The Rich Wine History of El Paso de Robles
Paso Robles was named for its local oak trees, El Paso de Robles: The Pass of the Oaks. The name was shortened to Paso Robles when California gained its independence from Mexico in the mid 1800s.
Today, Paso Robles is home to more than 100 wineries and 26,000 vineyard acres focusing on premium wine production. The distinct micro-climates and diverse soils, combined with warm days and cool nights, make growing conditions ideal for producing more than 40 wine varieties from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne, to Zinfandel, the area’s heritage wine variety.
Paso Robles has a rich history of winemaking and grape growing beginning in 1797 when the first wine grapes were introduced to Paso Robles by the Franciscan missionaries at the historic Mission San Miguel Arcangel, where Father Junipero Serra planted more than a thousand vines. The Padres produced wine for sacramental purposes and made brandy for export.
After Mexico secularized the California missions in the 1840s the vineyards were abandoned until European immigrant farmers started to arrive in the 1860s, following California’s independence in 1850. The first was a Frenchman, Pierre Hippolyte Dallidet, who purchased the mission’s suffering vines and started new ventures. More Europeans showed up in the 1870s starting with Englishman Henry Ditmas who started the area’s first vineyard importing Zinfandel and Muscat grapes from France and Spain for his 560 acre Rancho Saucelito.
1880s to 1920s
Commercial winemaking was introduced in 1882 when Indiana rancher Andrew York began planting vineyards on his 240-acre homestead. Within a few years, he found that the vines were yielding more than he could market, prompting him to establish Ascension Winery, known today as York Mountain Winery. The family planted some of the area’s earliest Zinfandel vines, making Paso Robles famous for this variety. York initially sold his wines mostly in San Luis Obispo and eventually as far away as San Francisco. Today, York Mountain Winery remains the oldest winery in continuous operation in the county.
Following York’s early success in the wine business, immigrant farming families settled in the area. In 1884 the Ernst family arrived from Geneseo, Illinois, and over the next 20 years planted 25 varieties of wine grapes made into wines receiving wide acclaim. In 1886, Gerd Klintworth planted a vineyard in the Geneseo/Linne area and produced the first white wine in the region. In 1890, Frenchman Adolf Siot planted Zinfandel west of Templeton. In the 1920’s, Italian families starting vineyards included Dusi, Martinelli, Vosti and Bianchi – many of which are still being farmed today by third and fourth generations of their families.
The Casteel vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted just prior to 1908. Casteel wines were stored and aged in a cave cellar. Cuttings from the old vines provided the start for other vineyards still producing in the area today.
As the popularity of wines began to grow, so did the Paso Robles wine region. Lorenzo Nerelli purchased a vineyard at the foot of York Mountain in 1917. His Templeton Winery was the area’s first to be bonded following the repeal of Prohibition.
1920s and 1930s: Zinfandel
There was a flurry of viticultural activity in the early 1920s when several families immigrated to the area to establish family vineyards and wineries. The Dusi family purchased a vineyard in 1924; these old head-pruned Zinfandel vines are now owned and cultivated by their son, Benito. The Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Bianchi vineyards were also established around this time. Frank Pesenti also planted Zinfandel on his property in 1923, with the guidance of their neighbor Siot, although the Pesenti Winery was not bonded until 1934.
The Paso Robles wine region gained more notoriety when Ignace Paderewski, the famous Polish statesman and concert pianist, visited Paso Robles, became enchanted with the area, and purchased 2,000 acres. In the early 1920s, he planted Petite Sirah and Zinfandel on his Rancho San Ignacio vineyard in the Adelaida area. When Prohibition ended, Paderewski’s wine was made at York Mountain Winery. The wines produced from grapes grown on Rancho San Ignacio went on to become award-winners and Paso Robles’ reputation as a premier wine region grew.
Of any variety, Zinfandel had a strong influence on the early growth and development of the wine industry in Paso Robles. It remains a key wine varietal for several wineries, including, among others, Peachy Canyon Winery, Turley Wine Cellars, Tobin James Cellars, Norman Vineyards, Castoro Cellars and Nadeau Family Vintners.
1960s and 1970s: Cabernet Sauvignon, Large Plantings
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a new generation of vineyard pioneers in the Paso Robles area, bringing university training and financial resources for large plantings. Dr. Stanley Hoffman, under the guidance of U.C. Davis and legendary enologist Andre Tchelistcheff, planted some of the region’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on his 1,200-acre ranch next to the old Paderewski Ranch in the hills of Adelaida, about five miles west of town. His Hoffman Mountain Ranch Winery (a portion now owned by Adelaida Cellars) was the first large-scale modern facility in the area and one that created a stir in international wine circles in the 1970s with his Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet Sauvignon remains the leading varietal for the Paso Robles appellation, accounting for 30 percent of the region’s planted wine grape acreage. Due to the intense varietal character of wine grapes grown in this diverse appellation, Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon wines consistently garner national and international acclaim, including, among others, J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, Treana Winery, Adelaida Cellars, and Chateau Margene.
New wine grape growers also began to cultivate the first large plantings on the east side of the Salinas River. Bob Young planted the area’s first large scale commercial vineyard, now known as Rancho Dos Amigos on Shandon Heights. Herman Schwartz, managing partner for a group of investors, planted the 500-acre Rancho Tierra Rejada in 1973. From 1973 to 1977 Gary Eberle and Cliff Giacobine planted 700 acres, including the first modern commercial acreage of Syrah in the state, and established Estrella River Winery, the largest winery in the area (purchased in 1988 by Nestle/Beringer).
1980s: Large Scale Wineries
Recognizing the area’s unique yet very diverse terroir, the 614,000-acre Paso Robles American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) and 6,400-acre York Mountain AVA were established in 1983.
Large corporate vineyards and wineries continued to be established in Paso Robles in the 1980s as growers recognized the favorable topography and generous climate allowed them to grow high-quality wine grapes at higher yield levels than was possible in other appellations. In 1988, J. Lohr, whose winery owns over 1,900 acres of vineyards in the area and produces 400,000 cases annually, expanded into Paso Robles to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other red varietals. Meridian, now owned by Beringer Blass, was also established in 1988. With 3,500 vineyard acres in California and annual production at 1.1 million cases, it is the largest of Paso Robles AVA wineries.
Mid-size wineries were also established during this period. In 1982, Arciero Vineyards/EOS Estate Winery, now with over 700 acres and production at 160,000 cases, pioneered the planting of several premium Italian varietals. In 1983, Wild Horse Winery was bonded and now produces 135,000 cases with an average of 15 different varietal wines each year, including their flagship Pinot Noir and a number of heirloom varietals -- the largest spectrum of varietal wines to be found in any tasting room in the area. Treana Winery, owned by the Hope family, was established in 1996 and now produces 160,000 cases between the Treana and Liberty School brands. Originally called Hope Farms, the family planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Paso Robles in 1978 and sourced their fruit to Napa.
1990s to present: International Investment, Rhones and Bordeaux
Although Gary Eberle planted Syrah in the mid 1970s, and provided plant material from that vineyard to many winemakers in the state, Rhone varietals did not form an important part of Paso Robles’ identity until 1989. That year, the Perrin family (of the Rhone Valley’s Chateau de Beaucastel, revered producer of Chateauneuf-du-Pape) and their American importer Robert Haas established their international joint venture, Tablas Creek Vineyard in the limestone hills of the Adelaida region northwest of town. With 80 acres planted to the traditional varieties of Chateauneuf du Pape, Tablas Creek imported exclusive clonal material from the Rhone Valley, and made those clones available to other interested growers around the state. As a result, in addition to being a top producer of premium Rhone wines, Tablas Creek has evolved into a full-fledged vine nursery supplying cuttings of Rhone varietals to wineries all over California.
Since 1989, Paso Robles has seen an explosion of plantings of Rhone varieties. Now, in addition to the first Syrah plantings in California, it also has the largest acreage of Syrah, Viognier and Rousanne. Acres planted under Rhone varieties jumped from fewer than 100 acres in 1994 to more than 2,000 in 2005. During that time, at least 10 wineries focusing on Rhone varieties were established. Feeding the trend has been the Paso Robles-based Hospice du Rhone, the largest celebration of Rhone wines in the world attended each year by 3,000 enthusiasts and an A-list of Rhone producers from all over the world.
Since the early 1990s, Paso Robles wines have proven consistent gold medal winners and have been featured regularly in the top rankings of national and international wine reviews. A milestone in the worldwide recognition of Paso Robles Wine Country as a premier wine region came in 1997 when Justin Vineyards & Winery’s Bordeaux-style Isosceles was named one of the top 10 wines in the world by the Wine Spectator.
2000s: Boutique Wineries, Hospitality Centers
In the last nine years, the number of wineries in Paso Robles Wine Country has exploded mostly due to an influx of boutique and small family owned vineyards and wineries. The appellation’s burgeoning reputation has also seduced a number of winemakers from France, Australia, South Africa and Switzerland eager to find New World applications for their wine making skills. The result is that many young boutique wineries are quickly gaining recognition and a following for their innovative and proprietary Paso Robles blends of Bordeaux, Rhone and Zinfandel varietals. While the number of small wineries has grown, several mid to larger size operations have been building a hospitality focus for their showcase wineries. In addition to their tasting facility.
And the future looks bright. The most influential members of the wine press urge their readers to discover the wines from Paso Robles. Stephen Tanzer of International Wine Cellar asserts that “Paso Robles in particular is in the midst of a grape growing boom, led by a handful of young winemakers who are crafting rich and satisfying wines from Rhone Valley varieties.” Wine Advocate, Robert M. Parker, Jr. agrees: “there is no question that a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley.”