More than 40 different varietals -- high-quality Zinfandel, excellent Cabernet blends and first-rate Rhone varietals -- are cultivated in Paso Robles, California's largest American Viticultural Area. The 24-plus-square-mile area has 700- to 2,000-foot elevations with diverse microclimates -- from the cooling Pacific breezes and multiple canyons.
Still, Paso Robles suffers from an identity crisis. The public is mostly unaware of the many notable wines being made at many of the 100 Paso Robles wineries.
"It's important that we become more distinctive," said Steve Lohr, vice president of J.Lohr Vineyards and chair of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, a consortium geared to increasing consumer familiarity with the area.
"Many years ago, everyone thought of Napa as a uniform area," he said. "Now, we recognize the significant differences between areas within Napa, such as Spring Mountain and St. Helena. It's the same in Paso Robles, which also has many distinct microclimates."
Jerome Lohr, who began his winemaking efforts in Monterey County in 1972, now has 900 acres planted with Chardonnay, Riesling and other varietals.
He bought his first vineyard in Paso Robles in 1988; today, J.Lohr Vineyards has 2,000 acres under cultivation. Less tannic than Napa wines, the J.Lohr Cabernets still exhibit a classic California flavor profile and structure.
The single-vineyard, full-bodied J.Lohr Hilltop Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 is a fine example, with minty black fruit and cassis flavors, along with some coffee and oakiness at the end.
Made from 97 percent Cabernet Franc, the J.Lohr Cuvee St. E Paso Robles 2000 offers red currants and raspberries, along with toasty oak, anise, vanilla and dark chocolate in the lush finish.