Upon hearing Saxum Vineyards would be my next and concluding stop of the day in Paso Robles, my host at the preceding winery, who had lived in the area for their entire life, echoed the same “how?!” of disbelief everyone during the day shared with me on hearing this. To them, an appointment at Saxum was the equivalent of winning Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, a rare chance to pass beyond the grand, majestic gates leading to Saxum and its legendary James Berry Vineyard. It was my good fortune (no golden ticket, just contacting Smith about this story) to visit this wine version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in the land of Rhône varietals. A magical world of Syrah and Grenache awaits.
Except, there are no majestic gates at Saxum. I drove past them since the sign is so small, the gates so rural-looking, and of course with phone reception cutting out 20 minutes earlier, no Google Maps help either. There is a friendly dog and some panoramic views of the fabled estate vineyard and rolling hills of vines beyond. The grand châteaux of Saint Émilion this is not.
No tasting room. No patios that look straight out of lifestyle magazines. There is a home and a barn for winemaking and barrels. Saxum doesn’t need the often-thought of as mandatory concept of a tasting room to sell the wines, nor does it have the space for one. It’s old school, all about the wine. And as all who have sampled the wines of Justin Smith at Saxum leave in agreement, yes, they are spectacular wines. Triumphant, even.
I’d even go out on a limb and say that no winery better exemplifies its region’s culture and direction better than Saxum and Paso Robles. Discussing Paso Robles (or simply “Paso” to the California wine community, “Paso Robles” is passé) and Saxum is like discussing the Yankees and Derek Jeter. The stalwart. The captain.
Paso Robles is stronger because of Saxum. Now, it’s a vital piece of California wine. It’s the New Rhône like how Oregon a decade ago was the New Burgundy. Together with Santa Barbara County and the Santa Lucia Highlands, this riveting middle California trio is giving the Central Coast a push that this area of the state’s wines are as captivating as the big names north of San Francisco. Or even more.
When you draw a straight line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the dot smack in the middle will be Paso Robles. Literally, it’s almost exactly a three hour drive on 101 from both cities. Overall, the Paso Robles wine region boasts 32,000 acres of vineyards (for comparison, Napa Valley AVA is 43,000 and Santa Barbara County is much less at 16,600 acres). The majority of the 200 plus wineries reside just west of 101 and the main part of town and just north of 46, the highway that leads thru the Templeton Gap to Cambria and the coast (very close to the famed Hearst Castle). Wineries can be found northeast of town and also on both sides of 101 in the town just south of Paso Robles, Templeton.
Paso Robles is a city of just over 30,000 residents that is clearly growing rapidly because of the wine industry. The center of town is a classic town square park, something you see all the time in the Midwest and the Northeast but rarely in California. It’s a fairgrounds town. It has a fun West Coast Americana feel. But it looks decidedly Californian with the rolling golden hills and oak trees.
Tourism is clearly very new and the number of hotels is well behind many wine regions of this caliber. The visitor numbers are growing fast but they’d certainly be much higher if Paso Robles weren’t so isolated. But the town rewards wine visitors mightily on the food front. Artisan (a perennial James Beard nominee) and Thomas Hill Organics were the pioneers bring farm to table and chef-driven cooking to town, and are still going strong (this writer never repeats restaurants within the same year but always waives that steadfast rule for THO’s smoked salmon and avocado sandwich). Il Cortile brings fine Italian to the downtown and its new sibling La Cosecha is a great spot for Latin cuisines. Bistro Laurent is a longtime French favorite and do start the day with pastries at Panolivo. Although being an old cow town, sushi at Goshi is a winemaker favorite, a bit off the town square.
Driving along 46 or the stretch of Peachy Canyon Road right outside of town, you can’t miss the big signs geared towards tourism. The rest of Paso Robles is quiet, even a bit sleepy. Roads are windy and sometimes unpaved. Cattle still graze on most hills with vines and horse ranches scattered about. It’s not like Napa in terms of spotting the wine industry here. Not even close.
Closest to town are Arbor Road and Live Oak Road, home to the likes of Terry Hoage, L’ Aventure, and Ecluse wineries. If you’re looking for some dirt roads, this area also is your place. Small roads spur off 46 with key wineries like Booker and Hunt Cellars. Ultimately, 46 leads to Vineyard Drive, which is, not surprisingly, the main winding road through the countryside to follow for vineyards and the more intimate tasting rooms. You could spend a day just following Vineyard Drive from Turley just below the 46 intersection north to Linne Calodo, Dover Canyon, Denner, Thacher, and end in the Adelaida section at Tablas Creek and Halter Ranch.
Adelaida Road winds its way east towards town from Vineyard Drive, with the likes of Lone Madrone and Adelaida Cellars on the way.
With all of its (often non-guard railed) turns, it’s hard to call Peachy Canyon Road “parallel” to Adelaida but it also winds its way slowly east to town from Vineyard Drive, below Adelaida. Have directions ready, Google Maps won’t help here when finding Villa Creek Cellars and Law Estate.
Finally, Willow Creek Road runs quietly from Peachy Canyon Road to meet Vineyard Drive very close to 46. It’s home to many acclaimed vineyards and not many actual wineries. Here’s where you’ll find Saxum and Paso Robles’ most famous vineyard, James Berry, much like Sanford & Benedict is to Santa Barbara and To Kalon is to Napa.
Then it’s Hearst Castle and the coast 20 miles to the west, San Luis Obispo a bit south, and not a whole lot to the east or north immediately.
You’re seeing Paso Robles currently in the latter stages of a complete switch from cow town to one of California’s winemaking and tourism centers.
Paso Robles is the New World’s Rhône. Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache are the main grapes for reds and Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne for the whites. Zinfandel is another strength, aided greatly by the heat and oak tree shade found everywhere in the region. This isn’t Bordeaux country but there’s a fair amount of Cabernet Sauvignon to be found.
Limestone soils are the secret to Paso Robles with an unusually high pH of the calcareous-based and clay-based soils. These moisture retaining soils and the good pH help the vines endure the summer heat (and a key factor in the often 15% to 16% ABV figures for red Rhône blends produced in the region). Weather would be the other crucial terroir factor. It gets hot here. Very hot. However, it cools off dramatically at night, even on 90 degree August days, refreshing the grapes with the intensity of a 40 degree temperature change cycle frequently.
Elevations range from roughly 700 to 2,000 feet and rainfall, well, being in one of California’s worst droughts on record, is currently non-existent. But hopefully the rainmakers will oblige and provide much-need precipitation. Paso Robles’ rain falls usually late autumn thru May and the totals vary drastically. The eastern portions might see only eight inches of rain, while the maritime areas often covered in fog can be soaked up to 40 inches. Wind and marine fog adore the Templeton Gap, something the grapes are grateful for.
Intense sun, intense marine winds, limestone soils. As it turns out, it’s ideal for the New Rhône.
Next, Part II: The Wineries