By Michael Benedict
Anyone looking to holiday in a California wine region with all the sophistication of Napa and Sonoma without their crowds—and prices—should consider a visit to Paso Robles, a small coastal city, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Especially this year as Paso Robles celebrates its Quasquicentennial, or 125th anniversary.
We wanted only to stop there for lunch but ended up spending the afternoon exploring its downtown, captivated by its fine restaurants, art galleries and funky shops, including a jewelry store with a wine-tasting area in the back. Unfortunately, we didn’t have more time to poke around as the region offers many mostly undiscovered treasures, especially when it comes to eating well-prepared local produce and drinking excellent local wines.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended we exit Highway 101 to sample the food at Thomas Hill Organics Bistro and Wine Lounge, just off the city’s historic town square. We ate al fresco under its awning-covered patio, first sharing a kale salad prepared with a variety of crispy fresh greens, no doubt all harvested that morning from the restaurant’s own nearby garden. Our freshly baked ciabatta sandwiches, goat cheese with poached persimmon and fresh basil for me and, for my wife, smoked salmon with avocado and sunflower sprouts, were distinctive—and tasty. The local Denner winery’s Viognier was fruity, refreshing and also crisp.
Thomas Hill Organics is one of about two-dozen restaurants within a few blocks of the town square, all specializing in locally-grown food and seasonal menus.
We skip dessert at the restaurant for lavender honey gelato at Powell’s Sweet Shoppe, one of 20 shops and restaurants on the square, also home to a weekly farmers’ market and bandstand concerts every Friday evening during the summer. Among the other tempting sweet-tooth choices on the square are cocoa mint cookies from the Brown Butter Sea Salt Cookie Company or English Toffee apples from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
Also worth a visit is Studios on the Park, an open studio to watch artists at work in various media and to check out their latest exhibit. The studio sponsors monthly evening art walks that take in other galleries as well as wine-tasting rooms. And there’s Siegel’s, a family jewelry store that may be the world’s only full-service jeweler and pawnbroker with a wine-tasting area. Customers can sample reds and whites from the prize-winning nearby Frolicking Frog Winery as they consider diamond sizes.
Just two decades ago, the area had some 30 wineries; today there is almost that number of tasting rooms around the city square. There are 200 vineyards nearby. Last year, Wine Enthusiast declared Paso Robles Wine Region of the Year. Originally, known for its Rhone varietals, the current offerings include much more, from cabernets to zinfandels.
But wine is not the only liquid here for tasting. The Pithy Little Wine Company, in addition to its own wines, lets visitors sample its homemade sodas. For families, it’s ideal: the kids quaff orange cream and vanilla sodas while the grownups check out the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Olives are another major regional crop, and there are a number of nearby growers who offer tours and tasting rooms. Visitors can taste different blends or fruit-infused olive oils such as tangerine or lemon. One benefit of olive oil tasting tours: no need for a designated driver.
Still, wine reigns supreme. There are two major wine festivals every year, one in the spring and the other in the fall. On the third weekend in May (May 15-18, 2014), some 130 wineries put on Wine Festival events while about half of the producers gather in the town square to show off their best vintages.
During October, on that month’s third weekend (Oct. 17-19, 2014), regional vineyards celebrate the annual grape picking during Harvest Wine Weekend. The wineries report that it’s their busiest time of the year. Some stay at inns in the vineyards, others in town where accommodations range from boutique luxury to motels.
The “big blowout” 125th birthday party this year occurs on Pioneer Day, October 11, an annual celebration of the community’s heritage. It starts off with a morning parade featuring antique tractors and marching bands that ends at noon with a baked bean feed for everyone. And it’s free. Volunteers start stirring the beans in 12 huge kettles before dawn. The recipe includes some 1,200 pounds of beans, 500 pounds of beef, 100 pounds of bell peppers and some 70 pounds of secret seasonings.
Says Quasquicentennial organizer Shonna Howenstine: “Our community has always had a pioneer spirit. It’s coming out of the recession quite well, and this year our birthday will truly be a time to celebrate all that we now have to offer.”