Zinfandel (red, not white, as I’ve told many a server) is one of my very favorite wines. Zin is the extrovert of the wine varietals. It doesn’t hold anything back — it’s right there, in your face, giving you everything it’s got. As an introvert, I’m always drawn to the extroverts. I want to be bold too, and I love things (and people) that aren’t afraid to be over the top. Zinfandel is the life of the party. I do appreciate subtler wines (I appreciate just about every wine), but they take more work to get to know. You’ve got to wait for them to mature, to open up. Sometimes you can learn a lot from them, but sometimes you don’t want to put in the extra effort. A good Bordeaux or Burgundy is the great conversationalist at a dinner party. The Zin is at the bar, yelling, “WOOOOOOOO!”
The Zins I love best are from a few areas in California: the Dry Creek, Russian River, and Alexander Valleys in Sonoma (really, anything from Sonoma County is a good bet); Paso Robles for more affordable Zins; Lodi for even more affordable Zins (though these are more hit or miss on quality). So I was really excited to visit Paso Robles, the first big wine region we’ve visited on our trip.
Paso Robles, located between LA and San Francisco, is one of the largest AVAs (American Viticultural Areas, the name for a designated wine region) in California. Grapes have been grown in this area for hundreds of years. As you drive down the highway, surrounded by gently rolling hills, you’ll start spotting old Zin vines alongside the road amidst businesses, houses, farms, and fields filled with livestock, like sheep and llamas. A lot of the vines are very old — ragged and craggy, slightly evil looking. The Paso Robles area is a real, working wine region — wine here is serious business, not hobby. It still feels small and authentic, and I love it.
The region is unofficially divided into east and west sides — east and west of the 101. The west side receives decent rainfall — grapes can be grown here without irrigation — but most places irrigate rather than leaving it up to chance. If you see a wine labeled “dry farmed,” and it will be labeled that, that means the grapes were grown on unirrigated vines. The west side seems to be made up of smaller, boutique wineries. Most are clustered to the west of downtown Paso Robles along Route 46W. The east side is drier (irrigation is a necessity) and the vineyards here tend to be larger. Each side thinks they’re the better one. But just because you’re at a winery on the west side doesn’t mean your grapes are west-siders. Individual vineyards both grow their own grapes, source from local vineyards, and source from vineyards in other regions across the state.
We visited just five wineries over two days in Paso: J. Lohr, Chronic Cellars, Wild Horse, Turley, and Lone Madrone. We’ll be posting about these visits over the next few days. There are over 250 wineries in the region, and all pour pretty large samples. I can’t even begin to imagine how many days it would take to visit every winery. To select our five, we cross-referenced a list of free tastings (which turned out to be outdated) with friends’ recommendations and names we were already familiar with.
There’s not much that was consistent across the wineries we visited. Prices of wines and tastings varied widely, with wines to the west of the 101 generally more expensive than the wines to the east of the 101. Tastings are either free or between $5 and $10 for four to eight generous pours. Tasting fees are sometimes waived with a bottle purchase but are sometimes not. Quality seemed only very loosely related to price. The tasting rooms are generally small, modest, intimate places — not set up for tour buses of drunk sorority chicks or vineyard weddings.
Zin is not even the major player in the region, with just 9% of the acreage in 2007, though the marketers seem to be making a push for Paso to become known as a Zin region. We spotted a multitude of grapes on offer, including the standards like Cab Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Viognier, Chard, etc. There’s also a big focus on Rhone-style blends, which include Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah. And then there are the weirdo varietals, like Valdiguié at J. Lohr and Blaufrankisch at Wild Horse. Altogether over 40 varietals are grown in the region — it seems like anything can and will grow in Paso. One thing I didn’t see were any sparkling wines.
There are plenty of options for accommodations in the area, but we found the Santa Margarita Lake County Park, outside the little town of Santa Margarita, to be a great home base. It’s reasonably priced, slightly wild (they have bear problems, but we didn’t see any), and has great amenities (fab showers, a pool, private sites). You could even catch a fish to go with your bottle of local white.
If you visit, we’d recommend first stopping in downtown Paso Robles and picking up a copy of the Paso Robles Wine Country Guide. It’s got a blurb on each winery to help you narrow down your choices and a map of the region to help plan your strategy of attack.