By Rich Rubin
Paso Robles is one of California’s (and the country’s) fastest wine-â€growing regions, located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles in an unspoiled setting of vineyard-â€covered hills that rise and plunge down to one of the state’s most stunning stretches of coast.
“Paso WHAT?” I hear you say. Well, come with me and we’ll explore this region, a real up-â€and-â€comer in the wine world, with a developing sophistication that still takes the residents by surprise. The town of Paso Robles is surrounded on all sides by excellent wineries on its gently rolling, emerald-â€clad hills, and it’s just a short drive away from such charming coastal villages as Cambria, Morro Bay, and Cayucos, and major attractions like Hearst Castle.
Paso Robles (pronounced, PASS-â€o RO-â€bulls) is a charming town with a park, newly refurbished buildings spread over several blocks, some of the best restaurants I’ve eaten in recently, as well as a variety of shops offering everything from great art to culinary gems. I had no idea before visiting just how pleasant and pretty the town is—and I think that’s one of the things I like best about Paso and the entire region: the sense of surprise. What a feeling of discovery, then, as this stunning region begins to unfold for me, starting with the main town and flowing outward through vineyard-â€covered hillsides, valleys clad in oaks (robles in Spanish) as well as almond and walnut trees, and cliffs changing from chalky white to deep red to mellow tan—all different kinds of rocks that affect the types of grapes grown here and therefore the kinds of wines produced.
Here, it’s all about the grape. Wine enthusiasts and experts increasingly praise the quality of the wines, mainly Rhone-â€style blends using Syrah, Cabernet, and other familiar grapes, along with lesser-â€known varietals as Viognier and Marsanne. The one thing missing in this hot new wine destination is attitude. I talk with Nick Elliott, winemaker at the increasingly well-â€known Nicora Winery, who it turns out comes from a decidedly non-â€hoity toity construction background. I ask about his experience in the industry. He smiles. “When I moved here,” he recalls, “I didn’t know much about wine.” Pause. Grin. “Well, I did know it was something that came in a box.”
While you can fly into the tiny airport in San Luis Obispo, about 20 minutes from Paso Robles, I suggest driving from San Francisco or Los Angeles. It’s three-â€plus hours from either, and the drive allows you to experience California’s amazing coastline. I head down from the Bay Area, and after a stunning drive down California’s gorgeous coast (do the names Carmel and Big Sur sound familiar?), I travel inland through woodlands framed by distant mountains. Finally, I arrive at SummerWood, just outside town. This newly renovated inn, with its own winery, just opened in Fall 2013, and it’s the perfect combination of sophisticated and unpretentious: clean-â€lined, comfortable, and elegant in a low-â€key way. The living room features couches and armchairs in front of a gas fireplace and shelves holding books and silver coffee sets. The rooms are large, modern, and comfy. Best of all: the service. When told, for instance, that breakfast starts at 8 A.M., my early-â€rising self wants to know when coffee is available. The response to my question: “When would you like it?”
If you’d rather stay right in town, Paso Robles Inn is a great choice. This venerable property, built around beautifully landscaped gardens, has a historic feel, but recent renovations present a series of rooms decorated by individual wineries, with private outdoor spa tubs, as the hotel has always been famous for its pipeline to the nearby mineral springs. Their gorgeous ballroom has seen several same-â€sex weddings, so you know they’re LGBT-â€friendly. For a more intimate, secluded feel, try gay-â€owned Asuncion Ridge, with three luxury suites and 20 acres of beauty. The views from here are amazing, looking all the way to the ocean, and they have their own vineyards (there’s an Asuncion Ridge tasting room downtown). Breakfast? Check out their lemon/blueberry pancakes or eggs Benedict, and you’re sure to start the day in a good mood. Another great choice is JustInn, but I’ll let you know more about that later. First I have some major gourmandizing to do.
At SummerWood, there’s a surprise awaiting when I traipse into the lobby late in the afternoon: Chef Kelly Wangard provides not only bountiful breakfasts but afternoon wine and appetizers—and we’re not talking some little plate of cheese. Kelly lays out a spread that might include anything from cold cucumber soup to lamb meatballs, heirloom tomato salad, roasted zucchini with buttermilk/chervil dip, the best scallops you’ve ever tasted, or hummus with bits of bacon. Not enough for you? Late at night there’s tea, coffee, and desserts like house-â€made ice cream or fresh sponge cake with chocolate sauce and blood-â€orange marmalade. It’s as sophisticated and lovely as Paso Robles itself.
Yes, this is a wine destination that’s on the move. The AVA (American Viticultural Appellation) here was established in 1983 with 17 vineyards. Just over 30 years later, there are now over 200, most of them small (the majority do fewer than 5,000 cases a year). As Zenaida Cellars Eric Orgasolka comments, “Twenty years ago, Paso was pretty much a cow town. It’s much more sophisticated now. But people here don’t forget where they came from, so hopefully it will never have the snobbery of other wine regions.” This is the important thing about Paso: it’s so damn friendly. While it can be conservative, every gay resident I speak with says they’ve encountered absolutely no hostility, and every hospitality industry person from hoteliers to wine makers to tour operators proclaims their eagerness to welcome LGBT guests. There’s an openness, an acceptance that’s wonderful to see in this former “cow town.”
“I have never had any problem,” says Brad Buckley of the Abalone Farm, located on a stunning stretch of coast by Cayucos, about a 25-â€minute drive from SummerWood. We’re standing in front of amazing tanks full of abalone at various stages of development, on a fascinating farm that’s unfortunately not open to the public except for special events (check their website to see if any are coming up while you’re here or at least to order their uniquely tasty product). “My husband is a local DJ,” says Brad, "and he came out on the air. His radio station encouraged him to do so. Since coming out, we’ve never gotten any backlash. It’s more accepting than you might think.”
Walk around town, and you can see all the signs of a destination in transition. Wine tasting rooms are everywhere, many of them offering small-â€plate menus as well. Boutiques are springing up too, with names like Earth Tones and Kaya. Amsterdam Coffeehouse is as hip a caffeination joint as many I’ve seen in larger cities, and I could (oh wait, I do) spend hours sitting in there at a tall red table admiring the art on the walls and splurging on a nice selection of baked goods. Of course, the focus in town is wine, and you’ll find not only the tasting rooms but such alluring spots as Paso Underground, where several small wineries have banded together to show their wares in a fun, cavernous room tucked behind a boutique, with a nice patio out back. It’s infused with the youth and spiritedness that I love about Paso. In Spice of Life, opened in February 2013, I load up on aromatic chai tea, sweet and savory sumac, and smoked sea salt. In The General Store I add espresso salt and grape tapenade. In Studios on the Park, a non-â€profit establishment that gives artists studio space in which to show their work, I admire everything from paintings to fabric, wood, and glass arts. Like Paso Underground, it’s a creative solution that enables visitors to experience the work of the “little guys” as well as more established artists, whether their field is fine arts or winemaking.
Of course, no newly chic (or should I say, nearly chic) city is complete without fine restaurants, and Paso Robles has those in spades. On my first night in town, after a stop for appetizers at SummerWood (yes, I do a lot of eating in this region), I experience Thomas Hill Organics, which becomes my favorite restaurant in town. Originally an offshoot of an eponymous farm, the food here lets you know why organic and local are important: everything is so fresh, so bursting with flavor. This is farm-â€to-â€table in the truest sense, and from the kabocha squash soup with lemongrass and ginger to the kale salad and pan-â€seared scallops, it’s amazingly good. With a new bar and a comfy enclosed patio, this is for my money the top spot in town, and it’s the perfect introduction to the culinary riches of the area.
It’s one of many enviable places in town. I’m a big fan of Bistro Laurent, with its jaunty French posters, upholstery and curtains covered with little pastel bubbles, and bright urbane feeling. And the food! A seafood fricassee is dark, rich, and amazing and is very possibly the best dish I’ve ever tasted. Of course, this being a French place, desserts are primo, so be sure to leave room for a warm chocolate tart with vanilla sauce or a classic crème brûlée. Laurent ushered in the idea of fine dining in Paso Robles, and is on every gourmet’s must-â€do list. Across the street, Artisan is the most self-â€consciously chic eatery, with gray walls, visible kitchen, and striped banquettes. You can go full out with a dish like roasted chicken with Meyer lemon/pancetta risotto or get one of their pizzas, topped with interesting combinations from truffle/mushroom/leek to prosciutto/pineapple/jalapeño.
Some of the city’s most creative and skillful cookery is at La Cosecha, which opened in 2013 and already has the buzz of the town’s hippest spot. With its food ranging from Spain to South and Central America, there’s a wide range of appealing choices, from ceviche to a daily paella to such delights as Cornish hen with Serrano ham or pan-â€seared shrimp with squid-â€ink polenta.
Another long-â€standing favorite, Villa Creek, has a down-â€home theme that doesn’t quite prepare you for the high quality of its food, much of which is served family-â€style and includes such delights as torchio and mushroom Bolognese and short rib Bourguignon.
I begin the next day with a drive along Highway 46, one of the main drags in the region, past vineyards and grape-â€covered hillsides to the coast. It’s a beautiful drive, reassuring in its gently rolling scenery, its patchworks of brown, green, white, and silver, all overseen by that towering Paso sky. There seems to be more sky here than in the rest of the world, I think, as I stop for the umpteenth time in one of the numerous pull-â€outs to snap a photo of oak trees, emerald hills, and deep azure. I take a right on Highway 1 and head into Cambria, a cute little town that’s well worth a few hours’ exploration. The main street has a nice collection of antique stores, and the wonderful Linn’s, where I stop in for their famous ollalieberry pie.
From here, I recommend heading straight down the coast to Morro Bay, famous for its Gibraltar-â€like offshore rock and a prime destination for surfing, bird watching, and beachcombing. Or you could always head north to Hearst Castle, one of the area’s most famous attractions and a destination in its own right. You’ll get your tickets in the visitors’ center, then board a bus up the “Enchanted Hill,” where this stunning mansion filled with world-â€class art and lush gardens await. You can only see it on an official tour, so get your tickets early.
On the way back, I detour through San Luis Obispo, or SLO (the locals actually call it SLO, pronounced like “slow,” and it’s an appropriate designation). It’s in this college town, about 15 minutes south of Paso, that the area’s annual Gay Pride Parade is held. As I walk through the streets, I remember the words of Brad Buckley at the Abalone Farm: “The parade is held right at the Mission, which I think is great.” While there are no gay bars here, there are several spots favored by the LGBT community. Novo, an internationally flavored restaurant in a former cigar factory, is notable for its popular lounge and series of creek side patios. It’s a favorite see-â€and-â€be-â€seen place, for a meal or a martini. Meze, a wine bar and shop has the kind of cosmopolitan chic you’d imagine LGBT residents would go for, with an impressive wine list, vast selection of cheeses, and a series of small plates as befits its name. Granada Bistro is another gay-â€popular spot, with its industrial-â€chic look of brick and wood and its bistro menu that’s Spanish-â€inspired but California farm fresh. You’re likely to find me, though, in West End Coffeehouse, SLO’s first coffeehouse (established in 1979), where everyone from families to students from the town’s university gather over espresso, smoothies, and a variety of baked goods.
That night, at a winemakers’ dinner in Laurent, I speak with several of the local stars. “Paso is Zin country,” says Niels Udsen of Castoro Cellars, noting that Zinfandel put Paso on the oenological map. But because there’s such an abundance of varietals, Paso has become known for blending its grapes in unusual combinations: while you’ll still find a “straight” Zinfandel or Cabernet, you’ll also find such intriguing creations as Zenaida Cellars’ Zephyr, which ferments two reds (Syrah and Zinfandel) with a touch of white (Viognier) in oak barrels for a wine that’s smooth, multi-â€textured, and fascinating.
“We blend out of artistry, not necessity,” notes Christopher Taranto of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, pointing out that the variety of soil types and microclimates gives the area a variety of grapes to choose from that’s a winemaker’s dream: “Our diversity begins from the soil up.” Case in point: the Bordeaux blend offered by Still Waters. Jokes their winemaker, Paul Hoover, “It’s like a band in which Cabernet Sauvignon is the lead singer, and Malbec and Merlot the backup singers. But Cab’s plane is late and the audience is getting restless, and so the backup singers take the stage.” As I sip this bold and deep wine, I think, well, it’s not the first time the backup group has outshone the main act!
While it’s nice enough to taste the series of intriguing wines, it’s a much richer experience to visit the wineries themselves and sip them on location. You might be asking: with all these wineries in the region, how do I see as many as possible and taste their products if I have to drive? My answer is simple: the Wine Wrangler. They’re an invaluable tour company that can do anything from a winery day to a Hearst Castle visit, or a combination of the two. You can join an existing group, or custom design a tour with Wine Wrangler’s friendly staff, and I’d strongly suggest using their services if you’re visiting a lot of wineries. Let them handle the winding roads and hills while you relax and head to the next place to do some tasting.
In their comfy van, we drive past signs for firewood, dried fruit, and honey and past groves of walnut trees. We start at Lone Madrone tasting room, where we have some wines both from this winery and from Tablas Creek, where the winemaker also works. A deep, minerally Vermentino contrasts with a light, airy Chenin Blanc, while a bold rich “Points West” blend of Roussane, Viognier, Picpoul Blanc, and Marsanne shows the strength of the Roussane more than anything. A deep and rich Barolo, a tangy Mourvèdre, a sip of their hard cider, and we’re on our way.
We’re doing one of the most popular wine routes in the area, up Adelaida Road to Vineyard Drive to Route 46 and back up 101 to town. At one of our major stops, Adelaida Cellars, winemaker Jeremy Weintraub, a transplant from New York, comments on the region: “There’s still so much potential. The wines have gotten exponentially better over the last five years.” Their Pinot Noir is nice: dry and full, one of my favorites. I sip a Syrah, which has the bite I associate with that varietal, and a rich 2010 Cabernet reserve, while Jeremy indulges in some of the winemaker’s talk that I so love: “2014 is going to be a very tannic year,” he proclaims, and I’m like, yeah, right, tannic. The proof, as always, though, is in the pudding, and I can taste the satisfying results of Jeremy’s traditional methods—he even has a young man clad in heavy boots stomping on grapes inside a vat.
Young Zack pauses in his stomping to tell us how much he loves what he’s doing. At the age of 21 he’s already a veteran of several years in wineries. It’s so nice, I think as I watch Zack happily stomping through just-â€picked grapes, to see people who are so happy where they are, and happy with what they’re doing. I think of my own life, and my love/hate relationship with the city where I live, and I think Paso has possibilities. Would I really move here to a place over three hours away from a big city? Where there’s no theater, not much in the way of museums, no 24-â€hour grocery store a few blocks away? I look at Zack’s smiling face. I sip the luscious Pinot. I look out at hills glistening in the sun, the vineyards lined up in neat rows and climbing the hillsides to reach for the light. Well, I think, stranger things have happened.
Next stop Justin, one of the largest wineries in the region. They not only have a winery, but a nice restaurant and the three-â€suite JustInn, which is the ultimate in gracious country living. Suites are large, modern, and soothing, in shades of green and white, with the Justification Suite boasting a deck overlooking a spectacular view of vineyard-â€clad hills. Now if only, while living in your vineyard apartment, you could make wines like theirs! If only you had a personal chef to create dinners for you consisting of dishes like butternut squash soup, with bits of roasted pear, a swirl of maple foam, and crispy shallots, or risotto, rich with Parmesan cheese and a grating of fresh black truffles. With the vineyards towering above you and a bit of Paso breeze to mitigate the intense sun, it’s a memorable dining experience.
While we’re on the subject of food, you really need to check out Pasolivo, a local olive oil producer that’s tucked away in a hill not far from Justin. It’s only appropriate that a place like this be plunked down into the Central California hills, because wine and olive oil have a lot in common—and not just as culinary partners. Says Proprietor Cheryl Wieczorek: “Wherever there are grapes growing, olives can go right alongside them. What makes grapes happy makes olives happy.” After a stroll through the groves, we see the process of pressing the oil and (my favorite, of course) sample the finished products: olive oils flavored with basil, lemon, rosemary, tangerine, and lime. They’re the perfect gift for that chef back home (and you can buy small sample bottles if you aren’t checking luggage).
The olive oil tasting does make for a nice switch, though I could spend all day (and do) touring the wineries, such as AmByth Estate, where I taste an interesting “orange wine,” made from white grapes like Grenache but treated like a red wine in methods. They’re open by appointment only, but see if you can get up there, because the vista of hillsides and olive trees looks like Tuscany transplanted to California. This isn’t the first time this comparison has been made for the region, but it’s particularly apt at AmByth, the Welsh word for “forever,” could be describing that panorama. Then there’s Paso Port, a tiny winery that concentrates on a port-â€style wine. The climate here (or, at least, this particular micro-â€ climate) is very similar to Portugal, so it’s not surprising. I enjoy all of their selections, but the tawny is absolutely amazing, aged eight to nine years and slightly but not incredibly sweet. Wild Horse, one of the larger wineries in the region, offers an “Unbridled Merlot” that’s stellar, while the cabernet of the much smaller Domaine Degher (a gold-â€medal winner at the Central Coast Wine Competition) is one of the smoothest, richest wines I’ve encountered—pure liquid beauty.
Am I surprised to find these amazements? Not anymore. For me, my time in Paso Robles has been a time of discovery, filled with the satisfaction of happening onto a place that’s about to be discovered rather than one that already has been, and that’s truly exciting. If you’re into unique wines crafted in boutique wineries, fabulous food, gorgeous scenery, and what one New York transplant describes as “frighteningly friendly people,” then Paso and its surroundings will astonish and delight you as much as they do me. I leave thinking, how did this beautiful area escape my attention before? Don’t let it escape yours.
Paso Robles Resources
Ascunsion Ridge, Box 2457, Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€461-â€0675. Doubles $269-â€$365. A secluded and ultra-â€ private B&B with spectacular views and its own winery, about a half hour from downtown Paso. www.asuncionridge.com
JustInn, 11680 Chimney Rock Rd., Paso Robles. Tel: 800-â€726-â€0049. Doubles $375-â€$400. Located right at Justin Winery and vineyards, these three suites have a private-â€house feel, tucked into the grape-â€covered hills. www.justinwine.com/visit_just_inn.php
Paso Robles Inn, 1103 Spring St., Paso Robles. Tel: 800-â€676-â€1713. Doubles $185-â€$260. The only nice hotel at the heart of downtown, with rooms themed after wineries and luxurious gardens perfect for strolling. www.pasoroblesinn.com
SummerWood Winery and Inn, 2175 Arbor Rd., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€227-â€1111. Doubles $275-â€$400. Re-opened in fall 2013 in a stunning remodel, this gracious inn on the outskirts of town combines elegance with comfort, with large, nicely appointed rooms, lavish breakfasts, and fab afternoon tastings. www.summerwoodwine.com
Artisan, 843 12th St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€237-â€8084. At the heart of downtown, this restaurant with open kitchen and dishes from interesting pizzas to fuller courses, is a Paso mainstay. www.artisanpasorobles.com
Bistro Laurent, 1201 Pine St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€226-â€8191. French bistro that’s the original fine dining spot in downtown Paso Robles, combining fine food, unpretentious atmosphere, and perfect service. www.bistrolaurent.com
Granada Bistro, 1226 Morro St., San Luis Obispo. Tel: 805-â€544-â€9100. An LGBT-â€popular spot in SLO, with a farm-â€to-â€plate approach to its Spanish-â€tinged cuisine. www.granadahotelandbistro.com"
Justin, 11680 Chimney Rock Rd., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€238-â€6932. Admirable food complemented by Justin’s wines and an alluring setting among vineyard-â€covered hills. www.justinwine.com
La Cosecha, 835 12th St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€237-â€0019. Spanish and South American flavors rule at one of Paso’s latest hot spots, as abuzz with excitement as the creative cuisine deserves. www.lacosechabr.com
Meze Wine Bar and Bistro, 1880 Santa Barbara Ave., San Luis Obispo. Tel: 805-â€548-â€8070. Wine, cheese,
and a variety of small plates make this chic urban wine bar an LGBT fave in SLO. www.mezewinebar.com
Novo, 726 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo. Tel: 805-â€543-â€4986. With its creekside patios, warm and cozy lounge, and great food, it’s an LGBT favorite in SLO. www.novorestaurant.com
Thomas Hill Organics, 1313 Park St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€226-â€5888. My favorite restaurant in Paso,
with a stunningly fresh menu and comfy atmosphere that includes a pleasant covered patio. www.thomashillorganics.com
Villa Creek Restaurant, 1144 Pine St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€238-â€3000. A rustic feel and hearty portions
make this a perennially popular eatery, which offered farm-â€fresh food before it became “a thing.”
Amsterdam, 705 13th St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€239-â€7779. The place for coffee drinks and pastries in Paso, with tall red tables, lower-â€slung seating, and large windows looking out onto the ever-â€changing street scene.
West End Café, 670 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo. Tel: 805-â€543-â€4902. A popular coffeehouse in SLO,
offering a nice selection of smoothies and baked goods and home at any given time to seemingly half the population of the town. www.westendespressoandtea.com
Abalone Farm, Highway 1, Caycuos. Tel: 877-â€367-â€2271. Order fresh abalone from this amazing spot that’s unfortunately not open to the public except for special events. Check their website to see if any are happening during your visit. www.abalonefarm.com
Hearst Castle, 750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon. Tel: 800-â€444-â€4445. William Randolph Hearst’s stunning residence, perched on a hill overlooking the ocean, is available for daily tours through stunning rooms and exquisite gardens. www.hearstcastle.org
Studios on the Park. 1130 Pine St., Paso Robles. Tel: 805-â€238-â€9800. A series of nine studios where you
can watch local artists work and buy their creations, from painting and ceramics to glass, fiber arts, and more. www.studiosonthepark.org
Wine Wrangler, Tel: 866-â€238-â€6400. Offering everything from half-â€ and full-â€day wine tours to Hearst Castle excursions to custom-â€designed private expeditions, the Wine Wrangler, under the friendly guidance of proprietor Coy Barnes, is the best way to see the region and leave the driving to them. www.thewinewrangler.com
The website of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is your best source of information on the region’s wineries and other attractions. www.pasowine.com
For information about Pride and other GLBT events in the area, visit the Facebook page of the Central Coast Gay and Lesbian Alliance. www.facebook.com/ccgala