I was intrigued to visit the Paso Robles area at the suggestion of a Baja winemaker (more on my fascination there later). “We’re not like Napa. Actually, I think we’re more like Paso Robles.”
He was referring to similar water shortage issues, but still – now I wanted to learn more. Thoughts were conjuring of rich reds, Tempranillos, zins… what could I expect? A laidback atmosphere akin to the rustic outposts, with passionate conversationalists that I’d grown to know and love in Valle de Guadalupe?
My girlfriend Mo and I booked a cozy little cabin at a Kampgrounds of America location in Avila Beach. It was a good deal over other options, and from what I gathered with limited research of the area – most the accommodations are quaint B&Bs in the countryside. That just didn’t seem like the setting we were looking for, we needed a place where we could drink up our wine finds and have late into the night gab sessions.
We also scored a Groupon for the Central Coast Passport, giving us 8 wine or olive oil tastings at about $20! This deal is still around (full price at $39) and it’s a good value, but I’m sure there are other great wineries beyond this group that deserve a visit.
Journeying from Avila Beach into Templeton, the thing that stood out to me the most were the beautiful oaks. Like weeping willows that envelop your car and make you feel like you’re worlds away from Southern California. Another parallel to Valle de Guadalupe – the memory of the oaks at Casa Encinares and the language lesson that both Roble and Encino mean oak, but the difference, no one was really sure.
Through the oaked in roads, we made it to Clavo Cellars in Templeton, where we picked up our passports, and learned the ins and outs of the local scene from our tasting room attendant, Maggie. She told us how the owner originally was in vineyard management and combined his industry prowess an passion into making his own wine. Likely less than a decade later, he was certainly ballin’, with literally cabinets that smelled of rich mahogany and fancy wine maps from AVAs from around the world. I was most taken by a verdot, cab and Malbec blend called Collusion.
From there, we departed off the passport trek to see Chronic Cellars for the pure kitchiness of it. Their Spritz and Giggles sparkling white was the centerpiece of our morning mimosas (spoiler alert, they were amazing), and I’ve always loved their Dia de los Muertos inspired art. The $10 tasting seemed a bit steep, but the patron conversation was fun and friendly, and it included wine glasses. Sofa King Bueno lingered in my nose, and my mind, for being hilarious, and I believe they said it wasn’t in stores.
Whalebone was the winner of the day with a peppery Cabernet that I sometimes dream about. It was also a sweet family-owned operation with great service, had a legitimate bone of a whale as décor, and a delicious “I need this to be able to continue driving” cheeseboard spread. The ambiance and setting were also beautiful, and though it was crowded, imparted such a feeling of peacefulness onto everyone there.
We grabbed a bottle of Arbequena Oliva Oil at Olea Farms after much deliberation and tasting of every single varietal. This stuff is like crack in olive oil form, so I try to hide it and reserve it for special occasion and worthwhile bread. It has an almondy, artichoke type flavor, that’s literally “like buttah.”
We concluded our wine day at Vines on the Marycrest, where My Generation had, hands down, the coolest varietal story of the day. Essentially they just really broke the mold and rebelled by mixing Zinfandel, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Petite Sirah, which probably doesn’t sound so groundbreaking in of itself. But I was still inspired enough to buy it, and dug the combination.
We dined at Thomas Hill Organics, which was good enough, but so small plate-y and fancy schmancy that it didn’t quite fill the ultimate hunger I developed from all of that vinindulging. I suppose it’s our fault for ordering appetizers like lentil tacos and hamachi with salads, but the entrees were a bit ominously price and not aligning with any of my hunger pangs.
Wanting to experience “hot springs,” we ventured to the RV park next door for an odd showing of What About Bob. I think hot springs are just one of those things that are hard to pull off just right. The sulfur smell. Retirees getting funky in a large pool. Sign me up! It was a nice dip, but we had to jet after a short visit, and had a blast drinking up the rest of our wine purchases and laughing late into the night.
We had an unmemorable brunch in Pismo Beach, but admired their adorable and up-and-coming boardwalk area, hit up the outlet mall, and experienced pork nirvana at lunch in Los Alamos. On an unassuming little corner on Bell Street sits Bell Street Farm, where I had the best pork I’ve EVER HAD.
I’d like to consider myself a pork connoisseur, maybe even a snob of sorts. Bacon, pork belly, shoulders and butt, and at times I can be partial to loins and chops. But this rotisserie pork (actually porchetta, which you really don’t need to know about) was mind blowingly delicious. My stomach actually aches and longs for it as I type this. I went for the salad, but I’m told the sandwich is something to write home about, as well.
Did the area live up to what I expected? In substance and style, it over-delivered. It was more rural and beautifully landscaped than I could’ve imagined. The wines are really high quality. The restaurant choices could step it up a notch (this is where it pales in comparison to Baja). I could say lodging has something to be desired, but I don’t want the place to be ruined by chains and think it’s fine as it is with the B&B scene. I’ll warn that pretension could be Paso’s Achilles heel, and I’m hopeful they don’t become too much like Napa in price, and attitude.
However in the meantime, as the prices stay affordable and the product keeps its quality, I’ll continue to come back to this gem of a wine region. I already can’t wait for my next taste!