HISTORY OF PASO ROBLES
This beautiful, rolling hills area of the Central Coast that we know as the City of El Paso de Robles or Paso Robles and “Paso” to locals, has always been renowned for thermal springs. The Salinan Indians—the most historical inhabitants of the area—were here thousands of years even before the mission era. They knew this area as the “Springs” or the “Hot Springs.” The Indians, and later the Mission Fathers and their congregations, found relief from various ailments in the therapeutic waters and soothing mud baths.
The Paso Robles Rancho (25,993.18 acres also known as the Paso de Robles Land Grant) was originally granted to Pedro Narvaez, who soon after gave over the estate to Petronilo Rios. In 1857, the entire rancho was purchased by James H. Blackburn, Daniel Drew Blackburn, and Lazarus Godehaux for $8,000. At the time of the purchase, there was very little of the townsite—only the remains of the original log shanty built by Father Juan Cabot of San Miguel Mission around the main spring located on the Northeast corner of what is now 10th and Spring Streets. This same site was the home of the first bathhouse in 1864, containing eight wooden tubs, and later the site of the first hotel—Hotel El Paso de Robles, which opened in 1891.
In 1860, the partners divided the estate, with Daniel Blackburn taking the hot springs and a league of land surrounding it. In 1865, he sold a half-interest to Mr. McCreel, who in turn sold out to Drury James, a brother-in-law of D.D. Blackburn and uncle of the outlaw Jesse James. In 1873, J.H. Blackburn bought back a fourth interest in the hot springs, making the present City the joint property of the Blackburn brothers and Drury James. Even at the inception of the town, the partners realized the potential of the hot springs and proceeded to develop them.
The public-minded James and Blackburn donated two blocks to the city for a public park to be used for the pleasure of its citizens and visitors. By original deed, the land was to revert to the donors if used for any other purpose than a public park. The grounds were laid out by a Mr. Redington and a planting day was held when each citizen set out his own donation. Originally, the whole park was hedged in by a fence of cactus, and in 1890 a bandstand was built with money raised by private theatricals.
In 1886, after the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad, work began on laying out a town site, with the resort as the nucleus. Two weeks after the first train arrived on October 31, 1886, a three-day celebration was held including a special train from San Francisco bringing prospective buyers, who toured the area and enjoyed the daily barbeques. On November 17th, the “Grand Auction” was held, resulting in the sale of 228 lots.
At the end of one year, records showed 523 residents and 100 buildings in the city. Paso Robles became incorporated in 1889 and improvements in city services became a reality.
For a time, Paso Robles was known as the “Almond City” because the local almond growers created the largest concentration of almond orchards in the world. The ranchers in the outlying areas were very important to the Paso Robles area. On these ranches were cattle and horses, grain crops (primarily wheat and barley), garden produce and fruit and nut orchards. Many of these ranch lands and orchards have become vineyards for the many wineries, the modern day draw of tourists and travelers to our area. To show their appreciation to the ranchers, the business people established Pioneer Day in October 1931, which is still a huge annual celebration.
By 1940, there were 3,045 residents in the city and Paso Robles was known worldwide as a “Health Resort.” In November of 1940, construction began on part of the Nacimiento Land Grant for a new Army base (Camp Roberts), which opened in 1941. Changes in Paso Robles came through the influx of workers, Army officers, trainees and United Service Organizations (USO) entertainers. The USO was an active place in Paso Robles on 10th Street between Park and Pine Streets.
Growth gradually began east of the Salinas River as various sections of land were annexed to the City. Sherwood acres, the first airfield, was the first to be annexed in March 1952, followed by the Orchard Tract in 1957. By 1980, Paso Robles had 9,045 residents, 1982 grew to 10,000 and 11 years later, the population had more than doubled to 21,000. The City continues to grow, maintaining the small-town feeling and friendliness people enjoyed when they first came to heal in the waters of the hot springs.
As far back as 1795, Paso Robles has been spoken of and written about as “California’s oldest watering place”—the place to go for springs and mud baths. In 1864, a correspondent to the San Francisco Bulletin wrote that there was every prospect of the Paso Robles hot springs becoming the watering place of the state. By 1868 people were coming from as far away as Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and even Alabama. Besides the well-known mud baths, there were the Iron Spring and the Sand Spring, which bubbles through the sand and was said to produce delightful sensations.
In 1882, Drury James and the Blackburn brothers issued a pamphlet advertising “El Paso de Robles Hot and Cold Sulphur Springs and the Only Natural Mud Baths in the World.” By then there were first class accommodations—a reading room, barber shop, and telegraph office; a general store, a top-of-the-line livery stable, and comfortably furnished cottages for families that preferred privacy to quarters in the hotel. Visitors could stay in touch with the rest of the world, as there were two daily mails, a Western Union telegraph office, and a Wells Fargo agency with special rates for guests. As the springs became more and more a destination of the well-to-do as a place to go to socialize, the original purpose of the springs—to heal—became peripheral.
The bathhouse was erected over the sulphur spring in 1888, with a plunge and thirty-seven bath rooms. In the following year, work began on the large Hot Springs Hotel, (today the Paso Robles Inn), which was completed in 1900 and burned down 40 years later. Since the privileges of using the baths were restricted to guests of the hotel and many sufferers of the ailments the baths cured could not pay the rates of the fashionable hotel, a few businessmen in Paso Robles made arrangements with Felix Liss for the right to bore for sulphur water on a lot which Liss owned. A sulphur well was reached, a bath house built and baths offered at an affordable rate of twenty-five cents. The establishment was later offered to the City and is currently the site of the Municipal Pool.
Paso Robles’ growth as industry—wine—has a long history with the area. Wine grapes were introduced to the Paso Robles soil in 1797 by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries. Spanish explorer Francisco Cortez envisioned an abundant wine-producing operation and encouraged settlers from Mexico and other parts of California to cultivate the land. The first vineyardists in the area were the Padres of the Mission San Miguel, and their old fermentation vats and grapevine artwork can still be seen at the Mission, north of the city of Paso Robles.
Commercial winemaking was introduced to the Paso Robles region in 1882 when Andrew York, a settler from Indiana, began planting vineyards and established the Ascension Winery at what is now York Mountain Winery. When York purchased the land, it was primarily apple orchards, with a small plot of wine grape vines. York found that the climate and soil were more suitable for vineyards and he expanded the vineyards. Within a few years, he found that the vines were yielding more than he could market, prompting him to build a small, stone winery.
Following Andrew York’s early success in the wine business, Gerd and Ilsabe Klintworth planted a vineyard in the Geneseo/Linne area in approximately 1886. They were licensed to sell jugs of Zinfandel, Port, and Muscatel, as well as some of the area’s first white wine made from Burger grapes. The Casteel Vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted just prior to 1908. Casteel wines were stored and aged in a cave cellar. Cuttings from the old vines provided the start for other vineyards, still producing in the area today.
As the popularity of wines began to grow, so did the Paso Robles wine region. Lorenzo and Rena Nerelli purchased their vineyard at the foot of York Mountain in 1917. Their Templeton Winery was the area’s first to be bonded following the repeal of Prohibition.
The early 1920s saw a flurry of winemaking activity when several families immigrated to the area to establish family vineyards and wineries. Sylvester and Caterina Dusi purchased a vineyard in 1924. The old head-pruned Zinfandel vines are now owned and cultivated by their son, Benito. The Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Bianchi vineyards were also established around this time.
The Paso Robles wine region gained more notoriety when Ignace Paderewski, the famous Polish statesman and concert pianist, visited Paso Robles, became enchanted with the area, and purchased 2,000 acres. In the early 1920s, he planted Petite Syrah and Zinfandel on his Rancho San Ignacio vineyard in the Adelaide area. Following Prohibition, Paderewski’s wine was made at York Mountain Winery. The wines produced from grapes grown on Rancho San Ignacio went on to become award-winners. Paso Robles’ reputation as a premier wine region became firmly established as a result of this and later successes.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a new generation of vineyard pioneers in the Paso Robles area. To read more recent history into the 1990s, visit the history page of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
Today, Paso Robles is home to more than 100 wineries and 26,000 vineyard acres focusing on premium wine production. The distinct micro-climates and diverse soils, combined with warm days and cool nights, make growing conditions ideal for producing more than 40 wine varieties from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne, to Zinfandel, the area’s heritage wine variety.
Paso Robles has a rich history of winemaking and grape growing beginning in 1797 when the first wine grapes were introduced to Paso Robles by the Franciscan missionaries at the historic Mission San Miguel Arcangel, where Father Junipero Serra planted more than a thousand vines. 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. The first was a Frenchman, Pierre Hippolyte Dallidet, who purchased the mission’s suffering vines and started new ventures. More Europeans showed up in the 1870s starting with Englishman Henry Ditmas who started the area’s first vineyard importing Zinfandel and Muscat grapes from France and Spain for his 560 acre Rancho Saucelito.
1880s to 1920s
Commercial winemaking was introduced in 1882 when Indiana rancher Andrew York began planting vineyards on his 240-acre homestead. Within a few years, he found that the vines were yielding more than he could market, prompting him to establish Ascension Winery, known today as York Mountain Winery. The family planted some of the area’s earliest Zinfandel vines, making Paso Robles famous for this variety. York initially sold his wines mostly in San Luis Obispo and eventually as far away as San Francisco. Today, York Mountain Winery remains the oldest winery in continuous operation in the county.
Following York’s early success in the wine business, immigrant farming families settled in the area. In 1884 the Ernst family arrived from Geneseo, Illinois, and over the next 20 years planted 25 varieties of wine grapes made into wines receiving wide acclaim. In 1886, Gerd Klintworth planted a vineyard in the Geneseo/Linne area and produced the first white wine in the region. In 1890, Frenchman Adolf Siot planted Zinfandel west of Templeton. In the 1920’s, Italian families starting vineyards included Dusi, Martinelli, Vosti and Bianchi – many of which are still being farmed today by third and fourth generations of their families.
The Casteel vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted just prior to 1908. Casteel wines were stored and aged in a cave cellar. Cuttings from the old vines provided the start for other vineyards still producing in the area today.
As the popularity of wines began to grow, so did the Paso Robles wine region. Lorenzo Nerelli purchased a vineyard at the foot of York Mountain in 1917. His Templeton Winery was the area’s first to be bonded following the repeal of Prohibition.
1920s and 1930s: Zinfandel
There was a flurry of viticultural activity in the early 1920s when several families immigrated to the area to establish family vineyards and wineries. The Dusi family purchased a vineyard in 1924; these old head-pruned Zinfandel vines are now owned and cultivated by their son, Benito. The Martinelli, Busi, Vosti and Bianchi vineyards were also established around this time. Frank Pesenti also planted Zinfandel on his property in 1923, with the guidance of their neighbor Siot, although the Pesenti Winery was not bonded until 1934.
The Paso Robles wine region gained more notoriety when Ignace Paderewski, the famous Polish statesman and concert pianist, visited Paso Robles, became enchanted with the area, and purchased 2,000 acres. In the early 1920s, he planted Petite Sirah and Zinfandel on his Rancho San Ignacio vineyard in the Adelaida area. When Prohibition ended, Paderewski’s wine was made at York Mountain Winery. The wines produced from grapes grown on Rancho San Ignacio went on to become award-winners and Paso Robles’ reputation as a premier wine region grew.
Of any variety, Zinfandel had a strong influence on the early growth and development of the wine industry in Paso Robles. It remains a key wine varietal for several wineries, including, among others, Peachy Canyon Winery, Turley Wine Cellars, Tobin James Cellars, Norman Vineyards, Castoro Cellars and Nadeau Family Vintners.
1960s and 1970s: Cabernet Sauvignon, Large Plantings
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a new generation of vineyard pioneers in the Paso Robles area, bringing university training and financial resources for large plantings. Dr. Stanley Hoffman, under the guidance of U.C. Davis and legendary enologist Andre Tchelistcheff, planted some of the region’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on his 1,200-acre ranch next to the old Paderewski Ranch in the hills of Adelaida, about five miles west of town. His Hoffman Mountain Ranch Winery (a portion now owned by Adelaida Cellars) was the first large-scale modern facility in the area and one that created a stir in international wine circles in the 1970s with his Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet Sauvignon remains the leading varietal for the Paso Robles appellation, accounting for 30 percent of the region’s planted wine grape acreage. Due to the intense varietal character of wine grapes grown in this diverse appellation, Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon wines consistently garner national and international acclaim, including, among others, J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, Treana Winery, Adelaida Cellars, and Chateau Margene.
New wine grape growers also began to cultivate the first large plantings on the east side of the Salinas River. Bob Young planted the area’s first large scale commercial vineyard, now known as Rancho Dos Amigos on Shandon Heights. Herman Schwartz, managing partner for a group of investors, planted the 500-acre Rancho Tierra Rejada in 1973. From 1973 to 1977 Gary Eberle and Cliff Giacobine planted 700 acres, including the first modern commercial acreage of Syrah in the state, and established Estrella River Winery, the largest winery in the area (purchased in 1988 by Nestle/Beringer).
1980s: Large Scale Wineries
Recognizing the area’s unique yet very diverse terroir, the 614,000-acre Paso Robles American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) and 6,400-acre York Mountain AVA were established in 1983.
Large corporate vineyards and wineries continued to be established in Paso Robles in the 1980s as growers recognized the favorable topography and generous climate allowed them to grow high-quality wine grapes at higher yield levels than was possible in other appellations. In 1988, J. Lohr, whose winery owns over 1,900 acres of vineyards in the area and produces 400,000 cases annually, expanded into Paso Robles to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other red varietals. Meridian, now owned by Beringer Blass, was also established in 1988. With 3,500 vineyard acres in California and annual production at 1.1 million cases, it is the largest of Paso Robles AVA wineries.
Mid-size wineries were also established during this period. In 1982, Arciero Vineyards/EOS Estate Winery, now with over 700 acres and production at 160,000 cases, pioneered the planting of several premium Italian varietals. In 1983, Wild Horse Winery was bonded and now produces 135,000 cases with an average of 15 different varietal wines each year, including their flagship Pinot Noir and a number of heirloom varietals — the largest spectrum of varietal wines to be found in any tasting room in the area. Treana Winery, owned by the Hope family, was established in 1996 and now produces 160,000 cases between the Treana and Liberty School brands. Originally called Hope Farms, the family planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Paso Robles in 1978 and sourced their fruit to Napa.
1990s to present: International Investment, Rhones and Bordeaux
Although Gary Eberle planted Syrah in the mid 1970s, and provided plant material from that vineyard to many winemakers in the state, Rhone varietals did not form an important part of Paso Robles’ identity until 1989. That year, the Perrin family (of the Rhone Valley’s Chateau de Beaucastel, revered producer of Chateauneuf-du-Pape) and their American importer Robert Haas established their international joint venture, Tablas Creek Vineyard in the limestone hills of the Adelaida region northwest of town. With 80 acres planted to the traditional varieties of Chateauneuf du Pape, Tablas Creek imported exclusive clonal material from the Rhone Valley, and made those clones available to other interested growers around the state. As a result, in addition to being a top producer of premium Rhone wines, Tablas Creek has evolved into a full-fledged vine nursery supplying cuttings of Rhone varietals to wineries all over California.
Since 1989, Paso Robles has seen an explosion of plantings of Rhone varieties. Now, in addition to the first Syrah plantings in California, it also has the largest acreage of Syrah, Viognier and Rousanne. Acres planted under Rhone varieties jumped from fewer than 100 acres in 1994 to more than 2,000 in 2005. During that time, at least 10 wineries focusing on Rhone varieties were established. Feeding the trend has been the Paso Robles-based Hospice du Rhone, the largest celebration of Rhone wines in the world attended each year by 3,000 enthusiasts and an A-list of Rhone producers from all over the world.
Since the early 1990s, Paso Robles wines have proven consistent gold medal winners and have been featured regularly in the top rankings of national and international wine reviews. A milestone in the worldwide recognition of Paso Robles Wine Country as a premier wine region came in 1997 when Justin Vineyards & Winery’s Bordeaux-style Isosceles was named one of the top 10 wines in the world by the Wine Spectator.
2000s: Boutique Wineries, Hospitality Centers
In the last six years, the number of wineries in Paso Robles Wine Country has doubled from 50 to 100 mostly due to an influx of boutique and small family owned vineyards and wineries. The appellation’s burgeoning reputation has also seduced a number of winemakers from France, Australia, South Africa and Switzerland eager to find New World applications for their wine making skills.
The result is that many young boutique wineries are quickly gaining recognition and a following for their innovative and proprietary Paso Robles blends of Bordeaux, Rhone and Zinfandel varietals, including, among many others, L’Aventure, Linne Calodo Cellars, Anglim Cellars, Halter Ranch Vineyard, Midnight Cellars, Pipestone Vineyards, Villicana Winery and Wild Coyote.
While the number of small wineries has grown, several mid to larger size operations have been building a hospitality focus for their showcase wineries. In addition to their tasting facility, Justin’s complex includes the recently completed Isosceles Center, Just Inn and Deborah’s Room. Others include the J. Lohr Wine Center, and the caves at Robert Hall Winery and Eberle Winery.
And the future looks bright. The most influential members of the wine press urge their readers to discover the wines from Paso Robles. Stephen Tanzer in the July/August 2005 issue of International Wine Cellar asserts that “Paso Robles in particular is in the midst of a grape growing boom, led by a handful of young winemakers who are crafting rich and satisfying wines from Rhone Valley varieties.” In the June 30, 2005 issue of Wine Advocate, Robert M. Parker, Jr. agrees: “there is no question that a decade from now, the top viticultural areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Rita Hills and the limestone hillsides west of Paso Robles will be as well-known as the glamorous vineyards of Napa Valley.
Paso Robles Wine Country is centrally located between San Francisco and Los Angeles along California’s Central Coast. As California’s fastest growing wine region and largest geographic appellation, the 24 square mile territory encompasses more than 26,000 vineyard acres and nearly 100 wineries. With a greater day-to-night temperature swing than any other appellation in California, distinct micro-climates, diverse soils and a long growing season, Paso Robles is a unique wine region blessed with optimal growing conditions for producing premium and ultra premium wines. More than 40 wine grape varieties are grown in Paso Robles, ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne, to Zinfandel, the area’s heritage wine varietal.
Paso Robles Wine Country is situated along U.S. Highway 101 in the center of California’s Central Coast, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Paso Robles Viticultural Area
Established in 1983, and expanded in 1997, the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a large, diverse appellation located within northern San Luis Obispo County, comprised of a number of distinctive grape growing regions generally characterized by rolling hills east of the Salinas River and steeper hillsides, cut by small canyons, west of the River.
Its western boundary is just six miles from the Pacific Ocean. The appellation lies on the inland side of the Santa Lucia coastal mountains in San Luis Obispo County, and roughly forms a rectangle 35 miles from east to west, and 25 miles from north to south. It extends from the Monterey County border to the north, to the Cuesta Grade below Santa Margarita to the south, and from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, to the Cholame Hills to the east.
The appellation comprises 614,000 acres of which more than 26,000 acres are in wine grape vines. It is the fastest growing and largest by far of three AVAs in San Luis Obispo County, and the main reason that the county ranks behind only Napa, Sonoma and Monterey counties in planted acreage among the state’s coastal growing areas.
The Paso Robles AVA is a land of diversity and contrasts that encompasses river bottoms to rolling hills and flat lands to mountains. The major geographical features of the area are the Santa Lucia Range, the Salinas River Valley and the Templeton Gap.
California’s Central Coast is geologically different from other California wine growing regions. Unlike others with deep, rich fertile valley soils, over 45 soil series are found in the Paso Robles AVA. These are primarily bedrock derived soils from weathered granite, older marine sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks and younger marine sedimentary rocks of the Miocene age Monterey Formation featuring calcareous shales, sandstone or mudstone. Soil diversity is the norm and a vineyard block may commonly contain several different soil types.
What is really unique about Paso Robles AVA soils is the predominance of desirable calcareous soils found throughout the region and the high soil pH values of 7.4 to 8.6 that are not typical of California’s other viticultural areas. Due to geologic uplift, calcareous shale is plentiful in Paso Robles’ west-side hills, where dense clay-based soils combine with relatively plentiful rainfall to make it possible for some vines to be dry-farmed without supplemental irrigation. On both sides of the Salinas River, gently rolling hills are covered with sandy, loamy soils. In the watershed areas, particularly the Estrella River plain, loam and clay are overlain with sand.
The proximity of the Pacific Ocean, orientation of numerous canyons and valleys, and varying elevations produce many different distinct microclimates in the Paso Robles AVA.
The area benefits from the largest swing between high daytime and low nighttime temperatures of any region in California as a result of the cool marine air that flows east through the Templeton Gap and south along the Salinas River Valley from the Monterey Bay. The region’s summer is characterized by warm, clear days, generally unencumbered by clouds, fog or severe winds. Daytime high temperatures in the summer typically fall between 85 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, but nighttime low temperatures usually can drop by 40 to 50 degrees, cooled by a marine layer that moves over the region in the mid to late afternoon. This fluctuation is considered a key by winemakers and wine grape growers to attain the intense varietal character displayed in wine grapes from the area.
September, October and the first half of November are typically rain-free and warm, giving Paso Robles vines the advantage of time to produce fully mature fruit, while the overnight cooling keeps the grapes’ acid chemistry in balance. The first rainfall of the season is typically about two weeks later than Napa or Sonoma, and a month later than Mendocino, giving winemakers the luxury of waiting for optimal ripeness. Winter temperatures tend to dip into the low twenties in the cooler regions, with most vineyards becoming fully dormant by mid-December. Frost is also a potential threat through mid-May, especially following a northern weather system.
The rainfall of the region, like its climate and soils, varies greatly depending on the vineyard’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the Templeton Gap. Average rainfall for the city of Paso Robles is 15.5 inches, but rainfall ranges from eight inches in the eastern portions of the AVA to as much as 45 inches on the far western ridges. The first rains typically arrive in early to mid November, with the heaviest amounts usually occurring in January through March. These rain totals are typically dominated by relatively few, but substantial, Pacific storms that can contribute several inches of rain in just a few days.
The City of Paso Robles rests at 740 feet above sea level. Paso Robles vineyards east of the Salinas River range from 700 to 1,000 feet in elevation while those to the west range from 850 to 2,000 feet.
Due to cool nights and warm days, and typically late rains, Paso Robles vines tend to have a longer growing season and grapes have more hang time compared to other wine regions, resulting in fully mature fruit whose acid chemistry is kept in balance through the area’s overnight cooling.