Co-authored with Deborah Grossman, wine and food writer
From a few vineyards just under a hundred years ago, Paso (the locals name for Paso Robles) has become the Napa Valley of Southern California - boasting over 200 bottlers. In 2013, Paso was voted Wine Region of the Year and now hosts the world's largest Rhone festival, Hospice Du Rhone.
Approximately a two hour drive from the small but serviceable Santa Barbara airport and 3 ½ - 4 hour drive from both SFO and LAX -- the area is off the beaten path but well worth the trip.
One of the highlights of wine tasting in the Paso Area is the tasting room settings. Surrounded by open space, vineyards, orchards and those ubiquitous Robles, or oaks, tasting wine (or enjoying your own picnic) at any of these wineries will be a delightful experience. What we also enjoy is the pace. Even though the area has become a popular destination, the tasting rooms are slow-paced, laid-back California style. Most tasting fees are waived with the purchase of wine.
Along with the bucolic views, several wineries also offer unusual outdoor activities and adventures.
Tucked away in the northeastern corner of Paso, several small wineries banded together to form the new Pleasant Valley wine trail. Villa San Juliette (VSJ) offers prime vineyard views from a patio crowned with a 200-year-old oak tree. But the bonus of starting a Paso winery tour here is the new VSJ helicopter adventure. The first heli-tour offered in Paso, the 20-minute flight gives an excellent orientation to the area with views of properties such as Paso pioneer J. Lohr.
Back on land, the tasting room is located in a Mediterranean-style home with dual "Juliette" balconies. The two "Romeos" who launched the winery in 2012 are the Los Angeles-based producers of American Idol. Yes, there is the occasional Idol sighting and Sunday music performances by talented locals is a regular draw.
Lone Madrone Vineyards offers bike touring and the occasional kayak expedition followed by wine tasting and dinner.
On the western side of Paso is another new winery with a must-see view, Daou Vineyards. Situated on a 2,200-foot promontory, the winery presents an excellent orientation to the Paso appellation. At Daou's rectangular tasting bar, you can taste estate Cabernet Sauvignon with sliders and cheese plates from the in-house chef.
To understand the broad influence of Paso vintners, a visit to Tablas Creek is both informative and inspiring. Wine importer Robert Haas and the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley, bought the winery property in 1989 after scouring California for similar terroir - the limestone soils and climate that matched the Châteauneuf du Pape area.
Deciding on Paso, Haas and the Perrins brought the first Rhone vines from France to California. Haas planted prime cuttings from the Perrins' property and later sold the rootstock (vine propagations) to other wineries in the U.S. From well-known Syrah and Grenache to Rousanne and Picpoul, Haas launched the thirst for Rhone-wines produced the U.S. and helped form the Rhone Rangers group of vintners. After Tablas Creek garnered the attention of oenophiles, the region's wineries tripled.
Tables Creek tours begin in the organic vineyard, segue to the grapevine nursery and at certain times of year, the vineyard "zoo." A hungry group of alpacas keep the cover crop for the vines under control. When they aren't "working" in the vineyard, the little ones frolic near their mothers in the animal pen.
Back on the east side of Highway 101, adventures of the cultural and active outdoors variety await. Viña Robles is renowned for zinfandel, petite sirah, Rhone varietals and its art gallery and a concert series attracts music lovers to the winery's amphitheater.
At Cass Vineyards, you can enjoy a leisurely horseback ride before stopping to taste their broad range of wines. The rides are organized by Cal Adventures and include a complimentary tasting of the winery's broad line of wines. Our favorite Cass wine, when it's not sold out, is Rockin' One Red, a blend of Rhone varietals.
The winery has strong links to the Polish pianist, Ignacy Paderewski whose zinfandel vineyards were nearby. The Paderewski Festival was launched in 1993 by Paso history buffs to keep the local legacy of the musician alive through events, performances and competitions. After nearly two successful decades, the festival was revived in 2006 with the help of Steve Cass, co-founder of Cass Winery. The first event of the November festival is held at the winery. This year the winning student from the International Paderewski Competition in Poland will perform along with recitals by other European students.
In addition to the wine tasting outdoors activities abound. Hot springs and opportunities for kayaking, hiking and biking are available in Paso and the surrounding coastal towns. Small, scenic B&Bs and organic farms dot the landscape. For walkers, a favorite hike is Cerro Alto in Los Padres forest. From the peak, you can see the cinder cones that formed the area, waves crashing on the coast and down to Morro Bay.
Beer drinkers and cider sippers will also be happy to know that Paso is home to two breweries, two port producers and Bristol's Cider house.
Dining in Paso translates to seasonal specialties and chefs who care about fresh delicacies in diversity of styles. Our top choices are: Artisan, Il Cortile, Villa Creek and Thomas Hill Organics. And one more must do: Olive Oil tasting with food pairing at Kiler Olive Oil Factory. Overlooking the rolling hills you'll have to remind yourself that you are in California and not Tuscany!