In the Vines: How wine transformed Paso Robles
Vineyards in San Luis Obispo County are in the middle of harvest season, continuing a rich history of winemaking on the Central Coast.
The small San Luis Obispo County city of Paso Robles is capitalizing on the area's unique climate, quickly growing to rival areas like Napa and Sonoma as a wine destination.
The roots of Paso Robles' wine history go back centuries. One family who can trace their family tree through much of that history is the Steinbeck family, who settled here in 1884.
Cindy Steinbeck is the owner of Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery, one of the oldest in Paso Robles. She uses the family's 1958 Willis Jeep to give educational tours on her ranch of not only the history of her family, but of Paso Robles and its wine roots as well.
The tour runs along a dirt path through acres of vineyards, passing old sheds and other buildings the family has preserved over the years. The property is full of different types of grapes you’d find across Europe, from cabernet sauvignon to petit syrah.
According to Steinbeck, there are news articles mentioning “high-quality wines” from the property as early as 1900.
“UC Davis in 1900 or 1901 wrote a paper saying that viticulture would be the primary crop in this area," she said. "Our family really already knew that.”
Steinbeck says the Jeep tours let guests see for themselves how these rolling hills are so well-suited to wine.
“It helps guests understand the complexity of the region. We talk about the Santa Lucia mountain range, and the way that that separates us from the coast, and really gives us our daytime high nighttime low temperatures," she said.
Steinbeck said looking out over Paso Robles wine country helps guests connect to not only the area, but to grape-growing and winemaking itself.
“That way, guests can understand far more than just what's in a glass of wine, but rather what goes into producing that glass of wine," she said.
Steinbeck and her family are still primarily grape-growers, but they also make wine and have a tasting room on the property.
Both are now important parts of the family business, as her son manages the vineyards while her son-in-law manages the Steinbeck wine brand.
"That's a tremendous treasure, because a lot of families may not have that next generation in place. We are very fortunate to have that," Steinbeck said.
Libbie Agran is the director of the Wine History Project of SLO County and the author of "San Luis Obispo County Wine: A World-Class History."
“I've lived here 22 years, and I thought it was amazing that we had so many microclimates and that we grew so many different crops," she said.
It was this climate that led the area’s Spanish explorers and settlers to realize the area's suitability for growing grapes.
"Once they knew the climate, they wrote to Spain and said, 'We need this,'" Agran said.
The next turning point in the Central Coast’s wine history is the Prohibition era, in the 1920’s and 30’s. Agran said the nationwide ban on alcohol led winemakers across the country to walk away from the industry — but not in SLO County.
Agran said the Italian community in this area saw a business opportunity. They started planting vineyards, knowing that Italian-Americans were in every major city in the U.S., and that they all made their own wine.
“They shipped all those grapes back east. People bought them and went home and made their wine every fall," she said. "Most of the time, they were crushed at home.”
According to Agran, it wasn’t just Italians who seized the opportunity Prohibition provided. Others began to take advantage of the rich soil and climate in SLO County, too.
“We have areas where we can say, this is where the Germans settled and these are the grape varieties there. Or these are where the Italians settled, and these are the grapes that they grew. We can find that throughout the county," she said.
As for Paso Robles, its current status as a wine destination started towards the end of the 20th century. The Paso Robles Wine Festival was founded in 1983, the same year that the area secured its designation as an American Viticultural Area.
Over the next ten years, Agran said the festival became one of the largest wine festivals in the country.
“People have forgotten, but it was very important because as these winemakers began to develop their own vineyards, they began to introduce more and more wines.”
By the 1990’s, the wine industry was firmly established in Paso Robles. More vineyards and wineries started popping up, and the town began to transform.
Restaurants and hotels cropped up together with grapes, and over the next few decades, Paso became the tourist town it is today.
“Some of our other areas don't really have the same structure to provide the wine culture and the hospitality that often comes along with the wine," Agran said.
That wine culture now dominates Paso Robles, as the number of wineries has grown from less than 20 in the early 90’s to more than 200 now. The city is now a destination for wine-lovers, and now that tourism has rebounded from the hit it took during the COVID-19 pandemic, that's seemingly more true every year.
In the rest of this series, 'In the Vines,' we’ll explore some of the benefits the wine industry has brought to this town, from jobs to tourism to international prestige. But we’ll also dig into the negatives, from high housing costs to a critical water shortage.
But to understand all of that, we’ll first need to take a tour of some Paso Robles wineries of different sizes. That’s next time on “In the Vines.”
This piece was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.