With so many vineyards and producers in the state, wine touring and tasting is a rite of passage for many Californians. But you don't have to drive north of San Francisco to find the state's best wines -- one of the largest and fastest-growing regions is Paso Robles, less than a four-hour drive from Los Angeles. With its oak-studded rolling hills and hot days and cool nights, it's one of the most picturesque, laid-back regions producing top-notch wines, including some big zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay. But the Rhone-style wines are really dynamite -- syrah, viognier, roussane, marsanne, granache blanc, picpoul -- especially the blends.
Explore the region any time of year, whether it's during spring bud break, fall harvest, the dusty, dry summer months, and even winter. The wine trails (there are five different options) are easy to follow, the tasting rooms are uncrowded and unpretentious, and the food scene is really picking up. Here's a quick primer on where to eat, drink and tour.
With more than 200 wineries in and around Paso Robles, you need a strategy. A few tips: Don't try to hit more than five or six wineries in one day (both your energy and palate will be fatigued), and it's best to divvy up which ones to hit by Westside (off of Highway 46 west of the 101) and Eastside (Highway 46 east of the 101). Below are just a few highlights in either direction, all easily found on one of the local winery maps. The locals here are a friendly lot--ask anyone what their favorite wineries are, and they'll be happy to list a few must-visits, too.
Linne Calodo: Like big wines? These blends, especially the Outsider, are bold and delicious. The new tasting room is inviting, a great place to start your tour.
Denner Vineyards: You'll need an appointment to stop here for a tasting, but it, meaning The Ditch Digger--an awesome grenache, syrah and mourvedre blend--is worth it.
Halter Ranch: The beautifully restored Victorian building is visible from the road, but that's only open for one-off events to club members. But definitely try any of the Bordeaux and Rhone-style blends, including the stunning Ancestor. A state-of-the-art winery and new tasting room will open on the property sometime this year.
Tablas Creek: Take a tour of on-site grapevine nursery and organic vineyard before you sip some of the area's best Rhone varietals.
Justin: Isosceles is what you want here. There is also an inn and restaurant on the property, one of the few in this corner of the region.
Adelaida: One of the better pinot noir producers in Paso, made from all estate-grown fruit, some vines planted as early as the 1960s.
L'Aventure: Do not miss the rose from this French winemaker.
Steinbeck: This family-owned and operated winery is off the beaten path, but check out the artifacts and history of the land (it's been in the family since the 1880s) in the small tasting room. Take the Crash Course tour--a jeep ride through the property followed by a tasting.
Eberle: Gary Eberle started making wine in the area in the early 1970s, and is considered one of the pioneers of today's Paso wine industry. Tour the caves, picnic on the patio, and enjoy a few extra sips of the fantastic cabernet.
Robert Hall: One of the most stunning and largest estates on the Central Coast. Taste the wines and buy gifts in the spacious tasting room, tour the underground wine caverns, or even play a round of bocce. The wines are super accessible, especially the Rhone de Robles (only $18 a bottle).
Where to Eat
The restaurant scene has really picked up in Paso Robles over the last few years. Stick to the center of town and you'll find cozy cafes for breakfast or lunch, stylish dining rooms for seasonal menus, and hopping bars for a glass of wine or beer, the winemaker's drink of choice.
Artisan: An always-changing menu is what keeps everyone coming back for more at this wonderful spot. Lunch, brunch or dinner.
Villa Creek: Any night of the week this place is bursting at the seems with wine-industry folks mingling with locals and tourists. The Mexican-inspired food is great, and while the Villa Creek wines are some of the best in the area, you won't go wrong with a margarita here.
Il Cortile: Fantastic spot for regional Italian specialties, especially the handmade pastas. The room is rustic, casual and quiet.
Thomas Hill Organics: A casual spot for farm-to-table fare...literally. Many of the ingredients come directly from the Thomas Hill farm.
Firestone Taproom: Look for a new full-service restaurant from the Firestone Walker Brewing Co. to open in downtown Paso Robles early this year.
Where to Stay
There are several hotel chains in the area, plus a few clean motels that are just fine for an inexpensive weekend getaway. After all, you won't be there to do much other than sleep. But if you want something a bit more high-end, Hotel Cheval in downtown Paso Robles is a lovely, chic boutique hotel. Right on the square is the historic Paso Robles Inn, which has outdoor hot springs soaking tubs in the majority of rooms. And the lovely Inn Paradiso, a new three-suite bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town.