If you speak with many of the winemakers in Paso Robles, Calif., they’ll often describe the region as what Napa was 50 years ago. It has all of the high-quality, award-winning winemaking you’ll find a few hours north—without the crowds, exorbitant prices, and increasing sense of formality.
If you want casual, you need to head south. And Paso Robles is the epitome of California cool and casual. While the region has a strong winemaking tradition and a growing international profile, local winemakers still have the freedom and ability to experiment with a number of techniques and grapes without the pressure. There’s also a vast diversity in the grapes grown around the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA); the region is known for producing blends and is especially ideal for lovers of Grenache and Syrah. (As one winemaker told me, “If you can’t make a good Syrah in Paso Robles, you need to get out.”) And many white wine blends often feature Roussanne and Clairette Blanche grapes, which also thrive in the area.
Getting to Paso Robles does take some planning. Along the Pacific Coast Highway on U.S. Route 101, the closest airport is San Luis Obispo County Regional (SBP), about 45 minutes away. But if you have the time, you can make a road trip out of it from either San Jose International Airport (SJC) to the north or Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to the south.
Before departure, note that Paso Robles is extremely hot during the summer days but very cold at night, thanks to a cool front that rides in from the Pacific coast over the Santa Lucia Mountains. (Yes, it is a “dry heat,” but it is a lot of heat.) And you should always pack layers when visiting wineries as tasting rooms and cellars can also be very cool inside as well.
Also—and this was a pre-pandemic pro tip, too—remember to make reservations for tastings. Most tasting rooms are reservation-only, even more so these days as some sites are continuing to maintain social distancing and contact tracing measures.
Where to go
L’Aventure Winery: One of the best things about Paso Robles is that it doesn’t feel as corporate as some other wine regions have become. There is a greater presence here of family-owned vineyards and wineries. Given their love of wine and travel, French-born owners Stephan and Beatrice Asseo made the decision to embark on an adventure (thus the name of the estate) and establish a winery in California. After not finding the kinds of conditions and geography they were seeking in Napa or Sonoma, they settled in Paso Robles in 1997. Their daughter Chloé joined the family business in 2014 and serves as general manager, overseeing the winery as well as direct-to-customer sales while also being involved in the vinification process. L’Aventure produces a number of Syrah- and Grenache-based blends as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon, but don’t overlook the estate rosé and cuvée blanc (54% Roussanne, 27% Viognier, 19% Grenache Blanc) either.
Booker Wines: 2020 was a devastating year for the California wine industry up and down the state. For the vineyards not ravaged by wildfires, they were affected by smoke. Booker Wines specializes in Syrah and Grenache, and the 2020 bottles of the former are especially rich in tannins—more so than usual. But for the adventurous wine drinker looking for wines unlike any other, this is a great place to start. The winery also just opened a brand-new, state-of-the-art tasting room—a splendid site for a special occasion. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll have a chance to converse with Booker’s winemaker, Eric Jensen. (You can get a taste of his warm and candid personality from afar through his podcast, Popping Corks.)
Booker Wines is also the first local partner in Paso Robles for The Vines, a premium international travel club and community that connects members through their interest in wine. Members travel to some of the world’s most famous winemaking regions, learning the craft from master practitioners with the opportunity to also produce their own vintages. And while some of the members are winemakers, too, there is no experience or testing requirement—just a love of good food and good wine.
To date, The Vines has established partnerships with wineries in Napa Valley, Calif.; Willamette Valley, Ore.; Champagne, France; Montalcino, Italy; Priorat, Spain; The Mosel, Germany; and Mendoza, Argentina, where the group was initially founded in 2005. There are currently 20 founding members of The Vines global membership club, in addition to 240 making wine in Mendoza.
The Vines plans to open new locations in the next five years in regions including Kakheti, Georgia; Burgundy, France; Piemonte, Italy; Douro, Portugal; and New Zealand. Paso Robles is the group’s target destination this year, and a spokesperson for the group says they expect to add one other partner by the end of the year.
Epoch Estate Wines: Located on the estate of the historic York Mountain Winery (originally purchased in 1882) and after enduring multiple ownership changeovers as well as some devastating earthquakes, Epoch ushered in a new era in 2010. After years of painstaking renovations, the winery opened its gorgeous new tasting room in December 2016. (Production is done up the hillside.) From there you can enjoy the sunset with a glass of the estate rosé (62% Mourvèdre, 21% Grenache, 17% Syrah).
Law Estate Wines: There might not be a better spot in Paso Robles for watching the sunset than here. The vineyard is one of the highest in the area—with vines planted between 1,600 to 1,900 feet in altitude—and the elegant tasting rooms on top of the hill offer panoramic views, making it a prime spot all day long. The wines are just as inspiring to behold. Using gravity-heavy production methods with minimal intervention during fermentation, Law Estate Wines makes ultra-premium, limited production, Rhône- and Priorat-style wines. A word to the wise: If you enjoy a wine during your tasting here, it’s a good idea to buy it on-site; Law’s wine club members have first priority, and the wines usually sell out annually.
Tin City: A visit to Tin City takes the bar crawl (or wine crawl) to a new level. The industrial park hosts 28 wineries offering pours to visitors, and many of these winemakers do production on-site, buying their fruit from farmers around the Central Coast. Thus Tin City offers both an opportunity to younger, newer winemakers to get started in the business as well as room to experiment. Among some of the must-visit producers here: Desperada, Hubba, and Jacob Toft. There are some eateries within the vicinity (including a Negranti Creamery outpost; see below), and it’s not a bad idea to pack a sandwich or salad, too, as many of the wineries have covered patio seating for guests.
Where to eat
Red Scooter Deli: Speaking of sandwiches and salads, if you’re looking for a quick bite, a picnic lunch (or a casual spot downtown), this is your best bet. The menu at Red Scooter Deli is plentiful with all sorts of different soups, sandwiches, and salads—including a number of very satisfying vegan and gluten-free options. If you’re looking for an afternoon pick-me-up, the coffee menu is something else entirely. Featuring locally made Joebella French Roast as the house drip coffee, there are also plenty of indulgent lattes and floats, such as the S’more Latte (espresso, dark chocolate, toasted marshmallow syrup, topped with marshmallows and graham cracker crumble) and the Honey Bee (local honey, cinnamon, and coconut milk with espresso).
Thomas Hill Organics: If there’s one place where you should have a good sit-down meal in Paso Robles, it’s Thomas Hill Organics. The farm-to-table bistro has a changing menu featuring ingredients grown on a local farm, ideal for pairing with regional wines. Open for brunch, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant is currently offering outdoor seating on its beautiful covered patio, but there’s also a modish wine bar (you can’t miss it when you enter) and a cottage in the back, ideal for private parties. There are plenty of sustainable seafood and meat options, but don’t sleep on the vegetarian entrée: the Hippie Bowl, with grilled market vegetables, house-made seitan, avocado puree, pickled carrots, spicy greens, cashew coconut grains, legumes, and black sesame tahini.
Negranti Creamery: Inspired by a love for animals, Negranti Creamery is a family-owned and operated creamery crafting sheep’s milk ice cream (which is typically more easily digested than cow’s milk and is often a viable alternative for people who suffer from lactose intolerance). With two locations in Paso Robles (and shipping nationwide), Negranti offers scoops of 16 fresh churned, artisan flavors as well as ice cream sandwiches and ice cream pies. Among the creamery’s staple flavors are strawberry basil, salted brown sugar, blackberry rosemary, and black coffee chip.
The Backyard: After a few days (especially hot, dehydrating days), perhaps you’re tired of wine and would like an alternative. The Backyard is a family- and dog-friendly outdoor beer garden with 24 rotating craft beers and ciders on tap (and four wines) as well as an assortment of cans and bottles plus nonalcoholic beverages. Promising something for everyone, the Backyard showcases local craft breweries as well as harder-to-find ales from around the country. As an open-air venue, it’s an ideal location for a leisurely, casual gathering—for small and large groups alike.
Where to stay
Paso Robles Inn: There are two major benefits to booking a room at the charming Paso Robles Inn: its location and its pool. (A third plus is an abundance of parking for those guests bringing their own cars.) The hotel is centrally located in downtown Paso Robles, steps away from restaurants, cafés, and plenty of tasting rooms you’ll want to check out on days you don’t make it to the vineyards.
Hotel Piccolo: Arguably the most upscale option in downtown Paso Robles, the Hotel Piccolo is right next door to the Paso Robles Inn. This luxury boutique hotel has all the modern amenities you could wish for, including Keurig machines in every room, 55-inch TV screens with Google Chromecast, balcony and patio views, and reliable high-speed Internet. There’s even a Moët & Chandon vending machine for mini-Champagne bottles in the lobby.
Hotel Cheval: Also centrally located—not far from Paso Robles’s historic town square as well as the Amtrak station—the Hotel Cheval is a 16-room boutique hotel. There’s a decidedly more intimate vibe here, with a “horseshoe” Champagne bar just off the lobby and tree-covered patio with outdoor seating. For anyone with a sweet tooth, there are especially indulgent and maybe unexpected options: The hotel offers complimentary s’mores prepared every evening by the S’mores Butler, and there are welcome cookies upon arrival from local favorite Brown Butter Cookie Company.
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