Paso Robles

Robust, striking, but unpretentious, Paso Robles produces its share of distinguished chardonnays, cabernets, zinfandels, and merlots.

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You can weave a relaxed, pleasant itinerary around 35 small wineries and other attractions of this unrushed town, where the famous Polish pianist Paderewski grew grapes and took the healing waters of hot mineral springs (they were plugged in the ’60s).

With grape harvest around the corner, Paso Robles’ small scale wine production offers the decided advantage over Napa and Sonoma of not packing in the crowds and tour buses. In fact, Paso Robles comes as close to being plan-as-you-go as a town in California might.

Winemaking, dating back to 1797, has helped shape the town’s history. That year, the Franciscan padres established the first vines along with Mission San Miguel Archangel, which still stands two miles north of town. Most of today’s wineries have been in operation since the 1980s.

At elevations where its grapes are cultivated, Paso Robles boasts a dramatic 50-degree temperature swing. Hot days sweeten the fruit and an evening chill, the grace of the Salinas River, balances acidity. Rocky canyon slopes, fertile bottomland and a soil complex of silty loams, clay, volcanic ash, and limestone all help define the white and red varietals that are garnering kudos from top wine journals.

I began a leisurely visit to Paso Robles in a luxury that belies the low-key manner of the area. After an easy three-and-one-half hour drive from San Francisco and another half hour up curvy, wooded Chimney Rock Road, I found Just Inn bed & breakfast—a quiet deliverance from city tempo.

Set in the vineyard of Justin Winery, the inn was both opulent and down to earth. My two-room suite, Tuscany, in a modern farmhouse was beautifully appointed with faux terra cotta walls, fireplace, brocade chairs, European antiques, marble bathroom. A feather bed’s deep loft was reminiscent of the gentle pitch and roll of the hills beyond the verandah.

Like other nearby wineries, the inn felt miles from civilization. Red-winged blackbirds riffled grasses and reeds near a pond; twilight charged the trellised wisteria and white lilacs of an English flower and herb garden. I made my way to a candlelight dinner inside the French auberge-style tasting room, which turns into a restaurant morning and evening for Just Inn guests only.

With all the driving behind me, I enjoyed a glass of Justin’s barrel-fermented crisp chardonnay, its flint and butter notes characteristic of chardonnays emanating from the chalky region.

I paced myself through four courses, including cured salmon appetizer, a butter-tender medallion of Maine scallop glazed with saffron sauce, roast tenderloin of beef and risotto with a red wine sauce spiked with a savory reduction of Justin’s Bordeaux red blend, Isosceles. I called a truce at dessert—the chef agreed to hold the "pillar of chocolate" until breakfast.

Paso Robles is skirted by sprawling oak woodland, home to hawks, bald eagles, deer, boar, wild turkeys, and jack rabbits. Just Inn is along a rural back road through these sturdy stands of coast live oaks. Bird-thronged meadows were overrun with white and purple lupine during my spring visit. Dead-ending at a limestone quarry, the road’s perfect for jogging, walking, cycling—especially before a full breakfast made more sumptuous with last night’s dessert.

Like a number of Central Coast winery owners, Debbie and Justin Baldwin consider Justin’s niche Estate wine—100 percent grown, produced, and bottled on the premises. Many Paso Robles winemakers exhibit this spirit of independence.

The Whole Flavor

Paso Robles wineries fall geographically into three main areas—those along or near Hwy 46 East; those along or near Hwy 46 West; and the "Far Out" wineries, tucked away on back roads. These include Justin and Norman vineyards; Peachy Canyon, named for a horse thief and near a cave where, local historians say, Jesse James and his brother, Frank, hung out during a brief visit to their Uncle Drury; and Adalaida, where nothing "...is quite so sublime as twilight spent perched upon our rocky crag, watching the sun sink into a glass of red..."

Plan on visiting only one area in a day, picnicking at one or several wineries en route. Follow the free Wine Tasting map and directory (see If you’re going...) which lists wineries’ addresses and phone numbers. Be sure to check tasting room hours—a few wineries are open weekends only.

Being more an amateur than a connoisseur of wine, I enjoyed the ritual of discovering the whole "flavor" of each winery I visited. Even if you don’t wine-taste, Paso Robles wineries have many added attractions.

In the tasting room Anyone can learn the socially acceptable gesture of tasting wine and spitting. If you’re driving, it’s not only safer, but also allows you to savor wines as many professionals do. The spitting bucket, usually an attractive ceramic or metal decanter on the counter, is there for this purpose. Some wine pourers may offer you a paper cup to spit into first, if you prefer.

The taste: Smell is critical, so before sipping, swirl the wine in the glass several times and sniff, breathing deeply. If aroma alone gets your mouth watering, it’s a good sign that the wine will please your palate.

A pour of wine is about an ounce. Sip about a third of this at a time. The first taste cleanses the palate; second lets the wine’s complexity start to come through; the third taste is said to be the truest.

Four areas of the tongue register taste, so roll the wine across your tongue, under and over it, and toward the back. Rolling it back on the tongue, wine tasters sometimes make a gurgling noise—it’s O.K., but don’t gargle. Pull the wine back there and don’t forget to breathe to keep your sense of smell active.

Spit: Seasoned wine tasters don’t hesitate to pick up the bucket and hold it under their chin to spit. So don’t be shy either.

46-East Wineries

A tour to Hwy 46 East wineries might include the following:

  • In Martin Brothers’ modern, airy tasting room, where the winemakers have been successful with Italian varietals, you’ll find espresso drinks and baskets of crusty breads from Pure & Simple bakery; imported gifts, including pottery and ceramic dishware, and embossed-glass bottles with spigots for oil or vinegar; jewelry; grappa.
  • Eberle, in a beautiful setting on the Estrella River plains, is gaining renown for its attractive cabs and zins. Visit its cool, underground caves, wine library, and romantic cellar where winemaker dinners are periodically served.
  • Arciero, offering a self-guided tour, is one of the area’s few large production wineries. It’s a name known to auto racers. A racing car collection is on display, including a championship Indy car.
  • Tobin James offers fancifully named reds such as Deep Purple (zin) and Bodacious (syrah); the tasting room has a fun ragtime feel and an impressive 100-year-old bar hauled piece by piece from Missouri.
  • Laura’s Vineyard is small and modest and has an idyllic tree-shaded picnic area.
  • Sylvester has the only vintage Pullman train cars among vines; you can picnic in the cars or watch Haflinger horses pull wooden carriages along vineyard paths and pistachio trees; buy imported foods, including virgin olive oil poured from a terra cotta urn.
  • Silver Horse has a modest tasting room atop the ridge of its scenic ranch, where you can see thoroughbred horses bound for the racetrack, maybe, if it’s spring, a mare in the paddock with her foal.

46-West Wineries

Big tourist attractions like Hearst Castle and Cambria are only a 40-minute drive from Hwy 46 West in Paso Robles, just over the Santa Lucia Mountains. In fact, tourists may funnel east on 46 through the Santa Lucia gap, with Pacific Ocean breezes, to visit the cluster of handsome Paso Robles wine facilities. Among these: Castoro, Pesenti, JanKris, Mastantuono, and Live Oak, where the tasting room is a former one-room schoolhouse built in 1886.

One of my favorite 46-West winery stops was Bonny Doon, which shares grounds with Sycamore Farms. Here, I browsed and sniffed my way through an aromatic herb garden, carting off a pot of seductive atar rose geranium. A chic, artsy garden supply store is also the tasting room.

Another fun stop along 46-West had no wine, just cider and homebaked apple goods perfuming the air. Cider Creek Farm gives tastings of different ciders.

Wild Horse Winery, renowned for its remarkable, peppery pinot noir, is a little farther afield at rambling Winery Court off Lupine Lane. It’s actually in Templeton, a tiny town just south of Paso Robles.

Along 46-West, I spent a peaceful night in the contemporary and impeccably furnished Arbor Inn. Like Just Inn, this bed & breakfast’s owners also run a winery next door, Treana, which offers occasional dinner theater.

In The Town’s Attic

When you need a break from tasting rooms, Paso Robles’ town center merits a visit. The town is a comfortable mix of slightly time-worn and down-home. It harkens back to an era when you could park anywhere and forget to lock the car.

Sit on the town green and admire the Italianate Revival Carnegie Library on the square. A few little cafes and restaurants and some rough-and-tumble antique shops rim the child-friendly square. The obvious town-favored cafe is a few blocks away, on Spring Street. The Bakery Works Cafe in a former residence, with homey porch seating for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, has delicious homebaked goods, like the melt-away lemon scones.

When you’re ready to delve deeper into the past of a town that appears remarkably yuppie-free, here are two recommendations. Take the self-guided tour to Paso Robles historical buildings and homes—a booklet is available for $1.50 from the Chamber of Commerce at 1225 Park Street.

Dating as far back as 1888 and all within walking distance of each other, Paso Robles’ architectural jewels include styles in Mission Revival, Colonial Revival, redwood "stick," Western false front, and more. The Victorian Queen Anne on Vine Street is now an art gallery open to browsing. An 1890 granary is a mall with restaurants and boutiques.

Next, visit the Pioneer Museum on Riverside—an easy walk from the town square. Its plain galvanized façade gives little hint of the jam-packed "attic" it holds of regional history, including that of native peoples. Vintage clothing, furniture, farm and ranching equipment share space with a barn full of buggies and a Fageol truck, forerunner of the Peterbilt. Re-created rooms include one with pianist Paderewski’s artifacts.

As the townfolk might put it, the best place to eat dinner "in" meat-and-potatoes Paso Robles is actually in Templeton, just four miles south. The town has an interesting Main Street with cafes, old false-fronts, a jumbo grain elevator, and two popular restaurants, McPhee’s Grill and A.J. Spurs.

In an area where you don’t have to ask, Where’s the beef? Ian McPhee’s restaurant defies the status quo. His creative cuisine matches the caliber of the area’s fine wines, which he serves with such dishes as macadamia-crusted salmon with ginger-sesame, pork with chili corn confetti, an array of pastas, pizzas, and many appetizers. Great food and the courtyard seating make this a hot spot.

A.J. Spurs is in the tradition of local ranching, serving lots of red meat entrées with included side dishes, such as chunky potato-fries and beef-rich vegetable soup. This is not refined dining, but it’s good, cheap, and copious—kids love it.

In the tasting room


Anyone can learn the socially acceptable gesture of tasting wine and spitting. If you’re driving, it’s not only safer, but also allows you to savor wines as many professionals do. The spitting bucket, usually an attractive ceramic or metal decanter on the counter, is there for this purpose. Some wine pourers may offer you a paper cup to spit into first, if you prefer.

The taste: Smell is critical, so before sipping, swirl the wine in the glass several times and sniff, breathing deeply. If aroma alone gets your mouth watering, it’s a good sign that the wine will please your palate.

A pour of wine is about an ounce. Sip about a third of this at a time. The first taste cleanses the palate; second lets the wine’s complexity start to come through; the third taste is said to be the truest.

Four areas of the tongue register taste, so roll the wine across your tongue, under and over it, and toward the back. Rolling it back on the tongue, wine tasters sometimes make a gurgling noise—it’s O.K., but don’t gargle. Pull the wine back there and don’t forget to breathe to keep your sense of smell active.

Spit: Seasoned wine tasters don’t hesitate to pick up the bucket and hold it under their chin to spit. So don’t be shy either.

This article was first published in September 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Ask for San Luis Obispo County map at your local AAA
office
(or order it online). For information on lodging, dining, and attractions, contact or stop by the Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, 1225 Park St., Paso Robles, CA 93446, (805) 238-0506 or (800) 406-4040. Wine Map is available from the chamber, wineries, or the Paso Robles Vintners Growers, P.O. Box 324, Paso Robles, CA 93447; (805) 239-8463. Ask about winemaker or guest chef dinners at many wineries. The Fifth Annual Country Harvest Tour takes place October 17-19.

Lodging: Just Inn, 11680 Chimney Rock Rd., Paso Robles, 93446, (805) 238-6932 or (800) 726-0049; rates from $225 to $275, breakfast included; $50/person for dinner, not including wine.

Arbor Inn, Hwy 46, 2130 Arbor Rd., Paso Robles, CA 93446, (805) 227-4673, has nine beautiful rooms, from $125 to $235, full breakfast included. Check the chamber’s Visitors and Newcomers Guide for other B&Bs in the area.

Check the AAA California/Nevada TourBook for approved accommodations, including modestly priced historic Paso Robles Inn and restaurant, near the town square, at 1103 Spring St.; (805) 238-2660. Rooms, from $65 to $70.

The Guest House at Emboscada Vineyard, a quiet retreat in a two-bedroom wine country house, fully equipped kitchen, sleeps up to four; $225/night/four persons; (800) 927-6163 for reservations.

Mission San Miguel Archangel: While touring wineries on the Hwy 46 East stretch, visit Mission San Miguel Archangel. See its 16th century Spanish wood-carving of Saint Michael victorious over Lucifer, statue of Sorrowful Mother in black, sacred garden, old beehive oven, cemetery with over 2,000 Indians buried in it, and the 2,000-pound mission bell. The mission celebrates its bicentennial this September 21, with much fanfare—a parade; high mass in the main church; barbecue; mariachi bands; vocal arts ensemble concert; guided tours, and more. Call for details, (805) 467-3256.

Many visitors unfortunately miss the adobe Rios Caldonia, just across the street from the mission. This well-preserved hacienda was built in 1846 by Rios Petronillo and Indian friends, as a home for his family.

Outdoor recreation: Lake Nacimiento, a 40-minute drive from town, has camping, water skis, jet skis, lake shore lodges.

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