Ultimate Food Weekend: Paso Robles Wine Country

By Lesley Balla  |  December 20, 2013

The Central Coast wine scene is one of the most vibrant in the country, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The hills around Santa Barbara County are well known for the pinot noir and chardonnay, but go up the coast a bit more, and you hit Paso Robles, which is gaining notoriety for its Rhone varietals, big reds, bold blends and crisp cool whites. It's so up-and-coming, it was even named the wine region of the year, beating out other more recognized regions around the globe.

People have been growing grapes here since the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s when more modern (and very drinkable) wines were made. With more than 200 wineries in and around the area now, new hotels, restaurants and a charming downtown square are growing with the wine scene. In short: it’s a great place to visit, and a lot closer than some of the big wine regions up north. Here’s a quick primer on where to eat, sip, stay and shop.

  • Must-Try Restaurants
    The square around Downtown Paso feels Norman Rockwell-esque, with a few cowboys and ranchers thrown in for good measure. The food scene, however, has really picked up over the last few years with new bistros, gourmet markets and more. Artisan isn’t new - brothers Chris and Michael Kobayashi opened in 2006 - but it moved to a new location right on the square this past summer, with a sleeker contemporary look, even if the decor is made from a lot of reclaimed materials, a new cocktail bar and creative seasonal small plates from chef Chris. Nibble on pizzas topped with goat salami and pepperoncini, red abalone tostadas, and rabbit stroganoff with pretzel spaetzel, among other things. Brunch is lovely here.

    Il Cortile is a fantastic, quiet spot for regional Italian specialties and handmade pastas. And from the same owners, there’s now La Cosecha featuring Spanish and Latin cuisine. Villa Creek is still one of the more bustling spots for locals, especially winemakers who stop in for Margaritas and Mexican-inspired fare. Thomas Hill Organics is a great little bistro and wine bar where most of the ingredients are sourced from local farms, ranches and fishermen.

  • Credit: Lesley Balla

    Where to Sip: Downtown
    The Paso Underground tasting room is hidden behind AndBe, a great boutique. It’s a collective wine tasting room featuring small production wines from Aaron, Clos Solene, Edmond August and Turtle Rock Vineyards. Each label has its own counter in one small space, and a patio out back encourages sunny sipping. Sometimes only one or two winemakers are pouring, but it’s worth checking out. Sip Rhone varietals and blends at Anglim Winery set in the historic Paso Robles train depot at 8th and Pine Street a few blocks from the square. Pianetta, Clayhouse and Herman Story also have tasting rooms downtown.

  • Where to Sip: Westside
    With so many wineries and tasting rooms around the region, you need a strategy. A few tips: Your palate and energy will fatigue easily if you try to hit more than four or five wineries in one day, and it’s best to divvy up your visits by the Westside and Eastside. The Westside is the area off of Highway 46 west of the 101, where you’ll find Linne Calodo and its bold, delicious red blends like The Outsider; Denner, where you’ll need an appointment to try The Ditch Digger, a grenache, syrah and mourvedre blend; and Justin for the Isoceles. There’s also an inn and restaurant at Justin, one of the few this far in the hills. For a relaxing tasting, sit on the porch at Jada where servers bring your wine flight with cheese pairings (you can buy the cheeses there, too).

    Look out also for lovely estate-grown pinot noir and zinfandel from Adelaida, and beautiful French-style Rhone blends from L’Aventure. At Tablas Creek, Robert Haas and the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel were instrumental in bringing some of the most popular varietals in the area to Paso, including mourvèdre, grenache noir, syrah and ounoise for reds, and roussanne, viognier, marsanne and grenache blanc for whites. The new tasting room is lovely, with a big patio out front for al fresco sipping. The Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Blanc are always fantastic. Tablas Creek’s winemaker, Neil Collins, now has Lone Madrone nearby, where you’ll find interesting single varietal wines, like tannat and picpoul, but also the stellar Bristol Ciders, the only cider produced in the region. You’ll see the beautifully restored Victorian building at Halter Ranch from the road, but stop to check out the new state-of-the-art winery and Bordeaux and Rhone-style blends.

  • Where to Sip: Eastside
    The Eastside is home to some of the first established wineries of the new guard. Gary Eberle is considered one of the pioneers of today’s Paso wine industry. He started making wine in 1970s, and now you can taste the estate-grown cabernet, take a tour of the caves, and picnic on the patio at the Eberle winery. At Robert Hall, one of the largest and more stunning facilities on the Central Coast, you can sip wines in the tasting room, tour the underground wine caverns, and buy gifts and snacks in the shop. If you want a history lesson of the area, check out Steinbeck. It’s off the beaten path but there are some fun artifacts in the tasting room (the land has been in the family since the 1880s), and they offer jeep tours through the estate.

  • Where to Drink Beer
    Check out the Firestone Walker Brewing Company brewery, bottling facility, tasting room and taproom. Free brewery tours happen Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (every hour from 10:30 AM to 3:30 PM), where you’ll learn everything from grain selection to barrel aging, bottling and, of course, sipping. The Taproom restaurant has just about every Firestone beer on tap, and a decent gastropub menu with burgers, pizzas, salads and more. BarrelHouse Brewing Company on the outskirts of town has a tasting room and a waterfall. What more do you need?

  • Where to Shop
    There are so many beautiful new shops on the square, including the General Store, where you’ll find locally-made goods, like the highly addictive Paso Almonds brittle, bowls, candles and more, plus cookbooks, kitchen items, aprons and other knickknacks. Firefly is like Anthropologie but smaller, with beautiful clothing, jewelry and gifts for kids and adults. There’s a good chance you’ll walk into the Brown Butter Cookie Company because, well, it’s brown butter in cookies, and they’re very generous with samples. And walk around the funky Studios on the Park gallery to check out some locally made art and meet the artists in their studios. To see, taste and buy what a lot of the local chefs are using in their kitchens, the farmer's market takes place in the square on Tuesdays, or head to the larger Saturday market in nearby Templeton.

  • Olive and Walnut Oil Tasting
    Olive and walnut trees dot the landscape almost as much as the vines around the hills of Paso Robles. Near the wineries along Vineyard Drive, Pasolivo grows and presses olives from their organic farm, and the tasting room always has bread and oil samples and gifts galore. Learn about the different flavors and nuances of locally-made olive oils at We Olive in downtown Paso. And take a break from wine tasting with a stop at Limerock Orchards to try artisanal walnut oil, butter, brittle and more.

  • Spirits and Cocktails
    Winemaker-turned-distiller Alex Villicana launched RE:FIND, Paso Robles' first craft distillery. He uses saignee, the juice removed to improve wine quality before fermentation, and turns it into vodka, gin and brandy. Stop in for a tour and tasting. And for more sipping, Artisan and Villa Creek are both great stops for craft cocktails.

  • Where to Stay
    There are more inns, hotels and bed and breakfasts than ever around Paso Robles. The Summerwood Inn recently underwent an entire redo, now with sleek, contemporary rustic decor throughout the property, including the nine rooms, exhibition kitchen, dining room and great room. It’s all in the details here, from the custom-made herbal shampoos and lotions to the fresh-baked cookies waiting for you after evening turn down service. Your stay comes with a complimentary gourmet breakfast from chef Kelly Wangard, and the staff will prepare private meals for lunch and dinner. There’s always coffee in the kitchen, snacks and wine in the early evening, and desserts later at night.

    Denner recently opened the Comus House, a gorgeous home that’s run like a bed and breakfast with four rooms, a sprawling living room with cathedral windows overlooking the rolling hills and fireplace. In town, the Hotel Cheval is a stylish boutique hotel right on the square with 16 rooms, a wine bar and complimentary breakfasts in the Pony Club. The Paso Robles Inn is more low-key, with outdoor hot springs soaking tubs on the patios.