Discovering the Paso Robles Wine Country

Discovering the Paso Robles Wine Country
Vineyards in Paso Robles at sunset.

Last weekend more than 90 wineries participated in the 2008 Paso Robles Zinfandel Festival, which included an array of special events such as winemaker dinners, food pairings, seminars, open houses, a live auction and special tastings. Although (unfortunately) this year we didn’t make it to the festival, we recently had the opportunity to visit Paso Robles Wine Country and to enjoy some of the region’s fine wines.

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Paso Robles is located on California’s central coast, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Paso Robles has a long history of winemaking and grape growing beginning in 1797 when the first wine grapes were introduced by the Franciscan missionaries at the historic Mission San Miguel Arcangel. The Padres produced wine for sacramental purposes and made brandy for export. After Mexico secularized the California missions in the 1840s the vineyards were abandoned until European immigrant farmers started to arrive in the 1860s, following California’s independence in 1850.

Today, Paso Robles is California’s third largest and fastest growing wine region, with over 26,000 acres of vineyards (more on Paso Robles Wine Country history can be found here). Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading variety for the Paso Robles appellation, accounting for 38 percent of the region’s planted wine grape acreage. After that the most widely planted varieties are Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc. With Italian, Spanish and Rhône varieties on the upswing, more than 40 other varieties with 300 to less than an acre are planted in the region.

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At Castoro Cellars

In the last decade, Paso Robles has seen an increase from 35 to nearly 170 wineries, of which about two-thirds produce less than 5,000 cases.

Among the few wineries that we visited during our brief passage through Paso Robles, we can recomend Eagle Castle, ensconced in a real modern-day castle. Founded in 2000 by Paso Robles natives Gary and Marylou Stemper with the motto “A royal experience”, Eagle Castle produces an award-winning Viogner, a rosé and a few interesting reds. Our favourite was the recently released 2004 Zinfandel, a bold red with peppery notes both in the nose and the body, as well as a strong jammy flavor and a smooth finish.

Another winery that we particularly enjoyed was Castoro Cellars who produces, in their own words, “dam fine wines”. Established in 1983 by Niels and Bimmer Udsen, the name refers to Niels’ long-time nickname “Beaver”, which became “Il Castoro” (beaver in Italian) when he was working in Italy. In the span of a dozen years, Castoro Cellars has gone from making a few barrels of wine for family and friends in a rented corner of someone else’s winery to a production of around 40,000 at present. They produce half a dozen whites, about twenty reds and a couple of dessert wines. We were lucky to taste a good number of their wines, including their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon blend which was so easy to drink that we took a couple of bottles home. We also enjoyed their affordable Muscat Canelli, a perfect match for a fruity dessert or just to sip in the terrace at any time.

For those of us who missed the Zinfandel Festival, on May 16-18th Paso Robles will be hosting their 26th Wine Festival, which will be a great opportunity to discover this fast-growing wine region or to explore it further. Cheers!

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Entering the castle of Eagle Castle Winery.