By Irene Lechowitzky
Like a fine wine, Paso Robles, Calif., gets better with age. I was delighted to find new downtown restaurants, wine bars and shops since last visiting five years ago. And there are now more than 200 eclectic wineries dotting the region's oak-shaded country roads. Fall is a great time to visit, especially during Harvest Wine Weekend (www.pasowine.com; Oct. 19-21 this year). There's a crush of activities to celebrate the crushing of the grapes: Jump in and try your hand, oops, feet, at grape stomping, get a vino-therapy massage or go to an elegant winemaker dinner or casual barbecue.
You know you're in wine country when your hotel is getting ready to bottle its own vintage. La Quinta Inn & Suites (2615 Buena Vista Drive;  239-3004, http://www.lq.com; rooms from $134) is a well-run, pet-friendly hotel that offers good value and has a pool and spa. Our large, immaculate room had a microwave, refrigerator and flat-screen TV. Freebies include an ample breakfast, as well as wine and gourmet cheese tasting (depending on the night).
My husband and I sampled two new restaurants across from the town square. We had lunch at Estrella (815 12th St.;  226-5406, http://www.estrellarestaurant.com; $8-$12), which serves a fun fusion of "Latin Riviera" cuisine. The braised beef enchiladas with poached potatoes, and masa cakes filled with chicken and tomatillo salsa, were great. Fenomenal (835 12th St.;  227-7154, http://www.fenomenalplace.com; $7-$28) has an intimate club-like vibe and riffs on traditional Spanish tapas. These are not your madre's tapas but a fusion of flavors from around the globe. Paella empanadas and Armenian flatbread pizza went well with a nice Zinfandel from the large wine list.
The nonprofit Studios on the Park (1130 Pine St.;  238-9800, http://www.studiosonthepark.org; open Thursdays-Sundays, free) showcases about 40 artists, and you can interact with them as they work. We particularly enjoyed chatting with Harold Spencer, who once taught at Occidental College and who explained the historical and metaphorical details of the painting he was doing of trapper Jim Bridger.
The lesson learned
Tourist maps can be deceptive. What looked like a 15-minute drive to Farmstand 46 (3750 Highway 46 W., Templeton;  239-3661, http://www.farmstand46.com) for lunch took more than 45 minutes; five more minutes and we would have eaten the map. (Farmstand 46 is in Templeton; the map showed it in Paso Robles.) The shabby-chic barn is a cool place to order sandwiches, wood-fired pizza or salads from its organic garden. Don't miss the Cypher Winery tasting room hidden in back.
Besides gas for the 230-mile round trip, we spent about $380, including $200 for a night at La Quinta, about $120 for meals and $60 for wine tasting.