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Paso Robles—A Region in Flux

Hmm, my second article in as many months about a Paso Robles winery. What’s the deal - am I in the pay of the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce? A secret agent for a covert Paso grape-growing cabal? Nothing so sinister, I assure you. Paso happens to be one of the most dynamic, fastest-growing fine wine growing regions in California. And the fact that it’s within a couple of hours drive from my home in Long Beach makes it an easy weekend visit. And at the moment, Paso is facing a crossroads of sorts, and dealing with issues that could affect its very identity for years to come.

The Paso Robles AVA is one of the largest in California, with a total of 665,000 acres. For years many have felt that the AVA was ripe for subdivision to reflect the differences in microclimates and soils in various parts of the region. For years, many have identified Paso wineries and vineyards as being from either the “Westside” or the “Eastside”, with the Salinas River (which roughly parallels Highway 101, the main north-south freeway in the area) acting as the de facto dividing line. The Westside is mostly mountainous with higher elevations, steep hillsides, and somewhat cooler daytime temperatures. The Eastside, by contrast, is mostly flat with some rolling hills, little rainfall, and is considerably hotter. There are also differences in soils, although the differences are not so clear-cut. As a result, some (mostly Westside) wineries have petitioned the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to divide the current Paso Robles AVA into two sub-AVA’s, Paso Robles–Westside, and Paso Robles–Eastside, with the Salinas River as the dividing line.

This proposal was immediately steeped in controversy, as many growers and wineries, especially those on the Eastside, felt that the division was both inappropriate on scientific grounds (soil, climate, etc.), and a disaster from a marketing standpoint. This was because for years many “in the know” wine folks spoke of Westside as the quality region of Paso, while Eastside was thought of as more generic. And it was easy to understand why this distinction took hold. Most of the “hot” wineries in the Paso area are on the Westside: Saxum, Linne Calodo, Tablas Creek, Justin, L’Aventure, etc. And while there are some excellent eastside wineries and vineyards, the area is dominated by larger, mass-market players like Meridian and J. Lohr. Wine lovers looking for the latest and greatest finds in the Paso area got off Highway 101 - and immediately headed west.

New Paso AVA’s—Divide and Conquer?

But recently a new proposal for subdividing Paso Robles has been submitted and appears to have a reasonably good chance of being adopted. Rather than making an arbitrary division of Paso between east and west, this proposal would subdivide the region into no fewer than 11 new sub-AVA’s. To avoid confusion in the market, it has also been proposed that wineries could list the new AVA’s along with the larger, regional Paso Robles Appellation, much like is now permitted in Napa. So in the future, we may see wines labeled “Paso Robles AVA, Adelaida District”, or “Paso Robles AVA, Creston District”.

Unlike the proposal to divide simply east and west, the new proposal is backed by serious scientific studies by a soil geologist and climatologists. The clear hope of those promoting this proposal is to help consumers recognize and celebrate the variety of different micro-climates and soils which the areas winemakers have at their disposal in the broader Paso Robles AVA, without seeming to promote one sub-region (Westside) over another (Eastside). Whether this will succeed remains to be seen, but at least the proposal has some science behind it, unlike the proposal to divide simply east vs. west. Both proposals are now being considered by the TTB.

Proposed Paso AVA map

Most of what would have been “Westside” Paso Robles will fall into one of three AVA’s if this new proposal is adopted: Adelaida, and Willow Creek on the western edge of the old Paso AVA, and Templeton Gap, which straddles the Salinas River and thus includes some of both west- and eastside Paso. The largest of these is the Adelaida District, which runs due west from the north end of the City of Paso Robles. Included in this proposed AVA are such noteworthy wineries as Tablas Creek, Justin, Halter Ranch, and the region’s namesake, Adelaida.

Adelaida - The Winery

Interestingly, Adelaida is the only proposed AVA in the region that has a namesake winery. Named for an old 1800’s farming community, grapes were introduced into the region by Franciscan missionaries in 1797. The current Adelaida Cellars was founded in 1981, and purchased by the current owners, the Van Steenwyk family, in 1991. For years Adelaida was known for producing very large-scaled ripe wines, rather rustic, inconsistent, and not always well-balanced. But as the region matures and the name “Adelaida” is on the verge of gaining new prominence, I thought it was a good time to revisit Adelaida’s (the winery’s) bread-and-butter offerings to see what progress has been made, if any, in creating something interesting out of what had been  too-often overripe and monolithic wines.

Adelaida makes four distinct lines of wines. The “Reserve Label” wines are the best barrels culled from their estate production. The “White Label” is their workhorse lineup of estate wines that they claim “represent the best of the non-reserve barrels.” Barrels that don’t work stylistically as part of the White Label wines go into the SLO Label wines. Grapes that are “declassified” are combined with non-estate grapes to create the Schoolhouse Label wines. It is anticipated that the Schoolhouse line will be combined with, and replace, the SLO Label in the near future.

Adelaida is a very popular winery in Southern California. A recent tasting of 5 of their most popular wines (4 White Label and 1 Schoolhouse) drew over 100 people to a casual Thursday afternoon tasting at The Wine Country, a wine store near Long Beach. I took the opportunity to taste through the wines and, for the most part, was quite pleased with what I tried. As can be seen from the alcohol and pH levels, these are not the “over-the-top” style of flabby, ultra-ripe Paso wines (a style which Adelaida was guilty of perpetuating for many years). Instead, they are pretty-well balanced wines of moderate ripeness, good acidity and early drinkability. All of the red wines below can be recommended for the price.

2005 Adelaida Chardonnay “HMR” Estate2005 Adelaida Chardonnay “HMR” Estate, 13.7% alc., 3.54pH, $22.99. All of the fruit came from the famous HMR Estate, one of the oldest vineyards in the entire Paso Robles region, a substantial portion of which was acquired by Adelaida in 1994. Originally called Hoffman Mountain Ranch, the vineyard was planted to pinot noir in 1963, with chardonnay being added in 1973. The nose featured clean, “big chard” flavors or ripe fruits, touch of oak, lemon and cream. The palate is very ripe, heavy and a bit raisined with peach and some oak. Seems too low in acid for its weight, yet leaves a bit of a sour impression as well, a bit disjointed. Too top-heavy for my taste, although lovers of big, ripe, thick chardonnays will like it more than I did. Find this wine

2005 Adelaida Schoolhouse Recess Red2005 Adelaida Schoolhouse “Recess Red”, 15.9% alc., 3.45pH, $12.99. A real kitchen sink of a wine, this blend includes no less than 8 different varieties, including 3 rarely seen Portuguese grapes: Barbera 29%, Cabernet Sauvignon 25%, Zinfandel 21%, Syrah 8%, Touriga Nacional 7%, Tinto Cão 5%, Mourvèdre 3%, and Souzao 2%. Whatever, it’s tasty. Bright, high-toned nose shows a bit of heat but also great spiciness and clean fruit. Berries and crunchy fruit palate, medium body, not overripe or raisined at all, very good acidity keeps everything in balance. Despite the high alcohol, the wine is not hot. No particular varietal character stands out, although I can taste a bit of both the zin and the cabernet in there. Despite the mélange of grape varieties, this is not a particularly complex wine, but a delicious gluggable red for the BBQ. Find this wine

2003 Adelaida Zinfandel2003 Adelaida Zinfandel, 14.9% alc., 3.6pH, $22.99. A blend of grapes from 5 vineyards, aged for 23 months in 100% French oak, 25% new. Classic, deep Paso zin nose of ripe plums, blackberry, but very fresh and not raisined. Quite rich but not thick on the palate, with excellent acid to balance the ripe (but not overripe) fruit. By Paso standards this is almost elegant, with great zinberry fruit that tastes like Dry Creek with a Paso accent. Not at all in the old ponderous Adelaida style. Very good. Find this wine


2003 Adelaida Syrah, 14.6% alc., 3.5pH, $23.99. Similar in ripeness and weight to the zinfandel, this features good typical syrah flavors in the nose and palate that avoid the raisined character of too many Paso-area wines. Medium body has good richness, with a smokey flavor that is also a bit spicy and rich. Excellent acidity again supports the rich but not over-the-top fruit. Even brighter and better balanced than the zin and with more depth, this wine demonstrates why so many growers in Paso are planting Rhone varietals as fast as they can. 
Find this wine

2003 Adelaida Cabernet Sauvignon2003 Adelaida Cabernet Sauvignon, 15.1% alc., 3.42pH, $29.99.
I approached this wine with some trepidation, as I generally am not fond of Paso Robles cabernets. In my experience, most of them taste too much like zinfandel and lack the structure and fruit-quality of what I think of as a good cabernet. The alcohol listed on the label suggested that this would be yet another raisiny, zin-like Paso cab. Yet this wine shows good cabernet character on the nose, with only a bit of the zinny fruit quality that dominates most of the region’s cabernets. The wine is well-structured, with smooth tannins and good acidity. The alcohol is not apparent (thankfully), and the berry fruit has a bit of the blackberry and cassis quality I like in a cabernet. Although obviously a warm-climate cabernet from its ripe fruit, it does not stray into raisined flavors or excessive softness in its structure. This is quite drinkable now, and if no match for a top cab from Napa or Sonoma in terms of depth or complexity, it makes a pretty good case for giving cabs from Paso a chance. Especially for the very fair price (which is also no match for Napa or Sonoma, but in a good way). Find this wine

Bennett Traub
Reporting From The Left Coast
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© August 2007

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