Northern Californians are getting hip to what the Southland has already discovered about the middle part of our state: an exploding wine region and growing tourist destination. Although mile after mile of grapes have been planted up and down the state, what’s happening on the Central Coast is quantitatively different. For one thing, it’s the fastest-growing wine region in California, boasting over 250 bonded wineries in the Paso Robles AVA alone, the largest and most interesting piece of the Central Coast grape-growing pie. Although wine grape growing in the Golden State dates back to the late 1700’s, the proliferation of wineries over the past few years has brought a quiet renaissance to the entire central region.
The city of Paso Robles is conveniently situated half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The small, historic town of just under 30,000 is surrounded by oak-studded rolling hills. It’s the perfect jumping off point to explore wineries, state beaches or Hearst Castle, but merits a visit all on its own—Paso Robles is enjoying a moment. Billed as “Authentic California,” it’s a quintessential western town whose history dates back to 1857, when a Mexican land grant was purchased by James and Daniel Blackburn as a resting place for travelers on the El Camino Real, the 600-mile trail that connects the 21 California Missions. The Blackburn brothers donated the park that the historic downtown is organized around, now a thriving shopping and dining area.
Boutiques, restaurants, a historic theater and 17 tasting rooms comprise the downtown. Our trip coincided with Harvest Wine Weekend, a local festival with events at over 100 wineries. There’s plenty to do here anytime, but the festival lends an added layer of excitement. Stay downtown at the Paso Robles Inn, where room rates are quite reasonable ($130-200). Book a suite, it’s worth it. Suites have kitchenettes, extra large bedrooms and ground-floor patios with private mineral spas, great for a therapeutic soak while admiring the property’s meandering creek through verdant lawns and gardens; or go au naturale and draw the outdoor privacy drapes.
During our stay we toured two local farms, Alta Cresta Orchard, a Tuscan-style hilltop estate producing extra virgin Italian olive oil, and Thomas Hill Organics, a produce farm that supplies the owner’s downtown restaurant, Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro and Wine Bar. At Alta Cresta, you can sample freshly made oils from small paper cups, each with its own distinctive flavor. There’s a private cottage on the estate that can be rented for a tranquil wine country stay with a big view. At Thomas Hill farm, we were treated to tasty tidbits of green growing things, but the highlight was sampling ripe, luscious figs, varieties we had never seen, plucked right from the tree, bursting with distinctive sweet flavors.
Fine dining abounds in this small town. Talented chefs using locally sourced ingredients make eating here every bit as pleasurable as at our favorite haunts in the Napa Valley. We dined at Thomas Hill Bistro our first night, experiencing farm-to-table dining at its finest. The restaurant décor is part chic farmhouse, part rustic French, with an open-air pizza oven. We asked for the chef to send out some favorites—a fun way to try new dishes you might ordinarily pass up, like the surprisingly delicious thin crust vegan pizza with carrot puree as the base and lentils, shaved coconut, shaved jalapenos, cashews and cilantro toppings. Avid carnivores, we devoured every last bite. All of the dishes are unique combinations of fresh, quality ingredients tasting so essentially like themselves; a far cry from commercially grown, often tasteless, grocery store options.
Another upscale option is the elegant Robert’s. The cuisine is an artful twist on classic American fare. I swooned over a macadamia nut-crusted halibut with snow peas, green onion rice and papayacoconut butter. Equally impressive were braised short ribs with creamy mushroom sauce and pappardelle. An interesting wine list and intimate space makes this a great choice for a casual meal with friends or a special occasion.
Our tasting tour, led by the knowledgeable Tom at Breakaway Tours along roads that meander to connect the wineries tucked into hillsides, included five very diverse tasting rooms and an al fresco gourmet picnic lunch. These are places you can linger, taking in the view. The entire area has the same vibrancy, born from passion, that was palpable in the Napa Valley thirty years ago. There’s no hurry here. Tastings might be poured by the owner, who will regale you with as much detail about the wine as you would like to hear.
We were on the go during our 4-day stay, but still managed a glass of wine poolside, a stroll through the weekend Farmer’s Market and a half day of shopping. Prices for food, wine and lodging are very reasonable, especially for the quality, making Paso Robles a must-try weekend getaway. Learn more about the area at prcity.com or pasowine.com.