If you’ve spent time in Paso Robles tasting rooms or wine shops recently, there’s a good chance you’ve heard talk of Adelaida, Estrella or Geneseo, or seen Willow Creek or El Pomar stamped on a label.
If you were left scratching your head, you’re not alone.
The federal government approved dividing up the massive Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, or AVA, into 11 smaller sub-AVAs in November 2014. But it’s only more recently that wineries, trade professionals and enthusiasts have really begun paying attention to the designations.
Here’s a primer on the most important things to know about Paso Robles’ 11 distinct wine regions.
Q. We’ve got the Paso Robles AVA. Why do we need all these others?
A. When the Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983, there were only five bonded wineries and 5,000 acres of vines. Now it’s home to more than 200 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres sprawled about 30 miles north to south and 40 miles east to west.
Before the districts were approved, it was the largest unsubdivided AVA in the state — about three times the size of Napa, which has 16 sub-AVAs.
With wide variation in soils, terrain and climate, the districts help consumers better understand the diversity within Paso Robles.
Some areas get 30 inches of rain a year, some get 10. Elevations range from 700 to 2,400 feet. Soils vary dramatically, from sand, loam and silt in the Estrella River Basin to limestone-rich calcareous soils to the west.
“We know that growing conditions are the most important factors to what makes the wine of a region unique, gives it a sense of place,” said Chris Taranto, communications director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “This helps us talk about how unique everyone is.”
Q. I’m at a winery in Templeton Gap but the bottle says Adelaida — what gives?
A. A district designation on the bottle refers to where the grapes were grown — not where they were processed or the winery is based. So if a winery in Templeton Gap makes wine from grapes it purchased from a vineyard in Adelaida, it can label the bottle as Adelaida.
Where a winery is located doesn’t tell you much about the grapes’ origin, unless they use fruit only from their estate vineyards. If a winery uses simply Paso Robles, or Central Coast, that means the grapes came from more than one AVA.
To make matters more confusing, wineries can designate an AVA on the label when at least 85 percent of the fruit comes from that AVA — meaning up to 15 percent can come from elsewhere.
Q. So where are the best grapes grown?
A. First, an AVA designation indicates nothing about the quality of grapes grown there. That being said, some AVAs may percolate to the top, quickly or eventually, while others build a reputation for a certain style or varietal over time.
And perceptions may change as wine growers learn more about which varietals work best where and common characteristics shared by wines from a particular district.
“Time will help us define what these districts really mean,” Taranto said. “It could be years down the road.”
Ultimately though, he and others say, the sub-regions will help carve out distinct identities to a degree impossible in a single, sprawling AVA.
Here are the 11 distinct wine regions of Paso Robles
When the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area was established in 1983, it contained just five bonded wineries and 5,000 acres of vines. Now home to more than 200 wineries and 32,000 vineyard acres, it was divided into 11 smaller AVAs in 2014:
Rugged terrain spanning Santa Lucia slopes and foothills with lots of limestone-rich, calcareous soils, modest marine influence and high average annual rainfall of 25 inches. Wineries/vineyards: Tablas Creek Vineyard, Halter Ranch Vineyard, Justin Vineyards and Winery, Adelaida Vineyards & Winery, Daou Vineyards.
A warmer region with less rain, about 11 inches per year, spanning a plateau at the base of the La Panza Range with fertile alluvial soils, granite and sedimentary rock. Wineries/vineyards: Chateau Margene, August Ridge Vineyards, Shadow Run Vineyards & Winery.
El Pomar District
Old terraces and hills with rich, loamy soils, some calcareous rock and sandstone, moderate rainfall and strong marine breezes with heavy fog. Wineries/vineyards: Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery, AmByth Estate, Still Waters Vineyards.
Rolling plains in the Estrella River Valley with deep, mineral-rich alluvial soils and high day-to-night temperature variations of up to 40 degrees. Wineries/vineyards: J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, Le Vigne Winery, Villa San-Juliette Vineyard & Winery.
A warmer area of upfaulted hills along the Huerhuero-La Panza fault with low rainfall featuring alluvial soils along with older granite and gravel cementation. Wineries/vineyards: Eberle Winery, Robert Hall Winery, Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery, Cass Winery.
The warmest district in the region, with diurnal temperature swings over 50 degrees, at the base of the La Panza range with deep alluvial soil. Wineries/vineyards: Shell Creek Vineyards, French Camp Vineyards.
San Juan Creek
A younger river valley with sand and clay loam soils in a warm, low-rain area with high temperature swings. Wineries/vineyards: Red Cedar Vineyard (which crosses into the Estrella district).
San Miguel District
The footslope of the Santa Lucia range, covering Salinas and Estrella river terraces, with a moderate climate, deep sandy loam and some clay loam. Wineries/vineyards: San Marcos Creek Vineyard, Locatelli Vineyards & Winery, Caparone Winery.
Santa Margarita Ranch
Spanning high mountain slopes of the ancient Salinas River bed and its current path, with a mix of alluvial soils and the highest rainfall in the region, at 29 inches. Wineries/vineyards: Ancient Peaks Winery.
Templeton Gap District
Rolling slopes and broad terraces with a pronounced marine influence from ocean breezes and fog, decent rainfall and loamy soil with spots of calcareous rock. Wineries/vineyards: Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards, Castoro Cellars, Peachy Canyon Winery, Zenaida Cellars.
Willow Creek District
A hilly region with a strong marine influence, rain between 24 and 30 inches a year, and lots of limestone-rich calcareous and loamy soil. Wineries/vineyards: L’Aventure Winery, Opolo Vineyards, Denner Vineyards, Rotta Winery, Niner Wine Estates.