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In the Vines is a five-part series exploring wine in Paso Robles. Through sound-rich feature reporting, KCBX's Benjamin Purper examines the positives and negatives of the city's transformation into a wine town, and what the future might hold for this emerging wine country.

In the Vines: Scenes from the Central Coast wine industry, from backyards to amphitheatres

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Benjamin Purper
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A glass of one of Samra Morris' Alma Rosa wines.

The City of Paso Robles is now one of the major hubs in the Central Coast’s rapidly-growing wine industry. Much of Highway 101 through this area is now flanked by vineyards spanning hundreds of acres.

One exit off of Highway 101 in Paso Robles leads to a central artery of the city’s wine industry: Highway 46. The east-west highway is now lined with vineyards and wineries of all different sizes that have sprung up since the 1990’s, from large-scale operations to small, boutique winemakers who make just a few hundred bottles a year.

One mid-sized vineyard and winery along this highway is Vina Robles. It produces about 40,000 cases a year from its six Paso Robles vineyards, with wines ranging from cabernets to petite sirahs to merlots. The company ships to almost 40 states, as well as internationally to countries like Japan and Switzerland.

CEO Kurt Ammann has worked in the wine industry across California, from Napa Valley to Santa Barbara County, and now Paso Robles.

On a busy day at Vina Robles, Ammann said the bottling, packing and labeling going on around him is part of the hard work of winemaking.

“They're gonna bottle about 45 pallets of wine today. They're gonna do this for seven hours, set up and then clean up — but six and a half hours of really hard work, really important work,” Ammann said.

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Benjamin Purper
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The barrel room at Vina Robles.

Bottling is a crucial step in the process even for winemakers who have no acres, no automation and no employees and just a backyard.

Mike Ferree is a home winemaker and the president emeritus of Wines & Steins, a home winemaking club in North San Luis Obispo County. The organization provides mentoring, equipment and seeds to help other hobbyists produce beer, wine or spirits at home.

Ferree said hobbyists here are part of an informal network of people devoted to winemaking, and who can call on one another for help.

“Now we look for people to contact Wines & Steins and say, ‘We've got grapes here that we can't sell,’” Ferree said.

Ferree said anyone can request to use equipment Wines & Steins has reserved, as long as they complete a training on how to use it properly. That allows people trying to get into home winemaking to have the mentoring and equipment they need to get started.

“You go on the internet and you schedule it and go and pick it up, and it works pretty slick,” Ferree said.

This phenomenon of people making wine in their backyards or garages is increasingly popular on the Central Coast. According to an analysis from Wines Vines Analytics, the number of limited-production wineries producing less than 1,000 cases a year has grown by 79% since 2010.

The economic impact of home winemakers might seem small, but Ferree said they often go on to become commercial winemakers in this area.

“We've got a lot of people that start out and will get bonded, and then they can sell it commercially. It’s kind of a natural progression for people," Ferree said, adding, "I'm too old to do that."

But the Central Coast's wine industry is not just Paso Robles. Further south in neighboring Santa Barbara County, Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards is one example of the strong wine scene in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Samra Morris is Alma Rosa’s head winemaker. She grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then worked in the Napa Valley wine scene after moving to the U.S.

Now, she works on the Central Coast, in the small winegrowing district of the Sta. Rita Hills near Buellton. Morris said the climate and soil here make for unique wines with a distinct sense of place.

“We have that beautiful acid, beautiful minerality that our soils give us, that we can capture and have a beautiful long growing season," she said. "Our wines are great for that, they capture that complexity, but also have a really nice brightness,” Morris said.

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Benjamin Purper
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Alma Rosa winemaker Samra Morris tastes one of her white wines.

The Sta. Rita Hills area is a lot cooler than Paso Robles. Wine grapes are so sensitive to differences in temperature and soil that the varietals grown here are different than in North San Luis Obispo County, even though the two areas are just a few hours away from each other.

The climate may be different, but winemakers in the two regions have similar aspirations: they want this area to be recognized as a major California wine destination. It’s on its way, but right now, neither Paso Robles nor the Santa Ynez Valley attract the same attention as places like Napa or Sonoma.

Morris said she hopes that will change.

“I love the region. Sta. Rita Hills is a small region, but I hope more and more, we will be more famous and on a map. I'm excited to be part of the winemakers to show that,” Morris said.

Wineries throughout the Central Coast are banking on this increased recognition as wine hubs, because with that comes a full industry complete with restaurants, hotels and music venues.

Vina Robles' Kurt Ammann said he appreciates the strong link between music and wine.

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Benjamin Purper
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Mike Ferree, a home winemaker in Atascadero and president emeritus of Wines & Steins, stores his homemade wine here in a structure in his backyard.

“What's the old saying, 'Music soothes the savage beast?' Music is good for people,” Ammann said.

The Vina Robles Amphitheater is an outdoor concert venue right next to the company’s tasting room. It’s a major attraction on the Central Coast, and it regularly hosts big artists traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This year’s season includes classics like Willy Nelson and younger musicians like Phoebe Bridgers — artists that may have never come through here 20 years ago.

“if you go back to 2013, besides the [Paso Robles] Mid-State Fair, most folks on the Central Coast didn't have other options," Ammann said, "They had bar or restaurant options, but there really wasn't an area that was going to capture bands that were part of current music culture."

Ammann said the Vina Robles Amphitheatre isn’t massive, like the Hollywood Bowl or Greek Theater in Los Angeles. But still, this year tens of thousands of people will come to the amphitheater for music and drinks.

“[Of] that 70 or 80,000 people, whatever percentage chooses to have wine are getting a chance to try our wines,” Ammann said.

Those thousands of people are just one portion of all the visitors that come through town every year. As the wine tourism industry continues to transform the Central Coast, cities like Paso Robles are benefitting in many ways.

But there's also a cost to basing an area's economy almost solely on one industry, with implications on residents' lives ranging from housing to jobs to economic security.

Next time on “In the Vines,” we’ll hear about some of the challenges Paso’s wine-heavy economy is creating for the town, both now and in the future.

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.

Vina Robles Winery & Vineyards is a KCBX underwriter.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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