Friday, August 14, 2015

Don't Let It Pass You By--Paso Robles

Its real name is El Paso Robles, “the pass of the oaks.” 

In California—where wine is king…and queen…and prince…and princess, too—most think of wine country as Napa.  Then maybe Sonoma.  However, there is another wine destination that should be on all wine lovers’ radars.  A place that must not be treated as an afterthought in the CA wine world—Paso Robles.  It is—and should be—a destination in, and of, itself.  It is home to distinguished wine producers, excellent restaurants, and fun activities.  Pass through the “pass of the oaks.”  You will not be sorry. 

The town of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, has a population just under 30,000 people.  This “small town” feel adds to the overall friendly atmosphere of the area.  In fact, many comment that the people are actually “eerily” friendly, always talking with tourists and locals alike.  In the center of the little city is a town park; this square acts as the cultural hub with multiple eateries, tasting rooms, and shops nearby.  The Paso Robles AVA surrounds the town.  There is basically no traffic and plenty of space, as it’s a wine region spread out over 30,000 acres. 
Beautiful vineyards spread over rolling hills with groves of oak trees.
The slow evolution over the past decade into a world-class wine destination has been incredibly beneficial for all involved.  Though many agriculture-based companies call the region home, all ag businesses have worked cooperatively instead of competing; there has been little to no in-fighting between ranchers and winegrowers.  The restaurants and attractions have improved over the last ten years as well, proving the adage that a rising tide for some does indeed raise all boats.

Wineries:  With a reported 180 (and growing) wineries in Paso Robles, there is surely no shortage of tasting rooms to visit.  Add nearby Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, and wine, good wine, is not at all hard to find. 

The large producer J Lohr Vineyards (look for my 605 Magazine article about Jerry Lohr and a future long piece on J Lohr itself) helped put Paso on the map in the 1980s by producing excellent wine. 
J Lohr's Seven Oaks Vineyard.
Then in the 1980s, Justin Winery started producing wines in Paso Robles from local fruit; these wines received huge acclaim from well-known critics.  Justin’s Isosceles red blend continued Paso’s rise to stardom. 

Next came Tablas Creek Vineyard, the result of a partnership with France’s Chateau Beaucastel, producing Rhone grape varieties grown in Paso.  Just named as the number one U.S. winery by The Daily Meal (after being near the top for several years), another feather was put in Paso’s wine cap. 

However, don’t think for a minute that wine makers here are getting large heads and feeling cocky.  It is still not unusual to walk in to a tasting room and see the winemaker behind the bar pouring sips or running the register in between producing tasty vino.  In fact, on my stop at Parrish Family Vineyard, winemaker David Parrish poured my tasting as we visited with his son-in-law and assistant winemaker the entire time.  (Also look for the future story of Parrish Family Vineyards.) 
With David Parrish at Parrish Family Vineyard's tasting room.
There are many, many, many more wineries worth visiting; from small to large or old to new, there is something for every palate.  Grab an area wine map and see for yourself!

Restaurants:  The most important reason to visit is, of course, the wine, but there are great places to eat as well.  Just arrive near the City Park area and walk to an array of fine eateries.  Artisan is a great modern American bistro.  Aptly named Bistro Laurent serves French-inspired fare as part of the slow-food dining movement.  For Italian check out Il Cortile, for seafood go to Chico's, and for Mexican visit La Cosecha.  If in need of a quick lunch, stop by the Red Scooter Deli or have one of their employees deliver your mid-day meal on—you guessed it!—a red scooter.  End the day with a stop at Brown Butter Cookie Company with a large selection of cookies, all made with brown butter, which will actually melt in your mouth. 

Quaint downtown Paso Robles, lined with restaurants, tasting rooms, and shops.
Activities:  Of course, my top priority in Paso was wine, but there are many other activities for entertainment.  The already mentioned City Park hosts concerts, farmer’s markets, and car shows; it is also a spot to let the kids play or the parents relax. 
City Park
Lake Nacimiento provides much to do during the hot afternoons.  Hiking and biking are always options.  Plus, if you are there during the right week of July, the California Mid State Fair is a wonderful place to hop on a carnival ride or attend a concert. 

If none of these seem upscale enough for travelers, just go half an hour and visit Hearst Castle, originally built for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst.  Other historic experiences can be had in the town of Atascadero. 
Hearst Castle
Finally, in just over half an hour, travelers can be at the beach, enjoying the California sun at either Pismo Beach, Los Osos, or Morro Bay. 
Pismo Beach
In general, this is the kind of spot where a wine lover can find a vacation rental at a reasonable price, have a wonderful conversation with that rental’s proprietor, and then meet a winemaker on the street.  It’s the destination where locals will greet you with a smile when you enter a restaurant and then make recommendations to add to your itinerary. It’s a place where you definitely want to do more than just pass through.  In fact, if you pass up the opportunity to visit Paso Robles, you will regret it.