August 25, 2020
The Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1983 and at that time there were 556,765 total acres with a little over 5,000 under vine. In 1996, the AVA expanded by 52,600 acres and then again by 2,635 acres in 2008. In 2007, a petition was sent to the federal government to establish 11 districts within the Paso Robles AVA. In the same year, a conjunctive labeling law (AB 87) was passed, which preserves the brand awareness of the Paso Robles AVA by ensuring that “Paso Robles” will always be seen in conjunction with the districts on wine labels. These 11 districts within the Paso Robles AVA were finally approved in 2014.
The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance will be focusing on all 11 AVAs in this blog through 2020, in alpha order.
About the Estrella District
California’s rich history began with Spanish and Mexican governments creating concessions through land grants from the late 1700s to mid-1800s. These Ranchos of the Californios were largely responsible for much of the naming of rivers, mountains, and large areas of land throughout what would eventually be the 31st state in 1850. The Estrella District was first noted as such shortly after statehood as the region was starting to become homesteaded. Estrella, or “star” in Spanish, gains its name because of the interesting pattern made by some ridgelines that seemingly come together like rays of a star. The river that ran past this point of intersection also received the name Estrella, thus beginning this area’s history as the Estrella District.
Eventually, as farmers and homesteaders moved to the region, the town of Estrella was founded in 1886. Funny enough, one of the town’s founders by the name of Gordanier stipulated that “no vinous beverages nor spirituous malt or other intoxicating liquid shall be manufactured, sold, or kept for sale on the Gordanier side of town.” Little did he know that the future of this region was to be in the growth and production of exceptional wine grapes into world-class wines.
Putting Down Roots
The agricultural roots in the Estrella were challenging until the railroad came to San Miguel, shortly before Paso Robles’ incorporation as a city in 1889. Dry farmed grain and feed, cattle, and sheep were produced in the region. It was a testament to their resilience, but not until the arrival of the railroad could these agriculturalists get their product to market in Los Angeles or San Francisco. It was with the railroad that more people came to establish their roots in the area.
The Estrella District’s important to not only the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, but in viticulture, in general, is evidenced in a Syrah clone called The Estrella Clone. This clone was named after the Estrella River Winery, which planted Syrah in 1975 using cuttings from the Chapoutier vineyard in Hermitage. Thanks to Gary Eberle, founding winemaker at the Estrella River Winery and current owner of Eberle Winery, his foresight to plant Syrah in Paso Robles led to a new clone whose name commemorates the Estrella District.
The Estrella Landscape
At approximately 66,800 acres, this area is largely valley floor type topography and floodplain to the Estrella River. Although it’s mostly a dry riverbed, the Estrella River forms near the town of Shandon and flows west-northwest to the Salinas River. Its headwaters are based on the confluence of two creeks, the Cholame Creek and San Juan Creek, which are fed by waters flowing down the mountain from the Temblor and La Panza ranges.
Elevations in the Estrella District range between 745 to 1,800 feet above sea level through a series of terraces and foothills. Vineyards are planted on flat surfaces and various slope angles and aspects. The warm summer days are cooled by modest maritime sea breezes through the Templeton Gap effect, as well as downslope winds from the eastern ranges, which is reflected by early morning fog in the summer. The soils in the Estrella are predominantly alluvial in nature, ranging from fine sandy loams to the more substantial clay loam. The terroir is quite perfect for the cultivation of premium winegrapes, warm days that do lead to cool nights, moderate soil rooting depths control vigor in vines, and tempered water stress produce complex fruit flavors. Red varieties that do well in the Estrella include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and other Bordeaux varieties. White varieties seen to be doing well include Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay.
Paso Wine Pioneers
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an influx of next-generation vineyard pioneers who had come to focus on the Paso Robles region, specifically the Estrella area. Brands like J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, Estrella River Winery (eventually became Meridian Vineyards), and Continental Vineyards (now Broken Earth Winery) had the vision to plant in the Estrella. Bringing university training and financial resources, they were able to develop large swaths of land and learn over time what varieties are best suited to the terroir. Much like the original homesteaders to the region, it was a leap of faith that has seen great success.