Not too many years ago, the area around Paso Robles was a place you passed through as you made your way up the 101 north of San Luis Obispo. It was picturesque, rustic and fairly empty, seemingly more populated by cows than people.
But those days are gone. Winemaking in Paso Robles, once the pursuit of dreamers and talented artisans, is now a booming business. And in the last decade, it has attracted a growing number of wine enthusiasts with very deep pockets.
What’s surprising is their passion: most of them are not merely investors but active participants in the winemaking process. Their goal is to make the best wine they can, and they’re throwing more than their money at the challenge.
Steve Olson is a member of that group. He made his fortune in the family business, the Olson Company a Seal Beach-based real estate company that’s specialized in affordable housing for over three decades.
Olson had the resources to turn his winemaking dream into a thriving reality: Onx Wines.
“We are fortunate to be in one of the best places in the country for growing many different kinds of grapes,” Olson said as he conducted a tour of his picturesque Paso Robles vineyards — studded with “oases,” shady spots with comfortable furniture and tables where visitors can enjoy nature as they sip on one of Onx’s wines.
In 2004, the Olson family purchased 59 acres of undulating former rangeland adjoining a small stream, Santa Rita Creek, near a tract of suburban homes southwest of Templeton, not far from Paso Robles. It lies in the heart of the Templeton Gap AVA southwest of Paso, and it’s only 9 miles from the coast as the crow flies. The temperature variation, in a word, is extreme. By 3 p.m., a 100-degree day is rapidly cooling toward what could be a 55-degree evening.
The Olsons’ pilot vineyard, planted in 2005, included the most common Rhône varietals: Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Later, the team added several blocks with a mixture of Rhône, Spanish, Bordeaux, Portuguese and Italian grapes.
Onx released its first experimental vintage in 2008; the winery has hit its stride in the last few years with major accolades and impressive scores. Onx’s wines, usually an interesting and unorthodox mix of grape varieties that follows no particular tradition (a common practice in the area that’s termed “Paso blend”), triumphed at the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, winning two gold medals and one double gold. The awards and kudos have been coming in ever since. “Wine Enthusiast” has scored many Onx wines in the low to mid 90s over the last few vintages.
During the tour, Olson was both knowledgeable and proud of his land.
“Throughout our vineyards, we have that calcareous limestone shale, which is great for drainage,” he said. “But we also have these alluvial fans. They really give us tons of organic fertile material. It’s the best of both worlds.”
“When you see limestone, it’s evidence of old seabed,” said Drew Nenow, Onx’s winemaker and production manager. “Those are places of extreme abundance of life and extreme diversity. When you talk to farmers about the best places to grow food that speaks to us, it’s there. This property reflects that in a lot of ways. We’re talking about millennia of rich life in our soil.”
In the winemaking world, Paso’s attractions are no longer a secret. Robert Parker and “Wine Spectator” began singing its praises well over a decade ago, and now there are well over 300 wineries in the area.
“I’ve noticed that people are increasingly coming down from Napa and making substantial investments here,” Olson said. “Property prices are beginning to go up, and they will continue to as our reputation grows.”
Olson is happy he got in before the buzz began.
“We’re right where we want to be right now,” he said. “And I have the luxury of focusing on quality above all else. That’s always been the most important part of my dream.”
For more information about Onx Wines Tasting Room, call (805) 434-5607 or visit onxwines.com.