Head to the Central Coast for Merlot and the Mid-State Fair
For years Paso Robles was a sleepy ranch town best known as a rest stop for motorists half-way between Los Angeles and the Bay Area. In 1954, two of the town's most famous visitors, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, spent the first night of their honeymoon in Paso Robles's Clifton Motel while en route from San Francisco to a lodge near Palm Springs.
These days, though, Paso Robles—or Paso, as the locals call it—is a destination unto itself. Located north of San Luis Obispo on Highway 101 and about 25 miles from the coast, it is the center of one of California's fastest-growing wine regions. People now come to taste a slew of award-winning vintages and discover plenty of other pleasures, from antiquing and Western trail rides to a big country fair and bandstand concerts in a shaded park.
Officially named El Paso de Robles (the pass of the oaks), the town had its origins in the mid-19th century as a hot springs resort. By the early 1900s, the Hotel El Paso de Robles and its bathhouse drew such notables as Polish statesman and pianist Ignacy Paderewski and the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team, which for nearly a dozen seasons in the 1920s and '30s, made the El Paso its home during spring training. After the hotel burned down in 1940, it was replaced by the Paso Robles Inn.
Though wine plays a starring role in the economy of Paso Robles today, viticulture isn't new to this region. Franciscan padres planted grapes at Mission San Miguel (founded in 1797), about eight miles north of Paso Robles, and their huge stone-and-mortar fermentation vat can be seen in the mission's small museum. Commercial winemaking began in 1882, but nearly 100 more years would pass before wine grapes were planted on a large scale. Some 17,000 acres of them now grow in the Paso Robles viticultural area, home to more than 60 wineries. Nearly all of them have a tasting room, and there's also a good selection of local vintages for sale at the Hot Springs Deli & Wine Vault, a former bank which now houses vino.
Many vineyards, especially to the west of Paso, are along country roads lined with poppies and lupines, and daytime temperatures are far milder in spring than in summer. In terms of size and style, the wineries offer something for everyone—from EOS Estate, with its large visitor center and high-end gift shop, to tiny Garretson, whose award- winning Rhône-style wines are made in a prefab metal building adjacent to busy Highway 46 West. Meridian has a fragrant herb garden as well as a handsome tasting room, and its picnic area boasts a view overlooking the surrounding vineyards.
No matter what the time of year, you'll find a full calendar of winery events, including acoustic concerts at Castoro Cellars and winemaker dinners at Eberle Winery. At this popular event, five-course meals prepared by well-known guest chefs like Susan Spicer and Joyce Goldstein are paired with wines and served in a candlelit cellar.
When you're done with wine touring, stop for a long soak and a massage at Paso Robles Hot Springs & Spa or hunt for treasures at Pearly Gates Antique Mall, housed in an old church. To get a feel for Paso Robles's past, wander around Pioneer Museum, with its display of 989 different types of barbed wire and a 1922 Maytag washing machine complete with the original butter-churning attachment. At the end of July, don't miss the California Mid-State Fair—the self-described "Biggest Little Fair Anywhere"—featuring 4-H displays and concerts by musicians, who in the past have included Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keyes, and Alan Jackson.
In the downtown district around Spring Street, the town's main drag, a lively mix of restaurants and shops still occupies late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings. One beauty with a clock tower resembling an acorn overlooks grassy City Park, where the Vintners and Growers Association hosts the Wine Festival in May.
Downtown also offers a number of fine dining options. Bistro Laurent, for example, serves French specialties like bouillabaisse in its cozy, brick-walled dining room. At Alloro, Italian dishes such as agnolotti stuffed with wild mushrooms are complemented by a wine list that includes many hard-to-find local vintages. About five miles south of Paso Robles, in the tiny Old West town of Templeton, McPhee's Grill features an eclectic menu you might find in San Francisco or Los Angeles.
If you hanker for the cowboy life, outfit yourself in Western wear at the Boot Barn and then sign on for a horseback ride at the Work Family Guest Ranch, which also offers overnight trail rides. For another look at real cowboys, head to the livestock market in Templeton or, in summer, watch free weekly demonstrations of team roping and penning.
The fact that you can still encounter working cowboys around Paso Robles says a lot about the pace of change here. Vintner Gary Eberle, a former Penn State defensive tackle who arrived in 1973, feels that despite its charm, Paso Robles is probably too far from major population centers to become a year-round tourist draw. "And for those of us who like things a little slower," he adds, "that's not necessarily bad."
Photography by David Zaitz
This article was first published in March 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.