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Paso’s Historic San Miguel District

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Paso’s Historic San Miguel District Photo: Vino Vargas

By Christopher Taranto

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.

Early History

Mission San MIguel near Paso Robles PicmonkeyCourtyard scene at Mission San MIguel near Paso Robles

There is a good case to be made that the wine and agricultural industry in the Paso Robles region was borne out of San Miguel. The San Miguel Mission was established in 1797 and by the early 1800s it is recorded that there were 19 acres of wine grapes on mission land. These plantings were likely the Mission Grape, as with many of the missions, and were used for sacramental purposes. There were 21 Missions that stretched up the coast of California and typically spaced out to be approximately a one-day’s ride by horseback. Each Mission would, in essence, control the land surrounding it up until it bordered the lands of the next mission.

The lands of the Mission San Miguel extended quite far beyond where today’s town of San Miguel sits and mirrors much of what the Paso Robles region is, and a little further. The lands stretched west consisting of the coastal mountain range to San Simeon and east to the far ranges that separated the central coast from the San Joaquin Valley, and to the south to what we call the Cuesta Grade today. In 1822, land ownership changed hands when Mexico won its independence from Spain. Soon after Mexico secularized the missions, changing the agricultural landscape forever.

While the Catholic church was able to hold on to some of the houses of worship and other important outbuildings, much of the holdings, including land, went to private ownership, by sale or force. The Mexican government returned some lands to the natives and created ranchos for Spanish settlers with familiar names like El Paso de Robles, Cholame, Atascadero, and La Estrella.

Fast forward to the aftereffects of the gold rush when many immigrant farmers and ranchers who did not strike it rich in the gold country made their way south and settled in San Luis Obispo County. This would help establish the northern part of San Luis Obispo County as an agricultural hub as would-be miners returned to the ag roots of raising cattle, crops, and of course wine. Wine was very much a part of their cultures, being from France, Italy, Germany, etc. and so viticulture was introduced beyond the confines of the mission. Generations would go from farming for their own use into commercial endeavors.

When the railroad made it to San Miguel in 1886, this gave farmers and ranchers direct access to sales channels never realized, thus creating a boom. Corrals complete with chutes and scales as well grain elevators were built alongside the tracks. By 1887 there were 40 licensed businesses in San Miguel and this northernmost town of San Luis Obispo County was the home to the first newspaper in north county. Unfortunately, agricultural prosperity was stifled when the region was hit with a drought in 1898. As the years progress there are many ups and downs for San Miguel with the development of Camp Roberts and the subsequent activations the military had over the years. This would add to housing and support businesses and today a population that supports much of the agricultural industry both in the Paso Robles AVA and surrounding counties.

Paso Robles AVAMap LGViticulture History

Most of California saw a vineyard planting boom in the later 70s and early 80s, which was well reflected in the Paso Robles region. Some of the more well-known vineyards in the San Miguel District were planted by Richard Sauret, who became well revered throughout the region for his Zinfandel. As a third-generation north county resident, he grew up in viticulture. Richard started tending vineyards in 1941 at the age of six and would go on to be a sought-after vineyard consultant. In the 80s, David Caparone, after extensive research on clonal types and microclimates, decided to plant an experimental vineyard of Nebbiolo in the San Miguel area. Along with the first Nebbiolo planted in the region, he would go on to plant Sangiovese and Aglianico, also firsts for Paso Robles. Caparone is still in operation today as one of the oldest continuously owned and operated wineries of Paso Robles, dating back to 1979.

Geography and Topography

The San Miguel District is the northwestern-most American Viticultural Area of the 11 AVAs of Paso Robles. Its northern boundary is the county line between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. It is bisected by the Salinas River which flows to the north and empties in Monterey Bay. There is also the confluence of the Estrella River and Nacimiento River, at differing locations, into the Salinas River within the San Miguel District. This naturally creates a setting of deep alluvial deposits of gravel, sand, and silt. The lowest elevation is just below 600 feet above sea level and raises to approximately 1,000 feet elevation along various flood plains and river terraces. The District’s western border is largely made up of steep mountains of the Santa Lucia range and Camp Roberts military base. Its eastern edge lines up with the western edge of the Estrella District. Both the Adelaida District and the Estrella District stair-step the southern border.

Climate

The climate of the San Miguel District, as compared to the rest of the Paso Robles AVA, is the windiest, warmest, and driest. Portions of the easternmost AVAs could compete for this trifecta title as averages can vary. However, a keen eye of the natural vegetation of the region reflects the growing conditions well as there are scattered oaks across grassy hillsides and denser growths of trees and shrubs along the creek and river valleys. The San Miguel District lies directly adjacent to the rain shadow of the Santa Lucia range, which can drastically reduce the amount of rainfall it receives. There is also a lessened maritime influence in San Miguel, much to do with its location near to the higher northern range and out of the window of the Templeton Gap effect to the south where the range tops out at a slightly lower elevation.

Soils and Geology

Many creeks and rivers dominate the landscape of the San Miguel District. The Salinas River Valley becomes quite wide through the area and along with the previously mentioned Estrella and Nacimiento Rivers, tributaries like San Marcos Creek, Peachy Creek, and San Jacinto Creek add to the landscape. These waterways bring deep, alluvial sandy loams to a few clay loams (some with claypans) from the river and creek bottoms up onto the higher terraces. Alluvial soils dominate the region and reflect the material’s origins with mixed sediments of carbonates, silicates, and iron, as well as granite and shale. Most vineyards are planted within the elevations of 640 to 1,000 feet above sea level. The soils at lower elevations can retain moisture, thus encouraging more vigor in vines. Higher elevations will have less topsoil onto bedrock, reducing vigor and elevating concentration. In all the climate along with soils see earlier maturation of fruit in the region.

Winegrapes have been planted in the San Miguel District since the earliest recording of viticulture in the region. The agricultural contributions to the Paso Robles region and north county of San Luis Obispo found many of their beginnings due to the influence of the Mission. Not just because of how that early community developed, but because of what happened once Mexico took back over the lands and secularized the mission, giving way to more homesteaders looking to plant their own deep roots in this agriculturally rich landscape. Today, along with other crops and various livestock, winegrapes continue the tradition of agriculture in San Miguel.

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