October 5, 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.
A Rich History
Positioned front and center in the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the Geneseo District. At approximately 17,300 acres, this region of the Paso Robles AVA comes with an interesting history of agriculture that originates in the Midwest in the late 1800s and continues today with the growth of exceptional wine grapes that express the land that they are grown in.
The Geneseo District has been known as Geneseo since the 1880s. It borrowed its name from the small town of Geneseo, Illinois, which in turn borrowed their name from Geneseo, New York. Geneseo roughly translates to shining or beautiful valley in Iroquois. As the story goes, the first settlers to this area near the Heurhuero River sent an advertisement to the Geneseo Republic (newspaper) in Illinois, encouraging settlers to come west because there was an abundance of optimal farmland available. One of those families, the Ernst family, saw this as a great opportunity and made the 2,000-mile trek to California, bringing along their traditions and the name, Geneseo.
Located approximately 11 miles east of Paso Robles, Geneseo, California was established with a one-room schoolhouse. These settlers from the Midwest also brought along their faith, establishing the first Lutheran Church in the area. Services were said to be in both German and English. This being so since the settlement was known as a German settlement because of a contingent of German immigrants who migrated from Illinois and other parts in the Midwest. During these times it was common for these settlements to be made up of different European cultures as there was a Swedish settlement a little northwest of the Geneseo.
Farming in the region began with ranches cultivating grain crops, garden produce, fruit and nut orchards, as well as herds of cattle and horses. In 1884, the Ernst family planted the first vineyards consisting of more than 20 varieties of wine grapes that came from a UC Davis experimental project in California. Fast forward to 2020 and the descendants of the Ernst family (Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery) continue to farm in the Geneseo District. Now at seven generations, this family continues to celebrate family, faith, and stewardship while sharing their love for this region.
About the Geneseo District
The Geneseo District is largely made up of a series of terraces surrounding the Estrella River and Huerhuero Creek. Through uplift from the Huerhuero and La Panza Fault, elevations in the region range from 740 – 1,300 feet above sea level. Much like stairsteps, these terraces rise and fall across the region which gives growers options in aspect, being able to plant on southwest, southeast, northwest, and northeast exposures as necessary.
This relatively warm region benefits from the cooling influences of the Templeton Gap effect. This commonality for most of the regions in the Paso Robles AVA brings cool air from the Pacific Ocean over the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, fluctuating day to night temperatures by up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is that it provides a prime opportunity for grape clusters to ripen and yet cool off overnight. This influences positive sugar production during the day and allows the skins and acid to develop in the evening, ultimately leading to well-balanced wines between alcohol, tannin, and acid.
The soils in the Geneseo District are mostly made up of silty clay and clay loam, with some decomposed calcareous material well below the surface. These soils range from more acidic in the clay material (5.6 – 6.5 pH) to more alkaline in the calcareous zones (7.9 – 8.4 pH). This can influence vigor, depending on how densely impacted the soil is, but it is common for there to be moderate soil rooting depths with moderate water stress, and modest to low nutrient levels. Stressed out vines can develop some very complex fruit flavors, so winemakers look to grow many of the Bordeaux varieties in this region, along with some Rhône, like Syrah, which happens to be some of the oldest planted in all of Paso Robles.
Although winegrapes were planted in the late 1800s within the Geneseo District, it was not until the 1970s when some larger-scale plantings took place. However, major growth in the district took off in the 1980s. The Steinbecks, along with Gary Eberle (Eberle Winery) established much of those first larger-scale plantings, followed by the Arciero Family (formerly EOS Winery) and the Bianchi Family, and many more brands to follow. In 2005, Cass Vineyard was established in the southeast corner of the Geneseo District with 145 planted acres of vines.
New plantings have slowed in the region, much to do with the limited water supply within the below ground aquifer, but the Geneseo District continues to mature. Wines from the district are known for pronounced aromas and flavors, and its fruit is often sourced by brands from all over the Paso Robles AVA. The Geneseo District is the heart of the greater Paso Robles AVA, which is only as good as the sum of its parts and the Geneseo delivers with tradition, history, and unique terroir. All aspects of a great growing region, but also reflective of the Paso Robles community at large.