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Paso Robles, Wine country the way it was

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As we struggle to find diversions during the coronavirus crisis that has grounded so many travelers with its unpredictable nature and shifting geographical targets, it’s time to get in the car and explore our own backyard of a state.

Just a little over three-hour drive from the city of Napa is Paso Robles, a town that is enviably inland with easy access to the ocean and sights like Hearst Castle. A few days in Paso and its surrounding towns like Cambria, Atascadero and San Simeon could be just what the Rhone wine lover, gourmand or romantic needs to feel a change of scenery.

First, you will find superior tasting experiences at notable wineries as well as smaller and sometimes experimental wineries. And Paso Robles wine country will not break the bank. Tasting fees are moderate and experiences including food pairings a fraction of what we find farther north.

Places to stay are abundant and all of the major hotel and motel chains are represented as well as several luxury properties like Le Cheval and Piccolo (with its popular rooftop bar) but, since I go back and forth to Los Angeles often, always with a dog or two, Paso Robles has become the perfect stopover and The Oxford Inn and Suites my “go-to” hotel that understands us dog people.

For only $35 per stay, your dog is welcomed with a collapsible bowl and biscuits as well as friendly pats and pets. The rooms are a step above comfortable, the pool and fitness room immense for a hotel of this size and the breakfast buffet, gone by the wayside during COVID-19, is now a takeaway breakfast with goodies like house made English muffin egg and bacon sandwiches. So much better than a buffet.

Lately, though, I have changed it up a bit since Stables Inn debuted after an extensive renovation to a formerly basic motel. Taking a cue from sister Hotel Cheval, Stables Inn is all about clean lines and cowboy retro design. Sit around the fire pit at night and compare tasting notes from the day or stumble into town, easy walking distance, for dinner at Thomas Hill Organics or locals-fave Hatch. Add a dog to your stay for $25.

At the Paso Robles Square, the array of restaurants and downtown tasting rooms rivals any wine country town center. My two favorite restaurants are Fish Gaucho with their inventive tacos and massive tequila selection and La Consecha for Latin specialties like grilled scallops over turnip puree. There is plenty of outdoor dining, and take-out is not a problem even at fine dining places. Reservations are recommended for any weekend dining.

I went to Paso Robles soon after tasting rooms and restaurants opened (before becoming limited once again) and the town was buzzing.

Visit Paso, the tourism agency, had invested in an outdoor dining area on their town Plaza, staffed and complete with wine glasses and cutlery, so that visitors and residents alike could experience dining out safely. Simply order and pick up your meal and be escorted to a table. A brilliant idea, and the evening I was there, the place was filled with winemakers swapping their latest vintages as well as their predictions of the upcoming harvest, which were overall positive for a normal and measured crush season.

Tasting opportunities are plentiful in Paso Robles and are broken down into the downtown tasting rooms and the east and west sides of the 101 freeway. For this visit, I stuck to the west side and started at the stunningly situated Denner Vineyards, where the owner owes his success to, effectively ditch digging, and has named wines after this labor-intensive chore. Ron Denner owned Ditch Witch franchises that landed him in the position to pursue winemaking the way he wanted to do it. Beautiful views over 130 acres of 20 varieties of grapes belie the fact that the winery is fully solar with a grey water irrigation system and preserved wetlands.

Winemaker Anthony Yount works closely with vineyard manager Aron Nevarez (they are great friends and godfathers to each other’s children) to produce Grenache-based blends like Ditch Digger and Dirt Worshipper.

Alta Colina means “high hill” in Spanish, and that is just what you will find at the Tillman family’s 31 acres nestled between two hills soaring as high as 1,800 feet.

Bob Tillman is an analytical guy after years as a Hewlett-Packard executive and has figured that the wine is grown in the vineyard and grapes should be planted where they grow best. Known for their Syrah and Grenache blends, Alta Colina also makes stunning white Rhones and a bit of Petite Sirah, just because it grows well in a tiny patch between the hills. “Taste in the Vineyards” is the premier experience as you get a history of the vineyards while tasting what came off them.

Unique to Alta Colina is a reservoir surrounded by vintage trailers that can be rented by the night. Perpetually busy, reserve both trailers and tastings in advance.

Just down the road from Alta Colina is Parrish Family Vineyards and their country club-like tasting facility. More like walking into an elegant home, Parrish’s excellent wines can be enjoyed indoors and on the veranda, and the winery offers a lunch menu that means you don’t have to drive back to town to eat. Paso Robles is unique in this regard and several wineries like Halter Ranch and Justin have full-scale restaurants at their rural locations.

Out on Vineyard Road on the west side is Thacher Winery, sitting prettily on the site of the Kentucky Ranch horse farm where many a blue-blood horse was raised. The old barn on the property still has the stalls and was used as a wedding venue before the COVID-19 crisis.

Sherman Thacher is a master brewer who turned his talents into making wine from unusual as well as the typical popular varietals. He even has planted an acre of almost obscure grape varieties to make a field like no other in California. The wines are great and the label, with its signature grasshopper, comes from Sherman’s family crest.

Add a “t’ and you’ll get the family business back in England. This “thatcher” knows how to make the rarer varieties like Valdiguies, Cinsaut and Nebbiolo sing but the Pinot Noir and Cab are equally fantastic.

And, while in Paso, or just passing through (the town is three hours outside of Los Angeles so almost a perfect stopping off point or weekend destination from Northern or Southern California. The relatively recent creation of Tin City took some old manufacturing and industrial storage areas and attracted wineries, breweries and distilleries with cheap rents and a few restaurants followed. Definitely stop by ONX Winery and enjoy their extensive outdoor seating area along with a bottle of their famed Rose of Tempranillo, which is considered the “OG” of roses in this area.

My favorite find during my last trip to Paso was Union Sacre Winery, where French winemaker Xavier Arnaudin targets Alsatian wines and they drink beautifully along with his Pinot and Cab offerings. These wines are well-priced and each one perfect in its freshness and complexity.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Paso Robles. One of the most scenic drives in all of California is Route 46 from the 101 to the Pacific Coast Highway and charming Cambria. Wineries along this route are equally interesting and dining at Robin’s in Cambria is worth the drive. And for true California grandeur, Hearst Castle is just a few miles north.

Thacher’s Summer Sesame Noodles

This fast, summer-ready dish is great for the whole family (kids love it). Pairs with 2019 Thacher Cinsault Rosé

1 pound noodles long egg noodles (Ramen works too)

2-plus tablespoons sesame oil

3 ½ tablespoons soy sauce (ginger soy sauce is best)

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 tablespoons sesame paste

1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon finely grated ginger

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons chile oil

Half a cucumber, peeled, seeded sliced into bite-sized sticks

Small handful of roasted peanuts (cashews work too), crushed

In a large pot, boil water. Add noodles and cook just shy of al dente. Drain, and soak in cold water then drain again. Add a few drops of sesame oil and coat the noodles (tossing by hand works best).

In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame paste, peanut butter, sugar, ginger, garlic and chile oil.

Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss. Place portions in serving bowls, and top with cucumber and peanuts or cashew crumbles. Serves 4.

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In times of COVID-19 wineries have had to be creative to figure out how to capture a piece of the booming wine business even if the brand doesn’t have a place on grocery store shelves.

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