Paso Robles wine country: An introduction

December 8, 2006 

A truck load of recently harvested grapes makes its way to the Robert Hall winery in Paso Robles.

JOE JOHNSTON — The Tribune Buy Photo

Some critics have called Paso Robles the next Napa. But Paso winemakers and those who enjoy the fruits of their labor sure hope that’s not the case.

They like what sets Paso apart: a more laid-back vibe, prices that aren’t through the roof and the greater freedom and experimentation that comes from the absence of large corporations. Here, you’ll find world-class wines — on par or better than Napa and Sonoma — but you’ll also find unclogged country roads, undiscovered treasures and friendly winemakers pouring their vintages, sometimes from garages or back porches.

What makes Paso wines special?

You may hear people refer to Paso’s "terrior." It’s a term that refers to the climate and soil conditions that make Paso wines unique. So what makes up the terrior?

— Temperature swing: The Paso area has a diurnal (day to night) temperature swing of 50 degrees, the largest in the state.

— Cooling coastal breezes: Contributes to the temperature swing and also helps keep the fruit clean.

— Soil: While much of Napa and Sonoma have deep, heavy soil, Paso sports shallower loam and calcareous soil with larger amounts of limestone and calcium. The gravelly soil allows freer draining and is more mineral-rich.

— Growing season: The area also has a long growing season, which allows for more flavor development.

— Rainfall: Total rainfall is less than what the vines need, allowing vineyards to control the amount of water through irrigation.

— Experimentation: Unlike some of the larger areas with uniform growing conditions, Paso boasts numerous small lots with varying soils, winds, temperatures and rainfall that allow for experimentation to find the best practices.

Years ago, the area was producing mostly cabernet sauvignon and syrah, many of that as fruit that was combined in blends up north. In recent years, Paso winemakers have branched out and experimented with their own blends and new varietals. About 50 varietals are now grown in the Paso area, with Bordeaex and Rhone blends prevalent.

When’s the best time to visit Paso Robles?

The area’s Mediterranean-like climate makes visiting possible any time of the year.

Summers will generally be hotter and winters cooler, though temperatures will often hit in the 70s in winter — and cool summer mornings and evenings are common.

No matter what time of year you visit, it’s best to dress in layers. (Like most of California, Paso Robles is generally a casual place, so dressing up isn’t necessary, though you may want to avoid jeans at some of the finer dining establishments.)

While summer Paso mornings may start out cool, they can turn into scorchers — with the mercury rising above 100 — before cooling off again in the evenings. Winter mornings may start out with a frost on the ground but temperatures could be anywhere from the 50s or 60s and above by mid-day.

For scenic considerations, the vines are at their finest from about March through November. Everything turns green around March, and by June or July you’ll see clusters of grapes on the vines. In the fall around harvest, the vines turn bright yellow, orange and red hues.

Can I ship my wine purchases home?

Legal restrictions don’t allow wineries to ship to all states. Currently, most wineries will ship to the following states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Some wineries will not ship to all states, and others may have alternate arrangements possible. It’s best to check with the individual winery on shipping policies.

Current airline restrictions don’t allow passengers to carry wine on board. Many wineries will provide a Styrofoam-lined box in which you can safely check you wine. Most wines should retain their quality on short and medium-length trips.

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