Wine, Wine, and a Little More Wine
So my husband and I have fallen in love. In love with Paso Robles that is. After attending several events featuring wineries from the region, it was time to experience it up close and personal. Our first introduction to the Rhone heavy wines of “Paso” was at their annual Grand Tasting Tour in San Diego, usually held in February or March. Over 45 wineries were represented serving fabulous Zinfandels, Syrahs and other varietals along with olive oil tastings and information on great places to stay. In addition to becoming very fond of their wines, one look at the photographs and description of the Hotel Cheval put us in the planning stages. Located 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo, Paso is a quaint former farming community that has morphed into one of the better wine producing regions in the state of California. 30,000 residents call this place home, along with over 180 bonded wineries. The easiest way to get to Paso is via car, but there is also a small airport in town and Amtrak gets there – eventually. After a lovely time in Santa Barbara (and that’s a whole other story), we grabbed a hot, jet-black Dodge Challenger from the local Enterprise rent-a-car and were off. The Hotel Cheval is located on Pine Street just off the center square of downtown. Little retail stores, bars, tasting rooms and restaurants lined the street and our hotel was situated perfectly amongst them. The Cheval is a warm, inviting and impeccably conceived boutique hotel designed in an Italian Villa architectural style. Fifteen wonderfully unique rooms surround a magical courtyard with a richly appointed mini library flanked by two outdoor wood burning fireplaces blazing every night. The rooms are large yet snug, and you’re not going to want to get out of the bed. Talk about sleeping in a cloud! The only thing that dragged us out of the sack was the excitement of a day full of wine tasting and the galvanized pail containing our complimentary continental breakfast, complete with personalized note, found daily at our doorstep. OK…we are not leaving. We barely escaped without a long and emotional farewell to the sumptuous robes found in the armoire. Stay here! The Cheval is also mega- gay friendly with “pride” specials in the summer months. There is not much “official” gay life in Paso Robles. No bar, no community centers, no specific gay web sites, but the townsfolk could not be more friendly and welcoming. There wasn’t one venue where we felt uncomfortable, unwelcome or even slightly out of place and that includes The Crooked Kilt on Military half-price Monday night. If you’re looking to meet up with other gay locals, the usual web sites cover the area and we noticed a healthy count of college guys from neighboring Cal Poly looking for like-minded friends. If you’re looking for a white party or dancing until 4 am, you’ll hate it here. If you’re just up for relaxing, sipping some great wines, wonderful food and charmingly friendly people, you’ve found heaven. As for wine tasting, plan your days ahead if at all possible. Each person we spoke with listed at least 5 places we “must” try leaving us so many options that our last stop would have been Betty Ford had we followed everyone’s advice. Five vineyards a day is a reasonable goal and you’ll actually still be able to taste the wines at that pace. Our first stop was at Calcareous, perched on the top of a gorgeous hill with forever vistas located on the west side at 3430 Peachy Canyon Road. As advised by Rob from our hotel, take a lunch and enjoy the view after your first flight of wine. Most vineyards are open daily from 11 to 5, so lunch after your first tasting is a good call. The Calcareous tasting room is intimate, lovely and the “Twisted Sister” wine produced by sisters/owners Erica and Dana was fab. Lunch overlooking the valley with Bodie and Scotty (the vineyard's Chocolate Lab and Scottish Terrier) resting at our feet was the perfect start to the day. Our next stops were Whalebone and Tablas Creek which are relatively close to each other, and distinctly different. Whalebone is an old wooden house situated a bit up a hill. Named after the whale bone fossils found on its verdant acres by a Bob and Janalyn Simpson, they have a few lovely wines to try. Our favorite is “Bob’s Wine." Ask Janalyn the story, it’s pretty cute. Speaking of cute, Tiffany the English bulldog was a hoot standing at our feet and scratching at our legs for a little attention between sips. A quick belly-rub will get you a friend for life. Whalebone also has lovely olive oils to sample including flavors with essence of Meyers Lemons, Mandarin Oranges and various herbs. Great place to stop and smell the roses so to speak. Tablas Creek is a whole different story with a sophisticated tasting room staffed by several people pouring, and a record count of thee vineyard dogs for your petting pleasure. The vineyard is huge with 120 working acres; all of it certified organic, which is no easy feat. Tablas Creek has a sister vineyard in France and the localized Rhone vines were actually grafts brought over and quarantined prior to being planted. Try their 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel. We brought a few of those home with us. No visit to Paso is complete without a stopover to the “trippy” Tobin James gang on the far East side of the valley. This place is great fun with incredible energy, delicious wines and an energetic and engaging staff. All tastings are free and don’t be surprised if the Chef comes out with a tray of freshly made savory treats for you to gnosh on. Ask for Mo if you go to Tobin and she will take excellent care of you. Their tasting boasts 12 different wines, so plan to spend a little time and drink lots of water between. The only rule in their tasting room is – Have Fun! We had a complete blast and left with a case of their Chateau Le Cacheflo which is a fun red blend with a Mediterranean flair. If you don’t feel like leaving Downtown, there are plenty of tasting rooms within walking distance. Meritage opened a few weeks prior to our visit and is a nice way to experience several good wines in one spot. There are 11 wineries in residence within the large, singular space, each with its own tasting station. It’s kind of cool as you are issued a card that is swiped with each taste and you pay upon departure. Try the ports from Rox or delight in something to eat from the Piazza Bistro Menu. Tastings average $2 and the food offering range from Crostini at $6 to rack of lamb at a very reasonable $17. If you’re in the mood to get out of a tasting room, hit Basil next door to Meritage for some of the best Thai food ever. The menu is a little tough to navigate, and the dang front door doesn’t close all the way creating a perpetual draft, but this place is so worth it. Being Thai food lovers, we didn’t think Paso would deliver on that front, but the Pad Phet with young peppercorns, red curry paste and basil leaves is a fiery flavor explosion. Also give the Angle Wings a shot. Who would’ve thought stuffing chicken with chicken and deep frying it would be so delectable? There is no shortage of places to dine here, but one place is not to be missed. Artisan is truly amazing and should be savored at least once. It’s quite the unpretentious little place in a nondescript building on a corner a few blocks off the park. We were fortunate enough to visit on a Monday night during first quarter. Artisan holds “Monday Night Suppers” featuring a specific local winemaker and a three course prix fixe menu designed to complement the wines. Austin Hope was the featured vineyard and dang if Austin himself didn’t saunter up to the table for an in-depth conversation about his wines, family and Paso. “We’re all just farmers turned winemakers” which pretty much explains the unpretentious, friendly “come on in and kick your shoes off” attitude. A few other winemakers stopped by to visit “just to say hey” and blessed us with tastes of their wares. You could say a healthy buzz was had by all by the time dinner was served, but what a fabulous meal it was! Chris Kobayashi and his wife Shandi own and run the place along with his brother Mike and wife Tina. Chris is Head Chef and Shandi ran the front of the house the night of our feast. Artisan is three years old and focuses on local, organic produce and proteins that are wild caught, or sustainably farmed. We could go on forever about this meal, but let’s just say that the Abalone BLT appetizer was a real treat and the Scottish Halibut with lobster risotto, cippolini onions and caramelized onions was a dish beyond compare. So go to Paso Robles. Go for the wine, go for the food, go for the people, go for the beauty. The key word here is go. Check out the website for the Paso Robles Wine Alliance for lots of good info and get it on your calendar. Not only will you enjoy yourself immensely, but you’ll be planning your next trip while you’re on your way home. Cheers!