Paso Robles From our Perspective

Wine and wineries were not always a big deal here. Forty years ago there were three wineries here. The first Paso Robles Wine Festival over 25 years ago had a single-digit number of participants. Blame it all on Max & Steve Goldman, Dr. Stan Hoffman and Gary Eberle but now there are over 200 bonded wineries in Paso Robles. I watched it happen, even took part in its growth in various capacities, but never did I imagine that Paso Robles, which its high school graduates saw as a place to leave if one wanted to advance in the world, would become a wildly successful tourist destination offering employment to thousands of its residents.

Were it not for the wine industry here, I believe downtown Paso Robles would look like many of its neighboring railroad towns, decaying or worse. What Hoffman and his sons did at HMR (the vineyard is now part of Adelaida) and Eberle and his brothers did at Estrella (now Meridian) back in the seventies would be unthinkable now. They dreamed that Paso Robles could not only grow premium wine grapes but turn them into wines which could rival their Napa Valley counterparts. It sounded crazy and it wasn’t easy, especially when the prime interest rate was in the mid-teens, but they broke the mold (The Goldmans purchased the existing York Mountain Winery and elevated its quality exponentially.)

Over the years the grain fields, pastures and almond orchards of the North County have given way to vineyards. Wine grapes are now the number one agricultural product in San Luis Obispo County and there are a lot of high dollar row crop operations in the South County. When I was in college and would meet someone who actually knew where Paso Robles was they would invariably say “I got a traffic ticket, flat tire, ran out of gas (pick one) there once . God it was hot there.” Now those same people come here on purpose. “It’s a dry heat,” they’ll say now over an Original margarita at Villa Creek, echoing--perhaps unknowingly--the same lame phrase that generations of native Roblans uttered before them when asked how they could possibly live in such a Hell hole as this.

Paso Robles and the upper (in elevation not geography) Salinas Valley is blessed with and bathed in sunshine. Typically we have fewer than 50 cloudy days a year. Rainfall is variable by specific location within Paso Robles (according to its airport whose rain gauge many locals wryly observe is “in a hanger somewhere”) receiving 12-15 inches a year on average. The York Mountain area (The U.S.’s smallest AVA) a few miles west of Paso usually averages three times that much. The now-famous Templeton Gap falls somewhere in between those ranges.

This being noted, Paso Robles has gone more than twenty consecutive months with no measurable rainfall several times in my lifetime. In 1998 when I was trying to get my deli and wine shop off the ground it rained thirteen inches in March with 5 inches coming in one day. So much for long-range planning. The weather in Paso Robles is variable but never boring. As I write this (August 2010) we are experiencing one of the coolest summers on record; this morning started out with heavy fog and a little drizzle--not what we would call normal August weather. A couple of years ago we had four consecutive days over 110 degrees in June at our place. Two weeks later the high was in the low seventies. In matters of climate control the Pacific Ocean which is about 16 miles by air from us wins most arguments. It can warm us in the winter and cool us down on a Summer night. It gives us almost all of our rain or keeps it back and sends it north. 2009 brought us 5.8”, 2010 over 21”. Meteorologists don’t sleep well here.

Variability notwithstanding, it turns out that the Paso Robles viticultural area can be a jolly good spot to grow wine grapes. It generally lacks the humidity which sometimes plagues Napa and Sonoma. The great Pacific Air Conditioner gives us far cooler summer nights than the San Joaquin Valley. This evening cooling helps preserve acidity in wine grapes which contributes to a balanced wine. Any wine-growing region’s grower’s association will spin their climate and soils as “nearly perfect,” and you would expect them to. Our weather’s pretty good and while it’s not perfect, it’s close.

The Paso Robles appellation is rather large and in some folk’s mind somewhat misleading as it encompasses a fairly broad span of temperatures, soil types and topography. In recent years there have been several efforts to create newer sub-appellations such as West Side but none have been approved by the Feds or whole-heartedly embraced by the growers here. Another proposal floated fairly recently would have created as many as a dozen sub-appelations. The problem here is that several east-of-the-Salinas-River vineyards have climates and soils similar to Westside vineyards. The Templeton Gap area which Robert Parker has annointed with “Grand Cru” potential could be argued to extend several miles to the east of the river.

Compounding the Eastside-Westside so-called debate are some harsh realities. The Eastside may indeed generally be hotter but it has the water. Many Westside vineyards have water quantity issues made worse by a 2009 rain year that was virtually non-existent. Wineries are perhaps even greater users of water than vineyards are and many new winery projects have opened up on the Westside such as Denner Winery and Vineyards where our wines are made. Wineries here are assiduous and obsessive about water use both by preference and law as San Luis Obispo county continues to develop rural water use standards. Waste not, want not. Newer wineries have water reclamation processing capabilities undreamed and unheard of twenty years ago. Used water is recycled out into the vineyard or landscaping as much as possible.

(Update 2013). Turns out that water availability has become a hot topic in northern San Luis Obispo basin. A number of eastside residential wells have gone dry and it has been said that vineyard and wineries are drawing up to 65% of all water from the Paso Robles Basin--which is generally bounded by the Salinas river on the west. The last two rainfall years have been woefully low with 2012-13 yielding less than five inches in most areas above the basin. This does not help matters. The county's most widely-circulated newspaper recently ran a week-long series on the need for action from the county board of supervisors to do something about this "emergency." I am old and cynical enough to know that any time politicians of any stripe get involved in subjects like this it seems that little meaningful solutions results and a lot of nerves will be frayed before this issue is decided. More to come.