Sweet Intoxication in Central California
When we stepped out of the “Wine Wrangler” tour bus, Coy Barnes (the company owner and wrangler himself) assured us we were in for a rare experience at the Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, California. While shedding layers of clothing in the blazing October sun, we were greeted by Cindy Steinbeck Newkirk, part of the sixth-generation family that’s been farming the land since 1884. Dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and hat, she resembled “a modern-day Annie Oakley,” one of my colleagues pointed out.
Indeed, Cindy and Steinbeck Vineyards offer a window to Paso Robles’ past. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on California’s Central Coast, this city has been a farming community since its inception, and the Steinbecks were local pioneers in growing wine grapes. Only recently did they enter the winemaking business themselves, debuting a tasting room in an old blacksmith shop furnished with an antique grape press and historic photographs. Also on display: a model B52 airplane resembling the one that crashed in their field in 1956. Fittingly, the 2006 cabernet blend that launched them into the wine industry was named “The Crash.”
Commercial wineries have existed in Paso Robles since the 1870s, but it’s the last 15 years that have really put the city on the winemaking map. Beyond the red varieties, Paso has long been known for its zinfandel, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, which accounts for 38 percent of total wine production. Varieties from the Rhone Valley in France have also recently flourished here.
“The soil is rich in calcium, a rarity in California, plus it’s hot enough and we get a minimum of 25 inches of rain a year – conditions that lend themselves well to producing Rhone varietals,” says Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard. The result has been a number of acclaimed wines made from Rhone Valley varieties including Syrah, Mouvedre, Grenache, Viogner, Roussane and Marsanne – plus an organization of winemakers and consumers that call themselves the Rhone Rangers (Haas is president).
“By the early- to mid-90s [Paso] had gained a critical mass of wineries, and the wine writers could no longer ignore us. We’re now producing world-class wines,” said Gary Eberle, founder of the 27-year-old Eberle Winery. He began making wine here in 1973 at his family’s Estrella River Winery (now Meridian Vineyards), and shared with us a 1978 Estrella River cabernet sauvignon that had aged remarkably well.
Eberle loves to talk about the area’s rapid development, as he did that night. In fact, it seems you can’t talk to anyone in this city without hearing the word “growth” –both in the wine industry and beyond. Paso Robles’ American Viticultural Area (AVA) has grown to include more than 180 bonded wineries, a five-fold increase over the past decade. The restaurants, hotels and attractions have followed, and are luring visitors and new residents alike.
Not so long ago, Downtown Paso Robles’ most notable restaurant was at Wilson’s Bowling Alley, best known for its grilled cheese sandwich. Now, the area boasts hotspots like Bistro Laurent and Villa Creek, which spearheaded the local fine dining movement roughly 10 years ago and paved the road for newer gourmet restaurants like Artisan. Il Cortile Ristorante, downtown’s latest eatery, serves hearty Italian dishes. We sampled lamb osso buco, risotto with wild boar sausage and Chilean sea bass in lobster sauce, which were paired perfectly, of course, with wines from local vineyards including Clautiere Vineyard and Ortman Family Vineyards.
As you’d expect, the area also boasts organic, farm-to-table restaurants like Thomas Hill Organics Bistro Market & Wine Bar. A tour of Thomas Hill Organics farm found us picking pomegranates, figs, tomatoes and lavender with Joe Thomas, an Orange County transplant who owns the property and restaurant with his wife, Debbie.
Less than two years old, the Thomas Hill restaurant has been well received, largely due to Julie Simon, its young, inventive chef. Simon served us an ambitious lunch that included braised rabbit with dandelions, mustard greens and hazelnut vinaigrette. The restaurant’s inviting location in a quaint side-street courtyard is just a bonus.
Ambiance such as this is a large part of Paso’s appeal. The city is rustic, charming and elegant all at once. At the heart of its historic downtown is City Park and the town square, lined with restaurants, tasting rooms and specialty shops (We Olive is a great place to sample local olive oils). A few blocks off the square sits the 16-room Hotel Cheval, which appears to be a restored historic property, but was built less than four years ago by local developer Robert Gilson and his wife, Sherry. The boutique luxury property features a courtyard, bar/restaurant, and rooms complete with fireplaces, flat-screen TVs and soaking tubs. You’re likely to return to your room to find freshly baked cookies, as I did, and the nightly turndown service includes a large wine cork that says “Sweet Dreams in Wine Country.” Property-wide Wi-Fi made it easy to catch up on work from the comfort of an outdoor couch.
Visitors flock to Paso Robles during the harvest wine weekend each fall, and for major events like the many wine and food festivals on tap for 2011. No matter when you go, you’ll find first-rate wines, fantastic fare and friendly locals who are proud of their history and excited about their future. I’ll drink to that.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Cheval – This elegant, peaceful retreat is within walking distance of downtown’s park, restaurants and shops. Its 16 luxury rooms feature lavish beds, fireplaces and large flat-screen TVs. Enjoy a glass of wine at the bar’s outdoor patio. 1021 Pine Street, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; (866) 522-6999; www.hotelcheval.com
Paso Robles Inn – Located across from City Park, the Inn features gardens, ponds, a heated pool and a spa. Book one of the deluxe spa rooms or two-room suites, which feature hot springs mineral spa tubs. 1103 Spring Street, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; 805-238-2660; www.pasoroblesinn.com
Just Inn Bed & Breakfast – Book in advance – this inn at Justin Winery, owned by husband and wife team Debra and Justin Baldwin, has four European-style luxury suites. Three of the suites are located in the vineyards. Visit Deborah’s Room, the on-site restaurant, and taste the winery’s award-winning Bordeaux-style blend, Isosceles. 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; (805) 238-6932, www.justinwine.com
Vacation Homes – Choose from an impressive list of beautiful, privately owned homes for rent. (805) 423-9174; www.pasoroblesvacationrentals.com
WHERE TO EAT:
Artisan – Serving seasonal fare from talented Executive Chef and Owner Chris Kobayashi, this restaurant has quickly become a local favorite. The menu highlights savory meat dishes, seafood and an extensive wine selection. 1401 Park Street, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; 805.237.8084;www.artisanpasorobles.com
Il Cortile Ristorante – The area’s newest restaurant offers a rustic Italian menu of homemade pastas, fish and meats served in a warm, contemporary dining room. 608 12th Street, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; 805.226.0300; www.ilcortileristorante.com
Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro & Wine Bar – Feast on organic produce from Thomas Hill Organics farm and local beef, including poultry and fish, paired with unique wines from the Central Coast. The menu changes weekly. 1305 Park Street, Paso Robles, CA; 805.226.5888;www.thomashillorganics.com
Villa Creek – Local charcuterie, artisanal cheeses and ceviche are standouts at this 12-year-old restaurant – and those are just the starters. It sits at a corner of City Park and features a semi-private back room, outdoor patio and lively bar. 1144 Pine Street, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; (805) 238-3000; www.villacreek.com
Taco Temple – An institution in nearby Morro Bay, Taco Temple serves Mexican food at its best (we stopped for a “snack” of tacos, scallops and homemade salsas). 2680 Main St, Morro Bay, CA, 93446; (805) 772-4965; www.morrobaydining.com
WHAT TO DO:
Wine Wrangler Tours – Coy and Sarah Barnes provide tours from Monterey down through the Central Coast to Santa Barbara. Choose from half- or full-day tours of the wineries, farms, and nearby attractions like Hearst Castle and Morro Bay. The couple also owns the Paso Robles Wine Club. 800 Pine St. Paso Robles, CA, 93446; (805) 238-5700; www.thewinewrangler.com
Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery – During the Vineyards’ “Crash Course,” you can tour the vineyards in an antique jeep, visit a classroom Cindy set up on the property and enjoy a wine tasting. The hour-and-a-half tour costs just $40 a person. 5940 Union Road, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; (805) 238-1854; www.steinbeckwines.com
First Crush Winemaking Experience – Pick your own grapes, learn about the winemaking process and create your own blend. Owners Becky and Lowell Zelinski take groups from “berry to bottle.” And since they own a local vineyard management company, the experience is highly educational. 3850 Ramada Drive, B-1, Paso Robles, CA, 93446; (805) 434-2772;www.firstcrushwinemaking.com
Morro Bay – Don’t miss the chance to check out Morro Bay, a fishing community just 30 minutes from Downtown Paso Robles that looks like as if it could be in New England. It is home to the abovementioned Taco Temple, The Abalone Farm, and the Morro Bay Oyster Company (visit them dockside for fresh oysters). Lost Isle Adventures offers boat tours of the bay. The Brown Butter Cookie Company in neighboring Cayucos is a must. www.morrobay.org
Brown Butter Cookie Company, 250 N. Ocean Ave. Cayucos, CA, 93430; (805) 995-2076;www.brownbuttercookies.com