Fall means harvest in Paso Robles—time to gather and sort the juicy, flavor-packed grapes in the hundreds of vineyards that surround the city.
Wine-related activities fill the local calendar, with good reason. Paso Robles is a world-class wine destination that rivals Napa, Sonoma and other California districts. According to Chris Taranto of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, the greater Paso Robles AVA has more than 200 wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres planted with 62 varietals, and includes 11 sub-appellations.
Although wine growing has existed in Paso Robles for centuries, it wasn’t a major player in the international wine industry until fairly recently.
Paso’s winemaking roots date back to the 1700s, when the Franciscan Padres planted vines and fermented wines at Mission San Miguel. At the same time, the native Salinan Indians informed the Spaniards of an important regional resource—abundant spring waters—that would later give rise to a burgeoning tourism industry and the birth of the city we know today.
Ranching and farming operations dominated the landscape when local landowners Daniel D. Blackburn and Drury James (legendary outlaw Jesse James’s uncle) developed and promoted access to abundant hot and cold sulphur springs and mud baths in the 1860s. Central Coast residents and tourists began to flock to the area to “take the cure.”
A City is Born
The first train arrived in the late 1880s, and Blackburn, James and other investors set out to design and build a town with first-class amenities. The city was incorporated in 1889, and new buildings—including an expansive bathhouse over the mineral spring, an opera house, the Hotel El Paso de Robles and Victorian and Craftsman homes—sprouted up around the new City Park.
Water and wine went hand in hand from the get-go. The city’s first commercial wineries were also established in the 1880s, including Andrew York’s Ascension Winery (now York Mountain Winery). In the early decades of the 20th century other families—the Nerellis, Dusis, Martinellis, Busis, Vostis and Bianchis, to name a few—also launched wineries. Famed Polish concert pianist Ignacy Paderewski bought the 2,000-acre Rancho Ignacio in the Adelaida region west of Paso Robles and planted a vineyard with Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. He also entertained visitors, including President Theodore Roosevelt and actor Douglas Fairbanks.
Prohibition squelched the burgeoning wine industry, but in the late 1960s and ’70s, it sprang back to life.
Grape is the Word
In the early 1970s, UC Davis enology doctoral student Gary Eberle and his professors traveled south to Paso Robles to collect soil samples. Their research pinpointed Paso Robles as an area with great grape-growing potential. Eberle soon moved there to cofound Estrella River Winery (now Meridian) and worked as head winemaker for nearly a decade. In 1974, Eberle planted Syrah vines—the first in the United States since the repeal of Prohibition—and was the first Paso Robles winemaker to make a 100 percent Syrah wine.
“When I first came to Paso Robles, there were three wineries—Pesenti, Rotta and York—and maybe 300 to 400 acres of grapes, and that was it,” Eberle recalls. “It was a farming community that had lost the almond industry. There was dry farm grain, cattle, alfalfa, and slightly less than 7,000 residents in the community and not a whole lot of opportunity at the time. The wine industry was the kind of boon we needed to see the kind of growth we hoped to generate.”
Paso Robles’ relative affordability attracted about 15 wineries over a 15-year period, mostly smaller, family-run enterprises with limited funding. Eberle says that collectively, we all “made a lot of mistakes early on. Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc just didn’t do well here.” But he adds that the pioneers also discovered the varietals that thrived.”Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah were real champions that worked well.”
According to Eberle, Paso Robles’ rise in the wine world “really started in the mid to late ’80s, I think because we were making some really good wines.”
Eberle himself officially established his own label and winery partnership in 1982. He bought nearly 64 acres a few miles west of Estrella and released his flagship wine, the 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon, the same year. He also built an onsite winery and helped establish the Paso Robles appellation. Over the years he built a tasting room and wine caves, and began to offer complimentary tastings and tours to attract visitors and a loyal following, a tradition Eberle Winery continues to this day.
Chuck and Marlyn Hope and their young family also planted some of Paso Robles’ earliest vines. “I was born in Bakersfield and my family was working for my grandfather in the beer business,” says Austin Hope, current head of Hope Family Wines, adding that the move came about after his grandfather passed away and the business was sold to the general manager. The family sought advice from Chuck’s father’s best friend, a farmer, on where to go and what to farm. “He said, ‘move to Paso Robles and plant apples and grapes.’ We moved to Paso in 1978 and did just that, but we quickly learned apples were not the right thing to grow and transitioned into farming only wine grapes.”
Austin Hope remembers Paso as “a sleepy farming town with very few wine grapes and only a handful of wineries. Grain and cattle were dominant at the time—grape farmers were definitely not well liked and were considered outsiders. The funny part about this statement is that the majority of the grain and cattle ranchers are now grape farmers.”
The Hope family started making wine in 1987-88 under the Hope Farms Winery label, and built a tasting room and bed and breakfast, which they eventually sold to Summerwood Winery. Chuck Hope helped organize the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association in the early 1990s. In the meantime, Austin Hope studied fruit science at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and traveled to France to learn more about winemaking, and the family made plans to build a new wine production facility and tasting room.
The Hopes founded Treana Winery in 1996, a label devoted to Rhone-influenced blends, with Austin Hope as winemaker. In 2009 they created Hope Family Wines, a collection of five distinct labels. Austin states that the flagship Treana Red is “considered to be the first Super Paso red blend created to rival the red wines of Napa Valley.” The Treana lineup also includes a Rhone white blend, Cabernet and Chardonnay. The eponymous Austin Hope Cabernet, created to set the standard for Paso Robles luxury Cabernet, took seven years to perfect before he released the inaugural 2015 vintage. “This wine received the highest score ever given to a Paso Robles wine in the 30 years Wine Enthusiast has been in publication, with a 97 point rating,” says Austin, who also produces five limited-production Rhone wines under the label. The Liberty School label produces value-laden Cabernets that have helped bring national attention to Paso Robles for more than 20 years. Austin Hope created the Troublemaker label with his childhood nickname “to try and make wine more fun and less pretentious.”
Around the same time the Hopes were first planting grapevines, the founders of Tablas Creek Vineyard, located about 10 miles west of the Hope estate, were also researching possibilities for a new wine venture in California. In 1989, the families of longtime friends Robert Haas, an East Coast wine importer, and Jacques Perrin, proprietor of Chateauneuf du Papeís Chateau de Beaucastel, partnered to establish an estate winery with vines sourced from the Perrins’ renowned vineyard in France.
The Haas and Perrin families searched all over the state until they found a suitable site in Paso Robles. As Robert’s son Jason Haas explains, “There were three things [Robert Haas] and the Perrins were looking for, and Paso Robles was the only place they felt confident they’d find all three: one, a long growing season with plenty of heat and sun but cool nights; two, enough rainfall (minimum 25 inches) to dry farm; and three, calcium-rich soils. They absolutely looked other places, and in fact, didn’t come across Paso Robles until they were four years into their search. If you’d asked them at the beginning where they thought they were going to end up, they would have told you ‘Sonoma.'”
Jason adds, “at the time, Paso Robles was pretty much a dying ranching town. There were a few vineyards and wineries here (we were the 17th), but 50 percent vacancy in the storefronts downtown, not many options for dining or shopping, and no real buzz about the place. The first meal they had on the property they bought at KFC. They still talk about it.”
A New Era
Paso Robles today is indeed a far cry from the sleepy cowboy town it was in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s. Gary Eberle says the winemaking successes of the early 1980s helped spur the changes. “More wineries came in, more people came in, and then we needed more hotels and restaurants. Once we got the ball rolling, it was easier to keep it going, like a big snowball rolling down a hill.”
Finer dining establishments (a step above the casual saloons that peppered the downtown streets) with a wine country focus began to open throughout the city, especially on or near the downtown City Park. Pioneering “foodie” restaurants near the square included French-inspired Bistro Laurent and Villa Creek, followed by Thomas Hill Organics, Buona Tavola, Artisan, plus McPhee’s down the road in Templeton. (Villa Creek and Artisan are now closed.) More recent players on the scene include Il Cortile Ristorante, Somm Kitchen and Cello at Allegretto Vineyard Resort, and small restaurants at winery sites, including JUSTIN, Niner and Opolo.
At the start of the new millennium, a number of upscale, wine-inspired hotels opened to accommodate the sophisticated visitors who began to choose Paso Robles for wine tasting experiences. La Bellasera Hotel & Suites—Paso’s first full-service luxury boutique hotel—opened in August 2007, two miles south of downtown off Highway 46 West near Highway 101. The luxurious 16-room Hotel Cheval opened the same year at the southeast edge of downtown’s City Park. (Another 20 rooms are currently under construction across the street).
A Bright Future on the Horizon
Today Paso Robles is a thriving community of more than 30,000 residents and a vibrant wine country destination with more than ample creature comforts to satisfy the constantly growing number of visitors.
Stalwarts of “old” Paso Robles add to the region’s unique character and charm. The hot springs still soothe at Paso Robles Inn and River Oaks Hot Springs spa. The 1800s bathhouse building and the Pine Street Saloon still stand on Pine Street near the square. Paso Robles Inn is still going strong, with historic and wine-themed rooms on the west side of City Park, and a recent groundbreaking for a new spa facility.
Paso Robles’ evolution shows no signs of abatement. According to Gary Eberle, Paso Robles has not yet reached full development. He says 3,000 new rooms (six hotels) are currently under construction and scheduled to open in the next 18 months, and six or seven new restaurants are in the works. All this bodes well for Paso Robles visitors, who will soon have an even wider array of lodging options, from well-known brands like La Quinta and Holiday Inn Express to one-of-a-kind resorts.
Austin Hope also looks ahead to a bright future for his family and for Paso Robles in general. “We plan to continue to educate people on this amazing region and continue to elevate the quality of Paso Robles wines and vineyards. I am very proud of Paso Robles and I have so much joy in growing grapes and creating an honest product for all to enjoy.”
Jason Haas, reflecting on the region’s growth the past three decades, says, “It’s been amazing to see Paso Robles grow up around us. Both from a viticultural perspective and from a cultural/wine community perspective, Paso Robles has exceeded our expectations. While we were pretty confident that we’d be able to make great red Rhone-style wines here, and we feel those expectations were met, we’ve been exceptionally happy with how the cool nights keep the whites and roses we make vibrant and fresh. And to see the wine community blossom, and the town come alive with places to eat and shop and things to do, thanks to the visitors we receive, those have been happy surprises for us. We’re excited to be a part of such a great Paso Robles wine community, and as we approach our 30th anniversary next year, we feel like things are just hitting their stride.”
This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.