How to choose your California Wine Country Destination: Napa, Sonoma or Paso Robles
So you’ve decided it’s time for a wine country getaway and are starting to plan your wine weekend. We have all heard of the world-famous Napa Valley with its first-rate Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Napa was the first AVA in the United States in 1981 (an AVA is an American Viticultural Area or a designated wine grape-growing region). It has over 400 wineries, is packed with trendy restaurants, and grows about 35 different grape varieties. The best Napa Valley wineries are known for their rich Cabernet Sauvignon, buttery Chardonnays and earthy Merlot.
With its proximity to San Francisco, the Napa Valley is a popular destination for travelers. Because of its popularity, people can often find themselves stuck in traffic jams, unable to get reservations at restaurants and paying exorbitant prices for lodging and tasting fees.
Is there an alternative to Napa?
Next door to Napa you’ll find Sonoma. Geographically, Sonoma is nearly double the size of Napa and can be described as more laid-back than Napa.
Sonoma’s downtown plaza is charming and historically significant, containing the last Spanish Mission (built 1823) and some 19th century adobes.
It’s a hub of everyday life, with a variety of charming restaurants, shops and tasting rooms surrounding the plaza. You’ll probably see some people enjoying the park with a picnic with a local bottle of wine.
The Sonoma AVA is closer to the Pacific Ocean than Napa Valley and grows far more grapes than Napa, with a variety of growing conditions. You’ll find delicious Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Sparkling Wines, Red Blends and unoaked Chardonnays.
However, Sonoma suffers from some of the same congestion issues as Napa, so expect to wait in traffic and pay a premium to stay near popular areas.
Sonoma wine tours are definitely a great option for your getaway, but what about this Paso Robles you’ve been hearing about?
Is Paso Robles in Sonoma?
The Paso Robles wine region is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco near the iconic Hearst Castle in San Simeon. About a 3 hour drive from both cities (200 miles / 320 kilometers).
How far is Paso Robles from Sonoma or Napa Valley?
If you want to visit Paso Robles wine country after you’ve visited the wine countries north of San Francisco it’s about a 4 hour drive (250 miles / 400 kilometers).
Paso Robles Wine Country
Paso Robles wine country is gaining recognition as California’s best source for Rhone-style and Bordeaux-style wines (wait, what does that mean? See below), as well as its easy-going and welcoming vibe.
While Napa is known for it’s dense, volcanic soils, Paso Robles boasts Calcareous limestone, which is the same soil that can be found in famous French wine regions, such as Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, the Loire and southern Rhône valleys, and Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux.
It’s not a common soil type in the United States, and the west side of Paso Robles and Templeton has the state’s largest exposed limestone layer. Combine this soil with the largest diurnal temperature shift (different between daytime & nighttime temperatures) of any wine country in the U.S., and you’re left with exquisitely elegant, rich wines that rival their famous French counterparts, and certainly compete with the wines of the best Napa Valley wineries & Sonoma wineries.
The downtown of Paso Robles also has a delightful plaza filled with boutiques, farm-to-table restaurants, tasting rooms and more.
Paso Robles lets guests combine world-class wines with a small-town feel, zero traffic jams, affordable tasting fees & lodging options, top-notch restaurants, easy access to the coast and so much more.
Bordeaux style vs Rhone style wines
Ok, what do we mean when we say Bordeaux style and Rhone style wines.
In France, when you buy a bottle of wine, the label says where the bottle came from, not the grape varieties that are in that bottle. That’s because in France each region can only put specific grape varieties into their blends, depending on where they are located. You can’t mix the grapes from different regions, and they even use different shaped bottles to signify where the wine comes from.
Bordeaux wines are dominated by grape varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and a few white varietals such as Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Rhone wines have about 15 varieties allowed, but red Rhone wines typically consist of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah while white Rhone wines contain Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and others.
Here in the U.S., we have much greater freedom with our winemaking. We can grow and blend whatever grape varieties that we want.
However, while we may blend Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah (heresy in France), we do look to those established wine regions to guide some of our winemaking decisions when working with those grape varieties.
Paso Robles vs Napa & Sonoma
So which is better? Paso (just drop the Robles – seriously, you don’t want to deal with it), or Napa & Sonoma?
That’s up to you!
Each region boasts their own unique style and offers guests abundant options for excellent wines & tasting experiences.
Your specific mood, occasion, wine preference, budget and more will help determine which a good fit for your trip.
We recommend visiting them all to figure out which is best for you.
When you do make it for a wine tour in Paso Robles, we recommend staying downtown. (we love the Oxford Suites for their central location with access to all the great restaurants and downtown tasting rooms, and their spacious guest rooms, heated pool, tasty breakfast & more!)
From there, jump on our Hearst Castle and Paso Robles Wine Country tour to get the best full-day experience and introduction to California’s Central Coast and the boutique wines of Paso Robles.
We also offer this tour as a three-day / two-night package which includes the full-day Hearst Castle & Wine tour, plus train tickets from San Francisco / Los Angeles and two-night accommodation in downtown Paso Robles.
Here is a short video with a quick overview of Paso Robles Wine Country.