By Allen Pierleoni
PASO ROBLES – This rural Central Coast town of 30,000, a half-hour's scenic drive from seaside Cambria and 42 miles from Hearst Castle, draws a continuous stream of visitors lured by its striking countryside, laid-back vibe and neighborliness.
We camped for three days at the re-refurbished Paso Robles Inn, a landmark and member of the Historic Hotels of America. The lobby and steakhouse are accented with charming touches of yesteryear so typical of downtown – tile and hardwood floors, arches, faded brick, vintage wood doors. Many of the ground-level rooms have private patios with spas tapped into underground hot springs. The parking lot fills on weekends. It's a fact that John Wayne slept there.
Paso is a small-town retreat with a big-time wine scene and an impressive menu of top-tier restaurants that have sprung up around it. The stroll-friendly downtown is a marvel of 19th century brick and stucco, Spanish tile and wrought iron. Well-attended festivals and celebrations are held year-round. Out-of-area travelers swirl cabs and zins in tasting rooms a short walk away.
Paso Robles can be a weekend getaway or a day-trip destination, situated midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco and drawing from the Central Valley. A fair question: Could this turn into another Napa Valley, compromising the integrity of small-town living? The consensus seems to be: No. We are who we are, and we do what we do.
"We certainly have been found," said Paso Robles Mayor Duane Picanco. "Yes, the wineries are the predominant tourist attraction, but … national chain stores have expressed interest (in opening here). They must believe there is more to us than tourism."
"We're called the 'second Napa,' but we're more approachable and less expensive," added Danika Reed, the Paso-raised owner of the Vivant Fine Cheese shop. "We're laid-back country folks who weren't recognized until the wineries came in and brought the tourists, and the tourists brought the restaurants. We grew really fast and now we're catching up."
There's a fascinating dichotomy to Paso Robles – originally named El Paso de Robles ("The Pass of the Oaks"), now called simply "Paso" by its citizenry.
Local history and rural roots live in the forefront (it's Paso lore that outlaws Frank and Jesse James hid out nearby), but wine-savvy professional couples from Santa Monica to San Francisco are in and out of the 20 or so tasting rooms and wine bars that saturate the small downtown. They're joined by international tourists who seek out Paso after visiting Hearst Castle.
When the sun sets, all those foodies crowd into such four-star restaurants as Thomas Hill Organics, Bistro Laurent, Il Cortile, Yanagi and Fenomenal.
Equally telling, but in a more grass-roots way, the 10-day California Mid-State Fair is heavy on equestrian, livestock and home winemaking competitions, though Journey and Pat Benatar are inked to play in July. Rock meets rural, with 400,000 attendees expected.
The whole community shows up for the Lavender Festival and Olive Festival, and kicks up its heels over Pioneer Day in October. For that one, there's a free community "bean feed," tractor parade and cowboys riding through town on horseback. Some of the more exuberant ones have spurred their horses into the Pine Street Saloon to pose for pictures and wet their whistles.
200-plus wineries and no mall
Only 17 wineries were in business in 1983, when the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area was established (a federally designated grape-growing zone). Today, more than 200 are thriving (some put the number closer to 260), said Christopher Taranto, marketing director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
"The wine industry really is the backbone of our economy and community," he said. "It's pretty much tied to everything that happens in town – but we still don't have a mall."
The Paso area is known for its big zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons, but what's still trending are its Rhone-style red blends of grenache, syrah, petite sirah, mourvèdre and viognier. Because so many small wineries have limited productions, some of the best bottles are sold only at the wineries and through wine clubs.
If one were to name the Big Three wineries, they could be J. Lohr, Tobin James and Justin, though limited-edition vinos from smaller wineries are among wine critics' favorites.
One winery that fits the template is Chateau Margene, owned by Michael Mooney. His near-depleted stock of astonishing 2007 syrah (a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre, under the Mooney Family label) is now available only as a "library wine" for $52 at the estate in Creston, (805) 238-2321 or email@example.com.
We signed up for a leisurely winery tour with the Wine Wrangler. In the van were three couples from Lone Pine, fast friends who were traveling along the coast. We agreed that something seemed to be missing as we rolled along near-empty roads. Oh, yeah – packed tour buses lumbering ahead of us.
How does the Wrangler tour work? "I talk with the guests and get a feel for the kinds of wines they prefer, and we go to the wineries that make those styles," said guide-driver Teresa Whipple.
Castoro Cellars' symbol is a beaver, with an appropriate tagline: "Dam Fine Wine." In the tasting room we discovered a 2009 barbera reserve and a 2008 Venti Sette Anni, a five-varietal anniversary blend commemorating the winery's 27th year.
We climbed to the top of a hill at Pear Valley Vineyards and watched deer run through rows of grapevines below. Inside the stone-and-wood tasting room, top sips included the 2007 Distraction (a three-varietal blend) and the 2010 Orange Muscat.
The signature red blend at Paul Rosilez Winery is called Apothecary. For a reason.
"Our winemaker is our son, and he's also a pharmacist," said Barbara Rosilez, who owns the winery with her husband, Joe.
Vineyard Drive, off westbound Highway 46, is the area's main wine trail. The gently curving two-lane road winds past corrals and through miles of grapevines and stands of moss-hung oaks, passing wineries and tasting rooms.
We stopped at Creekside Bed & Breakfast to check out the two luxurious guest rooms in the converted barn, and chatted with innkeepers Dave and Lynne Teckman.
The Teckmans arrived from Minnesota to make wine (their small Per Cazo Cellars is a medal winner) and ended up inheriting the B&B business by chance.
"Most of our guests are here looking for an alternative to other wine regions," Lynne Teckman said.
"But the (locals) don't want to see their area commercialized," Dave Teckman added. "There's been some concern about that. Potentially, it could explode."
Farther along, we parked in front of the Pasolivo tasting room, where manager Suzanne Shrode led us through an olive oil tasting involving cubes of bread and 10 mixed salts and spices.
We fell hard for the smoky, buttery flavor of walnut oil (and walnut butter and brittle) at nearby Limerock Orchards. Owners Richard and Deanne Gonzales dry-farm 23 acres of walnuts and sell their products in a little house shared with the Chateau Margene and Roxo tasting rooms.
"We always wanted to have a nuthouse on the corner," Deanne Gonzales joked.
Strolling the square
Back downtown, we strolled through City Park and randomly hopped in and out of surrounding storefronts.
The tree-shaded park is the town square, filling with locals who turn out for Friday evening concerts. Of course, there's a gazebo.
The former Carnegie Library is now the brick-and-stone home of El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society, which maintains a trove of vintage photos, faded books and curious objects marking the area's past.
Near it is a time capsule "commemorating the incorporation of the city of El Paso Del Robles, March 11, 1889. Dedicated May 7, 1989. To be opened in 2089."
The plaque above a working water fountain reads, "Dedicated to our war heroes." It was donated by the Lions Club in 1947.
The park hosts a popular farmers market, where vendors sell local olive oil and honey, salsa and lavender, gorgeous produce and hand-spun skeins of alpaca yarn.
Across the street, the We Olive was the first in the 10-store chain founded by Ruth Mercurio. The tidy shop specializes in extra-virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and carries a full line of gourmet food items. Sampling and tasting are encouraged.
"Be sure you try the Parmesan-Asiago cheese dip," Mercurio said. Add to that the olive oil-roasted almonds with truffle and salt, and almond brittle.
Inside a fine-artists collective, Studios on the Park, a dozen inspired men and women worked in an open environment in various styles and media. Rarely do we have the chance to talk with artists during the creative process, but that scenario is part of it.
The fragrance of caramel-topped cinnamon buns pulled us into Two Little Birds bakery, where owner-baker Lauran Galena talked about Paso Robles' growing wedding industry. Earlier this year, the Paso Robles Inn even hosted a wedding expo.
"Couples are coming from everywhere to get married in the wineries, on ranches and on the beaches," she said. "We do seven to 13 weddings a weekend, and it looks like my wedding business will double this year."
At day's end, we met Norma Moy for a cold beer at the Pine Street Saloon, where the wood floor has a slight tilt. Moy – the "unofficial mayor of Paso" – led us on a mini-tour of downtown. She's the executive director of the award-winning Paso Robles Main Street Association. Because of her efforts, five vintage structures were saved from demolition.
"I was born and raised here and don't ever want to leave," she said, stopping every few strides to say hello to ... well, there's a saying in town: "Everybody knows Norma."
"The people who come here say we have a treasure. You can wine and dine and bathe with a friend in our waters. And you know what else we have that's important? Fresh air," she said, taking a deep breath.
Unfortunately, there's no app for that.
FINDING YOUR WAY AROUND PASO ROBLES
These websites will help you navigate a visit to Paso Robles:
DOWNTOWN PASO ROBLES
From Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 south to Highway 41 toward Kettleman City/Paso Robles (Exit 309). Turn right on Highway 41 south. Continue to Highway 46 west, turn left on Union Road, turn left on Walnut Drive, turn left on Vista Grande Street, turn left on Osos Way. The 265-mile trip takes about 4 1/2 hours.
Paso Robles (once known as Almond City) is in the south end of the Salinas River Valley, with a backstory of almond, fruit, wheat and barley farming, and cattle and horse ranching. Over recent decades, vineyards have replaced thousands of acres of farmland and ranchland, and the area now has a vibrant wine industry. Olive and walnut farming are still big.
What first put Paso on the map were its thermal hot springs and mud baths. The mineral-rich waters were said to have healing powers, and for years attracted pilgrims from as far as Oregon.
The town became a popular hot-springs resort in the mid-1800s and grew from there. Both a bathhouse and the Hot Springs Hotel debuted in 1864, but the magnificent El Paso de Robles Hotel was the grand dame when it opened in 1891. A million bricks were used in its construction, and every guest room had a fireplace.
Famed Polish pianist-composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) so successfully treated his arthritic hands in Paso Robles' waters that he bought two ranches there between 1914 and 1916 and stayed off-and-on for 25 years. The Paderewski Festival will be June 24, featuring wine-tasting and food samplings, plein air artists and a concert (www.paderewskifest.com).
Fire razed the El Paso de Robles Hotel in 1940, and it was replaced with the Paso Robles Inn in 1942.
The San Simeon earthquake in 2003 ruptured an underground hot spring, causing flooding and a sinkhole to form near City Hall. The sinkhole was finally filled in 2010.
Most of the restaurants in and around Paso Robles focus on the farm-to-fork philosophy of "sustainable and local." As this sampling shows, the dining scene is diverse:
• Artisan, 1401 Park St., (805) 237-8084, www.artisanpasorobles.com: Imaginative American fare with surprises: salmon tartare, grilled octopus, meatballs with ricotta gnocchi.
• Bistro Laurent, 1202 Pine St., (805) 226-8191, www.bistrolaurent.com: French country cooking with an option: four- and five-course meals from the tasting menu.
• Farmstand 46, 3750 West Highway 46, Templeton, (805) 239-3661, www.farmstand46.com: Artisan ingredients make for outstanding sandwiches and wood-fired pizza.
• Fenomenal,835 12th St., (805) 227-7154, www.fenomenalplace.com: World-fusion tapas (blue corn polenta-chorizo, smoked duck quesadilla) served in sophisticated surroundings.
• Firestone Walker Brewing Co., 400 Ramada Drive, (805) 238-2556, www.firestonebeer.com: Settle in to the Taproom for burgers, dogs, pizza, ribs and fried chicken matched with 16 award-winning beers.
• McClintock's Saloon, 1234 Park St., (805) 238-2233, www.mcclintocks.com: Western-themed wide-open spaces where the locals gather for happy hour. It's a toss-up between tri-tip, beef ribs and linguica, but do grab a bowl of Santa Maria pinquito beans.
• Il Cortile, 608 12th St., (805) 226-0300, www.ilcortileristorante.com: Fine meat and fish, but the star is the house-made pasta (pappardelle with wild boar, spaghetti with seafood).
• Panolivo Bistro, 344 Park St., (805) 239-3366, www.panolivo.com: Breakfast, lunch and dinner with a French accent (beef bourguignon, seafood "pot pie"). House-made pastries.
• Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse, 1103 Spring St., (805) 238-2660, www.pasoroblesinn.com: Go for the prime rib, stay for the Morro Bay halibut.
• Thomas Hill Organics, 1305 Park St., (805) 226-5888, www.thomashillorganics.com: Debbie and Joe Thomas grow organic produce that ends up all over their menus, as in roasted beet and blood orange salad. Don't overlook the tamarind-glazed grilled hanger steak and braised rabbit.
• Two Little Birds Bakery, 822 13th St., (805) 221-5680, www.twolittlebirdsbakery.com: Top baked goods, starting with sticky buns and moving to cheesecake and brownies.
•Vietnam Import & Teahouse, 721 12th St., (805) 237-2750: Shop for knickknacks while you wait for homemade pho.
• Vivant Fine Cheese, 840 11th St., (805) 226-5530, www.vivantfinecheese.com: More than 150 cheeses to pair with local wines.
• Yanagi, 221 Park St., (805) 226-8867, www.yanagisushigrill.com: Sushi, sashimi, rolls, udon, tempura and all the rest.
• Wine Wrangler, 800 Pine St., (805) 238-5700, (866) 238-6400, www.thewinewrangler.com: Cruising from winery to winery in a chauffeured van is great fun. The company also offers tours to Hearst Castle and more. It's the original wine-country veteran.
Wine-tasting rooms are downtown and at wineries all over the countryside. Afterward, try some olive and walnut oils:
• We Olive, 1311 Park St., (805) 239-7667, www.paso.weolive.com
• Pasolivo, 8530 Vineyard Drive, (805) 227-0186, www.pasolivo.com
• Limerock Orchards, 6996 Peachy Canyon Road, (805) 238-6887, www.limerock orchards.com: Luscious walnut oil in a tasting room shared by Chateau Margene and Roxo wineries.
WORTH A LOOK
• Children's Museum, 623 13th St., (805) 238-7432, www.pasokids.org: Interactive exhibits for energetic youngsters. Cool stuff.
• Studios on the Park, 1130 Pine St., (805) 238-9800, www.studiosonthepark.org: Watch working artists turn their creativity into paintings and sculptures.
• Pioneer Museum, 2010 Riverside Ave., (805) 239-4556, www.pasorobles pioneermuseum.org: Local history recalled in numerous displays, including a schoolhouse and a chuckwagon.
• Carnegie Library, 800 12th St., (805) 238-4996, www.pasorobleshistorical society.org: Vintage treasures from years gone by.