Wines of Paso Robles
As Austin Hope walks among his vines in Paso Robles, Calif., he talks about the land with great pride, reminiscing about when his family purchased the parcel in the early 1990s.
“A neighbor hated the vineyards and said he’d put in a pig farm,” explains Hope. “My father said, ‘If you are so unhappy, sell me the land.’ He said $4,000 an acre was his price.”
That was before Paso Robles became one of the hottest wine regions in the country, but Chuck Hope bought the land because he knew it was an ideal place to grow quality grapes. Today that land is worth $50,000 to $60,000 an acre.
The elder Hope originally bought land in Paso Robles in 1978, when apple trees and grain farms dotted the rolling hills. Chuck Hope had a vision and his family became one of a handful of pioneers to launch the region on the road to greatness.
Paso Robles is the largest and most diverse wine region in California with many distinct soils, microclimates and unique topography. With 26,000 vineyard acres and, more being planted all the time, it is the fastest growing American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California.
It is also a great place for a wine country visit. It’s much more laid back and wide open than Napa Valley, which makes it easier to visit the many tasting rooms. And while the numbers are smaller than Napa, there are plenty of good restaurants and comfortable lodging in the area.
The area around the downtown park looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with small shops, boutiques and wine-tasting rooms surrounding the square. San Simeon, the Hearst Castle, is northwest of town and the picturesque fishing village of Morro Bay is to the southwest. There is even a roadside plaque outside of town marking the spot where the legendary James Dean died in an auto accident in the 1950s.
“Diversity is probably the biggest strength of Paso Robles,” says Austin Hope. “We can grow amazing Cabernets in one area and excellent Rhone varietals just a few miles away. The microclimates make for interesting pockets that really excel in one varietal or the other.”
The nearby Pacific Ocean is another important factor in the production of quality wines. Summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees during the day and drop 50 degrees by nighttime. Such temperature swings allow the grapes to ripen without burning.
Paso Robles is home to 40 grape varieties from European areas, including Bordeaux, Rhone, Italy and Spain as well as the region’s heritage variety Zinfandel.
Although grapes have been grown in Paso Robles for more than 200 years, it’s only in the last decade that it has become known as one of the top wine making regions in the world.
Many other families have followed the Hopes into Paso Robles, planting vineyards and opening wineries. In the past decade alone the number of wineries has grown from 35 to more than 200 and there are another 120 growers who sell grapes to wineries all over California.
About two-thirds of the wineries produce fewer than 5,000 cases and more than 95 percent of the region’s brands are family owned and operated. However, Paso Robles wines are available at Augusta area wine shops and supermarkets.
Hope Family Wines is one of the premier wineries in the area. Austin Hope grew up in the vineyards and his love of the land is evident. When he misbehaved at school, his father would send him to work in the vineyards as punishment. Contrary to his father’s intention, Austin loved being among the vines as he does today.
Paso Robles wineries such as J. Lohr, Tablas Creek, Justin, Terry Hoage, Cypher and Turley Wine Cellars have gained reputations for making world-class wines. And unlike some regions, Paso Robles can’t be strictly categorized. “We think Paso Robles is one of the premier areas in the world—not just in the country—to grow Rhone varietals and we’re proud to be among the best wines in Paso,” says Terry Hoage, who gained fame playing football for the University of Georgia and later the NFL. He and his wife Jennifer own Terry Hoage Vineyards, where they produce incredible wines.
Christian Tietje, co-owner of Cypher Wines and one of the founders of Four Vines, points out the diversity that exists even within a single vineyard—explaining how the climate is different from the top of the hill to the bottom. “If we waited until the bottom was ripe, we’d burn up the grapes at the top,” he says. “So we have to watch to see when each parcel is ready.”
The most widely-grown grape by far in the region is Cabernet Sauvignon and there are some great Cabs that come from Paso. But there are also great Zinfandels and Rhone-style blends. Many believe the Rhone blends and varietals ultimately are what will bring Paso Robles the most fame because the weather and soils are best suited to those grapes.
“The Templeton Gap, where our estate vineyard sits, is a great site for Rhone varietals like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre,” says Hope. “The vines love the cool afternoon winds that cool the grapes after a long summer day. We are still a young region, but we’re evolving,” he says. “We are starting to figure out the right rootstock, varietals and clones in Paso and where to plant them. The more we make quality our top priority, the sky’s the limit.”
Some of the young mavericks in the region are even trying non-traditional blends, such as Zinfandel with Rhone varietals or Bordeaux and Spanish grapes. Hope broke with tradition by blending vintages for his Candor Merlot and Candor Zinfandel.
“With our wide diversity, we haven’t been pigeonholed yet,” says Joel Peterson, director of communications for Hope Family. “We have killer wines coming from all parts of Paso.”
The number of great wines from the region are destined to increase as growers continue to discover which vines to plant in each microclimate. Paso Robles is clearly a rising star with an exciting future.