The History of Cabernet

Big, Bold, Bordeaux: The History of Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon

In Paso Robles Wine Country, Cab is king. Temperate days, cool nights and well-drained soil echo the growing conditions of Bordeaux, France, inspiring local winemakers to produce world class Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec across the region’s bucolic vineyard terrain. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon — with its rich mouth feel, deep complexity and velvety finish — reigns supreme among Paso’s Bordeaux bounty. The varietal makes up almost half of all grapes grown across the 614,000-acre Paso Robles AVA, of which 32,000 acres are in wine grape vines. Elegant, robust and age-worthy, award-winning Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon has garnered extensive acclaim across the region and around the world.

Long before becoming synonymous with world class wine, El Paso de Robles, or “The Pass of the Oaks,” was known for its natural mineral baths, almonds and agriculture. In 1776, Franciscan priests produced the area’s first wines. In the late 1800s, a handful of locals pioneered winemaking in the region, including two of Paso’s longest continuously-running wineries: Rotta Winery — which continues to operate under its original name — and York Mountain Winery, purchased by Epoch Estate Wines in 2010.

In 1914, Polish composer and dignitary Ignacy Paderewski made history by planting some of the area’s earliest Zinfandel grapes, using York Mountain Winery to craft his award-winning wines. The 1920s and 1930s may have brought notoriety to Italian varietals, but the late 1960s and early 1970s brought on the emergence of what would become a true Paso Robles mainstay for decades to come: Cabernet Sauvignon.

Early History

In the 1970s, under the guidance of enologist André Tchelistcheff, Dr. Stanley Hoffman planted some of the region’s first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. These notable plantings flourished on Hoffman’s 1,200-acre ranch near the old Paderewski Ranch in the hills of Adelaida, about eight miles west of downtown Paso Robles.

His Hoffman Mountain Ranch — now owned by DAOU Vineyards & Winery and ADELAIDA Cellars — provided the first large-scale modern facility in the area. Cabernet Sauvignon’s star was undoubtedly rising, and Hoffman’s unique Cabernet created a frenetic buzz among discerning wine circles across the globe.

The Pioneers of Cabernet

The stage was now set for the entrance of Gary Eberle, a man who started out with little hands-on winemaking experience, but is now revered by many as the “Godfather of Paso Robles.” Eberle arrived in Paso Robles in 1973 with a dream and a doctorate in enology from U.C. Davis. Amidst sleepy cattle ranches and acres of farms, he established Estrella River Winery & Vineyards on Paso’s eastside. In the later part of the decade, the winemaker founded Eberle Winery on 64 acres just down the road. Today, his bustling tasting room boasts the area’s first underground wine caves.

It may be hard for the modern wine drinker to imagine, but Bordeaux varietals were scarce in 70s-era Paso Robles. Herman Schwartz was one such fellow pioneer Paso Robles producer, sowing what was then considered the largest planting of Merlot in the country. In 1974, Eberle planted 200 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, not knowing what exactly to expect. What Eberle experienced was a hearty crop that truly thrived under Paso’s hot sun, cool night skies and calcareous soils.

The winemaker’s first offering — Eberle Winery’s 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon — debuted the winery’s iconic boar logo, depicting the German origin of the name “Eberle,” meaning “small boar.” Decades later, Eberle is still enamored with the grape’s well-rounded characteristics: It’s depth of flavor, complexity and ability to stand proudly on its own.

Justin Baldwin had traveled the world as a banker (and closet food and wine aficionado) prior to his arrival in Paso Robles. His wine epiphany took place on a trip to Bordeaux, where the wines of Chateau Margaux ignited an obsession in Justin that would lead him to Paso Robles. In 1981, Justin planted 72 acres of Bordeaux varieties high up in the hills some 16 miles west of town, establishing JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery. 1987 marked the first vintage of his homage to Margaux: a Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend would be called ISOSCELES. With its 11th vintage, ISOSCELES put Paso Robles on the global luxury wine map when the 1997 vintage was named #6 in The Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2000. In 2014, JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery released the 25th consecutive vintage of this celebrated wine.

Winemaker Jerry Lohr’s role in the rise and recognition of Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon spans more than two decades. In 1986, Lohr planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Paso Robles, and with the hands-on devotion of an artisan farmer, tended to the vines while diligently working toward the creation and development of an adjacent winery and barreling facility, completed in 1988.

Today, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines spans over 2,000 acres in Paso Robles dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petite Sirah, 35 acres in Napa Valley and more than 1,300 acres of cool-climate estate vineyards in Monterey County. From this rich and diverse palette of sustainably-farmed estate fruit, J. Lohr craft wines showcases bold, concentrated flavors and a vibrant sense of terroir. The winery’s Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the number one Cabs sold in the world, further solidifying Paso Robles’ prominent place amongst the world’s most celebrated wine regions.

Paso Robles Emerges

Since 1986, Paso Robles Wine Country has experienced a true renaissance. From boutique wineries producing less than 1,200 cases per year to high-production facilities boasting 100,000 cases or more annually, Paso Robles winemakers are cultivating distinct, high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux wines that earn national and worldwide recognition each and every year.

During those past 30 years, Paso Robles has also continued to attract dozens of world-class winemakers seeking a singular dream: The freedom to express their distinct winemaking philosophies in a land fertile with possibilities. Attracted to Paso’s unique terroir and “Wild West” winemaking approach, vintners hailing from France, among other world-class wine regions, have experienced unbridled success amongst the landscape’s undulating, oak-studded countryside. Unbound by the constraints of tradition, these talented transplants have sought the world round for the perfect winemaking conditions, finding a sublime balance of sun, soil and sovereignty in Paso Robles Wine Country.

Working alongside well-respected local winemakers — many of whom boast multiple generations of rich, winemaking and wine grape growing heritage — Cabernet Sauvignon has emerged as a flagship Paso Robles varietal. This new crop of rebel rousing vintners share an independent spirit, dedication to quality and immense passion for crafting the best Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals in the world.

The Ideal Terroir

When it comes down to it, Paso Robles Cabernet producers are indeed preoccupied with a lofty goal: Capturing the terroir, or specific sense of place, within each bottle. When carried out successfully, Paso’s bold Bordeaux wines reflect the land — and no two Paso Robles vineyards are the same. In Paso Robles Wine Country, geological diversity abounds, and a single vineyard block may contain a multitude of soil types. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals flourish, as the climate, long growing season and soil work together to promote consistent physiological ripeness season after season.

Grapes grown within the calcareous shale soils of the west side’s Templeton Gap receive marine breezes followed by upward spikes in temperature, naturally stressing the vines to thrive. On Paso’s east side, a combination of warmer temperatures, cool nights and more granular calcareous soils allow precious Cabernet grapes to maintain their natural acidity. On both sides of the Salinas River, rolling hills are covered with sandy, loamy soils. From east to west and north to south, each vineyard boasts its own unique back story. Once uncorked, this story flows freely.

Advanced Winemaking Techniques

Mother Nature has certainly blessed Paso Robles with magnificent wine grape growing conditions, especially for Bordeaux varietals. However, Paso Robles Cabernet producers are not resting on their laurels: A new crop of hands-on Paso Robles winemakers are employing advanced viticultural and winemaking techniques that have raised the bar for Bordeaux varietals across the region and beyond. Many emerging and longstanding Cabernet producers are utilizing deficit irrigation, strict pruning techniques and high-density planting, as well as experimenting with specific rootstock and clonal varieties.

In Paso Robles Wine Country, rootstocks are chosen with great care, selected for optimum interaction with the soil — of which the Paso Robles AVA boasts more than 40 types. Specific rootstocks can showcase a bevy of characteristics, including tolerance to drought, water and mineral efficiency, resistance to pests and diseases as well as overall vine vigor. With thoughtful consideration, these skilled vintners indirectly influence their vines for favorable grape yield, berry size, wine color and beyond.

The output is also highly affected by the type of grape planted, and many Paso Robles winemakers sing the praises of specially-selected clonal varieties, which are then matched to the terroir of specific vineyards or  — more specifically — vineyard blocks. This process includes seeking out the ideal clone — or adaptation — of a particular grape before pairing it to a complimentary geographic site. Clones are also often selected to resist fungus, promote a desired berry or cluster size, influence crop load or even manipulate ripening time. These clones tend to produce smaller yields, but are considered by many to yield higher-quality grapes, boasting black and blue fruit flavors and better integrated tannin profiles. Additionally, just as a master chef will tinker with a sauce to get just the right blend of spices, so are these Paso Robles winemakers monitoring the phenolic compounds within their wines, which, in turn, affect everything from taste and color to mouth feel and body of the finished wine.

Moving away from the vineyard and into the winery itself, a number of boutique-style production techniques are also coming into play in Paso Robles, both at larger, commercial wineries and smaller, more family-owned operations.  Some winemakers favor a physically hands-on attitude, hand sorting the grapes after harvesting and hand punching down during fermentation, while others employ high-end equipment — such as machines that can sort one berry at a time —to achieve similar high-caliber results and attention to detail.

It’s true: At the end of the day, all the little details add up to award-winning Paso Robles Bordeaux wines. However, there’s so much more to the process than simply ticking off boxes. When a shining attribute emerges within an impeccable vintage — whether that be a nuance in flavor profile, texture, mouth feel or color — Paso Robles Cab and Bordeaux producers take note and, more often than not, get back to work. Now, more than ever, Paso Robles winemakers not only aim to replicate success, but strive to improve upon it.

The Paso Robles CAB Collective Begins

The Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux) Collective (PRCC) was formed in 2012 in an effort to champion top Cabernet and Bordeaux varietals to the world. Open to all wineries that produce superior-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals in the Paso Robles AVA, member wineries have the opportunity to work with and learn from other members. The organization is designed to create a network of knowledgeable and experienced industry professionals to assist each other from viticulture to production, marketing and sales.

A key initiative of the Paso Robles CAB Collective is to provide relevant historical as well as current viticultural information about the Paso Robles AVA and its ability to produce premium-quality Cabernet and Bordeaux varietals. In addition, these passionate vintners make it a priority to get together on a regular basis for tastings and to share ideas and perspectives to better foster a sense of community while elevating the quality of the wines produced.