Paso Robles vs. Sonoma: Comparing Wine Country
February 24, 2021
Paso Robles triggers vivid memories of family, adventure, and diversity of place. When people ask me to give them the insider’s view into Paso Robles, I always start with saying, imagine what happens when you mix together a bunch of surfers, ranchers, and farmers, with a dash of college town lifestyle. Imagine a place where you can have large open spaces, mountains, beaches, forests, and a rugged coastline. Imagine a place where there’s space to move around, that’s not overbuilt, overcrowded, and yet has the amenities that command the respect of serious travelers. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in California but word has gotten out. Then after they visit, Paso Robles and the larger Central Coast becomes a revelation.
I’ve seen many visitors jump into the Paso Robles scene with a short weekend trip, usually to learn more about the wineries and vineyards in the area, pulled there by the strong critical acclaim that the vintners receive. Others are drawn in by the coastline, beach towns, and attractions such as Hearst Castle. Some get their first taste via the college roadshow, as they shuttle their college-bound high schooler to San Luis Obispo to visit Cal Poly State University. However the path to Paso Robles, the rewards are appreciated.
I personally draw a lot of parallels between Paso Robles and Sonoma County. I grew up on the Central Coast yet have lived in Sonoma County for the last ten years. Working day-to-day in the wine industry, supporting both Paso Robles and Sonoma County, has afforded an interesting perspective into both regions. Paso Robles and Sonoma County have a lot to offer, as do other wine-focused regions in California. In this article, we take a look specifically at Paso Robles vs. Sonoma and how they compare and contrast, each in their own unique way.
~Robert Walker, Silicon Valley Bank
Paso Robles vs. Sonoma: Comparing Wine Country
THE REGION AND CLIMATE
The Paso Robles wine region is located in the northern part of San Luis Obispo County, which is roughly equidistant (205 miles) between both the San Francisco Bay Area to the north and the greater Los Angeles area to the south. The heart of Sonoma County is approximately 55 miles from San Francisco and 255 miles from Paso Robles. There are 58 counties in California, and in terms of area, San Luis Obispo County is the 17th largest county in California (3,304 sq miles) with a population of 283,000 residents, whereas Sonoma County is smaller in size (1,576 sq miles) but more populous (504,217).
In 2014, the 612,000 acre Paso Robles American Viticulture Area (AVA) was divided into 11 smaller AVAs, comprised of 41,000 acres planted to vineyards. Sonoma County is comprised of 18 AVAs, with more than 62,000 acres planted to vineyard. Both regions are blessed by the natural landscape that creates diversity, with wide ranges of ocean influence, rainfall, elevation, and soil types. Average annual temperatures are similar for both areas, with Paso Robles at 59.7 degrees Fahrenheit and Sonoma (Santa Rosa) at 59.1. However, Paso Robles averages a slightly higher average high as well as a slightly lower average low in comparison, whereas Sonoma County averages two and a half times the rainfall of Paso Robles. These temperature and rainfall differences impact the types of grapes grown and the general profiles of the wines from each area. It is important to note that both regions have conjunctive labeling laws that help preserve the brands, Paso Robles and Sonoma, while still letting the lesser AVAs stand out on their own.
WINERIES AND WINE PRODUCTION
Paso Robles and Sonoma County are quite similar in that they are densely populated with small production family-owned wineries, many of which have had multi-generational histories. Paso Robles has over 200 wineries, with the majority within a short driving distance of downtown Paso Robles. Over 85% of the wineries in Paso Robles make less than 10,000 cases. Sonoma County has over 500 wineries, but different than Paso Robles in that they are more geographically separated. No matter the location, these family businesses share common opportunities as well as challenges and work closely with each other to promote the values of each region. Whether it’s a helping hand at harvest or sharing resources at the end of an all-night pick, these tightly knit vintner communities showcase values unseen in most industries, with the ultimate desire to share the result of their hard work.
Paso Robles and Sonoma differ in their focus on the types of grapes planted. Both regions are well suited to planting a wide range of grape varietals and take pride in their diversity, and both boast of having over 60 varieties planted in their respective AVAs. Cabernet Sauvignon is the primary grape for Paso Robles (approximately 50% of total) with the remaining 50% focused on over twenty types of Rhône varietals (such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre), plus Zinfandel and other varieties. While the top Cabernet Sauvignons rival other areas in California, the grape diversity create a natural advantage for creative red and white wine blends, showcasing the personality of the area and the vintners. Zinfandel plantings were among the first in the Paso region and it is still known as the heritage varietal of the region, which is similar to Sonoma. Sonoma County’s most popular wines are focused on single varietals, with the top three grapes making up 70% of the total – Chardonnay (27%), Pinot Noir (22%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (21%) – and the remaining 30% dispersed amongst other varietals well suited for the climates, including some iconic Zinfandels from Dry Creek and Alexander Valley of Sonoma.
The Paso Robles wine event scene offers an assortment of events for wine connoisseurs as well as curious new fans. The season typically kicks off in March with the Vintage Paso: Zinfandel Weekend, followed by the Paso Robles Wine Festival in May, then bookended with Harvest Wine Weekend in the fall. Throughout the year there are always plenty of unique events, hosted by single or multiple wineries, and positioned around special themes, such as culinary, nautical, and animals, solving for a wide array of interests. Sonoma County has multiple showcase events, such as the Sonoma County Wine Auction, which raised over $6 Million in 2019 for local non-profits. Due to the beauty and easy access, Paso and Sonoma are popular wedding destinations, with affordable solutions to be found for savvy planners.
It is important to mention that due to COVID-19 restrictions, large gatherings are currently on hold. Please be sure to check out the Paso Robles, Sonoma, and California wine region sites to learn more.
The first vines in Sonoma were planted in 1812 by Russian colonists, followed 40 years thereafter by the first major commercial winery, Buena Vista, which stands today as the oldest functioning winery in California. Paso Robles has a similarly deep history, with Andrew York establishing Ascension Winery in 1882. Early on, both regions were known as excellent sources for high-quality fruit. A little-known fact is that a portion of the Chardonnay from the award-winning wine from Napa Valley in the Judgement of Paris was from Sonoma. In the early 80s, both Sonoma (1981) and Paso Robles (1983) established their official AVA boundaries. At that time, Paso Robles also established its signature event, the Paso Robles Wine Festival. Through the 1990s there was a boon to California wine country with many acres planted, which was the same for Paso Robles and Sonoma. Then into the 2000s till today, smaller brands born out of the passion from young winemakers looking to start their journey has been where the growth lies. It is hard to believe that wine has been made in these counties for over two centuries, and while many things remain the same, recent developments in technology, hospitality and winemaking bring a new vision to the areas.
Paso Robles and Sonoma County share a number of common characteristics while also clearly providing unique attributes. They have striking similarities with rolling hillsides dotted with vineyards and oaks, hundreds of family-owned and operated wineries, a diverse selection of wines, and a laid-back, yet welcoming style of hospitality.
In Sonoma, you find a focus on both Burgundy and Bordeaux style wines, as well as closer proximity to bigger city urban life. In Paso Robles, you see the commonality in the production of Bordeaux wines, but a focus on world-class Rhône wines and proprietary blends that have brought critical acclaim to the region, as well as smaller town and less urban atmosphere.
Whichever area you choose, I know you will not be disappointed in their offerings.