A Few Days In

Zen Out in Paso Robles, California

by Christina Ohly

Photo: Courtesy of Halter Ranch Vineyard

Low-key and lovely, the Central Coast region of California is being hailed as the new Napa for its undulating hills and vineyards, proximity to the ocean, and stunning scenery. From food and wine galore and landmarks like Hearst Castle to the spectacular rocky beach at Morro Bay, this is a relatively undiscovered gem of a destination — though probably not for much longer.

Paso Robles ("Pass of the Oaks" in Spanish), in San Luis Obispo County, is located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which makes it a great side trip from either, as well as a destination in its own right. The prices are lower and the vibe is more laid-back than Napa and Sonoma. The area feels authentic, a total mix — farm workers and fancy types, gay and straight — which make everything feel inclusive and interesting. Unwind while you sip varietals, lounge by the pool, and hang with genuine cowboys. By all means, bring the kids.


WHAT TO DO

Morning Fuel

The name doesn't scream "breakfast," but locals line up out the door at Hoover's Beef Palace (401 N. Main St., Templeton; +1-805-434-2114) for homemade sausage patties with eggs and enormous biscuits with gravy. This place is so legit that a) they don't have a website, but b) they do have their own slaughterhouse out back. If Hoover's is good enough for area ranchers and farm hands, it's good enough for you. Bonus: You'll banish that teensy weensy hangover you might have sustained from a wine tasting or two (or four) the day before.

Play

If you're in Paso Robles on the weekend, stop at Templeton Farmer's Market for the crazy bounty: artichokes the size of bowling balls, fresh berries, and baked goods. Kids will love the on-site playground and pony rides. For further running around, Barney Schwartz Park has a one-million-gallon lake, pavilions for picnics, and endless playing fields. See how olive oil is made at Pasolivo farm and mill. Their oils make for great souvenirs. 

Eat

McPhee's Grill in downtown Templeton serves a delicious bistro lunch with no-fuss attitude. Ancho duck and cheese quesadilla and pulled pork sandwich with shoestring fries are unparalleled. Follow up with a trip to Powell's Sweet Shoppe for dessert. If you're with kids, show them exactly how ancient you are when you buy candy by the decade. Everyone should know Wax Lips, Fruit Stripe gum, and Gobstoppers.

For a casual picnic, stock up on made-to-order sandwiches at Farmstand 46. Of special note, the Calamity Jane: roasted pork, cilantro, pickled daikon and carrots, and rooster aioli on a crusty baguette.

For dinner, go to the lovely Artisan Restaurant, where gouda and porter fondue with andouille, broccolini, and garlic bread is a little slice of heaven. Thomas Hill Organics serves lunch and dinner, with much on the plate coming from their family-run organic farm.  

At 15 Degrees C Wine Shop and Bar, you can taste and buy small-production Central Coast wines. Il Cortile Ristorante serves terrific Italian at lunch and dinner.  

Venteax Vineyards

Drink. A Lot.

When in Rome...Great soil conditions, proximity to the ocean, and mixed microclimates: That's the secret behind the hot new wine region's great products. Winemakers around here like to think outside the box, and they're producing interesting and great wines, especially in Rhône varietals. There are more than 200 Paso producers, and many of the best are small, family-owned wineries. Pace yourself. There's a lot to taste. 

- Venteux Vineyards (pictured above): Don't miss their incredible Farmhouse Cuvee. Here's a head start on your tasting notes: "I sense hints of lavender, black cherry, fig preserves, and sage."

- Halter Ranch Vineyard: Make for the hills for Côtes de Paso and a fine cabernet sauvignon. The spectacular 900-acre ranch historically produced its wines in an old airplane hangar but recently moved operations to a swanky new gravity-flow winery.

- AmByth Estate: The only certified biodynamic winery in the region.

- Saxum Vineyards: You can't visit the vineyard, but you can buy their noteworthy Syrah, as well as grenache and mourvèdre blends.

- And a few more good ones: Bella Luna Estate Winery, Booker Vineyard, Villa Creek Cellars (they have a restaurant in Paso Robles)

As for the well-known wineries, the ones to visit are: 

- Turley Wine Cellars: Their big, bold zinfandel has a serious cult following, so be prepared to pay up: Bottles often trade at two to three times suggested retail prices. At Turley, you can sample many old-vine zinfandels from all over California, as well as from three local vineyards. The estate and the beautiful tasting room are on the old Pesenti Vineyard, which has zinfandel vines that are more than 85 years old.

- Justin Vineyards and Winery: Located down the road from Halter Ranch. Come on Saturdays and Sundays to feast al fresco at Deborah's Room, before hitting yet another tasting room for a sip of their "Left Bank, Bordeaux-style" blend, Isosceles.

- Tablas Creek Vineyard: The terroir in Las Tablas is similar to that of Châteauneuf du Pape. The estate's signature wines are Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. 

If you don't want to drive, call Lush Limo for a full-service tour. (This is a great idea for non-tacky bachelor/bachelorette weekends, though, please, avoid the white stretch at all costs.)

Be Merry

Paso Robles loves itself a party.

- Anytime: Happy Acres Family Farm is a goat farm with more than 200 goats, alpacas, and miniature horses, where kids can milk the animals and make cheese. 

- March, May, October: The third weekends of the month are wine festivals. See calendar.

- July: The Fourth of July parade features floats and flags galore. Mid-State Fair combines musical acts, horse shows, and olive oil competition. "The Great American Road Trip" is the theme for 2012. 

- October: Pioneer Day is a festival of kindness and community spirit (how refreshing!). Harvest Wine Weekend celebrates a good old-fashioned grape crushing.

- December: Christmas Light Parade: For pure holiday kitsch.

Go Coastal

Make time for a scenic drive through the vineyards and over the mountains to the majestic San Luis Obispo Coast, where enormous elephant seals stage epic battles and their young pups bob in the surf. Just down Highway 1 is Mediterranean-inspired Hearst Castle, with its dazzling 165 rooms, endless gardens, and shimmering pools. Finish up any day in nearby seaside town Cayucos with a meal in the back garden at Hoppe's Garden Bistro, followed by brown-butter sea salt cookies at Brown Butter Cookie Company.


WHERE TO STAY

- Hotels: Hotel Cheval is a lovely 16-room boutique hotel with a European vibe and a welcoming pet program. Centrally located Paso Robles Inn has hot springs, a low-key spa, and a heated pool.

- B&Bs: Small, family-run inns are the name of the game here. One of the best for local color is the two-room guest house at Venteux Vineyards. If that's full, ask about their Red Barn next door. Both offer a farm-stay feel, and kids will love the pool, sport court, and tractor rides. Orchard Hill Farm is an elegant — and much beloved — English-style manor house. Cass House Inn and Restaurant in Cayucos is convenient to Hearst Castle and the cute seals in San Luis State Park.

- Homes: Rent a house through Paso Robles Vacation Rentals.


HOW TO GET THERE

Fly: San Luis Obispo Airport (SLO), located 24 miles from Paso Robles, is a complete delight in today's travel terms. It's small, manageable, and has several rental car agency options, as well as taxis. Fly United Airlines from Los Angeles and San Francisco or US Airways from Phoenix.

Drive: San Francisco is about three hours away; Los Angeles about three and a half. Depending, as ever, on traffic. 

WEATHER

Come prepared for California's highest swing between daytime highs and nighttime chills.
- Average high/low temperatures in Farenheit: 87/50 in summer, 60/34 in winter.
- April-October: highs from mid-70s to mid-90s.
- March and November: highs in mid-70s.
- December-February: highs in low 60s.

MAP IT

See the locations on this trip. (Google Maps)


BEST OF THE WEB

- The Complete Guide to America's Hottest New Wine Country (Details, April 2011)
- Paso Robles Celebrates Harvest Weekend (Travel + Leisure, October 2011) 
- Planning Your Trip to Paso Robles (Los Angles Times, January 2010) 
- Robert Parker on the Promise of Paso Robles (Food & Wine, October 2007)


LOCAL COLOR

- City of Paso Robles: official website
- Paso Robles Official Visitor Site 
- Paso Robles Wine: winery information, maps, and events calendars from Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance
- Paso Robles Winery Map 
- Hoot 'n' Annie: wine blog
- The Tribune/SanLuisObispo.com: news and information

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