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Divine wines and friendly folksDivine wines and friendly folks

Paso Robles, CaliforniaPaso Robles, California

How many times, while flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco, did we look down at Paso Robles and notice the area’s beauty? In spring, swaths of wildflowers splash bright orange, blue, and yellow across the green hills of San Luis Obispo County. By late summer those hills are resplendent in gold, punctuated by deep green oaks that resemble broccoli florets from above. But now Paso Robles is making people sit up and take notice for much more than beauty. Visitors are finding that the quality of the wines and the interest some of the wineries are taking in coddling their visitors long after they’ve left the tasting room makes this California’s most exciting wine region. Meanwhile, the historic buildings in the town’s handsome central square have seen feed stores and saddleries give way to chic wine bars and fine restaurants, even as the old Paso Robles Inn has maintained its classic coffee shop and excellent steak house.

  • Shown here are vines at Tablas Creek, which specializes in the Rhône varietals, all brought directly from the Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France. Winemaking in Paso Robles began as early as 1797, with the Franciscan missionaries. After the repeal of prohibition in 1933, UC Davis established a viticulture research center that has contributed greatly to the growth and success of California wineries. In the late 1980s, the cultivation of Rhône varietals exploded, bringing international attention to Paso Robles. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Three of the many aircraft at the Estrella Warbird Museum, which commemorates the airfield’s original name and displays a variety of aircraft, missiles, vehicles, and unique artifacts. Photo courtesy Estrella Warbird Museum.
  • Gary Eberle, one of Paso Robles’ pioneer vintners and also a pilot, on his winery’s patio. Watch the Memorial Day airshow from here or check his website for special events like black-tie dinners in the cave dining room. Photo courtesy Eberle Winery.
  • The Hunter Ranch Golf Course is the sister to La Purisima, Lompoc’s PGA-qualifying course. Smooth greens and oak-lined fairways make each stop a pleasure, but as you get to the turn at the 10th hole, you’ll realize how challenging the back nine on this course can be, with its culverts, water, and other surprises. Photo courtesy Hunter Ranch.
  • A mid-March drive on Hwy 46 just west of town reveals fruit trees madly in bloom. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • It’s a 45-minute drive from Paso Robles to San Simeon, above the California Central Coast. A wealthy miner named George Hearst purchased 40,000 acres of ranchland here in 1865. By 1919 the ranch had grown to 250,000 acres and been inherited by William Randolph Hearst, who told San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, “Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and we would like to build a little something.” And so began Hearst Castle, one of the world’s great showplaces. Here, Neptune’s Pool. Photo courtesy Hearst Castle.
  • Stop by Pasolivo Olive Oil Ranch, in the hilly region west of Paso Robles. Over 140 acres support thousands of trees that produce nearly a dozen varieties of olives, which are hand-picked, immediately crushed in their state-of-the-art press, and bottled on site. Take a tour and then experience these super-fresh, award-winning oils in their tasting room—such flavors, such possibilities! Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • During your tour at Tablas Creek Vineyards, you’ll see how the barrels are braced to protect them from falling during the inevitable next earthquake. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • An aerial view of the Summerwoods Winery and Inn, just west of Highway 101. Paso has the largest temperature swings of any appellation, warmer than Napa (but cooler at night) with a long growing season. The Cabernets tend to be more fruit-forward than those from Napa, with less tannin—big, “chewy” reds with a higher alcohol content. You won’t find the crowds in Paso like you get elsewhere, you can still talk to the winemaker in the tasting room, and you’ll feel welcome and comfortable whether or not you’re a wine expert. Photo courtesy Summerwoods Winery.
  • The tastefully-decorated common room at the Summerwoods Inn, a French country-style inn that serves a delicious breakfast to guests. Photo courtesy Summerwoods Inn.
  • The JUST Inn at JUSTIN Winery. Paso Robles is now recognized as one of California’s most important wine regions. Perhaps the tipping point occurred in 1997 when JUSTIN Winery’s Bordeaux-style blend “Isosceles” made Wine Spectator’s Top 10 list. Wine-loving tourists would soon follow, but where would they sleep off the effects of all those fermented grapes? In the case of Paso Robles, a number of the wineries themselves have jumped in with both feet to fill the lodging vacuum, and have done so with class and style. Photo courtesy JUSTIN Winery.
  • The JUST Inn, Justin Winery’s exquisite European-styled inn, has “just” four suites. The establishment makes up for in quality what it lacks in quantity with feather beds, frescoed ceilings, and marble baths. Here, the Vintner’s Villa. Photo courtesy JUSTIN Winery.
  • A fountain in the downtown Paso Robles square. This area hosts numerous events, including car shows, farmer’s markets, the Zinfandel Festival, Wine Festival, Olive Festival, Basil Festival, Oaktoberfest, and more. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Mouthwatering bone-in steaks on the grill at The Steakhouse at the Paso Robles Inn, courtesy same.
  • Savor hearty French fare at Chef Laurent Grangien’s acclaimed Bistro Laurent, housed within a historic downtown brick building. Enjoy the warm wood inside or have your meal out on the lovely patio in back. Photo courtesy Bistro Laurent.

As you approach Paso Robles you’ll see it’s a big, wide-open area, not a collection of small valleys. Paso (locals commonly drop the second name) is divided into East and West, with the town and Highway 101 at the center. The east side is flatter and warmer, with larger vineyards and golf, while the rolling hills, boutique vineyards, and Hearst Castle lie to the west. Give yourself a day for each side, with an extra day for golf or the castle.

Paso East: Before you leave the airport, you might stop by the Estrella Warbird Museum. If you’re in a hurry for wines, J. Lohr is just two minutes north on Airport Road. Or, head east on Highway 46E to Eberle Winery. Their Viognier was my favorite of our whole trip: a floral nose, with peach-apricot overtones and hints of litchi, honeysuckle, and spice. Gary Eberle is a pilot who says he’ll never charge for wine tasting or tours. Visit their caves below ground or take in the view above; it’s the perfect place to watch the big airshow each May; the aerobatic box is nearly overhead. At the River Oaks Hot Springs & Spa, you can soak in mineral water straight from the hot springs as you gaze out at the surrounding hillsides through a pleasant steam-and-wine-induced fog. Indoor tubs, massages, skin treatments, wraps, and other treatments are available. Photo courtesy River Oaks Hot Spring & Spa.Next, head another few miles east to Tobin James Cellars, where their only tasting room rule is to have fun, and try their “liquid love,” the rich Late Harvest Zinfandel. Spa treatments galore are available at the River Oaks Hot Springs and Spa. Golfers go for the Hunter Ranch Golf Course, with smooth greens, oak-lined fairways, and a challenging back nine loaded with culverts, water, and other surprises.

Paso West: Heading west on Highway 46W, you approach the Santa Lucia Mountains with smaller vineyards and ocean breezes pouring in through the Templeton Gap. First you’ll see Summerwood, which sells its small yearly case production only here and to its members. Their inn prepares excellent breakfasts, appetizers, and desserts. It’s a scenic drive out 46W, climbing through the vineyard-and-oak-clad hills, and 15 minutes later you reach the top and look down at the ocean. Hearst Castle is 45 minutes from Paso Robles; west on 46 and then north on Highway 1. Downtown’s Paso Robles Inn boasts a wonderful garden complete with koi pond and Japanese maples that look spectacular in fall. Photo by Ron Bez.Back on 46W, turn north onto Vineyard Drive, and soon the road begins to wind; rolling hills of alfalfa and vineyards alternate with dark corridors of ancient oaks, lichen hanging from their limbs. Don’t miss Pasolivo Olive Oil Ranch, where you can taste their superbly fresh oils. Another must-stop is Tablas Creek Vineyard, for their terrific Rhône blends. A bit further west brings you to JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery, with its fine restaurant and European-inspired Just Inn.

Downtown: Return via Adelaida Road, past walnut and almond trees. Back in downtown Paso Robles, you’ll enjoy a stroll through the main square, host to numerous events throughout the year. The Paso Robles Inn has 98 rooms (including some with hot-spring baths), a coffee shop, steakhouse, and beautiful gardens. Other highlights include cheese tasting at Vivant Fine Cheese and hearty French fare at Bistro Laurent. Chef Laurent Grangien presides over what the Los Angeles Times called “the best restaurant on the Central Coast,” also recipient of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence.

Pay a visit to Paso and take home plenty of happy memories and a few cases of great wine. Not too much, though—it’ll give you a great excuse to go back for more!

On your free tour of Tablas Creek Vineyard (call ahead and reserve), you’ll learn how this organic, dry-farmed vineyard uses nitrogen-fixing cover crops instead of fertilizer. You’ll also learn how vines are grafted. Photo by Crista Worthy.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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