Paso Robles: A Road Less Traveled
By Brian E. Clark
For decades, so the story goes, Paso Robles was a mere pitstop off California’s Highway 101 for wine aficionados on their way to the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
But that began changing about two decades ago, and Paso Robles – which means Passage of the Oaks in Spanish – has grown up. The area is now considered to be one of the premier wine grape-growing regions in California with more than 200 wineries producing a wide range of red and white varieties. In 1990, the area had only 20 wineries.
“We are definitely on the map with people who know their wines, but we still get others who stop and say, ‘we had no idea you were here,'” said Jayne Christman general manager of the Hotel Cheval, a 16-room, upscale boutique hostelry just a block from the town’s historic main square.
“We’ve seen a real upsweep with wineries attracting a lot of people here who are often quite pleased with what they find,” said Christman, who has lived in Paso Robles since 2002. “It’s a lovely little (population 33,000) town, a real destination on the wine trail.”
When she arrived, ranches dominated the landscape and cowboys rode the range. In fact, some still do.
Now, more than 40,000 acres have been planted in vineyards. Paso Robles received its American Viticulture Area (AVA) designation in 1983 and has since been subdivided into 11 areas, reflecting the countryside’s geographical diversity and growing conditions.
Our Golden State trip began in Oakland to visit friends and family. After a day of sailing on San Francisco Bay, photographer Tish Lafferty and I drove 200 miles south to Paso, as locals call it.
Located in San Luis Obispo County on California’s Central Coast, Paso is ideally situated midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles and 30 minutes from the Pacific.
The first of our two nights at the Stables Inn offered a relaxing rest from a day’s sail and our four-hour trip. We slept well in the bunkhouse room of the motel, which was large enough for a family with its king-sized bed and two large bunk beds.
The attractive inn is actually a renovated motel on Spring Street, the central stretch through town. Despite being on the main drag, our lodgings were quiet, private, and comfortable. The inn opened in June of 2020 and has an understated and attractive Ralph Lauren-ish cowboy theme.
With a cool, 1953 Chevy pickup in the Stable’s parking lot, staying at the motel felt a bit like stepping back in time. If the late actor James Dean would have strolled by, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Dean, who starred in “Rebel Without A Cause,” was killed in a collision a few miles east of Paso in 1955.
We explored the city and the town square on foot the first afternoon and dined in the pleasant courtyard of The Steakhouse at the Paso Robles Inn. All the food was tasty, but my favorite was the crispy Brussel’s sprouts with smoked goat cheese fondue in an apple cider vinegar reduction.
After a great sleep, we set out the next morning for Pismo Beach, where we hiked in the newly opened Pismo Preserve. Perched above the Pacific, the preserve spans 900 acres and offers sweeping views of the ocean and trails that lead into misty canyons with gnarly coastal oak trees.
For our winery and vineyard explorations, we chose Niche Wine Tours, owned and operated by Katie Bay Gebauer, a Certified Sommelier and Certified Wine Specialist. She designed a private t0ur for us that focused on several of the smaller, more exclusive wineries in the area.
Gebauer, who grew up in Wisconsin, said she started Niche Wine Tours because she wanted to offer guests a private, customized, and educational wine tasting experience, something much more intimate and unique than usual large bus tours, which involve visiting large wineries and sampling wines with minimal background story or education.
“I focus on the boutique wineries that offer something special like barrel tasting, vineyard tours, and wine-and-food pairings,” she said. “It’s important to me to include opportunities for guests to ‘get their hands dirty’. Being able to walk through the vines, taste the grapes or tour the wine production facility, even if humble, creates a really memorable experience.”
“My goal is to allow individuals to learn about wine from vineyard to glass in an approachable, educational but above all, a fun environment. My favorite moments are when I am able to witness a guest’s “Ah Ah” moment – the second that something just clicks, giving a new understanding and appreciation for everything that goes into that one bottle.
“There are so many facets to wine. It’s an experience to be discovered, shared, and enjoyed – I love being involved in each guest’s wine journey.”
In the early afternoon, we drove northeast from Pismo to Cass Winery, located in the Geneseo District, the central-most AVA of the Paso Robles wine region. Family owned and sustainably farmed, it produces 11 varieties entirely from estate-grown grapes. It was recently named the Central Coast Winery of the Year for 2020, the third time Cass has achieved that accolade.
Gebauer said she took us there because “Cass produces wonderful white wines, which is a distinctive quality for a region better known for its robust reds.”
The winery serves gourmet lunches every day, so we dined under a huge oak tree just a stone’s throw from an expansive vineyard. As we were finishing our meal, Steve and Alice Cass, who are winery co-owners with Ted Plemons, joined us for a glass and chat.
In 1999, at age 48 and after a successful 20 years at Charles Schwab in San Francisco, Steve retired and pondered what his next challenge could be. Circumnavigating the globe fell off the list after Alice became seasick during a storm on a Mediterranean yachting trip. They eventually landed in Paso and became vineyard owners and winemakers.
They’ve also become lodgekeepers with the recent opening on the vineyard property of their Geneseo Inn, a somewhat futuristic inn, which has quarters made from spruced-up metal shipping crates.
For our third and fourth nights, we moved to the Hotel Cheval, which opened in 2007 and is the town’s premier hotel. It could have been plucked straight out of Tuscany, where owners Robert and Sherry Gilson frequently travel.
It too, has an equestrian theme – Cheval means horse in French – though it’s more European than California cowboy. For our initial evening, we sat by an outdoor fireplace in the central garden courtyard and dined on s’mores made by a Cheval staffer. We also visited the hotel’s library where we indulged in complementary and sweet offerings from its Candy Bar.
It was on to three more wineries on our last full day in San Luis Obispo County. After breakfast at Cheval’s charming outdoor Pony Club, Gebauer picked us up in a classy black Land Rover and we motored off to the ONX Winery.
Located about five miles south of Paso Robles, ONX is in the Templeton Gap district and produces 18 different varieties that Gebauer said aren’t often blended and bottled together.
We toured the expansive vineyard with Director of Wine Growing, Jeff Strekas, ONX’s wine-growing director and learned about the vineyard’s terroir as we sampled a 2017 Crux red wine. We also tasted a Mad Crush from that same year, and several other unique blends. To top it off, we picked grapes and even enjoyed apples from an ONX orchard.
Next was Le Cuvier, a boutique winery located in the rugged limestone hills of the Adelaida District AVA.
“Le Cuvier practices a hands-off approach to wine-making, sourcing from dry-farmed vineyards and utilizing wild-yeast fermentation, which offers a unique depth and complexity to the wines,” Gebauer explained.
Le Cuvier, a French term for the fermentation room, a place within a chateau where wines are made, offers a curated food and wine pairing experience.
We dined in Le Cuvier’s wine cellar, which they’ve dubbed “The Wine Library.” Best of all, we were hosted by Chef Daniel Zollo and Clay Selkirk, Le Cuvier’s head winemaker.
The final visit of our Niche Tour was to McPrice Myers Wines, which is only two miles west of Le Cuvier.
“Mac is truly passionate about everything wine,” Gebauer told us. “He produces wines that are full-bodied and structured with underlying elements of elegance and finesse.”
Myers beamed as he told us about his wines, which we sampled directly from the barrels.
“And that’s a rare treat,” said Gebauer, who also noted that Myers sources his grapes from some of the most prestigious vineyards on the central coast.
I’ve got a feeling we’ll be back to Paso. After all, we’ve still got 190-plus wineries yet to visit.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.