Thursday, August 6, 2009

Paso Robles Travel

A refreshing change of pace.

Despite incredible growth over the past decade, the Paso Robles winegrowing area is what Napa probably was 25 years ago. With the layout and feel of the old western town it once was, the city of Paso Robles is a welcoming destination for wine lovers who value experience and character more than flash and glitz.

Located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso (as it’s known to locals) is a burg of around 40,000 residents at the crossroads of highways 101 and 46 in California’s Central Coast area. Insulated from the coast by twenty miles and the Santa Lucia Costal Range, Paso can get plenty hot in the summer, though nights tend to cool down, offering a pleasant combination for visitors – and winegrowers.

The wineries, mostly clustered in a few areas within easy striking distance of town, range in size from the tiny and unique to the enormous and opulent. Those located along 46 east (northeast of town) are in a dry, hot area conducive to growing high-powered, yummy zinfandel. By contrast, wineries in the Atascadero Gap (along 46 east heading out towards Cambria) are in a chute of cooler air, so are better suited to grow other varietals like Pinot Noir and some whites. But you're likely to find decent wine almost anywhere you go.

Most places pour complementary tastes and have a laid back vibe to them. Of course, there are the destinations that service their debt loads by capitalizing on the tour bus crowd (see below). But these are, thankfully, outnumbered by hospitable independent winemakers.

Wineries:
Caparone – A do-not-miss, no frills, family-owned place off the beaten path. All reds, mostly Italian varietals, all wines $14. Worth every penny and then some. Father-son team Dave and Marc do it all here and you’re likely to meet one or the other.

In the 46 East (death alley) area:
Bianchi - Flashy and chic architecture. More of a destination for the landscaping than the wine.

Tobin James - Cowboy kitsch, but surprisingly powerful wines at reasonable prices.

Eberle - Legendary zin in a nice setting. The tasting room is a little overdone, but WOW, that zin is something else.

Meridian - What you'd expect from a huge winery - gorgeous grounds, lots of crap for sale, etc. - except that the wines they pour in the tasting room are very, very good.

Lavender at Castoro CellarsWineries 46 West:
Castoro - Known more for being a wedding destination than quality wines. Lovely grounds, mountains of crap for sale in the tasting room, and okay wines.

Eagle Castle - Hideous and ridiculous looking. Over the top with the medieval fantasy thing. A slice of Vegas honkey tonk in wine country. The neighbors must hate them. On the other hand, they make a blend that rocks.

Brian Benson - Across the street from Eagle Castle (next to Dark Star). Only open Fri-Sun, but word on the street is that this kid is making some serious stuff.

Midnight Cellars - Next to Brian Benson. Don't bother. Crappy tasting room, people, and wine.

Windward - Wholey moley. Save your pennies and get a bottle of Pinot from these folks. Tiny spot off the beaten path making world class Pinot Noir. You'll still taste it months after you return home.

Norman Vineyards – Known primarily for their powerhouse zins, their Chardonnay and Cab are lesser sung, but worth seeking out. Lovely experience.

Where to stay:
The Paso Robles Inn has a storied past, a supposedly killer steakhouse, and is right on Spring Street opposite the town square so you can stagger around town after having too much wine. Also note the 'must do' below.

The Melody Ranch Motel (no website) is two doors down from the Paso Robles Inn, so you can't beat the location (or the price). This is a family run, classic 50's motel. Nothing (and I mean nothing) has changed since the 50's including the shag carpet, old TV's, and bathroom fixtures. But the beds are comfy and the place is as clean as it gets. Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio spent the first night of their honeymoon here.

Must Do’s:
There is a very cool, laid back cowboy bar in the upstairs of the Paso Robles Inn. There's a great happy hour there with munchies and locals. Behind the bar is a stainless steel vat of local wine. Order that. It's $5 for a huge crystal glass full of what (at least when we went) turns out to be high-end, single vineyard, super tasty vino. No wonder locals hang here. You're likely to see Stetsons and spurs here.

Grab some munchies and have a picnic dinner at the scenic overlook on 46 between Cambria and Paso. There's a pull off spot on the south side of the road where the sunset is incredible and you can look down on Cambria to the north and Morro Bay to the south.

Must Do NOT’s:
Do not drink and drive. Cops are very diligent in this area. Do not test your luck.
View from scenic overlook