Paso Robles Trip
Alarm sounds at 6:30, a quick shower and a banana down the hatch, load the car and out the door by 7. A quick stop at the java shop and I’m literally on the 15 South by 7:15, smooth getaway. This is how a quick getaway to California wine country generally starts, with a 6 – 6 1/2 hour drive. I make the turnoff at Barstow heading for Bakersfield where after negotiating the awesome twists and turns presented by the pass over the Tehachapi Mountains I make my first pit-stop for another cup of joe and a grand slam breakfast. Just north of Bakersfield I make a left on the 46, the Paso Robles highway, my final destination. I pass by Lost Hills, an odd sight as I squeeze through thousands of both pumping and idle oil wells (grasshoppers) in a matter of minutes…they’re almost on top of each other. Eventually, after six hours I start to see vineyards stretching up the rolling hills as I near my day 1 goal, East Paso wineries.
First stop, the ever-inviting Towbin James tasting room. This is my second visit to Towbin James and I’ll make the bold statement that it is the friendliest tasting room in California, region notwithstanding. It was busy as usual but Lisa took time to educate and converse with me as if I was with my own personal banker. I was introduced to the people on either side of me and had some decent conversation with my tastings. If you’re not familiar with TJ wines they are the big fruit driven heavy mouth-feel bombs that I love. TJs also charge no tasting fee, a rarity these days.
Just around the corner I visited Rocking R winery. They are a small producer and often as not the prices reflect that. The tasting cost and the prices on the bottles was consistent with a winery that makes only 300 cases of each wine as opposed to someone like say Meridian just to the North who make something akin to 120,000 cases of their Chardonnay annually.
Next was Eberle. I had been there before and was looking forward to their excellent wines as well as the free winery tour (others charge). The atmosphere was energized and the cellar staff gave an informative tour. I think that by the end of this 3rd stop I had already popped the ceiling on my wine purchase budget for the trip. Personal Note: When a winery chares for tastings I don’t generally feel bad about walking out without purchasing any bottles. I’ll even tip when there’s no fee.
I checked in at the Best Western Black Oak, a clean if basic lodging, nicely situated for my touring. I had booked dinner at The Artisan for 2 nights in a row. The last time I came through three years prior with my girlfriend we ate at the Artisan the first night, Panolivo the second (weak), and Bistro Laurent the third (quite good). We wished we had eaten at the Artisan every night. So at around seven I headed for Artisan, ordered a beautiful California Grenache Blanc $9.5 with my duck confit salad, spinach, pt. reyes blue, smoked almonds, “fried egg” $13, both amazing. I then had the wild boar tenderloin, pig cheek, fennel risotto, artichoke caponata $31 with a bodegas paso robles, mourvedre/tempranillo/grenache “vaca negra”, ’08, $10. If the tenderloin was good the cheek was sublime, melting in my mouth. For desert I passed on the traditional sweet option going instead for the cheese plate on the appetizer menu: mt. tam, merriment, la panza gold $16…all excellent if not challenging. I cabbed it back to my soft bed.
Day two dawns too early at 8:15 ( That’s what going to bed in a sleepy wine country town at 10:30 gets you), I cleaned up, had an Ortega chili omlette at nearby Margie’s Diner and gassed up the car for the wine trail.
A little back ground: There is a sort of a competition between East and West Paso.
The Salinas River Valley splits the area into the “West Side” and the “East Side” with over 200 wineries sharing the appellation. The cooler and wetter, “West Side” has wooded hillsides with narrow valleys and chalky, limestone and calcareous-rich soils. With a few exceptions, the vineyards and wineries are generally small and reside on country roads tucked back into the hills or along Highway 46 West. Here you can discover small boutique wineries, some with richly priced wines and reputations, family run wineries where the winemaker may be the one pouring in the tasting room, and small resort style places with grassy picnic areas and weekend entertainment.
On the “East Side” you find the largest wineries in the area, some with grand visitor centers, wine caves, and entertainment, as well as the small wineries making less than 5000 cases a year. Highway 46 East runs perpendicular to US 101 and is home to many of these great wine tasting stops. But don’t miss some of the unique little gems that hide out in the back roads on both the north and south side of Highway 46.
Stolen unabashedly from http://www.californiawineryadvisor.com/articles/view/Paso_Robles_Wine_Country_
Also, Paso is well known for its Rhone varietals, my personal favorite grapes. Here’s more info at http://www.rhonerangers.org/grapes/
I clipped town using the 24 and Nacimiento Lake drive to flank the wineries by a Northerly route in order to end up at Justin first, it being the most westerly of my winery choices. (Warning: Map required back up in here!) I had decided that as I was the driver that I would limit the amount I would imbibe that day and having been to Justin and tasted before I just wanted to go in and get a sense of the place. The main and quite old tasting room/hotel/restaurant were under extensive restoration and so a sign directed me to a more modern locale just around the corner. Apparently this is where club members have tours and tastings of the winery proper, quite impressive…the spare-no-expense feel of the place shows they are clearly a big player in Paso. I then drove round the bend to Carmody McKnight, I was the sole person in the tasting room and as such got an earful from the pourer chap who told me all about the artwork, museum attached, and the man Carmody, who had started as a Hollywood actor retiring to start the winery. When some revelers came in behind I made clean my getaway.
Next stop, Tablas Creek. I had been here three years earlier with my girlfriend and knew in advance I would just be taking a brief glance around the place. This is a strong Rhone varietal producer in Paso. There were a good number of tasters and I was able to take in my fill of the place without being accosted beyond a polite hello.
I then proceeded to Hammer Sky which I was told was a fantastic place to visit both by internet wine blogs and by folks about Paso. Unfortunately they only offer tastings on Thursday through Sunday and, you guessed it, this was not one of those days. Looked quaint…will go back. Across the street was Norman Vineyards where I had tasted on the last trip, it was now shuttered. Last time the patriarch had just passed away and the son, lacking all wine passion, had taken the reigns to disastrous effect.
Next door was Jada, another producer for which I had heard good things. I entered and was the sole taster in a very post-modern room. My pourer Ariel, he was spectacularly well manicured and knew the names of more colors that any girl I’ve ever dated. This would be my first tasting of the day and much like Rocking R yesterday the same small-batch pricing was in place. The tasting was $10 (non-refundable with purchase) but included a small cheese matching, always appreciated. I purchased a moderately priced ($40) bottle I had enjoyed and continued on.
Drove around, passing Turley (snots), passed Castoro which I enjoyed last trip and popped in at Peachy Canyon, a highly representative Zinfandel producer in Paso. The pourer was very friendly and forthcoming about information about Paso. She suggested my next stop and also recommended many restaurants for me to try, possibly on my next trip. Peachy makes very accessible wines, easy drinkers, something you’d choose for at home 85% of the time. I made off with a magnum of my favorite.
A few hundred yards west on highway 46 as recommended was Kenneth Volk/Lone Madrone, a combined space. Very kid friendly, children could torture goats and play around the inviting grounds whilst you and your date tasted away. Now I’ve been to Kenneth Volk’s tasting room in the Santa Maria AVA at least twice before and this one had many of the same wines available for tasting although with some regional tweaks added to the list. The tasting was very reasonable with eight choices for $10. I was able to squeak an additional two and rewarded Ryan (pourer) by purchasing six bottles of a particularly drinkable Cab blend. I tipped him too. Oh, and this was the only tasting that included the insignia stemware.
Twenty feet away, around a corner and under the same roof is the Lone Madrone tasting room. The winemaker here is moonlighting from his job as head winemaker for Tablas Creek. Here he takes liberties with traditional French appellation rules, crafting illegal blends that are lush and fruit driven, whilst still retaining complexity. Tasting was $5 because I had also tasted around the corner (the deal is reciprocal). I talked at length with the pourer about living in Paso and conversely about living in Vegas. Unimportant Personal Interjection: It’s interesting that when you vacation with someone you end up being cocooned from external conversations much of the time. It’s only in getting away on your own that you can meet and have revelatory conversations with folks you wouldn’t bat an eye at in your normal work-a-day existence.
Back to the hotel for some rest and a clean-up and then off to dinner at The Artisan. I had the same waitress and she laughed when she saw me even though I’d forewarned her. A brewer from Firestone was there and he came and sat with me for a while, also both the seafood supplier and general manager stopped by for a chat. I think that they maybe thought I was a blogger (duh) food writer because I was taking notes and annoyingly snapping shots of the food. Every Monday the Artisan puts on special chef’s menus with pairings…this one, although a beer pairing night, was astonishingly good. I’ve added my own comments to the menu below…
monday night supper 3.25.13
firestone & central coast seafood
cold house made noodle salad, skuna bay salmon crudo
mussels moulclade, fingerling potatoes, spring vegetables [scented with vadouvan, muah!]
pairing – firestone ~ pale 31 (california pale ale)
miso marinated black cod, grilled rice, spring onions, pickled ginger [best fish I’ve ever eaten, really!]
striploin, charred asparagus, bone marrow jus
pairing – firestone ~ wookey jack (black rye ipa)
stout beer ice cream sundae, beer nuts [best desert I’ve ever eaten, really!]
pairing – firestone ~ parabola 2012 (bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout)
The beers were excellent and look at the food pricing, this would cost treble in Vegas.
I headed back to the hotel for another wine-country early crash.
The trip home.
I was up and showered by 9am. I packed most of my things in the car including 2 newly purchased cases of wine. I masticated low grade grub at the local greasy spoon, checked the room once more for leftovers and checked out. Somewhere in that whirlwind I threw out my back so my planned coastal route home was replaced with a retraced return journey, making the drive 2 hours shorter. That’s it! Six hours each way, less than 3 days total. A brief glimpse of how the happy people live. Planning the next one already.