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Highlands District

December 1, 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.

Rooted in Cattle Ranching

The Paso Robles Highlands District lies at 60,300 acres, making it the second-largest in Paso. This region fills in the south-east quadrant of the Paso Robles AVA with the San Juan Creek AVA outlining its northern edge. Although the area has been sparsely settled, with no formal town or settlement, historically it has been known as a vast cattle ranching area. The name, “Highlands” is a name that residents of this area have traditionally referred to it as since at least the late 1800s.

The Highlands School District, located largely within the viticultural area, appears in local records as early as 1890. Although the school district did not extend to the eastern boundary of the proposed viticultural area, the Highlands School drew students from a broader area due to difficulties in accessing other schools in the region.

As mentioned, it has been largely a cattle ranching area. A well-known businessman in the early 1900s, Bernard Sinsheimer, along with other family members were major landowners at the time and established a working cattle ranch in the region. Descendants of Sinsheimer continue to this day to operate a large cattle ranch within the Highlands District.

Highlands Viticulture

Viticulture in the Highlands District began in the 1970s with three major vineyards in existence today, Shell Creek Vineyards, Shandon Hills Vineyard, and French Camp Vineyards. The Shell Creek Vineyard gets its name from a creek that runs through the property and in wet years can be seen carrying small pieces of fossilized shells that are found further upstream. Shell Creek Vineyard was planted in 1972. It does not have a brand associated with it but is known as a source vineyard for exceptional Petite Sirah and Syrah, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Valdigue.

Shandon Hills Vineyard was also planted in 1972 and was originally a part of Shell Creek Vineyard. The Sinton family, who are descendants of the Sinsheimers, planted both vineyards and continue to own the latter. Much like Shell Creek Vineyard, it does not have a brand associated with it and is a source vineyard for multiple wineries throughout the Paso Robles AVA. Planted to Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc, this vast planting sits on 165 acres.

French Camp Vineyards is the largest single vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA. It is named after a site where two French sheepherders were camped and notoriously murdered in 1857. This vast parcel consists of 5,600 acres of land that is owned by the Miller Family who also owns multiple wine brands, including J. Wilkes Wines, Ballard Lane, Barrel Burner, and Smashberry which showcases French Camp fruit. However, a majority of the winegrapes grown at French Camp are sold to many wineries in Paso Robles who will vineyard designate on the label. The vineyard began to be planted in 1973 and today has just under 2,000 total acres under vine. More than 20 different varieties are grown here, both white and red.

Topography, Climate, and Soil

The Highlands District has the highest consistent elevation than all the other AVAs in Paso Robles with a range of 1,160-2,086 feet (most vineyards are at 1,200-1,600 feet). At 33 miles from the Pacific Ocean, this region generally has a warmer and more continental climate with less precipitation than other regions of the Paso Robles viticultural area at similar elevations. An interesting point is that due to its location to the east of the Santa Lucia Range and northeast of the La Panza Range, it lies in a double-rain shadow. However, due to its relatively higher elevations, the Highlands District still receives an average of 12 inches, which is a little more than some of the other Paso Robles AVAs to the north and west.

The Paso Robles Highlands District sets itself apart topographically from the central and western regions of the greater Paso Robles AVA. The terrain includes large expanses of wide-open landscape and grasslands, high ridges with scattered pine trees, something only seen in the western Paso Robles AVAs. There are also lower hills and terraces that are only split by canyons and arroyos from seasonal streams. These canyons and streams appear as long fingers that run predominantly south to north across the landscape.

The diurnal temperature changes that exist throughout the Paso Robles AVA help exemplify what makes the region unique. The Highlands District is an example of what would be the greatest day to night temperature change as it has the greater daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual temperature ranges when compared to other areas within the Paso Robles viticultural area. The difference between daily maximum and minimum temperatures in the mid and late-summer can be 50 °Fahrenheit or more, with highs around 100 °Fahrenheit and lows around 50 °Fahrenheit. According to grape growers in the region, the warm summer days ensure the full maturity of the fruit, while the cool evenings preserve acids in the grapes. The growers also note that due to its distinctive climate, grape harvest in the proposed viticultural area occurs two to four weeks earlier than in some other areas of the Paso Robles viticultural area.

The soil in the region is predominantly sandy loam along the creeks, loams on the small alluvial fans, and coarse sandy loams to clay loams on the hillsides. Many of the subsoils are cemented by calcium carbonate, which can cause vines to struggle for the first five to 10 years until they reach deeper down to find iron-based clay. This increases vigor in the vines and produces a lot of intensely rich fruit.

The Paso Robles Highlands District is a sight to be seen. Locals know that the vast plains that exist are the perfect place to view wildflowers in the spring. It is an unsung region that is well removed from the rest of the Paso Robles AVA, yet the secret ingredient in so many wineries’ wines. From Aglianico to Chenin Blanc, there are some excellent varieties of fruit appearing on labels from many wineries, you just have to look.

Photo Credit: Thank you Miller Family Wine Company and Kirk Irwan!