Though it seems that Paso Robles has only recently burst onto the wine stage, the fact is that grapes were first planted in 1797 near Mission San Miguel. The first commercial winery was formed in 1882 on York Mountain. In the ensuing 210 years since the mission fathers started making wine the quality has exponentially improved. Paso Robles boasts nearly 26,000 vineyard acres and approximately 40 different grape varietals.
So with all those grapes, you might think there would be more than the hundred or so wineries that populate the landscape. Where's all the fruit going? "About 58 percent of Paso's grapes are shipped outside the area," said Stacie Jacob, Executive Director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
Though Paso Robles is getting a lot of attention for its zinfandel, it is cabernet and merlot that hold the greatest percentages of production, with 38 percent and 15 percent, respectively. And the majority of that fruit is heading north. Caymus, Coppola, Kendall-Jackson, Sutter Home, Franciscan, Fetzer and Ridge are just a few of the northern wineries buying Paso grapes. Gallo owns 500 acres in Paso Robles and Southcorp, located in Australia, has also secured a 600 acre parcel to help expand their wine and spirits sales of over $550 million. Some fruit is destined to make stand alone wines of superior quality, others have the dubious task of being blended in innocuous concoctions posing as wine for the mass market.
Kent Rosenblum, CEO and director of winemaking at Rosenblum Cellars is one of the winemakers championing Paso Robles grapes. In fact, the day we spoke on the phone, six tanker trucks full of fruit had just left Paso on the way to his facility in Alameda. He’s been buying Paso fruit for years and he began his Appellation Series label nearly 30 years ago to showcase how different growing regions around the state can make very different wines. “I was interested in exploring the regional character the fruit provides,” he said.
The climate and the soils in various geographical areas lend different flavor profiles. The zinfandel coming from Paso, for example, leans toward bright cherry fruit with an acidic backbone. “You can put vines in the south coast and they taste very different from north coast.” Rosenblum, like others, also has contracts with vineyard sites, farmed with his specifications, such as the Richard Sauret vineyard, located in San Miguel. The Sauret vineyard, with its limestone clay soils has been a top seller for Rosenblum earning awards and high scores for years. Rosenblum also buys chardonnay from Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo.
Another reason winemakers are sourcing fruit from Paso is the simplicity of economics. “I can buy zinfandel grapes for $1,000 a ton in Paso, and more than twice that in Napa,” said Rosenblum. “But if I want to make a zin in the $15 range, I can’t pay the higher price.” And several other major winemakers, such as Jerry Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards, say the same thing.
However, in spite of that cost, Paso Robles isn’t near Napa and Sonoma production facilities. Therefore, there’s an added cost to transport fruit to its final destination. And that transportation time can affect the grapes, at least according to Fred Franzia of Bronco Wines in Modesto. “The problem is that the central coast (including Paso) doesn’t have a major-league winery,” therefore quality suffers, he said.
But that has not been a problem for Rosenblum. “We’re not limited by the tradition of owning land. We have no parameters,” he noted. He sees the dominate fruit of Paso becoming zinfandel and petite sirah and indeed these two grapes are beginning to clearly define themselves for the region. Winemakers and growers will always continue to ship their fruit to Napa and Sonoma, especially when the more than 400 wineries in those regions are lacking fruit of their own. For now, Rosenblum is satisfied to source the best fruit they can find and they will continue to purchase Paso grapes, though they have no plans to raise their presence in the area. “A brick and mortar tasting room doesn’t make the wine taste better,” Rosenblum says.