This is wine country! Wine-tasting is one of my favorite things to partake in. In California, we are spoiled for choice with the ideal climate for growing and producing some of the best wines in the world.
I decided to visit Paso Robles, California to discover a few boutique wineries that many people might not be familiar with. El Paso de Robles, or “Pass of the Oaks” is a community of 30,000 people. It’s located in San Luis Obispo County near the Central California coast and will be celebrating 125 years in 2014.
With over 180 wineries in the region, I had the enviable task of trying several so that I can pass along my favorites to you. Most are family owned and operated with tasting rooms. They also offer wine clubs with special membership pricing so you can have them delivered right to your door – even if you live in another state.
It should go without saying that you should always have a designated driver when doing any wine tasting trips. So I graciously bribed my friend Tom with food, and then shamelessly put him to work driving me around Paso Robles. We hopped into his convertible (with the top down of course) and cruised down the 101 jammin’ to Springsteen.
Our first stop was for lunch. I always encourage people to eat before they do any wine tasting, especially in Paso Robles where pairings with food are not standard. Most wineries will pour 6 to 7 glasses in their “flight”, so it’s important to have a good meal before you head out.
We landed at a new restaurant called La Cosecha that just opened this Summer. It is the vision of Executive Chef, Santos MacDonal, and his wife, Carole MacDonal. We enjoyed everything about this place, including the sweet story of how they met. Carole was a former Producer on The Amazing Race TV show and had frequented a restaurant in Los Angeles where Santos was the chef. She first fell in love with his truffles…and the rest is history. They got married, then moved to Paso Robles to launch their dream of opening a restaurant together.
The signature cocktail menu was so inviting and intriguing, I couldn’t resist trying several of them. My favorites were the Vida Licuado and the Watermelon Thyme with cucumber vodka, watermelon juice, and thyme. The Botanicos Espumosos was also a hit with refined gin, Cava, thyme, and rhubarb bitters.
Next, we savored the brunch menu with Pastelitos Catracho (Honduran style empanadas) and Sopa de Frijoles (black eyed pea soup with rice, topped with a poached egg).
The Ensalada de Granos salad and Caprese Latino sandwich were equally impressive. It was topped off with Tres leches cake for dessert. Everything was excellent and we didn’t want to leave – but had a tight schedule and wine was beckoning us.
Next, we ventured to Villa San-Juliette Vineyard in San Miguel, where we sipped wine under a beautiful great oak at the 168-acre Tuscany-inspired estate. After a quick tour of the vineyards, and production facility, we sampled many lovely bouquets from this boutique winery that produces 24,000 cases per year. It was built as an escape by owners, and former American Idol Producers, Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick. We sipped and lounged all day there, listening to a live band and soaking up the sun. The views were equally stunning, especially from the wine club’s private balcony. The 2010 Chorum and the 2009 Reserve Malbec were our favorites - and both of them came home with us.
We then cruised over to Epoch Winery just before closing time and enjoyed a tasting of four key wines. My favorite was the rare 2009 Reserva Tempranillo, where only 6 barrels were produced. You gotta love 100% Tempranillo, baby! It was aged for 35 months, begging for extended barrel aging in the traditional Rioja 'reserva' style. The tasting room is fairly new, but the original vines date back to the 1800’s.
After that, it was time to check into our beautiful 2-room Whirlpool Suite at La Bellasera Hotel & Suites. I’ve stayed here a few times, so it’s like my second home when I’m in Paso Robles. The hotel boasts a beautiful outdoor pool, an exercise room, wireless internet, attentive staff, and a delightful onsite restaurant, Enoteca. It’s conveniently close to downtown Paso Robles and most of the wineries in the region, so it makes for a great home base.
We were so impressed with Santos and Carole MacDonal from dining at their restaurant for lunch, that we decided to go to their other restaurant for dinner, Il Cortile Ristorante, where we enjoyed a vast array of rustic Italian fine dining. We asked them to bring us their favorite and most popular dishes as we trusted them with our plates and palates. This is something anyone can do at a restaurant and most chefs love the opportunity to serve adventurous guests their favorite dishes.
We started out with the "Sformato" sweet corn and goat cheese soufflé with heirloom tomato sauce paired with a Prosecco wine. Then we tried the grilled octopus and Carpaccio Tartufo with white truffle oil beautifully paired with a 2012 Elena Walch “Kastelaz” Pinot Bianco (Carole’s personal favorite).
Next, we dined on amazing homemade pasta, Fettuccine Tartufo as we sipped a 2010 Vietti Tre Vigne Barbera d’Alba and 2010 Giornata Barbera.
We shared a few entrees so we could savor more food and wine together. The Chilean sea bass came with a 2010 Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, the Pork Osso Bucco paired with a 2010 Halter Ranch Syrah, and the Veal Chop paired with a 2008 Masi Rosso del Veronese. All were incredibly tender and juicy. For dessert, we enjoyed Panna Cota Tiramisu with a 2012 Vietti Moscato di Asti.
Il Cortile offers multiple “flights” where guests can choose a meal and have 3 wines that go with each type of meal – so you know you are getting the absolute best pairing with your meal to enhance the experience. This is not something you should try at home, leave the work behind and trust your experts to create the best dinner and wine – with no clean up. The conversation, the meal, the wine choices, the atmosphere, and service were all exceptional. This is certainly a must-stop if you are in the area.
The next morning, we started out at Adelaida Cellars. We got there just in time to help feed Jessica (the Alpaca) and Liam (the Llama) on this small farm and vineyard.
We were also lucky enough to be there during harvest and nibbled on fresh-picked Nebiolo grapes. We marveled at how those very grapes will go through an extensive process of being stemmed, pressed, barreled, aged, bottled, and eventually become wine over the next 18 months.
We enjoyed nine tasting wines with my favorite being the Syrah Viking Vineyard Reserve 2005. The Wine Advocate, Robert Parker, rated this wine with 90 points and it’s 100% Syrah. My second favorite was the Cabernet Sauvignon HMR/Viking Vineyard Reserve 2004 that is also 100% Cabernet. Call me a purest, but I love the old-fashioned 100% wines more than the blends lately. Tom’s favorite was "The Don" Port. He ordered extra to take home with us and I hope he will share!
The next stop was lunch at one my personal favorites, Thomas Hill Organics. Each time I eat there, it is like a religious experience. I doubt you have ever enjoyed fresh, organic food prepared in such a creative and ethereal way. Owner Debbie Thomas and chef Julie Simon continue to reinvent the way fruits and vegetables commune. It simply makes me happy and is the perfect detox to a few days of living like a complete glutton. They recently opened their new entrance, complete with a beautiful bar and seating area so guests no longer have to enter through the back alley.
We started out with the ahi tuna Tataki with cucumbers, sunflower sporuts, nectarines, avocado, and wakame, with ponzu sauce, green onion and ginger relish. It was also served with a Di Stefano Burrata with sungold tomatoes, basil, arugula pesto, and pine nuts.
Next, was the salad course that included the summer fruit salad with raspberries, strawberries, watermelon, melon, sungold tomatoes, mint, basil, sesame, brittle, and lime-kumquat olive oil. Most people would never brave fruits and vegetables together, but if it grows together, it goes together. Most of these are vine-grown and actually blend well in a salad. We also loved the raw kale salad witih miso-honey vinaigrette, apples, sunflower sprouts, macerated onions, and avocado.
For the main course, we had the pork belly Bahn Mi sandwich with green onion relish, carrot sambal, and roasted garlic aioli and the cold smoked salmon sandwich with Sriracha aioli, onion, avocado and sunflower sprouts.
For dessert, an olive oil cake and a stone fruit cobbler were the perfect complements. Everything was fresh and light, but equally filling. This is the type of restaurant that should be required in every city. It would make even the pickiest eaters love vegetables!
Our last stop was Vina Robles, a beautiful estate winery amidst 30 acres just off Highway 46. The company is owned by two Swiss businessmen (the two Hans), who have created an incredible vision that embraces and balances the heritage of the Old World and the opportunity for business in the New World. Their wines have the same unique mission and have successfully blended the two worlds together.
They started doing a summer concert series a few years ago, and then built an entire outdoor Amphitheatre for 3,300 people to enjoy live shows. They are known for bringing Bonnie Raitt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Moody Blues, and many other well-known acts to the region. They also offer many festivals and events throughout the year and have many special rates and deals for wine club members.
It’s often difficult for a large production winery with 33,000 barrels produced annually to reserve the taste and feel of a boutique winery, but Vina Robles managed to pull off this feat. Their 2012 White 4 is an estate blend from four different grapes, each with a separate harvest. Most were hand picked at night to preserve the fruit flavors. This blend just received 92 points from Wine Enthusiast and also won Best of Class in the Central Coast Wine Competition 3 years in a row.
The most popular is their 2010 Red4, which also combines four different red grapes for a showcase of spices and cherries of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Granache, and Mourvedre. The limestone in the soil gives a smooth, elegant tannin to their wines.
My personal favorite was the 2008 Syree, which is derived from the Syrah and Cuvee blend, then aged for 16 months in French oak barrels. The wines, the property, the process, and everything Vina Robles produces, has a distinctive excellence and elegance to it. This experience is worth the stop when visiting the area.
As you can tell by now, there is plenty to do in Paso Robles. We only just scratched the surface – even with tasting over 40 wines in 24 hours. We hope that our trip inspires you to take your own and make sure you visit the new friends outlined here. Wishing you safe travels, adventurous experiences, excellent food, memorable wine, and warm people along your own journey. Cheers!
Melanie Warner (aka Wander Woman) is a travel and lifestyle journalist for over 20 years and reaches 3 million readers each month. You can read other travel stories or follow her adventures here.