Willow Creek District
October 26, 2021
The Paso Robles Willow Creek District and Templeton Gap District come together like complex puzzle pieces. The two AVAs share similar histories as well as very dynamic boundaries, and both sit squarely on the Highway 46 corridor that ushers in the Templeton Gap effect. Where they differ is in the dramatic topography that defines the Willow Creek District.
The early settlers in the Paso Robles Willow Creek area were Mennonites. A Mennonite church had been built along San Marcos Creek in 1897, just upstream from Chimney Rock in the Adelaida District. Many of the Mennonites that attended the church lived south of San Marcos Creek and eventually, the church, including the church building itself, would follow those settlers and built on the corner of Vineyard Drive and Dover Canyon Road. The church became known as the Willow Creek Church and served the people there until it burned in January of 1967 and now is the site of the Willow Creek Mennonite Cemetery.
In the early 1900s, when the Paso Robles region was encouraging settlers to move to the central coast, walnuts were seen as the crop in Willow Creek District. The higher amount of rainfall the Willow Creek area received was a prime factor that led to this since dry farming was the only option. Today there are still many orchards that continue to produce walnuts, but little by little the orchards are aging out and being replaced with vines.
Many early settlers in the Willow Creek area planted small vineyards along with grain, nut, and other fruit crops. One of the earliest bonded wineries in the Paso Robles region, The Pesenti Winery, was established in the Willow Creek District in 1934 shortly after the repeal of prohibition. Today, the original Pesenti Winery is the home of Turley Wine Cellars, which focuses on wines from old vine, dry-farmed vineyards, many of which are grown in the Willow Creek District that are 80 to 130 years old.
One-hundred thirty years old!?! Yes, as lore goes the Ueberroth Vineyard was planted in the late 1880s by the Tonesi Brothers (known back then as the Tonesi Vineyard). Over the years, time got the better of the vineyard, however, in the 60s it was purchased by Peter Ueberroth (former MLB commissioner) and was renamed the Will-Pete Vineyard, eventually named the Ueberroth Vineyard. This special vineyard was lucky enough to have a continuous chain of people who care looking after the site. Local names like Stephen Goldman, David Osgood, John Munch, Neil Heaton, and Lazaro Morones. As the story goes, sometime in the early 90s some fruit, around three tons, was going through primary fermentation at the Castoro winery. John Munch of Le Cuvier and Niels Udsen of Castoro enter the winery to find the delicious aromas of the Will-Pete Vineyard completely overpowering all the other aromas of fermenting fruit in the winery.
Today the vineyard is widely regarded as the oldest vineyard in the Paso Robles region, let alone the Willow Creek District. It is farmed and managed by Turley Wine Cellars who continue to produce a single vineyard wine honoring this special place and the Ueberroth family name. The Willow Creek District currently has approximately 1,400 acres under vine with well over 20 wineries, which include brands L’Aventure, Linne Calodo, Midnight Cellars, Saxum, Denner Vineyards, Jack Creek Cellars, Jada Vineyard, Booker Vineyard, Willow Creek Wine Collective, and Caliza to name a few.
The Willow Creek District gets its name from the creek and watershed known as Willow Creek which runs through the center of the district. Willow trees are commonly found in riparian environs and because they require moist soils you will usually find them along a stream or riverbank. This also leads to the naming of the bank as, Willow. There are probably too many Willow Creeks in the US to count and when the AVA was named, care had to be taken to ensure that naming rights were not infringed upon. The Paso Robles Willow Creek District is the formal name of the AVA and is such because there is a Willow Creek Winery in New York State as well as a Willow Creek AVA in Humbolt and Trinity counties in California. The naming specifically ties it to the Paso Robles area.
Cool-weather, compared to the rest of the Paso Robles AVA, persists in the Willow Creek District. Fog from the coast infiltrates the mountain gaps and spills into different plateaus and arroyos which often are the same paths for consistent ocean breezes. The Templeton Gap effect also helps to cool more southern portions of the Willow Creek district where the boundary lines blur between the eponymous Templeton Gap District. These winds are far more pronounced than the aforementioned breezes, however, the combination of the two is what defines this region as a II on the Winkler and Amerine scales.
Terroir & Soil
Much like the Adelaida District, you will find limestone all over the Willow Creek District. These easy-to-spot rocks of sedimentary origin are typically a pale sandstone color with horizon lines of the crystalline Calcite that help give the rock its distinct appearance. Over the years many extra-large specimens have been dotting the landscape, excavated for farming or development of parcels. Weather and time round out the edges of these rocks and to a youthful eye appear to be giant resting turtles, which is how the winery, Turtle Rock, got its name.
Many of the soils have not only active lime weathered from soft calcareous shale fragments, but the evolution of secondary lime within the soil profiles and complexes. Other complexes of calcareous origin include the Calodo-Linne complex of alkaline clay loams, the Nacimiento-Ayar-Diablo complex of clay loams, and smaller areas of Ryer and Rincon clays and clay loams, and Croply and Gazos clays. What is interesting is how soils combine to create interesting growing environments and when alone can be completely opposite of one another. The Calodo and Linne soils are different in terms of vineyard potential, as the Calodo soil is much shallower, and can be more challenging to dry farm, producing low vigor vineyards. The deeper Linne soils have greater rooting depths and water-holding capacities, producing low-moderate vine vigor. The soil series that extends eastward from the Paso Robles Willow Creek viticultural area throughout the Templeton Gap District is the deeper Linne series, which is common on older alluvial terraces and benches. All soils in the Paso Robles Willow Creek District tend to be young to intermediate in age with pH values of 7.8 – 8.9 common.
The Paso Robles Willow Creek District is a relatively high elevation, truly mountainous area of the coastal range. The slopes become more steep, elevated, and dramatic in the northern portion of the AVA. Also unique are many conically shaped hills in the neighborhood of Denner Vineyards, James Berry Vineyard, Clos Solene, Booker Vineyard, and L’Aventure. The Paso Robles Creek watershed, a direct tributary of the Salinas River, runs east-west and originates from the range crest. Feeding the Paso Robles Creek are the smaller tributaries Jack Creek, which runs north-south at the western edge of the Willow Creek District, and Willow Creek, which sits more to the center of the district and also runs north-south. These creeks have aided in the sculpting of the landscape by eroding and dissecting the mountain slopes. From the air, there is almost a tree-like pattern that eventually winds its way to the perennial Salinas River. Hillsides are well covered by the Coast Live Oak, an evergreen that grows all over California’s coastal ranges, as well as plenty of chaparral. The Valley Oak, where El Paso de Robles gets its name (Pass of the Oaks), grows majestically in the alluvial and lower-lying areas of the district.
The Paso Robles Willow Creek District, for well over 100 years, has been the home of vineyards, Mennonite families, and walnut orchards. It was an area early identified with agricultural potential and as the years and science later confirmed, it is! Many popular and burgeoning brands from the Paso Robles AVA have made their home in the Willow Creek District and fruit from the AVA is in high demand. It is an area of Paso Robles with immense beauty and color that is worth exploring.