comes a bunch that makes me think the bad old days never went away.

First, the good news. I talk up Paso Robles all the time, especially in Napa Valley. You’d be surprised at some of the “names” to whom I say, “They’re doing some fiercely good stuff down there.” Many of them — Napa vintners — are freaked out by the collapse following the third quarter of 2008. For the first time ever, they’re looking over their shoulders; even Paso Robles, for all they know, might be a contender. So they listen. It reminds me of when the French Rhônistes came over here, in the early 1990s. They weren’t exactly worried about the Californians, but they’d heard distant rumblings…maybe they should find out for themselves what was going on.

Napans would do well to pay attention to Paso Robles. We are in game-changing times. Napa Cabernet is not immune to a market turnaround. A Toyota moment always threatens, or threatens to threaten; the current recession may already have dealt a serious blow to über-Cabernets. There’s a lot of Southern California money invested in Paso, the way that Silicon Valley goes to Napa. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Paso Robles — young, aggressive, ambitious — Napa’s smart winemakers want to learn it.

There’s plenty of evidence on the Paso side. At their best, Paso reds are juicy-good and balanced, and if that means they spent a little time inside a spinning cone, so what. Saxum is a good example of how delicious these wines can be, but, as Saxum is so rare and expensive, perhaps a better example is Vina Robles. To  name just one, I reviewed their Signature red blend (Petite Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) last Fall, gave it 93 points, and might have gone higher, I suppose, had I let it play with the air in the glass; but at some point in reviewing, you have to close each chapter and get on with the next.

So that’s the good news, but then come those awful Paso Robles reds, and once again I despair. No names, please. This blog is not the place for that (you can look up my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database, and it won’t cost you a penny). There are wine companies down there that charge $30, $40 and more for red wines that are so terrible, I think of quitting my day job and becoming a coal miner. What goes wrong in Paso Robles?

a. Overripe grapes. There is nothing more disgusting than inhaling a wine and getting a lungful of raw, harsh port.
b. Thinness of fruit due, I suppose, to overcropping. I have nothing against 15% alcohol, in and of itself, but when there’s not enough fat on those bones, the wine is hot and disagreeable.
c. Bizarre acidity. I imagine some winemakers add stuff out of a bag because the wines are too soft. Nothing like unnatural tartness to make the palate gag.
d. Residual sugar. A longtime bugaboo of mine.
e. Uneven ripening. Sometimes you get asparagus. Not pleasant.
f. Uneven tannins. This probably comes from inferior viticulture or from problems at the sorting table (if there is one).

Why do these things happen in Paso Robles but seldom in Napa Valley? I put the question up on my Facebook page and got some interesting comments. Matt Garretson, who used to make wines in Paso, said, “The issue isn’t so much with the raw materials (which are every bit as good, if not better), but has more to do with the intentions/talent of the grower/winemaker. Far too many posers there, IMHO.” Another commenter, John Danby, noted, “Part of the reason you get some less-than-stellar wines in Paso is that it’s still relatively affordable for the dreamers (gotta love ’em), making their own wine and finding their way along. In Napa, if you can afford to be here, you can afford the consulting winemakers, etc.” I agree with both statements.

Paso has its work cut out, but they’ve shown enough critical mass of intelligence and fortitude that I retain hope. Anything can happen.

  1. Were you at the PasoWine tasting event yesterday in San Diego? I was and I walked away with a lot of the same thought/feelings. $45 for this !*?

  2. Steve,

    Interesting blog . . . and I know I’m going to sound like a broken record here . . . but Napa should, in my opinioon, be more concerned with Santa Barbara County at this point, not Paso . . .

    Nothing agaiinst Paso -as you’ve pointed out, there are some tremendous wines being produced there – earth-shattering in fact – but there are also lots of ‘less than stellar’ ones . . . .

    Sure, SB Cty has some less than stellar ones, but IMHO, much much less than up there . . . with plenty of earth-shattering ones down here as well . . .

    AND this area boasts great examples of rhone, burgundian, bordeaux, Italian and Spanish varieties, to name just a few . . . .

    Gotta keep you on the ball, here . . . (-:


  3. Larry, I don’t see Santa Barbara County threatening Napa with Bordeaux varieties anytime soon. I know people are making a big to-do about Happy Canyon, but for me, so far, the evidence isn’t there…not to mention the availability of wine.

  4. Daniel: Exactly.

  5. Steve,

    So let’s leave out Cabs for now . . . you mention the likes of Saxum (no cabs) and Vina Robles (non-traditional blends for sure) . . . hmmmm

    I’m just saying that the wines made in our region IMHO are turning out to be much more consistent than in other parts of the state . . . AND the abundance of different microclimates in our area (from the cool coast of the Sta Rita Hills to the warmth of Happy Canyon; to the cooler, interesting vineyards of the Santa Maria Valley to some of the extraordinary vineyards of the Ballard Canyon area) are quite extensive . . .

    Just a slight rebuttal . . . for now!


  6. Larry, well if you want to go offline I’ll give you the names of some PR wineries (expensive ones) that are making the most awful crapola.

  7. Steve,

    No need to – I could probably guess the list (-:

    Can the same said for similar priced wines in SB Cty? My guess is probably no . . . but I’d be curious to hear what you have to say (-:


  8. Larry just off the top of my head I’d say the quality level in SBC is pretty high. Certainly it is in SHR — less so in SYV and other parts of the county.

  9. I believe Paso Robles is, on average, a tough area to grow a naturally balanced Cabernet Sauvignon. Late ripeners like Cab. S. are not particularly fond of too high mean maximum temperatures, in july and august (94,0/93,6 – Paso Robles; 94,3/95,0 ºF – Las Tablas; with solar radiation levels among the highest on earth), that speed up the maturity process; not allowing grapes hang time enough for tannins to develop properly, and ruining acidity.

  10. PR is more of a threat than SB to Napa because of thier closer location to the Bay area, and because of thier greater propensity to promote and advertise.

  11. Morton Leslie says:

    I think often in the emerging regions there is more of a tendency to try to make wines that impress than wines that taste good.

    Another possible factor is experience. The longer you make wine in a region the more likely you are to stumble on what works and what doesn’t. Or your neighbor will… and you can copy them. If you combine inexperience with a tendency to imitate what successful wineries do in completely different regions thinking they have the secret, the road will be bumpy.

    Take your example of the sorting table. Most young winemakers assume they know what they are doing despite never doing experimental work, like running control lots, to know whether they are improving or worsening the flavor of the wine with their selection on the table. Sure, sorting out rot is a no brainer, but other more “creative sorting,” well you don’t know what you are doing unless you do your homework.

    I am told the novice cider maker who selects all the perfect and most beautiful fruit will surely make an inferior product. But the old pro who throws in the over and under ripe and picks up all the windfalls will make something delicious. It could be the same with wine. You don’t know unless you experiment.

  12. A curious post, Steve, what with all this comparison of appellations that inherently are quite diverse, but most curious, perhaps, because of the lack of any mention whatsoever of zinfandel. I’ve found that Paso Robles is attempting to hang its reputation on cabernet sauvignon and the Rhone varieties because they are deemed noble and because of their undisputed popularity, while at the same time turning its back on zinfandel, which accounts for the area’s early esteem and which continues to be its best wine. Did you not taste any Paso Robles zinfandel? If you did, are they the wines you found so offensive? If so, then you have a story.

  13. Threat to Napa? Not from PR or SBCo.. Has anyone noticed that Napa is about Cab S. and Merlot? There are some pretty good but very ripe wines made with those varieties in PR and SB but not enough to worry about in terms that include “threat”.

    No, the threats to Napa are recession and greed. Those two “threats” are more than enough on their own.

  14. Alvaro Parra says:

    My personal opinion on the topic is that Steve is right about Paso Robles wines in general. There are about 250 wineries in the area and you only hear from 10 of them (if not less than 10) all the time with the high scores coming from the same people.

    High temps are not a problem but the number of eat waves they get in one season, going from 5 in a mild year to up to 10 times in problem seasons all of them lasting between 3 to up to 10 days in a row. This is just one of the problems that grower have to deal with in the Paso area.
    But all this can be mitigated with viticulture and this is the main problem of the area.

    It is all about money and what money can get. Still, there are some great wines coming from Paso but I will love to see more and to get there we need to ask the people from Calpoly to put more money into the Enology and Viticulture programs because is hard for people from Davis and Fresno to leave Napa and Sonoma.

    As for SB, everybody knows that there is potential. But, the same problem with no good schools around and Viticulture and Winemaking still in diapers.

    Good Viticulture is the key for both of this areas success. Until then, Napa and Sonoma are going to keep getting 60% of the fruit from Paso Robles and I don’t know the number for SB, to make their cheaper wines which by the way does not help either.

    Steve, I would love to see the scores and notes on the Paso wines that you have available.

  15. I think this is true of all up and coming areas. Fingers Lakes- Some great Reislings and a lot of really bad wine. Virginia same situation, different grapes. Arizona, TX, etc…

    By the way Morton, sorting grapes is about as challenging/artistic as digging a ditch. Magical insight into sorting doesn’t exist

  16. Alvaro, you can access my scores and notes at Click on “Ratings.”

  17. Paso struggles with Cab Sauv because the soils in the area are wrong for Cab Sauv, but very good for Rhones and Zin and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot show promise. Paso wines are ever improving as folks figure out the micro-climates and blends. Paso’s ethic of constant experimentation results in some morbidly bad wines, but also some wonderful discoveries and wines…

    But you missed the boat, Steve. Napa should be looking over its shoulder and seeing the wines out of the Walla Walla area of Washington. Cheaper land, volcanic soils, incredible quality at times and some fine, fine rising stars.

    I have yet to see a Central Coast Cabernet outside of the Santa Cruz Mountains that proves the regions capability to grow the grape, but would love to hear examples to search out.


  18. Ian, I don’t get to taste many Walla Walla wines, because that is the job of Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest editor, Paul Gregutt. But I know that he holds them in very high esteem.

  19. Ian, I don’t get to taste many Walla Walla wines, since that is the job of Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest Editor, Paul Gregutt. But I know he holds them in high esteem.

  20. Greetings all:
    Ian Brand is right on the money here. Bordeaux varietals were never the hot tip for Paso, except in tiny micro sites like the ones Steven Asseo has found for his L’Aventure… and even he blends Syrah into many of his wines.
    The Paso Robles ethic has always been one of experimentation, and as Brand alludes to, they bomb as often as they succeed. The main reason this group of Europeans from old world wine regions are so successful is they bring a long term vision, and more evolved, evenhanded winemaking style. They have something to teach all of us, no matter what AVA we are reviewing.
    Very rarely do the questionable examples of Paso Robles wines really get traction in the marketplace. There is too much good wine out there…
    That said,
    Price points for the wines more often than not are determined by the need for ROI, or to pay back the bank…not always a wise way to go to market, but a reality for them. They will rise or fall on their own merits (or lack of them…)
    I coauthored “Paso Robles: an American Terroir” with Dr. Tom Rice, out in 2007. I would encourage you all to take a look at the book, and Dr. Rice’s remarkably detailed soil and climate information. Respectfully, there is a lot of misinformation/confusion about the Paso Robles AVA that this book sheds light on, as well as the winery stories, which are as varied as the soils. Website is
    In Vino Veritas…

  21. I do not see the connection between Saxum wines, often sweet and alcoholic rhone blends, and Paso Robles being a threat to Napa Cabs and Merlots. All the same, I do commend Paso Robles for their initiative, professionalism and focus on promoting their region. The Paso Wine Alliance is a great organization, as well.

  22. good article, Steve.. I suspect part of the problems is youth, energetic though it may be.. : ) and maybe playing around with some unfamiliar varietals. but I think we’ll only see better and better wine out of Paso. partly as they mature and partly because they seem to have a very good grower/winemaker relationship.. even the AVA’s fit in nicely instead of being in conflict..

  23. I agree with the fact that the threat to Napa is not coming from Paso or SBC but coming from WA, and even Chile. The top Cabs from WA and Chile are pretty darn good, top notch and coming in around $60. I think Napa got too gready, and thats why they are feeling the recession affects more so than any of us. We cant compete in SBC with cab from Napa, but we sure do Rhone and Burgundian varietals well, and our average prices are $20-$40. What are the average costs of a bottle from Napa? Napa is their own enemy in this day and age, and some of them are starting to figure that out.

  24. bd
    try the saxum 07s or potentially the 05s. they’re a far cry from the 03s, and not syrupy at all.

  25. A tale of two Pasos could just have easily been a tale of 15 Pasos, just based on terroir alone. Paso is easily one of the most bizarre conglomerate of disparate terroirs of any place in the US. Your article could also have been entitled “A tale of 2 Pasos: low yield vs high yield”

    Yes, it fills me with a sense of queasiness when I drive down some lanes and see grapes “cropped” to 10 T/acre. Anyone who has ever spent serious time around a vineyard will know of so and so who has 8-10 T/acre hanging. Sometimes the yields boggle the mind with yields greater than 10T/ac, and when I see vineyards like that I just shake my head and wish it weren’t so. But there is another part of Paso, that is very much in tune with low yields = great wines, assuming terroir is superb…and it is in many places in Paso. Yes, there are some areas where vines never should have been planted. Fruit has no chance of ripening, with way too little sunshine, way too many lbs/vine, poor viticultural practices, lack of knowledge re: what is a good grape and what isn’t and how do they get that way.

    There is a grower’s assn which long time resident and friend, Richard Sauret , has led off and on. He is a zin man, but is absolutely in the camp of low yields as the way to better wines…and in many cases, great wines. He had asked me to come to several meetings because he wanted someone other than himself preaching the “low yield” mantra. I know many of those folks, and declined the offer, because I can never win an argument that it is better to raise lower tonnage/ac for higher dollars than it is higher tonnage for fewer $/ac. Many of these growers have extensive farming experience in grains, (barley, wheat, safflower), and the more tons/acre, the more money at yr’s end.

    Sometimes these grapes don’t get sold here, sometimes they do. But these grapes are going into $5-$6 bottles of wine, and many of these are sold out of the area. The problem is, whoever buys these grapes knows they are going into jug wine, and yes, these high crop loads have given Paso a bad name at times. My argument has always been that quality trumps quantity, but true farmers, not grape growers are a hard sell on this issue. That said, there are also a rapidly growing number of wineries that are signing off on quality and going the low yield route, or having a second label of low end wine to sell beside their high end(low yield ) wines.

    As to Steve’s comments re: $30-$40 for absolute gasoline wine, yes, it gives me heartburn. In many cases this is done where foot / vehicular traffic is high and these ghastly wines can be sold to folks not well versed in wines, typically from LA, or to beginners. One thing I do know is that when these folks finally do buy a good $40 Paso wine, they quickly learn not to revisit the place selling $40 sludge.

    As for the talent level, it has increased exponentially in Paso, but obviously cannot rival that of Napa…yet. The unforeseen recession, which started as a depression, may, however, make it so that Paso can easily rival Napa, in that those $450 bottles of xyz no longer fly off the shelf. Sure there are exceptions, but retail, a $50 bottle is really a tough sell. At eateries, the majority of sales don’t exceed $25. So maybe, inadvertently, the economic crunch is going to even Napa and Paso out a lot sooner than many think, in that there are some terrific wines here in the $50 class that compete admirably with $100 Napa wines. Problem is, that is not ,generally speaking, the market.

    Another huge advantage Paso has over Napa is the number of smaller wineries where wine buyers get to know the growers, vintners, and their families. That is rather commonplace here…in Napa…except in rare cases, fugghedaboudit.

    To the folks who believe Paso can’t grow cabernet, I refer you to an article on a Paso wine made from our vineyard and written up in the “07 (aug or sept) WE, in which Steve said, “I like this wine for the style of the Napa mountain cult Cabs.” (paraphrased as I am not at home, but in SD at the med center). Byington was the winery and the grapes were from Cerro Prieto. In point of fact, Paso has an amazing ability to grow grapes from dozens of microclimates, valleys, mountains, rolling hills, and flatlands. And yes, we can grow most any grape one wants here, but it is essential that one fully understands terroir and which grapes will not grow in one part of the vineyard, and which will thrive there. Many vintners/growers have started out with one variety, only to end up removing some Cab and planting some Pinot or Sauv Blanc, mabe GSM, due to the various soils, microclimates, and exposures.

    If I had to describe Paso it would be a place where fabulous wines can be made from grapes perfect for the region. North county(Paso) has only a few cold valleys where excellent Pinot can be grown. Same for Sauv blanc. But show me a grape growing in Napa and I can show you some viticultural areas that can rival that grape right here in Paso. Our hurdle, if one were to ask , is to change the mindset of those not already converted to low yield. When that happens with a majority of our grapes, THEN Napa will be looking over their shoulder…at Paso.

  26. Mat Garretson says:

    Hey, Steve.

    IMHO, there are bad wines being made everywhere, Napa, Bordeaux, Rioja, etc. It’s just that we don’t hear/read as much about the crap being bottled in more-established regions because we tend to focus on the good. It’s easy to focus on the not-so-good in new/emerging regions.

    Having spent time in Paso and regions around the world, I can say with some conviction that Paso IS a great wine-growing region. It’s just that – as I wrote on your FB page – there are far too few truly knowledgable, talented grape growers and winemakers. At least half of the folks there have know clue how to grow quality fruit, craft exceptional wine, and couldn’t sell a bucket of water to a man whose pants were on fire.

    The barrier to entering the wine trade is much lower (now) in Paso than, say, Napa. As a result there are plenty of posers, landed gentry and nouveau riche who think just ’cause they can stroke a check for a plot of land that they’re qualified for the wine industry.

    Focus on what is good from Paso. THAT’S the story. I shudder to think of what the writers of today would have written about Napa (or Sonoma, or Burgundy, etc.) nased on the first 30 years of winemaking. It’s all there, but needs time.


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