By: Ted Loos
One of Napa Valley’s charms is its proximity to San Francisco; less than 90 minutes after leaving SFO airport, one can park themself on the veranda of Auberge du Soleil and sip a crisp chardonnay while gazing out at endless fields of grapes. The same can be said of Santa Barbara, which is a relatively quick drive from the chaos of Los Angeles – preferably in a candy apple red convertible, with the top down.
Yet often the price for such convenience is high costs, crowds, and an unshakable urban sensibility just underneath the agrarian veneer. Sometimes these places are a bit too accessible for travelers who want to feel that they’ve truly escaped the relentless orbit of city, work, and a crammed calendar.
As an alternative, the area known as Paso Robles – at the epicenter of a huge wine zone in the Central Coast part of California – offers top-notch vino and an appealing off-the- beaten-path vibe. It may well be the most undersung of the state’s major wine countries, though that’s changing fast.
The region lies smack dab between L.A. and San Francisco, at least three hours by car from either metropolis. Within an hour’s drive from Paso Robles, a visitor can meander through several quirky coastal towns, discover one of the most unlikely food temples in Morro Bay, tour the monomaniacal splendor of Hearst Castle, and slurp oysters still wet from the sea. Two days inland and two days on the coast make for the perfect long weekend in central California. But the best way to see the area is preferably with no pre-planned itinerary at all. As the pioneering local winery owner Justin Baldwin puts it, with a certain Yogi Berra-like logic, “When you’re here, you’re here.”
And here is a pretty good place to be. Think Napa circa 1980, when life in wine country had more of a provincial feel. Paso Robles, a city of about 30,000 people, is situated amid rolling hills dotted with giant live oaks. It has a New England–style town square with a brick library and a quaint gazebo at its heart, not to mention a handful of notable restaurants and one super-stylish hotel.
The town is surrounded by more than 200 wineries, many world- class operations like the Bordeaux–oriented Justin Vineyards & Winery (805/238-6932; www.justinwine.com). Or Tablas Creek Vineyard (805/237-1231; www.tablascreek.com), a specialist in Rhône varietals, which are becoming a focus for many local producers.
Climate-wise, Paso Robles possesses the biggest temperature differential between morning and night of any significant wine region in the state. This is the oft-cited holy grail for vintners around the world, as the intense heat of day, which boosts sugar content in grapes, is tempered by cool nights. The latter preserves the freshness of flavor and ensures that the vines aren’t too stressed by drought. As it happens, warm days and cool nights suit visitors, too (see When to Go).
Checking in to the Hotel Cheval (from $265/night; 866/522-6999; www.hotelcheval.com) is a good first step toward appreciating what’s special about Paso Robles. After turning off Highway 101, you barely need directions as the hotel is on a side street just off Paso’s main square. (Tip: Locals never say the “Robles” part.)
The 16-room lodging is defined by its European-style stone facade and a small central courtyard, which is hushed and private. Fireplaces, dark wood, and copper and brown accents give common spaces – like the handsome Pony Club, with a horseshoe-shaped bar – a genteel country air. The rooms are spacious, decorated in lighter tones. Until the Cheval opened in 2007, Paso didn’t have a single high-end property; visitors had to make do with the Paso Robles Inn, a landmark that’s long overdue for a makeover.
Within two blocks of Hotel Cheval are the town’s best restaurants, including Il Cortile (805/226-0300; www.ilcortileristorante.com), which marries a strong regional wine list to impeccable Italian dishes like homemade pappardelle with wild boar and porcini.
“Everyone is friendly and looks out for each other,” says Carole MacDonal, an L.A. refugee who co-owns Il Cortile with her husband, Santos, the chef. MacDonal, who moved here four years ago, drives to the big city once a week for her other career: working as a producer for NBC’s The Biggest Loser. But she sticks close to her country home when she can.
“Paso still has plenty of small-town appeal, even though the traffic is starting to get crazy,” she says. Although its version of crazy is hardly at SoCal’s level: “If it takes you more than seven minutes to get anywhere, that’s considered a traffic jam.”
The town’s other noteworthy restaurant, Thomas Hill Organics Bistro (805/226-5888; www.thomashillorganics.com), is also run by former Angelenos. The menu at this casual spot is hearty, seasonal, and grounded, courtesy of chef Julie Simon – say, grilled venison flank steak with celery root purée. But what owners Debbie and Joe Thomas really excel at is farming.
On a slope just outside town, the Thomases grow a mind-boggling profusion of vegetables and herbs and tend to hundreds of fruit trees that yield plump apples, plums, persimmons, cherries, and pears. On a fall day, the air is delightfully scented with dozens of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, figs, pomegranates, sage, peppers, and arugula. The land produces more than the duo really needs, so what doesn’t make it onto the plates of their restaurant is sold to nearby eateries or given to charities. The couple will happily show people around their land by appointment.
Ultimately it’s the area’s remarkable fertility that draws visitors to Paso in the first place, as more outsiders hear about and taste the local wines. Justin and Deborah Baldwin were among the first to notice the region’s potential, back in the 1980s. “Paso had a pioneering spirit,” says Justin. “And land was a lot cheaper than [it was] in Napa.” With sophisticated wines like Isosceles, a predominantly cabernet sauvignon blend, Justin Vineyards & Winery has successfully demonstrated the serious quality that’s possible to produce in these parts.
Because they were early in establishing a beachhead, the Baldwins discovered a need to provide a great lodging option for their visitors. Thus the four-room Just Inn (from $375/night; 805/238-6932; www.justinwine.com) was born. At the end of a 25-minute drive from Paso – on a road that twists and turns through golden hills and eventually drops out of cell phone range – the inn finally appears around a bend, just down the street from their winery. Built in 1991, the gray clapboard retreat remains a preferred destination for anyone who wants to feel cosseted and away from it all.
Deborah’s taste for French country style is evident, and the suites – three are located at the inn; a fourth is at the actual winery – are done in a tasteful neoclassical scheme; jaunty yellow- and-white striped awnings set the tone outside. The highlight may be the pool, which is enclosed by a thicket of roses and has a view of the sun as it sets behind a vineyard-covered slope.
About three miles away is internationally recognized star Tablas Creek Vineyard. One sip of the spicy, sophisticated Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, a white blend, shows the vintner’s deft hand. What’s remarkable is that while Tablas generally works with a different set of grapes than Justin Vineyards does, both have succeeded. The two wineries offer regular tastings, along with twice-daily tours of the grape fields.
On a hot day in the vineyards, it’s hard to imagine that the Pacific Ocean is only 20 miles away. A quick spin on the spectacularly picturesque Route 46W, along the largely empty, dun-colored foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, deposits you on the fog-shrouded coast.
Culturally, the coast is worlds apart from the more earnest inland. An offbeat, vaguely hippie vibe suffuses the neighboring towns of Morro Bay and Cayucos. One local restaurant advertises itself as “by pirates, for pirates” – a fun tagline, but possibly limiting for business. For nonbuccaneers, the Cass House (from $150/night; 805/995-3669; www.casshouseinn.com), which lies between the two towns, is a great B&B with an excellent restaurant downstairs.
Morro Bay and Cayucos, connected by the famously scenic Highway 1, are frequently cloaked in mist. About 30 minutes north of Cayucos is the grandiose Hearst Castle (tours from $24; 800/444-4445; www.hearstcastle.com), the ornate hilltop mansion that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst built on his family’s vast ranch. (The construction started in 1919 and carried on until 1947.) After his death, the state inherited the property and turned it into a park. The place is so immense that there are six separate tours, all worthwhile regardless of what one may think of the man – they don’t build anything like this anymore.
A less heralded highlight – as compared to the oft-photographed Neptune Pool, with its faux ruins – is the dark, wood-paneled refectory, the only dining area in the complex and where guests were required to gather for dinner. In Hearst’s heyday, it was like a sanctum, but studded with starlets, a cheeky blend of the sacred and profane for an owner who evidently thought himself a god.
Hearst’s man-made achievements aren’t necessarily more impressive than the coast he gazed upon: The clean waters along this wild stretch of California coast support an incredible array of aquatic life, and the residents of Morro Bay gladly share the riches with newcomers. Right on his dock, Neal Maloney of Morro Bay Oyster Company (805/234-7102; www.morrobayoysters.com) teaches visitors how to shuck the juicy bivalves that he farms just offshore.
Outfitter Lost Isle Adventures (from $10; 805/440-8170; www.lostisleadventures.com), also in the bay, offers hourly boat tours, including a sunset cruise that allows for a picnic on a nearby sandspit. An oyster tour provides glimpses of the best beds, but the main attraction is probably Morro Rock, a massive volcanic plug seemingly plopped in the bay by a giant. All waterside activities come with a built-in soundtrack – the yelping of an army of sea lions.
Dockside snacking may not appease truly famished foodies and that’s why Taco Temple (805/772-4965), in Morro Bay, is a can’t-miss stop for anyone passing through the area. A cash-only policy and a surfboard on the ceiling usually signify a questionable food experience, but Taco Temple provides something unforgettable: It might be the most satisfying restaurant between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The decor is spare, at best. There’s no walk-in refrigerator or freezer in the kitchen. Here, it’s all about freshness. Adam and Dawnelle Pollard, the chefs and owners, basically riff off the day’s catch, offering a few other regular specialties, like carnitas and homemade desserts. The diver scallop taco, dressed up with crisp vegetables and a scoop of smooth avocado, epitomizes savvy ingredient-driven food, yet manages to avoid self-righteous menu proclamations on the topic.
At Taco Temple, they simply serve up the best stuff, sans pretense. And that’s the strong suit of Paso and its coastal neighbors across the board, from the wineries to the hotels: There’s no dividing line between promises made and promises delivered.
Check out the sights and scenes of the central California coast with our Paso Robles slideshow.
When to Go
Spring and fall – with warm days and cool nights – are certainly the best times to check out Paso, because the high summer temperatures and intense winter storms can be less than inviting. Fall, with its enticing grape harvest, draws the most crowds, however, so visitors might want to follow the scent of spring wildflowers instead.
Getting There and Around
It’s easy to fly via any major carrier to the Los Angeles or San Francisco airports and then drive three or more hours on Highway 101, which runs right through Paso. (Or you can take the very scenic but slow Highway 1 up or down the coast; just double the time.) If the drive doesn’t appeal, board a short-hop flight from either airport on United – or from Phoenix on United or US Airways – to San Luis Obispo, just 30 minutes from Paso by car.