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Paso Robles – A Less Commercial Napa

My Three Favourite Things – Cars, Wine, Food.

OK girls are in serious contention for the number one spot, but my wife will probably read this so I’m not going to mention that one.

Anyway, in a momentary leave of sanity, the editor of Private Wealth Canada asked me to do a story that combined a great driving road with interesting destinations or activities. Now since I’m Australian, and as everyone knows we invented drinking, I thought that a drive to wine country would be perfect.

Now don’t get the wrong idea and think that we are advocating drinking and driving because anyone with even half a brain knows that’s a lethal combination.

We Aussies have a very strong history in wines and are taught to appreciate them from quite an early age. In fact, I remember as a young ankle-biter that my mother had to go to work as a grape stomper after my father was hung for kangaroo rustling.

However, if you’re expecting this story to give you valuable information about wine you might as well stop reading right now and get a copy of Wine Snob instead. You see what I know about wine is that if you hold a glass of wine carefully with your thumb in front and two fingers behind, and hold it up to the light, and you can’t see your two fingers, then it’s red wine. When I’ve gone to wine tastings and seen people spit out sips poured from $200 bottles I actually cry. I cannot discern the fragrant aroma of blackberries and plums or the pungent odor of pepper and volcanic mountain soils. All I smell is wine and, frankly, most of it smells awfully good.

Now as everyone knows California is the epicenter of the wine industry in North America and of course everyone knows Napa and Sonoma, but a far less hectic and slower paced area is Paso Robles. A pleasant and easy three-hour drive from San Francisco International Airport passing through Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world, where your nostrils will announce your arrival in no uncertain terms.

Everybody talks about Napa, and there’s no denying that the Napa/Sonoma area produces many great wines, but it’s become so busy and commercialized and worst of all the traffic is very heavy. Paso Robles is a relatively undiscovered yet major wine producing area located only about 40 kilometres from the Pacific Coast and the famed Highway 1, which is without doubt one of the most scenic drives in all of America. Wine production here actually started in the very late 1700s under the Spanish missionaries – after all they needed something to sustain them in their hardship before video games were invented.

As you approach Paso Robles the road wends its way through scenic rolling hills. Travelpaso.com offers excellent planning information with links to wineries, special events, accommodations, restaurants, and most everything you could possibly want.

Paso (the locals drop the Robles) has accommodations to suit every taste and budget from homey B&Bs to five-star luxury. We stayed at the Italian/Mediterranean style La Bellasera conveniently located on the main Vineyard Road. Rooms are oversized and some offer a fireplace or triangular whirlpool tubs. They also have a spa to get rid of any kinks after a day of driving or a night of dining and drinking. Don’t forget to ask at reception for complimentary wine-tasting cards and advice on how to plan your days. In the morning, forego the coffee maker in the room, put on the complimentary bathrobe and go down to the lobby where they brew fresh, strong, and really good coffee. Wine tastings are held in the lobby on Friday and Saturday evenings.

As you would expect there are numerous excellent restaurants in Paso and the neighboring towns. Enoteca, right in the hotel, is highly rated for its contemporary Californian cuisine and extensive wine list, not surprisingly featuring locally produced vintages.

The chic Artisan, showcasing locally grown fare, has a very imaginative and seasonal menu, but the wild boar tenderloin with braised pig cheeks, pea risotto, and porcini was the Bentley Continental of meals. In keeping with Artisan’s philosophy of supporting local producers, their wine markups are exceptionally low so this is a place to splurge.

If Bentley is not your ‘cup of tea’ and you lean more to a Corvette, then try McPhees Grill in neighboring Templeton. In fact, the night we were there the street in front was lined with Corvettes owned by members of a Californian club. McPhees menu is traditional and hearty – steaks, ribs, chops, but with enough variety to satisfy every taste.

Decisions! Decisions! Decisions! So many wineries. So little time. How to choose? With over 200 wineries ranging from tiny boutique producers to corporately owned giants, there is lots of choice, but the best advice is to try a sampling of both sizes. Over 40 wine grape varietals and blends are produced ‒ from Spanish to Italian to Bordeaux and Rhône, including the area's heritage variety Zinfandel. Paso enjoys huge temperature swings between night and day of as much as 50 degrees, which apparently is ideal for wine production since it concentrates the flavours. Harvest is typically mid-late October and that’s when there is the most activity, but it’s also the busiest time of year.

Paso is divided into east and west and both sides offer great driving roads albeit quite different. The west side is twisty and shaded whilst the east is quite open. This is an area where GPS has an added benefit beyond finding your destination and that’s glancing at it to see the distance, direction, and sharpness of the next bend allowing you to set your speed accordingly. Make sure that you assign a designated driver each day so that you can enjoy yourself in safety.

On the east side is Tobin James, which in addition to many wonderful wines has a bar literally straight out of an old western in a saloon style setting. The massive mahogany and brass bar was built by Brunswick in 1860 and is a welcoming place to sample their big red zinfandels and cabernets.

Practically next door is Eberle Winery where you’ll be greeted by the Eberle family’s two standard poodles appropriately named Roussanne and Sangiovese. Gary Eberle is largely credited with introducing the French Syrah grape to California. Here you can tour the 16,000 square feet of winding caves storing some 2,000 barrels and where we learned that American oak barrels are US$500 to US$600 each versus US$1,000 for French oak. I wonder if Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens will be similarly overpriced if and when they’re ever sold here?

Vino Robles, across the street, has an impressive classic California mission-style hospitality building and tasting room with high ceilings and massive wood beams. If you’re fortunate the delightful Simone Michel, daughter of one of the owners, will show you around and offer you tastings including their excellent Petite Syrah. They have hosted several car club events including the Porsche Club of LA and have imaginatively produced customized labels on site with the customer’s own cars on them. This presents some very creative possibilities. How about a 2009 Petite Mini Cooper Syrah or a 2010 Cabriolet Cabernet? I know – keep my day job.

Pear Valley, only a few years old, was inspired by the owner’s time spent on an army base in Germany set in the middle of a vineyard. I wonder if he knew that when he enlisted. Try their wonderful orange Muscat desert wine.

A slice of authentic history can be found at Steinbeck Vineyards owned by a sixth generation Paso family. The rustic tasting room contains an old wine press, a forge, musical instruments, and other historical artifacts. Sharing this room is the very creatively named PasoPort Wine Company with its even more creative labels featuring art-deco labels with the most innovative and eye-catching labels featuring classic pin-up girls. The ports are as varied and tantalizing as the girls on the labels.

Vineyard Drive on the west has the best driving roads. Staccato bursts of sun flash through the canopy of massive oak trees heavy with dangling Spanish moss lining the twisting, hilly two-lane road with its many tight S-bends.
One of the very first wineries in the area was the upscale Justin Vineyards & Winery. It’s worth joining Justin’s Club not just for their excellent wines, but to gain access to its members’ private tasting room which looks like it could have been designed by Cirque Du Soleil, so colorful and whimsical it will make you happy, as of course will the wine. Take a tour of their massive above ground storage and underground caves which unaided maintain a temperature of 17.65° year-round and hold 6,000 barrels. An intimate private dining room 40 metres underground is called ‘The Library’ and is evocative of a Knights Templar scene. Ask the lounge manager, the difference between American and French Oak barrels and why they create such different flavors.

Niner Estates has a huge and spectacular tasting room of stone with a large sunny patio overlooking a heart-shaped grove of oak trees after which its Heart Hill Vineyard is aptly named. Make sure you leave room for their Fogcatcher ‒ a big, bold red blend.

Halter Ranch, specializing in Bordeaux and Rhone valley varieties, is a relatively new winery producing about 8,000 cases/year of 100 per cent estate vines. A charming Victorian farmhouse built in 1880, renovated by the Swiss owner, sits on the property.

Opolo Vineyards, co-owned by a gentleman of Serbian descent, pays tribute to his heritage by serving Cevapcici – an authentic barbecued ground meat delicacy to accompany the Mountain Zinfandel.

As the saying goes ‘man does not live by bread alone’ – he also needs olive oil into which to dip the bread so be sure to visit Pasolivo on Vineyard Drive. Ask for a tour of the olive presses after your tasting of extra virgin olive oils in several flavors including lemon, lime, tangerine, and a citrus blend plus some incredible specialty salts and spices such as Black Lava, and Himalayan Pink. Harvesting is slightly later in November and early December. A 1,000 kilos of olives gives only 95 to 170 liters of oil, which helps explain the prices.

Daou Vineyards, a quite recent vineyard on top of the highest hill in the area, affords spectacular views in all directions and gives an appreciation of the extent of the region.

Close by is the family owned and operated Adelaida Cellars where the Pinot Noir is well worth a try and Calcareous Vineyard is named after the high lime content soil in the area. A very small boutique winery producing just 1,000 cases of mostly Rhône varietals is Alta Colina owned by the Tillman family. Turley known for some great old vine zinfandels and petite syrahs is located just before you meet up with highway 101 to head back to town.

Of course don’t be foolish and drive after sampling these great wines. Sample the roads in the morning before the wineries open.

When you’re done at Paso, rather than returning home on the same route head, west on highway 46 which winds its way through lush hills and valleys to the Pacific Coast only about 20 miles away. From here it’s a short jog north to the Hearst estate at San Simeon or turning south, to head down Highway 1.

Peter Volny, originally from Australia, has lived in seven countries including many years in Canada. He now resides in Arizona. He has visited 154 countries on all seven continents including a month spent on a Russian icebreaker in Antarctica. He contributes to Private Wealth Canada on travel and classic automobiles.


Photos were taken by Linda Goddard.


A Paso Wine Tasting Room


Historical Steinbeck Vineyards and PasoPort Wine Company

Justin Vineyard’s Club Tasting Room


Justin Vineyard’s Colourful Members’ Building


Nine Estates Heart Hill Vineyard


PasoPort’s Classic Pin-up Girl Labels


Pear Valley Vineyards


The ‘Library’ at Justin


The Rolling Hills Of Paso Robles Are Perfect For Vineyards


Underground Barrel Storage At 17.65 Degrees


Vino Robles Visitors Centre

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