Went out to Paso Robles (and surrounding areas) this spring. The visit left me with a funny feeling about the region, so I held off on writing this blog post for way too long. Well, here goes.
On one hand, I still think Paso Robles offers some great value wines if you’re looking in the $10-20 range. I wrote about the region way back in 2009, and I still agree with most of what I said back then. There are a few touchstone wineries in the area that offer benchmark wines. You’ll find world-class bottles from Tablas Creek and L’Aventure. Big producers and negociant-style bottlers always give good bang for your buck, with plenty of values from brands that focus on selling wine and not building cache. Which isn’t too romantic, but if you’re like me and you’re just looking for wine to drink…
On the other hand, there are a host of wineries in the region that focus more on tourism and a captive audience than getting their juice out to markets around the country.
See, Paso falls halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the Central Coast region of California. The area is known for hot days and cool nights, exactly the right recipe for ripe and balanced wines. The stereotype is that San Francisco people head up to Napa for the weekend, and L.A. people head on up to Paso. I asked some locals – at wineries, at a BBQ joint, and so on – and they agreed. To Paso’s credit, the region still feels like an agricultural area with stuff to do, unlike Napa’s heavily manicured, Disneyland-for-grownups vibe. So that’s a plus.
I should note that our small traveling party toured incognito, rarely handing out business cards, rarely calling ahead, so we weren’t treated like members of the trade. Part of the fun of the trip was visiting new wineries we didn’t already know, looking for new discoveries without representation in Chicago.
From this tourist’s perspective, the region is great. You can get reasonably priced tasting flights at most wineries with almost no line or waiting. The people are friendly – both the staff and fellow tourists – and the wine is fine. The scenery is beautiful and the general atmosphere is relaxed. And after you taste a lot of wine, there are also great places to grab a beer. Go there, have a blast, buy yourself a few cases of some new discoveries.
Things are different from a Chicago wine salesperson’s perspective. I’m looking for wines I can sell. But many of the best wines are list-only, or produced in limited quantities and only distributed locally. The wines are great, but it’s sometimes difficult to look a customer in the eye and tell them to spend twice as much on a “rhone blend” from California than one they’d get from Chateauneuf du Pape. When I asked if I could get their wines in Chicago, many wineries told me that distribution wasn’t really their goal.
And that’s a just a bit of a letdown to hear, at least from my perspective. But the region seems to be growing in production and recognition, and you can’t fault it at that.