In the past decade, California’s Central Coast has pioneered the concept of “tasting room clusters." From Monterey and Carmel to Lompoc and Santa Barbara, wineries have recognized the value of inviting consumers to park their cars and amble among a variety of nearby tasting venues. The setup keeps confused imbibers off winding rural roads while they enjoy locally made vintages, to the pleasure of vineyard neighbors and law enforcement.
In the heart of the vast Paso Robles AVA, Tin City is a relatively new and still growing tasting cluster of very small high-end wineries. The words “Tin” and “City” do not exactly evoke visions of a classic wine country scene, but the concept seems to be working for its tenants. Anchored by the Barrelhouse craft brewery, Tin City tasting rooms are mostly open Fridays through Sundays and by appointment.
Appointments are easy to obtain, since of course wineries are seven-day-a-week businesses, and all of the Tin City wineries actually produce their wines onsite, allowing visitors to peek behind the scenes to view the process. Spanning perhaps four to five city blocks, according to Adrienne Lameray, office manager for early winery tenant Clos Solene, Tin City is a place where people can park, walk and taste. Clos Solene opened around harvest in 2014. It produces some 1,500 cases of wine, mostly form Rhône varietals, with a red blend and, newly, Pinot Noir sourced from Bien Nacido Vineyards.
Because Tin City is not yet on the map of wine trail destinations, “People have to seek it out,” Lameray said. And although tasting rooms are interspersed with other small businesses including a Habitat for Humanity store, there is not currently a restaurant within the development. The Barrelhouse brewery brings in a rotating cast of high-end food trucks, but lines can get long during a busy weekend, Lameray noted.
Custom design within the plan
The newest winery in the cluster is Levo (the Latin root for levitation, or lift). At 800 cases (possibly growing to 1,200 cases this year), it’s a true garage-sized winery. “I had to wait to get a space” in Tin City, said owner Bret Urness, who started making wine in Idaho in 2007.
“It’s pretty casual,” he said of his new location. Though Levo is only officially open on weekends, hopeful tasters are encouraged to knock on the door any time. On a typical weekend, Urness said, he’ll sell up to five cases of Levo wine, which includes Syrah, Grenache, Petit Sirah, a white Rhône blend and, soon, more whites and rosés.
Tasting room traffic, he noted, is “very weather dependent.” Currently, there’s no organized promotion for Tin City. “Everyone is a one-man show and strapped for time, trying to keep up with all the bills to pay. We’re talking about trying to promote. Everyone’s so busy, but a couple have teams,” he said. Urness’ wines sell for an average of $36 per bottle, and there have been busy weekends when he’s had to abandon the tasting bar to replenish wine supplies from storage.
ONX Wines also opened during the past year. With annual production of 3,000 cases retailing at an average $40 per bottle, ONX has the largest winery footprint in Tin City: about 10,000 square feet dedicated to production and another 1,000 square feet for offices and the tasting room.
Winemaker and director of operations Brian Brown said, “Small is the nature. Tin City is kind of an incubator.” When a nearby custom-crush facility closed, Brown needed his own space. “Tin City makes sense for the county and the locals. People can park their cars, walk around and experience a sense of discovery. It’s very accessible—about 10-15 minutes to the square in downtown Paso Robles,” Brown said.
He also noted a recent influx of established winery suppliers to the Paso area: ETS and Scott Labs and TAPP label printing have opened branches nearby, making vital services more convenient.
A distillery called Wine Shine is planning to locate to Tin City. Jacob Toft, owner of his namesake winery, makes and sells 800 cases of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon and Roussanne at an average price of $60 per bottle. Like some of the other tiny wineries, he shares loading dock, crush pad and outdoor storage with another producer.
The interior space was custom constructed. Toft noted that although the exterior is metal, the interior is well insulated to maintain temperatures comfortable to clients and wine. A tenant of Tin City since July 2015, he opens for tastings by appointment only.
Article by Jane Firstenfeld of Wines & Vines