Over the past year, this wine blog has made numerous trips to Napa Valley and Sonoma. My son finished his winery internship at Rombauer Vineyards (Napa Valley) and needed to drive his pickup to Austin, TX so he could work crush and harvest with his friends at Solaro Estate Winery (Dripping Springs, TX). What could be better than winemaking in 100+ heat?
The 24 hour drive across the desert southwest is long and boring, so I generously offered (note sarcasm) to fly out to CA and drive back with him. The catch, you ask. Well, we just had to spend a couple of days exploring and of course drinking wine, in Paso Robles wine country. Neither of us had been to Paso so we weren't sure what to expect. In the end we met some great people and innovative winemakers, had creative and delectable meals and best of all, drank some excellent wines. We will definitely be back for another visit.
Paso Robles is a quaint town in as one local said “the middle of nowhere.” It is located three hours south of the San Francisco and three hours north of Los Angeles but close to the beach. We arrived on Friday night around 6PM to find a concert on the lush lawn of the town square. Lots of locals in lawn chairs and on blankets sipping wine and beer enjoying the country band rockin' the gazebo. The scene reminded me a bit of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. At first blush, we liked the local feel without the overblown tourist attractions found in some of the more glitzy wine areas.
The town square has so much to offer that staying within walking distance will certainly enhance your Paso experience. We had a very enjoyable stay at the Paso Robles Inn.
The surrounding terrain goes from flat on the east side of Hwy 101 to quite hilly on the west side and down Hwy 46. Wineries and vineyards are plentiful on both sides of Paso. The wineries are smaller and quainter than many in Napa and Sonoma. Tasting room staffs are friendly, knowledgeable and in many cases the winemaker or assistant winemaker was around, happy to answer questions.
Most wineries have their own tasting rooms. But for a change of pace, take an afternoon walk around town square and enjoy the many in-town tasting rooms.
The wines were a bit more inconsistent than I have found in Napa and Sonoma where most of the wines are good and you search for great. In Paso there are plenty of good wines, some great and some that were just not to our liking. This can be attributed to a few factors. In Paso, because of the hotter climate, Rhone varietals that may be unfamiliar are common, such as Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre for reds and Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne for the whites. Paso wineries also produce Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and some delectable white blends. It also seems that some of the newer and smaller wineries are still trying to find their way and create their personal style. All that said, we did have some excellent wines so keep reading.
The food, I have to say was a pleasant surprise. Within walking distance of the square and tasting rooms are a nice handful of chef driven restaurants with creative and wine friendly menus. This allowed us to enjoy a couple of tasting rooms on both Saturday and Sunday evenings, meet some friends, walk to an excellent dinner and stroll back to our hotel. For dinner our restaurant favorites were Artisan, Thomas Hill Organics, and Il Cortile. A day of wine tasting requires a hearty breakfast and we found great coffee and a delicious egg sandwich at the Amsterdam Coffee House. How about lunch? If you are wine tasting on the west side off Hwy 46, Farmstand 46 is a must stop for healthy gourmet artisan sandwiches, a glass of local wine and beautiful patio seating. Plus the tasting room for Chronic Cellars is in the back of the building.
In-Town Tasting Rooms
There are plenty of tasting rooms only a couple of blocks from the town square. Some are home to multiple wineries. It’s hard to go wrong. Here are two favorites:
Ortman offers a wide selection of very well made wines and the tasting room folks are lots of fun. The $10 tasting fee gets you 6 tastes. On our visit we had two Chardonnays and four reds. Of the wines, the Firepeak Vineyard Chardonnay was exceptional. For the reds, my favorite was the Wittstrom Vineyard Petite Sirah.
An elegant cozy tasting room with nice couches and comfy chairs so you can relax and enjoy a glass of wine once you’ve sipped through the tasty samples. From Parrish, we enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah. But we settled into that comfy seating with a nice full glass their rich and round 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Needless to say, there are a lot of wineries around Paso Robles and we did not get a chance to visit nearly as many as we would have liked. We based our winery choices on recommendations from our readers and y’all didn’t let us down. Here were a few of our favorites.
Hope Family is one of the largest Paso vintners with 5 lines, Liberty School, Austin Hope, Candor, Treana and Troublemaker. The tasting room is elegant and spacious with beautiful vineyard view. We spent most of our first morning with winemaker J.C. Diefenderfer learning about Hope Family and the wine selections. J.C. took us out in the vineyards that surround the tasting room for a first hand view of the developing crop. Hope Family wines span the spectrum from the easy drinking and affordable Liberty School, Troublemaker and Candor lines to the more complex wines from Austin Hope, and Treana. We enjoyed all these wines but our favorites were the Troublemaker (muti-vintage blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre), Treana Red (Syrah and Cabernet blend) and Treana White (Marsanne and Viognier blend).
Jack Creek was our biggest surprise of the trip. Not much Pinot Noir is grown around Paso but this estate grown fruit rocks. Both the Pinot and Pinot Reserve were excellent wines. The winery and its quaint tasting room are a bit off the beaten path but worth the drive. They also offer both a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fermented in concrete tanks. This is a winemaking technique I find fascinating so I was disappointed that the new vintage has not yet been released. Maybe next time.
Located on the east side of Hwy 101, Cass Vineyards is a picturesque location to not only taste but also relax on their covered porch with a class of your favorite tasting sample. That is exactly what we did. The standouts from the wines we sampled were the Rockin’ One White (Roussanne and Marsanne), Rockin’ One Red (Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache) and our favorite, the 2010 Viognier. The Viognier was one better California Viogniers I’ve had.
We were introduced to Grey Wolf at the Denver International Wine Festival where we enjoyed their Zinfandels. The tasting room has a turn of the century Victorian feel with more vineyard views. Most of Grey Wolf’s lineup is red wines including Zinfandel, Cabernet and a Bordeaux Blend. Our favorite was the Big Bad Wolf, a Zinfandel with 5% pop of Petite Sirah that really kicks up the spice component of the wine.
Lone Madrone is the personal project of Tablas Creek winemaker Neil Collins. For a $10 fee you taste 5 wines and get to keep you logo glass. The tasting room is in a rustic barn with a gift shop that is well stocked and includes some unique tidbits we didn’t see anywhere else. Our favorites of the wines were the Points West White (Roussanne, Viognier & Picpoul Blanc), Bailey Ranch Zinfandel and the 2005 Cabernet.