The California Mid-State Fair, cowboy boots, antiques, and more than 170 wineries. Oh, happy days!
I'll admit it. The back wall of the Boot Barn has me stumped. For two days in Paso Robles, a town of about 29,000 on Highway 101 midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, I've sampled wines, eaten bison carpaccio with microgreens, and witnessed the action at the horseshoe pits in a shady park.
And now, having wandered through a mountain of Western shirts and boots, I'm looking at 150 beat-up cowboy hats spread high on a wall like a flock of grimy, sweat-stained buzzards come to roost.
"Old-time ranchers left them when they came in to buy a new hat," says Cindy Steinbeck-Newkirk, a shopper who volunteers the explanation. "I bet my own grandfather's hat is up there."
A traditional center of ranching where 180-plus wineries and 26,000 vineyard acres now spill from canyons and the larger hills west of town across to its eastern rolling grasslands, Paso Robles—pronounced PAS-uh ROE-bulz by locals—deftly blends saddles with syrahs. "I really sense a convergence of the old and new in Paso," Steinbeck-Newkirk later tells me, giving herself as a prime example: She belongs to the fifth generation of a ranching family that just released its own wines under the Steinbeck label, and she conducts vineyard tours in a 1958 Jeep named WineYard Willy.
Though July and August can be searing, Paso offers plenty of summer-time fun. The California Mid-State Fair boasts big-name entertainers—Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw appear at this year's celebration, taking place July 22 to August 2—but it's small enough to allow close-up views of 4-H kids grooming heifers to blow-dried perfection. Other fair offerings include meet-and-greets with local chefs and a sprawling midway featuring one of the state's biggest Ferris wheels.
Among the large wineries east of town, Meridian hosts a Fourth of July bash with fireworks; Robert Hall and Eberle offer a way to keep cool—tours of their caves.
Westside wineries tend to be smaller, many of them dotting scenic back roads. Turley produces some of the area's famously powerful zinfandels, and at Tablas Creek you can sip elegant rhone-style blends.
Paso Robles dining options range from gourmet to juicy burgers at Good Ol' Burgers and the home-style Mexican fare of Lo Mejor de Michoacan. My dinner at stylish Artisan included a savory BLTA, the chef 's take on a breadless BLT with pancetta and abalone. "We aren't a cow town anymore," says co-owner Michael Kobayashi, "but we haven't turned 'resorty.' "
Downtown Paso Robles has bounced back since a 6.5 earth-quake in 2003, and now, in the streets around City Park, you'll find a clutch of pleasant shops. Firefly Gallery carries abalone shell–inlaid wooden platters, iridescent glass paperweights, and other work by local craftspeople. It's easy to spend an hour at the Great American Antiques Mall even if you aren't in the market for a restored 1958 gas pump or a WWII British military pocket watch. At We Olive, the selection of some 45 California olive oils available for tasting and purchase includes flavored Pasolivo oils produced in the hills west of town.
At City Park, a swath of lawn and trees on two square blocks, the town gathers for horseshoe games, vintage car and sidecar rallies, picnics, and festivals, including an annual olive fest (this year on August 22).
The park also offers free bandstand concerts from late June through August. As you settle in for a balmy summer evening of music, provisioned with a merlot–raspberry truffle ice cream cone from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, it may occur to you that Paso remains a mighty fine place to hang your hat.
Photography by Chris Leschinsky
This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.