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Thursday Thorns
Paso Robles Grows A New Identity

By Stephen Eliot

There are reasons enough that the subject of American Viticultural Areas (AVA) is more often than not met by rolled-eye skepticism among those in the wine profession, and I must agree that claims made that AVA status ensures consumer clarity as to specific area’s style and quality are strained at best. AVAs such as the Sonoma Coast, Northern California of the San Francisco Bay are so large as to be utterly meaningless, and those that are smaller, take the Russian River Valley or even Rutherford for example, can and do exhibit significant viticultural differences within their more-tightly drawn boundaries.

Still, I would not advocate that the system should be scrapped, and would argue that the concept, while far from perfect, is one that is still evolving in what is, after all, a comparatively young wine culture here in California. The presumption behind an AVA is that it can be characterized by a set of predictable traits that are independent of vintage and vintner, but just what a given place really has to say, if it has anything specific to say at all, takes a very long time to define.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has been quietly making news these last couple of weeks with the recognition of four new AVAs in California, the Ballard Canyon AVA in Santa Barbara County, the Moon Mountain District Sonoma County AVA and two within Lake County, the Big Valley-Lake County AVA and the Kelsey Ranch-Lake County AVA. It is, however, the bureau’s announcement that it is in the final stages of recognizing eleven new AVAs within the extant Paso Robles appellation that strikes me as more interesting. 1

Anyone who has given Paso Robles even a cursory look cannot but be impressed by the widely varying viticultural circumstance of what is a huge wine-growing region, and it appears that, in the very near future, those differences of soil and climate will come with their own addresses—eleven in all.

Each of those eleven proposed areas, the "Adelaida District," "Creston District," "El Pomar District," "Estrella District," "Paso Robles Geneseo District," "Paso Robles Highlands District," "Paso Robles Willow Creek District," "San Juan Creek," "San Miguel District," "Santa Margarita Ranch," and "Templeton Gap District" will be required by a conjunctive California State labeling law to append Paso Robles to their names much as AVAs of Rutherford, Oakville, Oak Knoll, etc., have since 1990 been similarly required to include the designation of Napa Valley. The point, of course, is that the wineries of Paso Robles do not want to lose their larger regional identity that they have worked so long to achieve.

Ultimately, it will be up to the growers and vintners of each area to make good on their claims of distinct character. What the specific differences between each new AVA really are and which districts shine brightest will, of course, be subject to debate and argument, but we have seen in our tastings and travels more than enough evidence to enthusiastically endorse what we believe is a significant change in the way things will be done in Paso Robles.



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What about consumer confusion
by Pamela
Posted on:10/3/2013 6:55:55 PM

Excellent conclusion Stephen! But on the other side of the argument, I often wonder what the decision makers (those that have divided up this region to 11 distinct proposed AVAs) think they will gain by doing this...I understand the reasoning from a distinct character perspective, but I think many times other aspects are overlooked -- such as consumer confusion.

Confused? I Don't Even Remember Where I Put My Reading Glasses
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/4/2013 9:22:18 AM

Hi Pam--

I think we can all agree that small area appellations have the potential to obfuscate as much as they do to elucidate. Steve Eliot and I recently spent a fair bit of time in Paso Robles, and even after that visit that went from one side of the larger AVA to the other and up hill and over dale, we still do not know where some of those new, small AVAs are.

But, just as we have learned the dozen and more overlapping AVAs in each of Sonoma and Napa Counties, so too will we in time learn about the Paso small entities if there is wine to teach us.

Learning the geography is easy. Learning why each exists and what it produces that makes it different will be less quickly understood.

The conjunctive labelling law that will require the use of the newly designated territories to be mentioned on labels along with Paso Robles will help in that we will not have to stop and think where Santa Margarita Ranch is. We will know that it is within the Paso Robles AVA, and not in northern Italy or a chain of restaurants owned by Jimmy Buffett.

An interesting comparison can be made with the small-area AVAs that were established within the larger Lodi AVA. I wonder how many of us can quickly name all six of them since we do not often see them on labels. But, when we do, those labels will also read as Lodi, and if we care, we can easily learn the difference between Consumnes River and Mokelumne River.

Most consumers, of course, do not really care. Lodi is enough if they care at all and are not buying by producer and variety in the first place.

So, long answer short. Thanks for the comment, and no, I don't think that consumer confusion will be the result.


Paso Robles AVA
by Julee McKinney
Posted on:10/4/2013 2:56:10 PM

I am a Central Coast Native who lives in Paso Robles (Templeton Gap if you want to be more specific)  and I don't even know where some of these areas are.

I understand the terrain, soil, micro-climates etc that affect grapes and ultimately the wine to a degree, but to the person grabbing that bottle off the shelf at Trader Joe's, Costco or Bev Mo, do they care?

There are so many contributing factors to what make a wine taste good. Purchasing a wine that was grown in your favorite AVA is not going to guarantee you will like it, and if you get a bad bottle from a specific AVA are you going to assume its the growing conditions of that specific region? Probably not.

We have a wonderful area with exceptionally good wines in Paso. We are typically pretty laid back here and I hope we are able to maintain a casual approach to wine tasting. Dividing the region into specific AVA's is not a step in the right direction in my opinion. It seems to me it is inviting snobery and that goes against everything we love about the Central Coast.

The Winery I work for has vineyards in 4 different (proposed) AVA's. Every wine our winemaker makes is exceptional. He knows how to get the very best out of every grape, from each region. We sell grapes from all our vineyards, to a number of other wineries in the area, but none of them taste like our wines (from the same vineyards). My point being, the AVA the grapes are grown in would be more important to the winemaker and I can't understand why this would need to go on a label. 

Tell Us More
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/4/2013 6:06:49 PM

Can you tell us where you work and which of the new AVAs provide grapes for your wines?

I ask because it is my understanding that it is the wineries that brought about this expansion of AVAs within the larger Paso AVA.


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