Just Above Sunset Archives
Paso Robles - the Next Napa
Paso Robles - the Next Napa
by Kevin Klingler
On any given Saturday, as you head down the Silverado Trail which cuts through the heart of Napa Valley, you take in the beauty of this place - the rolling hillsides covered with rows and rows of vines dotted by stands of gorgeous fir trees and turn of the century (as in last) cottages - you understand why this his become such a popular destination, even for people who don't consider themselves wine drinkers.
But Silverado Trail isn't any ordinary street and Napa isn't just a quaint village. Such austere names as; Girgich Hills, Coppola (he started the winery to finance his first films), Opus One, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Freemark Abbey peer out at you from usually unpretentious roadside plaques. These are the crème de la crème of the wine making world and some of the best wines in the world are indeed made right here. Even mass producers such as Beringer have Silverado addresses. But traffic is thick, so you duck into one of the long driveways. Once inside the tasting room the tasting bar is crowded three-deep. You look at your watch, - it's only 10:50. Was it always like this?
Drive due south on Highway 101 for, oh about 4 or 5 hours, turn off at State Route 46 and you will come to a large sign that says: "Welcome to the city of El Paso Robles". Taking the twisty 46 further into town, past some gas stations and modern looking shops you arrive at the town square. This is literally a large, perfectly square park surrounded on all sides - across the four streets that define the square - by old buildings, some of them very old. The newest one I remember seeing couldn't be newer than the fifties and many date back to the turn of the century. "Was Back to the Future filmed here", you think to yourself? It wasn't but Paso Robles reminds you of that. This is a quaint village.
But looks can be deceiving. Within a half an hour drive of this idyllic frame that seems frozen from Ozzie and Harriet, are dozens of wineries making what are arguably some of the best wines California has to offer. It's climate, a half hour due east of Cambria and the ocean, is perfect for many appellations. Warm, sunny days can often be followed by sharp drops in temperature and moisture that rolls in from the nearby ocean, though on our weekend, in the dead of summer, this was not the case (see you there in September!). But the "terroir" (earth) is decidedly different from its more famous, northern wine-region sibling and the wines from the Central Coast, as it is known, have a uniquely wonderful taste not found anywhere else.
But the wines of Central Coast are more than just weather that grapes love and sandy earth that mellows their flavor naturally. If Napa is impressive and "important" the Central Coast is understated and down to earth. Visiting the wineries in and around Paso Robles is not only about tasting truly great wines, it's about a pace that is relaxed and casual - no overbearing crowds here even on a Saturday - and it's about people. These are some of the nicest people in the industry and most of them are still doing it for the love of making great wines. Indeed we discovered that at one of our favorite wineries, Adelaida, the founder and winemaker left to start a new "smaller" winery because Adelaida had grown too big. Uh, I guess all that success from being found only at a few select restaurants and some high-end grocery chains (Bristol Farms for example) was too much for him. Believe me, Beringer never lost any sleep over them. But this exemplifies the Central Coast wine maker - these are real people, doing what they truly love, without compromise, and that makes for a great trip that you'll never forget.
In two and a half days we visited 12 wineries - and there wasn't a dog in the bunch. These people are more concerned about the quality of their wines than the reputation of their label - not all that common anymore in the winemaking world. On this trip (our third), we focused on lesser known brands and wineries that typically only sell their wines at their tasting room and to some local restaurants. One of the exceptions to that agenda is a winery called Windward. Mark (I don't recall his last name) is a retired COO from a good-sized East coast health care company. He makes only Pinot Noirs here - no other appellations and he does it with a vengeance. Trained in Burgundy, France he makes a smooth, world class Pinot that has found its way into restaurants up and down the West coast as well as in many good wine shops. His Pinots are all "estate" bottled - meaning that everything is done right here - including the growing of the grapes. The first time we met Mark (on our last trip 2 and half years ago) he was just opening up his tasting room that late morning. He came out with a bandana tied around his head and long gray hair flying out in every direction from underneath, clad in T-shirt and jeans. His dogs were running loose on the premises and were sweet and welcoming. From that inauspicious introduction we never would have suspected the quality we were about to taste in the wine. This time we met his wife who was manning the tasting room. She gave us more back-story on what could very well be one of the best Pinto Noir makers in all of California. Beautiful views from their hill top perch, this remains a must-do destination for any one coming to the Central Coast.
What makes Winward an exception for this trip's focus is the success he enjoys while remaining essentially a very small operation. However, most of the wineries we visited on this trip do not enjoy even his level of success. Standouts in this group include Pipestone, Fratelli (a stones through from Windward), Hunt Cellars and Paollilo. All make superb wines of surprising quality and depth. Usually we were dealing with the winemaker himself or a family member. At Fratelli, the 18-year-old, namesake daughter was serving and getting ready to go to college in the fall (computer science major). At Pipestone we met Jeff Pipes, the namesake. While we tasted his rich, supple wines he humbly called himself "a farmer". Over his shoulder, on the wall of his tasting room were his young daughters (he has two) latest crayon expressions, right next to his engineering and law degrees. Their tricycles and toys were strewn about in the driveway near where we parked. This unpretentiousness is completely charming and utterly refreshing in the wine world.
At Paollilo it was the wine maker's wife because he was at a tasting event that happen to be going on that weekend. They started their winery in the 70s after moving from Woodland Hills CA in the 60s. She recalled for us that when they started there were only 2 other wineries there. A local full-time real estate agent, she got out her book of properties right then and there as we started to ask question about property values. Care to buy an estate with vistas and vineyards for backyards? They typically go for $750,000 to $1 million. But she had a great one for as low as $548,000.
On the other end of these more humble establishments are Summerwood, Hunt Cellars, Bonny Doon and of course, Adelaida. Summerwood is a gorgeous sprawling estate with manicured gardens, a full bed and breakfast (separate building across the street) rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see and a spacious, stylish tasting room. We got a tour through our friend that we met for the weekend, who is their attorney. They are owned by a Japanese corporation, and while not certified yet, they specialize in completely organic wines. But don't let the corporate bloodline fool you. Their wines, made by a 33 year-old winemaker (not there that day) were absolutely phenomenal. The Cabernets in particular were just stunning.
At Bonny Doon they have a petting zoo with goats and chickens and an expansive herb garden with every imaginable herb all amidst a setting of a very old European country farmhouse - complete with windmill. Inside the tasting room/gift shop, we met their resident chef who I "talked shop" with while tasting their superb wines. She gave me a couple of recipes and one of them, of course, used their Viogner (a spritzy white, perfect for a hot summer day - we had a bottle the night before with dinner). The first time I had a Bonny Doon was in '97 at a high-end restaurant in Pasadena - a Pinto Noir served in big "balloon" glasses. The flavor literally exploded while it sat in the glass - starting out with one taste, and within 5 minutes, exploding into a huge, rich, wonderful flavor. A wine that age's that richly before your eyes, after it's just opened is very special indeed.
Finally, I couldn't talk about Paso Robles without mentioning Adelaida. We were shocked when we found out that John Munch, the founder and winemaker left to start another great but smaller winery (La Cuviér - fabulous Zin!). After hearing that, I went into their tasting room with more than a little trepidation. After all the last time we were up here we were so impressed with their wines that we joined their wine club, and stayed on it more than two years before just recently opting out. We truly know their wines. We found out that since John left they are on their third winemaker. Ironically, the guy that replaced John, was lured away by a larger winery (just the opposite of John's story). Then after him, yet another replacement got an opportunity to start a winery from scratch.
Well, I don't know who was responsible for the wines we tasted that day. All I know is that they were as good as the wines John made. The Cab Reserve being spectacular - stunning in its richness, balance and smoothness (and at $65 a bottle - the most expensive wine we bought home from the entire trip - but worth every penny). How does a winery like Adelaida stay so consistent even in the face of musical winemakers?
It all comes back to the people and their incredible passion for wine making. This is what separates Paso Robles wineries from anywhere else in the world. While I still love Napa and will continue to regularly make pilgrimages there, the Central Coast with its homespun style, world-class quality and gorgeous views make it truly special and a must for anyone who enjoys meeting great people over a good glass of wine. Before closing I should note that the food was fabulous also. We went to 2 restaurants that are as good as any in New York, San Fran or anywhere else. We also treated ourselves to a local place for breakfast (Hoovers) whose driveway was being used to bring in cattle and horses for some local livestock event (again, probably something you would never see elsewhere). There I had a linguica omelet with two types of cheeses and when I asked them to add fresh chopped cilantro they didn't even flinch.
This little post card from Paso Robles is a pure labor of love for me. I have no vested interest in the area, no stock in any wineries there, nor any relatives or interests there whatsoever - just a love for the whole attitude of the place, not to mention its spectacular libations. If you want a vacation or getaway weekend that will: relax you, excite your taste buds, engage your mind and connect you, even if briefly, with really great people - finding a place better than Paso Robles would be a tall order. But do it soon before it becomes the next Napa - once this gem gets discovered, the you'll have to fight the crowds here too.
Below are a few of the places that I can recommend for accommodations and food. Let me know if you would like information on any of the wineries, I have contact info for most (not all) of the wineries we visited.
2175 Arbor Rd. Paso Robles CA 93446
Bed & Breakfast. Didn't stay there (all booked up) but I plan to next time! For the bed and breakfast's you need to plan ahead at least several months.
11680 Chimney Rock Rd. Paso Robles CA 93446
The Just-Inn Bed & Breakfast is where we stayed the previous time. It has only three rooms, each done in a style of a great winemaking region (the Tuscany room, Burgandy room, Sonoma room for the third I think). It offers excellent on site dinning as well. Only 3 rooms so you need to book way, way in advance. Great views too.
The Hampton Inn
212 Alexa, Paso Robles
This is one of the few hotels and was just recently built (less than a year old). But with no B&Bs available it is where we stayed this time. The large spacious suites are nice and relaxing. And more so than the B&Bs, it's right in the middle of everything.
In Templeton, 2 miles south of Paso Robles on the 101. Superb food. Down-to-earth atmosphere (what else?) with world class preparation. Standouts include: Achiote and Apricot Glazed Double Cut Pork Chop, Macadamia Crusted Halibut with Asian Vegetables and - everyone at the table agreed on this - the Roasted Artichoke was the best artichoke any of us ever had. Oh, and the Bonny Doon Viogner. Yumm.
In downtown Paso Robles on the square mentioned above, on Spring St. It sports more of a southwest atmosphere but equals McPhee's in every way. Fish Tacos sound mundane? Not these exotically prepared and fire roasted treats with exotic salsas, a vegetable mélange with almost every "baby" vegetable available and a plump but rich rice I didn't even recognize. And, they have the best margaritas in the entire valley - a nice break from two days of wine drinking.