Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Paso Robles, which means “the pass of the oaks”, is a popular destination for wine lovers. A large region covering more than 600,000 acres, Paso Robles has 40,000 planted vineyard acres and more than 200 wineries.
Paso Robles is a large and diverse region. It extends 45 miles from east to west and 25 miles from north to south. Paso Robles is east of the Pacific Ocean, with the closest part of the AVA only six miles from the ocean. Paso Robles extends from Monterey County to the north and the Cuesta Grade to the south and from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west and the Cholame Hills to the east. The Salinas River flows from south to north through the middle of Paso Robles.
There are 64 different grape varieties grown, ranging from Bordeaux and Rhone varieties to Italian and Spanish varieties, as well as Zinfandel. While the entire region enjoys a large diurnal shift from day to night, the landscape varies from river bottoms to rolling hills to benches and mountains. And soils range from calcareous/carbonate-rich to clay soils to sandy loam to siliceous/silica-rich.
We often speak of Paso Robles, which was established as an AVA in 1983, as one large region. But there are differences between the east and the west and from north to south. As a result, in 2007 an independent AVA committee submitted a petition proposing 11 sub-districts. Each of these sub-districts offers something unique which is why Paso Robles can grow so many different grape varieties.
Paso Robles Highland District
Sitting at elevations between 1160 – 2086 feet, the Paso Robles Highland District is one of the higher elevation sub-AVAs in Paso Robles. Located on the southeast side of Paso Robles, the Paso Robles Highland District is 33 miles from the coast. This area has hotter average temperatures during the day but bigger diurnal shifts at night than other sub-districts. Rainfall is low and soils are alluvial washed down from the mountains.
The second-largest AVA covering 60,000 acres, this area is home to many cattle ranches. Because it is mainly a farming area, there is not a large population and there are no wineries or tasting rooms. The first vines were planted in the 1970s and there are three major vineyards: Shell Creek Vineyard, Shandon Hills Vineyard, and French Camp Vineyards. As a warm area, varieties like Sirah, Petit Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chenin Blanc thrive here.
Thacher Winery 2020 Chenin Blanc, Shell Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles Highland District, Paso Robles ($36)
Sherman Thacher of Thacher Winery started sourcing own-rooted Chenin Blanc (planted in 1972) and Valdigue in 2017 from the Paso Robles Highlands. The Chenin Blanc is pressed straight to tank and native yeast fermentation takes place in amphora and neutral barrels. Grapefruit, pear, and granite aromas lead to a wine with a lovely oily texture and a salty finish with lively acidity that runs down the palate.
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The Creston District is located to the west of the Paso Robles Highlands District. It is a large area at 47,000 acres. There are approximately 1500 planted acres. Creston is a hilly area with elevations of 1000-2000 feet and soils are a mix of granitic and sedimentary rocks. Bordeaux varieties, as well as Syrah and Petit Sirah, thrive in this slightly cooler area.
Vina Robles 2017 Petite Sirah, Creston Valley Vineyard, Paso Robles ($46)
Established in 1996 by Swiss friends Hans Nef and R. Michel, Vina Robles owns six vineyards in Paso Robles. The Creston Valley Vineyard, first planted in 2000, is 328 acres planted on rolling hills. The Petite Sirah, handpicked from an elevated block with chalky soils, is fermented in stainless steel and aged for 20 months in French and Hungarian oak. The full-bodied wine has notes of dark black fruit, earth, and five-spice and a long finish.
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San Juan Creek District
San Juan Creek District is located on the east side of Paso Robles, north of the Paso Robles Highland District. With elevations of 900-1600 feet, the soils are a mix of mudstone, sandstone, and lots of rocks. There are over 3000 acres under vine out of the 26,000 acres in this area. Sitting in a rain shadow of the Santa Lucia Coast Range, this area is warmer than areas to the west and is where Bordeaux varieties thrive.
Clayhouse 2018 Petite Sirah, Paso Robles ($36)
The Clayhouse estate Red Cedar Vineyard sits within two sub-AVAs, San Juan Creek and Paso Robles Estrella District. The Petite Sirah is fermented in stainless steel and aged for 20 months in French oak. The wine has a pretty nose with aromas of mulberry, blackberry, spice, chewy tannins, and a spicy finish.
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Paso Robles Estrella District
The largest sub-AVA in Paso Robles with 67,000 acres, the Estrella River is a dry riverbed that cuts diagonally through the district. The area is predominantly valley floor but there are hills to the north with elevations ranging from 745 to 1800 feet above sea level. Many of the early Paso wine pioneers, such as Gary Eberle and J. Lohr, planted vineyards in the Estrella District where the warm air is cooled by the sea breezes through the Templeton Gap.
Villa San-Juliette 2019 Alicante Bouschet, Estrella District, Paso Robles ($40)
The Villa San-Juliette vineyard is a SIP-certified 130-acre property with 12 varieties planted. The Alicante Bouschet, a cross between Grenache and Petit Bouschet, is a beautifully balanced wine with aromas of red fruits, plum, tobacco, spice, and lots of acidity.
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San Miguel District
Located on the north side of Paso Robles, just west of the Estrella District, the San Miguel District’s northern boundary is the county line between Monterey and San Luis Obispo.
Bisected by the Salinas River, as well as the confluence of the Estrella River and Nacimiento River, soils in the San Miguel district are alluvial deposits of gravel, sand, and silt. With elevations ranging from 580 to 1000 feet, the San Miguel District is the windiest, warmest, and driest in Paso Robles.
Paso Robles Geneseo District
The Paso Robles Geneseo District is in the center of the Paso Robles AVA. The district consists of 17,300 acres and was first planted in the late 1800s, but major plantings took place in the 1970s and 1980s.
Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery is farmed by the seventh generation of the Ernst family who came to Paso Robles in 1884.
Gary Eberle was gathering data for the viticulture and soil science departments at US Davis when he discovered Paso Robles in the 1970s. He was drawn to the region due to its weather and soil.
A warm area with silty clay and clay loam soils, the Geneseo District gets cooled by the Templeton Gap and sits in the rain shadow of the mountains where there is very little rain. Elevations range from 740 to 1300 feet above sea level.
Cass Winery 2021 Roussanne, Paso Robles ($35)
Cass Vineyard was established in 2005 in the southeast corner of the Geneseo District. There are 145 acres planted with twelve grape varieties. Cass grows a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon but specializes in Rhone varieties and winemaker Sterling Kragten believes it is a great region for white Rhone grapes. The Roussanne is fermented in stainless steel and has a fresh fruit nose of apples, pears, stone fruit, honeydew, and citrus. The wine coats the palate but is delicate with lots of bright acidity.
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El Pomar District
In the center of the Paso Robles AVA, just south of the Geneseo District, El Pomar District encompasses 21,300 acres, with just over 2000 under vine. Located on the east side of the Templeton Gap, El Pomar, which means “the ranch”, is a relatively cool region due to the marine layer and wind that blows through. There are approximately 30 wineries in this district, and they are planted on rolling hills with alluvial soils.
Sextant Wines 2018 El Pomar Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($125)
Owners Craig and Nancy Stoller developed their 100-acre estate RBZ Vineyard in the El Pomar District in 2001. The El Pomar Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 100 percent new French oak, has notes of black berries, black plum, cocoa, and graphite and fresh acidity washes across the palate.
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Templeton Gap District
To the west of El Pomar District is the Templeton Gap District. The Templeton Gap is an east/west corridor where the wind cuts through the Santa Lucia Mountains. This depression, or gap, in the hills, allows cool air to spill through to flow over the vineyards. While El Pomar and Creston Districts also benefit from this cool air, the Templeton Gap District is much windier. Elevations of 700-1800 feet and shallow alluvial soils are found here, and the growing season is longer.
Castoro Cellars 2020 Falanghina, Paso Robles ($30)
Niels and Bimmer Udsen founded Castoro Cellars in 1983 and Tom Myers joined as winemaker in 1990. With 1500 acres planted across the Templeton Gap and Estrella Districts, Castoro is the largest organic vineyard in Paso Robles. Niels Udsen discovered Falanghina on a trip to Italy and planted it in their Whale Rock Vineyard in the Templeton Gap. The wine is very aromatic with floral and tropical notes, incredible minerality, and a long finish.
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Paso Robles Willow Creek District
Compared to the rest of Paso Robles, Willow Creek District has cool weather, cooled by the wind from the Templeton Gap and by the fog from the coast. With elevations between 940-1900 feet, Willow Creek District is a mountainous area with limestone soils that give energy to the wines. This is a late-ripening AVA. The longer hang time enables more flavor development in the grapes.
The Willow Creek District has 1400 acres under vine and approximately 20 wineries including L’Aventure, Denner Vineyards, Booker Vineyard, Caliza, Paix Sur Terre, and Clos Selene. Several of the wineries feature on this list of the best Paso Robles wineries to visit.
Denner 2019 Cirrus Grenache Willow Creek District Paso Robles ($85)
Ron Denner purchased the property in 1997 and today has 130 acres consisting of seven white grapes (Rhone varieties and Vermentino) and thirteen red grapes (Tempranillo, as well as Rhone and Bordeaux varieties). The Cirrus is 84% Grenache with 9% Mourvedre and 7% Cinsaut. The grapes undergo native fermentation, 50% whole cluster, and spend 20 months in 75% concrete tank and 25% in used barrels. This is gorgeous Grenache with floral, cherry, raspberry, and cinnamon aromas that is beautifully elegant on the palate with a savory finish.
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Moving north from Willow Creek, Adelaida District is six miles from the ocean and the most northwestern sub-district. The district encompasses 53,000 acres and is defined by its mountainous topography. Soils are primarily calcareous, but marine sediment and limestone can also be found. The Adelaida District has the highest elevations at 2,200 feet and sees more rain than other parts of Paso Robles.
Brecon Estate 2019 Tannat, Adelaida, Paso Robles ($67)
Born in Wales, Damian Grindley sought out his property for its proximity to the ocean while still having calcareous soils. The estate vineyard is a 40-acre estate with 26 planted acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Tannat. Tannat is an unusual grape variety with 4 seeds resulting in a wine with intense colors and tannins. This Tannat was intense in color but has a very pretty, elegant, fresh nose with beautiful acidity balanced with lightly drying tannins.
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Santa Margarita Ranch
Santa Margarita Ranch is in the southernmost part of the Paso Robles AVA, covering 18,000 acres. Located on a valley floor, elevations range from 900-1400 feet above sea level. The Salinas River borders the northern boundary and Santa Margarita Ranch is surrounded by mountains on three sides. Sitting against the Santa Lucia Mountains, the soils are marine sedimentary, as well as granitic rock and sandy loam.
Ancient Peaks 2018 Oyster Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ($60)
The Margarita Vineyard, planted in 1999, is the only vineyard in the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA and there are 1000 planted acres spread across six miles. It is located 15 miles from the ocean and nine miles north of Edna Valley. Ancient Peaks was established in 2006 and Mike Sinor is the founding winemaker. The grapes for the Oyster Ridge blend come from specific spots on the Margarita Ranch that have sea fossils in the soils. The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon is medium-bodied with bright red fruit and herbal notes and fresh, mouthwatering acidity.
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Allison Levine is the owner of Please The Palate, a boutique marketing and event-planning agency. Allison is Level 3 WSET Certified from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and is certified as an Italian Wine Specialist from the North American Sommelier Association. She also has a Master's Degree in International Communications with a focus on cross-cultural training from the American University School of International Service. As a freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications, including California Winery Advisor and the Napa Valley Register, while eating and drinking her way around the world. She is also the host of the Wine Soundtrack podcast. You can find additional content on her blog at Please The Palate; Twitter and Instagram @plsthepalate; Facebook: Please The Palate