Today’s episode is brought to you by Paso Robles Wine Country. Paso Robles is located along the central coast of California and is stunningly beautiful. Just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, it has warm days and cool nights. The wines from Paso Robles reflect that sense of place and capture its elegance, energy, and beauty. To learn more or to plan a trip, visit pasowine.com.
On this “Next Round” episode, host Zach Geballe chats with Maggie Tillman, co-owner of Alta Colina Vineyard, and Russell From, owner and winemaker at Herman Story Wines. The three discuss Paso Robles, an up-and-coming wine region in California. Tillman and From begin by sharing how they broke into the wine industry and ended up in Paso Robles. Then, our guests detail how the region’s central location, unique temperature, and rich soils allow for the production of uniquely diverse wine varieties.
Listeners will learn about the Rhône-inspired varieties the region produces, including Grenache and Syrah. In addition, Tillman and From discuss the sub-AVAs that make up the region and explain why Paso Robles has become a world-class tourist destination.
Tune in and visit pasowine.com to learn more about Paso Robles.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations so we can explore more of the stories and individuals within the drinks world. Today, I have the pleasure of talking to two such individuals, Maggie Tillman, who’s the co-owner at Alta Colina Vineyard, and Russell From, who is the owner and winemaker at Herman Story Wines. Maggie and Russell, thank you so much for your time.
Maggie Tillman: Thanks, Zach.
Russell From: Thanks for having me.
Z: Yeah, my pleasure. I’m excited. We’re going to talk about Paso Robles, which is a wine region that I know a little bit about from drinking the wines but have to cop to right from the start that I have never been to. Let’s start with that very thing. Russell, where are we?
R: We’re halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, right on the coast. I think we are the best growing region of California. We don’t get as much rain as in the north, and we don’t get a lot of tropical moisture from the south. The soils are really great so it really makes a great spot. Then, our coastal influence keeps the nights cool so it’s really a little diamond. I’m surprised that it wasn’t more established way back in the day. It is in its infancy stage, and it’s becoming more and more well known.
Z: Very cool. I want to give a little bit of backstory from each of you and how you made your way here. Maggie let’s start. As it turns out, you and I are both alumni of the same university, which is rather far from Paso Robles. How did you make your way to the region and get involved in winemaking?
M: Yeah, we both are NYU grads, it turns out.
Z: Go Violets!
M: With all those “sports,” go violets! NYU is not only geographically really far away, but also there are no plants. There’s no agricultural school or anything like that.
Z: Yeah, squirrels were about the most exciting wildlife we had. And pigeons.
M: Pigeons. Oh, gross. Yeah, I just substitute gophers and ground squirrels, and it’s a similar level of grossness.
M: Anyway, I ended up in Paso Robles because of my family. My family moved to San Luis Obispo County in the late ‘90s, and my parents worked at a small computer company. While my dad had been a home winemaker since the early ’70s, it wasn’t until the purchase of our property in Paso in 2003 that we actually got into the industry in a real way. I made my way there in 2008, following the family business. The combination of that and really not knowing what I was going to do after college, and it turns out wine is a good place to end up.
Z: Yeah, I can agree with that. I didn’t have winemaking or grape growing, but I also ended up in wine, so I understand how it can work that way. Russell, how about you? How did you get into the wine industry in Paso?
R: Well, I was going to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and I have never taken a wine class in my life. I did agricultural business and crop science, so I went the same way as Maggie. You just start to learn all the stuff, and I got a lot of on-the-job training at a big custom crush place in Santa Maria that I worked at in the early 2000s. They also allowed me to make my own wine — the Miller family down in Santa Maria that owns Bien Nacido — they allowed me to make my own wine in 2001, and that’s where I started. I started with four barrels and then just kept getting a little more grapes here and there and built it up. Then, I moved to Paso about 10 years ago now because that’s where all the customers were. They were all there. That’s when Wine Spectator and a lot of publications were talking about doing it, really building it up. Now, it’s crazy but I still live in San Luis Obispo. I buy grapes from all over the place, from this central location that worked out.
Z: One of the things I think that will come through in this conversation is that one of the strains of Paso is its diversity and the fact that it’s not solely dedicated to any particular variety. For those of us who are a little bit less familiar, Maggie, can you give us just an overview of what the appellation is like and what some of the dominant varieties are?
M: Paso Robles as a growing region is pretty big geographically. It covers a lot of ground and among the most widely planted varieties, Cabernet is definitely up there and there are some producers that are really carrying that torch these days. You can find really great Paso cabs nationally but Rhône varieties have really become a niche that’s really strong for Paso Robles. Rhône varieties such as Grenache and Syrah. A lot of those white wine varieties grow incredibly well in our area. There’s also sort of a history of Zinfandel, but for both Russell and I, Rhônes are what we’re about.
Z: Gotcha. Russell, as Maggie mentioned, emphasizes Rhône varieties. What is it about the Paso Robles that makes it well suited for Grenache, Syrah, or any of the other varieties that fall into that category?
R: A lot of what I said earlier about just the timing and the proximity to the ocean, and the soils are really a bonus. We have these really rocky soils, acid soils, and they hold acid. We get really hot in the day, a little too hot of late, but we get hot in the day. A lot of varieties need heat, and there’s a lot of varieties that are grown all over the world. In Bordeaux, it doesn’t get too hot but here it gets hot. We make a different Cabernet, a big, ripe, massive California-style Cabernet, and that is what a lot of people like. You can make all kinds of wines here in Paso. You can pick earlier and make more of a French-style wine, or you can wait, which I do. I wait until the grapes get a little on the riper side and when they have full flavor, that’s when I pick them. You can get that and in a lot of areas, you can’t get that. In a lot of cool areas, the vines shut down and they don’t want to get that higher sugar. Again, that helps by not having as much rain as Northern California, and soils help. Then, that ocean influence really helps keep the nights cool and the grapes rest at night. I always say that great vintages are like slow braising in meat. Low and slow all the way through and that’s what we have here. Napa is the most known area of California, but Paso doesn’t have a lot of bad vintages. Maggie, I know you could say the same thing. What vintage do I remember that’s been bad? Not very many. There have been some challenging ones, but there are more fabulous ones than the challenge so that’s only good for the consumer.
Z: For sure. Maggie, you also mentioned a moment ago that it’s a large appellation. How distinctive or different are the various pockets within it? Is even generalizing about Paso as a whole silly because we’re talking about some pretty different growing conditions with the smaller areas within the AVA?
M: I think what Russell keeps mentioning is this diurnal temperature swing, right? It is super warm in the day. We can get stuff ripe, but we can keep acid levels because it cools down at night since we’re not that far from the ocean. That applies across the entire region, but there are 11 sub-AVAs. There are 11 subregions within the Paso Robles region where you can really drill down to soil type. Is it hillier? Is it flatter? What does the water source look like? You can absolutely find pockets where certain things grow a little better. Or it’s… Wow, I lost my train of thought.
Z: It’s OK.
R: Basically, stewarded to those varieties. When they apply for all these AVAs, they have to prove that their little area is a microclimate or their soil special and different from everyone else’s. To have that many AVAs in such a small area is crazy, but at the same time, the heat is a key. As I was saying, those cool nights let the grapes rest. Then, a lot of it is based on soil types. We’re actually planting a vineyard at York Mountain on 20 acres. There are probably five different soil types. It’s unreal. It’s amazing.
M: Technically, York Mountain is a separate AVA. Right, Russell?
R: Yes, it is.
M: It shares the property line with Paso, but it is its own thing.
R: Yeah, it was established in 1981, and it was the smallest AVA in California for a long time. Of the sub-AVAs, not to get on York Mountain, but of the sub-AVAs, we are the only one that doesn’t have to say Paso Robles. We can just say York Mountain and claim it. Everyone else has to say, for example, Willow Creek District, Paso Robles. It’s a little different, but I’m really York Mountain-proud lately, so don’t let me get caught up.
M: One of the other pieces about the sub-AVAs and the fact that Paso Robles is a pretty geographically diverse region is that it makes the elevator pitch a lot harder. If I say Napa, you think Cab. If I say Santa Barbara, you think Pinot. If I say Paso Robles, you might think Cab, Grenache, or Syrah. I think it’s a lot more consumer-friendly from that perspective, but it takes a little more work to come and get familiar with what we’re good at and what is going on in the area. Again, there’s no one calling card which as growers and winemakers is really appealing, but it is a little bit tougher for consumers to figure out where to start.
Z: I do want to get to a little later talk about visiting the region and what tourism there looks like. However, I want to talk a little bit more about the wines in general. I think another thing that’s interesting to me about the totality of Paso Robles is that, to my understanding, it’s not a wine region that’s dominated by a few big producers. I’m here in Washington state and this place in a lot of ways is dominated by Chateau Ste. Michele. I mean, we have lots of wineries, but they produce a lot of the wine that comes out of the state. Is that perception accurate? If so, what does having a network of smaller producers mean for the region?
R: It really keeps it grassroots and old school. I think Napa was the same way back in the day where you had all these little small producers. Ten years ago, every small producer in town would meet on Friday and would have cocktails. Remember Maggie?
M: Yes, and Wednesdays.
R: And Wednesdays, too. That’s really when it was the Wild West, I think. Now, we have Tin City with a lot more younger people getting into it. Then, you see this changing tide where we’re getting noticed by Napa. At the same time, I still love the fact that there’s a whole slew of vineyards that sell just to people like us. We can get a few grapes, and they don’t want to have their own label, but that’s always a romantic thing that vineyard owners always want to have. They want to have their own label. Right now, finding great grapes is really hard to find with people that want to really go in and do the crazy farming. There’s very little available, which only tells you that everyone is doing all right. The wines are being well received in the market, but it is still old school here. That’s the nice part, and I hope it stays like that as long as it can.
M: I think it will for a while. You help with that, Russell.
R: Right, right.
M: You help keep it where it was, in a good way. Also, I think where there are so many small producers, it just makes it fun. The community vibe in Paso is super special. For the most part, we know each other. We’ve worked together for a long time. We have partied together. It’s a fun group of people, and there are a handful of larger producers, so I look at it as a chance for folks in areas where you’re not going to find Alta Colina or Herrman Story, you might find something else from Paso Robles. You start to learn about the area, and then eventually you find us, which is great.
R: Maybe all the young winemakers have their own hangout, and we just don’t know about it.
Z: Well, I was going to kind of ask if one of the strengths of the region is that because you’re dealing with some smaller-scale production, it is easier for people to get their foot in the door. At the same time, Russell, you just mentioned that it’s hard to get grapes because there’s all that demand. Is it a place where someone who would be interested in setting up shop can still do that? Or is it too hard to get your foot in the door?
R: You can get in and the best way to get in is San Luis Obispo. People think they want to come in to make a thousand cases and they’re great marketers. There’s a saying: “You can make all the wine you want. If you can’t sell it, you’re in trouble.” Yet, you could still get your foot in the door here. There is a lot about relationships and a lot of people. I have five employees that I allow to make wine here. They either pinch grapes off me or get their own contracts. They’re still able to get their own contracts and find it. It’s a small town. You meet somebody, somebody comes in here and tastes, and they have a ton of Grenache in acres and they sell it. There’s still a lot of that, but you can still get in. It’s just finding a place to do it. It is really hard to make the wines, and finding all the equipment is the tough part, but I think you can do it. It’s a lot of work though.
M: If you work a couple of harvests, get to know the area, engage with the community and you’re cool, people want to help you. They want to see you succeed and do cool stuff and grow in the industry. Russell has a bunch of his employees make wine. I have a couple of employees who make wine out of my facility. Certainly, the barrier to entry is a lot lower in Paso than it is up north, no question, but it’s not to say it’s that easy. You’ve got to mean it and do the work.
R: It’s funny. On my harvest T-shirt for Herman Story is “Herman Story, Harvest 2021. Life is short, start your own wine brand.”
Z: I guess that says it so I want to talk about one more thing in the vineyards and then I want to talk a little bit about visiting the region and what that’s like. Are there some oddball, fun varieties? I think one of the cool things about a lot of these California regions is if someone decides, either recently or long in the past, gets a wild hair and decides to plant some random stuff. Is there any variety that people might be surprised to find in Paso?
M: For sure. Russell, you’re more out buying fruit and stuff. Have you seen something weird and cool lately?
M: There are a few Rhône producers like Tablas Creek who are doing a deep dive. I’m not sure they’re all in a bottle, but they do every single Rhône variety. The weird ones you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce and I can’t even remember the names of, you can find them, which is pretty cool.
Z: You can get your Bourboulenc or whatever.
M: Can you spell it?
Z: I can, but we’re not going to waste podcast time with that. I will say, as I mentioned at the top, I’ve never been to Paso in any sense because we had a whole pandemic that caused some disruptions to my travel plans for 2021. For someone who does want to start planning a trip, let’s start maybe with this question. Where does someone fly to? How do they find themselves in Paso? Where do they stay? Then, we’ll talk about visiting wineries, dining, and all that stuff.
M: As Russell mentioned right at the beginning, we’re directly between Los Angeles and San Francisco. With traffic, we are about three and a half hours from each. If you don’t mind driving, you can fly into SFO or LAX. If you want to really get local, you can fly into San Luis Obispo, which is 30 minutes south of Paso Robles. You can fly into SLO. They’ve got six or eight direct flights, some of which are useful. It takes a little bit of work. One of the reasons why Pasos is nice is that it’s not that busy. It’s a little bit off the beaten path, and the way we keep it that way is because it’s a pain in the butt to get to. You can fly into San Luis Obispo, rent a car, and there’s, at this point, a lot of accommodation options. On my property, we have vintage trailers where people can camp. There’s a bunch of hotels in town. There are super-high-end options. There are amazing VRBOs. If you just throw a Google on it, it won’t take long to go down the rabbit hole and find some options.
Z: Russell, as far as what the evolution of wine tourism has looked like in Paso… As you mentioned, a decade or so ago, you started to get more press. I imagine that with that comes more tourism. Have you seen a growth in what Maggie mentioned, accommodation, but what about dining and things like that?
R: Yeah, definitely. The dining scene has gotten a lot better. If you’re coming here, most wineries have gone to the appointment system.
R: You can set up your whole trip before you get there. I always ran my place a little loose and I still have that reputation. I still run it pretty loose but we’ve got a system of having people come in and we have appointments and it’s really helped us. It has helped us give a better experience to the customer so they can stay longer and we don’t have this big rush. It is better and you can set up your whole day. There’s a couple of cheese shops in town where you can get cheese plates.
R: You can request them if you call us early. We have the light show and how do you say it, Maggie?
M: Sensorio, and it is really cool. It’s legitimately, really, really cool.
R: You have Vina Robles Amphitheatre with a bunch of shows there so that’s another thing that you can do. We’re 15 minutes from the ocean. If you want to go over and go to the beach in the morning and go wine tasting in the afternoon, you can do that. It is not just the best grape-growing region, but you have everything. I live in San Luis and it’s pretty temperate down there. It’s not as hot as Paso, and that’s only 30 minutes. You can go down there, have lunch. You can even stay down there for a couple of days so it’s just an awesome area, all in all.
M: You can spend three, four, or five days, no problem. Especially if you throw in something like brunch at the beach or cruise down to San Luis for a day or whatever. Some of the extra stuff like the restaurants that we have in town, Sensorio and Vina Robles are awesome. They’re world-class, destination-level things.
Z: As far as the vibe, I think another thing that’s really true is that the perception from the outside — and I can confirm this from my trips is you have Napa, is that with some exceptions, you’re getting a very managed experience. If you’re the average wine consumer that makes an appointment or whatever, you’re tasting with someone who works in the tasting room who is trained. However, you’re not really talking to anyone who has a hand in making the wine. You’re probably paying a lot of money and it’s an experience. Obviously, there are people who really love that and that’s what they want to get when they go to wine country. Now, everyone’s experience and everyone’s tasting room is going to be different. Russell, it sounds like you don’t have that approach, but what is the general vibe? If you’re a wine tourist, do you get to talk to people in the tasting rooms who made the wine, or is it more Napa-esque?
M: It’s definitely not Napa-esque in terms of the vibe. That’s the feedback we get all the time. Just knowing my friends in the local industry, it’s super laid back, and it’s a great place for people who’ve done a ton of wine travel. If someone has thought about it but always finds it a little bit intimidating, come to Paso. You’ll have a great time.
R: There’s a lot of people — and not to toot our own horn — but Maggie and I, you can find us in the tasting room all the time. Not every day, but you can find us a lot of times. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we did this on our own. We didn’t make money somewhere else. Zach, you were talking about the entry into the business. We did this a long time ago, and it’s a long path. I remember from the beginning and I remember when Maggie and I were just making a little bit of wine. Now, we have day jobs, and we work all day long. We have that style because I always say I retired and I got a job at a winery. I don’t want to be pretentious in this community. I just want to hang out. Of course, you have wineries everywhere. You have people that have their own style and their own image they want to uphold. There are a few of those in Paso, but generally, it is chill. A lot of people who have been drinking wine for a long time say it is like Napa, but a long time ago. Thirty years ago, when the winemakers were still in the tasting room. I love working in the tasting room. I mean, I have a good time there. I can’t do it all the time because I have other stuff. Yet, we’re a much more approachable area, and I hope it stays like that for a long time. If it doesn’t, get here now. Come now!
Z: Exactly, don’t miss out.
M: Also, Paso is the place where at least for me, when someone listens to this and they think, what’s up? Where do I want to go? Just call me or send me an email. Whoever picks up the phone is going to be nice to you. They’re going to ask you what wine you like and what vibe you’re interested in. I think it’s safe to say, everyone who works in the wine industry in Paso Robles wants people to come and have a good time. Most importantly, we want them to come back. Again, not everybody wants to come and drink my Rhône. Some people want to go and spend more money or less money or have a fancier facility or be in Tin City or whatever. I am truly, from my soul, happy to try to connect people with the experience they want to have, because Paso has it and it’s going to be fun.
Z: Awesome. Well, that seems like a really lovely place to leave it. Russell, Maggie, thank you both so much for your time and for your insight. I look forward to getting myself down there, probably flying into San Luis Obispo. A three-and-a- half-hour drive doesn’t sound too fun to me. I get to do enough driving as is. Again, thank you both so much for your time. I really appreciate it and look forward to checking out more of the wine as time goes on.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.