El Paso de Robles – “The Pass of the Oaks”

For this months blog post we thought you might enjoy learning a little of the area that we love to call home (we certainly enjoyed doing the research for the blog). 

The city’s full name is El Paso de Robles which is generally shortened to Paso Robles, with differing versions of how to pronounce it. The Spanish pronunciation is PASS-oh ROH-blays while many residents anglicize the pronunciation to PASS-oh ROH-buulz – most people locally tend to call is simply “Paso”.  

Located at an elevation of +/- 700 feet, it is home to approximately 32,000 residents and covers an area of 20 square miles. While the area is now best known for its world class wineries, it has a rich history that stretches back thousands of years. 

Early History

Before the Mission Period, Native Americans known as the Chumash, lived in 150 independent towns and villages stretching from Malibu to Paso Robles. They considered themselves “the first people” and pointed to the Pacific Ocean as their first home. A tribal site on present day Paso Robles, was called elewexe which translated to “Swordfish”. 

Modern day Paso Robles is located on the Rancho Paso de Robles Mexican land grant that was purchased by the Blackburn brothers and Drury James in 1857. An interesting fact about the Kentucky native Drury is that as well as being a veteran of the Mexican War, he was also an uncle of the outlaw Jesse James who visited and stayed at the Paso Robles Inn after “allegedly” robbing $14,000 from a bank in Kentucky. 

In 1889, the same year that Paso Robles was incorporated as a city, construction began on the new million plus brick El Paso de Robles hotel which opened for business two years later. The hotel was constructed in a manner that was considered completely fireproof and featured a 7 acre garden and a 9 hole golf course, a library, beauty salon and barber shop. The hotel, which replaced the original Inn from 1864, featured a hot springs plunge bath that was considered one of the finest in all the United States at the time. 

Throughout the next 50 years the hotel would host individuals including President Roosevelt, Boxing Champion Jack Dempsey as well as several Major League Baseball teams who would use the area as a Spring training base. Unfortunately the “fireproof”  hotel was engulfed in flames in December of 1940 with only the ballroom being saved. 

Within months, plans were drawn and the third rendition of the Inn was built and opened in 1942. It was restored to its former glory, including the original ballroom, in the early 2000’s by its current owners. The Paso Robles Inn should be part of all itineraries when visiting the area for the first time. 

The Waters

According to Wikipedia, as far back as 1795, Paso Robles has been spoken of and written about as “California’s oldest watering place”—the place to go for springs and mud baths. There are documented visits of people coming from as far away as Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and even Alabama by 1868.

In 1882, Drury James and the Blackburn brothers issued a pamphlet advertising “El Paso de Robles Hot and Cold Sulphur Springs and the Only Natural Mud Baths in the World”. By then there were first-class accommodations: a reading room, barber shop, and telegraph office; a general store, a top-of-the-line livery stable, and comfortably furnished cottages for families that preferred privacy to quarters in the hotel. Visitors could stay in touch with the rest of the world, as there were two daily mails, a Western Union telegraph office, and a Wells Fargo agency with special rates for guests. As the springs became more and more a destination of the well-to-do as a place to go to socialize, the original purpose of the springs—to heal—became peripheral. 

Since the privilege of using the town’s baths were restricted to guests of the hotel, many sufferers of the ailments the baths cured could not pay the rates of the fashionable hotel. A few businessmen in Paso Robles made arrangements with Felix Liss for the right to bore for sulphur water on a lot which Liss owned. A sulphur well was reached, a bath house built and baths offered at an affordable rate of twenty-five cents. The establishment was later offered to the City and is currently the site of the Municipal Pool. 

Seen here is a historic brochure for the Paso Robles Hot Springs Resort from circa 1910:

Wine

Paso Robles’ growth industry—wine—has a long history with the area. Wine grapes were introduced to the Paso Robles soil in 1797 by the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries. Spanish explorer Francisco Cortez envisioned an abundant wine-producing operation and encouraged settlers from Mexico and other parts of California to cultivate the land. The first vineyardists in the area were the Padres of the Mission San Miguel. Today the early fermentation vats and grapevine artwork can still be seen at the Mission, north of the city of Paso Robles. The padres produced wine for their communion service and also made brandy which they would export. 

Commercial winemaking was introduced to the Paso Robles region when Andrew York, a rancher from Indiana, planted a Zinfandel vineyard in the late 1870s that eventually had him establishing Ascension Winery that later became York Mountain Winery. When York purchased the land, it was primarily apple orchards, with a small plot of wine grape vines. York found that the climate and soil were more suitable for vineyards and he expanded the vineyards. Within a few years, he found that the vines were yielding more than he could market, prompting him to build a small, stone winery. 

Following Andrew York’s early success in the wine business, more vineyards were planted in the Geneseo/Linne area in approximately 1886. They growers were licensed to sell jugs of Zinfandel, Port, and Muscatel, as well as some of the area’s first white wine made from Burger grapes. The Casteel Vineyards in the Willow Creek area were planted just prior to 1908. Casteel wines were stored and aged in a cave cellar. Cuttings from the old vines provided the start for other vineyards, still producing in the area today. 

A significant boost to the winemaking success of this region came about when the famed Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski purchased 2,000 acres in the Adelaide area in the early 1920s. He planted Petite Sirah and Zinfandel and following prohibition had his wine made at York Mountain Winery. Paderewski’s Rancho San Ignacio grapes became award winners and gained a reputation for the Paso Robles wine region as a premier wine growing area. 

That reputation has never gone away and in the succeeding years many new vineyards have sprung up. It doesn’t matter who came first or who came second, a tour of the tasting rooms will show you the infinite variety of the vintages and the skills of the winemakers at the more than 350 wineries that now take their place in one of not only California’s, but the world’s most notable winemaking regions. The distinct microclimates and diverse soils, combined with warm days and cool nights, make growing conditions ideal for producing more than 40 wine varietals. 

Early Pioneers shown enjoying food & wine:

The Estrella District & Le Vigne Winery

 As previously noted, 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, where Le Vigne Winery is located, 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 and world-class wines. 

The agricultural roots in 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 roots in the area. 

The Estrella District’s importance 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 famed Chapoutier vineyard in Hermitage. 

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 wine grapes, warm days that 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 district include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah, and other Bordeaux varieties. White varieties seen to be doing well include Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay. 

In the early 1960’s, Sylvester Feichtinger, father of now winery owner Sylvia, purchased the 400-acre Rancho Robles from country music legend Buck Owens, which is located in the heart of the Estrella district. Originally used for beef cattle and hay production, Rancho Robles became a vineyard in 1981 after the first grapes were planted. With the introduction of the state of the art winery facility in 1995, Le Vigne is one of the most established in the region. 

There are many great reasons to visit Paso Robles and the surrounding areas. Whether you visit for the first time or call it home, we look forward to welcoming you to Le Vigne Winery where our home is your home.

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