Craft and Cluster/Courtesy of Alta Colina
Winemaker Eric Jensen is not impressed by your fancy footwear. Some snazzily dressed members of the luxury wine travel club The Vines were the focus of Jensen's good-natured ribbing about their sleek designer shoes on our tour of Booker Vineyard in Paso Robles, California (pronounced Paso Ro-bulls). Jensen also wasn't shy about voicing another pet peeve: people who pretend to like "dusty old wines" out of some misguided sense of reverence. Welcome to Paso Robles!
Located in California's Central Coast, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Paso Robles—or simply Paso, as the locals call it—is winning over wine lovers with the astounding diversity and consistent quality of its wines. Spanning 40,000 acres that are planted with more than 60 varieties, Paso Robles is divided into 11 AVAs, each with unique microclimates and soils. Grapes thrive here—all kinds of grapes. The region is not defined by a single grape or style. I sipped intriguing expressions of Rhône varieties, including Grenache, Cinsaut, Mourvèdre, and Viognier; the Spanish varieties Tempranillo and Graciano; and California takes on Italian Barbera and Sangiovese. And, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel are also woven into the Paso Robles wine tapestry.
There's also an endearing anything-goes attitude to winemaking in Paso, and I found it inspiring to meet winemakers who felt unfettered by rules. This contrarian spirit inspired The Vines (the-vines.com) to add Paso Robles to their wine travel offerings, explained Michael Evans, the group's cofounder and CEO. "For me, Paso Robles has a rebellious, Wild West spirit—maybe it's because winemakers here are unshackled from the regulations and high farming costs of other regions. They're able to get creative, which translates into beautiful, expressive wines."
Members of The Vines would, I learned, work closely with winemakers to blend their own bespoke barrels of wine in eight locations around the world, including in Paso Robles with Eric Jensen from Booker Vineyard. (And they would pay a substantial premium to do so: The initiation fee is $100,000, with annual dues starting at $6,000.) But you certainly don't need deep pockets to partake of the Paso Robles wine experience. The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website makes mapping out a trip easy, with plenty of accommodation and transportation options.
During my four days of visiting several of Paso Robles' more than 200 wineries and chatting with winemakers, the theme of creative freedom was recurrent in our unfiltered conversations. My first stop was an icon of the region, Tablas Creek Vineyard. Founded in 1989 by the late Robert Haas, Tablas Creek is a pioneer of California's Rhône movement. Today, that enterprising spirit lives on in his son Jason Haas, partner and general manager. (Haas is also one of F&W's Drinks Innovators of the Year; see p. 53.) Tablas Creek's 125 acres of limestone vineyards were first planted in 1994 with vine cuttings from their longtime partners in France, the Perrin family, proprietors of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Inspired by their French partners, Tablas Creek has been farming organically from day one, and they have recently been recognized as the world's first Regenerative Organic Certified winery. Haas explains that when confronting issues such as water scarcity, climate change, and energy use production, "They're not going to be solvable questions unless agriculture can be part of the solution." The ROC certification also recognizes Tablas Creek's attention to farmworker fairness and animal welfare. In addition to the ubiquitous winery dog, Tablas Creek has a flock of 200 sheep grazing the vineyards and a full-time shepherd on staff.
A long-distance love story laid the foundation for Thacher Winery: Paso Robles was the midway point for former brewmaster Sherman Thacher and his then-girlfriend, now wife, Michelle. "After numerous visits, we started to become familiar with the area. It felt a lot like where I had grown up, Ojai and the Santa Ynez Valley, with its rolling hills," Thacher says. The two opened their winery and tasting room in 2008, and their wines are another fine example of Paso Robles' knack for coaxing authenticity and a sense of place from Rhône varieties: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsaut, Valdiguié, and Négrette. Thacher also makes an excellent sparkling Viognier that spends six years aging before release.
Craft and Cluster/Courtesy of Alta Colina
Even winemakers from Old World wine regions have fallen under Paso's spell. Seeking to escape the rigid winemaking rules of his native France, winemaker Stephan Asseo traveled the world for over a year searching for great terroir. He found his perfect match in Paso Robles and founded L'Aventure Winery in 1998. "In Paso Robles and especially the Willow Creek District, I found the perfect soil (limestone), the elevation, the hills with all the different exposures they have to offer, and the cool ocean microclimate," Asseo says. In addition to Rhône blends, he crafts complex, luscious "Paso Blends" from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot.
Asseo has no fear that the maverick region he fell in love with will become too mainstream. "Paso is at the opposite of most, or all, of the other AVAs in California. We play the card of creativity, the originality that our terroir allows us," he says. "And we also have this new blood, this new generation of viticulturalists and winemakers who can express their nice 'craziness.'"
Beyond Paso Robles' traditional winery settings, the edgy and industrial Tin City is a must-visit. Described by the owners as an "evolving industrial makers market nestled amongst the oaks," it provides winemakers, beer brewers, distillers, chefs, ice cream makers, and more with affordable space to grow their businesses in a like-minded community of supportive entrepreneurs. Among the standouts are Hubba Wines, founded by winemaker Riley Roddick. Roddick sources her grapes from sustainable vineyards and has a minimalist approach to wine. Her Hubba Mutha Chardonnay is just one more reason I regret that my suitcase did not have room for another bottle. Ah well. Call it my excuse to come back to Paso Robles very soon.
Where to Stay
Courtesy Hotel Cheval
Located near Paso Robles' quaint town square, each of this luxury hotel's 16 rooms is named after a "historically significant" horse. Rooms from $440, hotelcheval.com
Paso Robles Inn
Old-school charm is in abundance at this historic property that was founded in 1889, the same year as the city of Paso Robles. Its 96 rooms and suites offer many options, including winery-themed spa rooms. Rooms from $149, pasoroblesinn.com
Where to Eat & Drink
Six Test Kitchen
Twelve seats surround an open kitchen that turns out innovative, flavorful, stunning cuisine, adding a theatrical flair to the dining experience at this spot located in Tin City. Reservations are required and prepaid. sixtestkitchen.com
The eclectic menu of fresh and brightly flavored farm-to-table cuisine draws inspiration from Spain and Latin America. lacosechabr.com
Thomas Hill Organics
The bounty of the Central Coast shines in creative and flavorful dishes at this local farm-to-table favorite. thomashillorganics.com
Located in a historic farmhouse, this casual Mexican restaurant beautifully executes the flavors of Baja and Sonora, including tacos, ceviche, and wood-grilled seafood. fincapasorobles.com
Where to Taste
Bob Tillman, his wife, Lynn, and his daughter, Maggie, make impressive Rhône wines from their high-altitude vineyards with impressive views. Overnight accommodations are available at The Trailer Pond (from $275, thetrailerpond.com), their collection of five remodeled vintage campers surrounding a pond on the estate. altacolina.com
From the cave to the terrace, Booker offers tastings in a variety of settings. You can even play bocce if you like while sipping on Eric Jensen's opulent Oublié red blend. bookerwines.com
Epoch Estate Wines
At this estate located on the top of York Mountain, winemaker Jordan Fiorentini's creative approach goes beyond the bottle. She draws detailed tasting notes for each wine illustrating the wine's journey through the palate. epochwines.com
French flair melds seamlessly with the down-to-earth style of Paso Robles at this modern winery. aventurewine.com
Law Estate Wines
A sleek, contemporary winery with dramatic hilltop views, Law Estate names its wines to convey their style, with bottles like Audacious, Beguiling, and Beyond Category. lawestatewines.com
Winemaker McPrice "Mac" Myers became obsessed with wine while working at Trader Joe's as a teenager, and now he's making sophisticated and highly rated wines that he describes as "embracing richness, opulence, and California sunshine, but also the freshness and vibrancy we get in Paso Robles." mcpricemyers.com
Tablas Creek Vineyard
A visit to these innovative pioneers of California's Rhône movement is the perfect introduction to Paso Robles. Make sure to taste some of the wines from more obscure Rhône varieties like Bourboulenc or Vaccarèse. tablascreek.com
This winery's rustic ranch setting is a delightfully unpretentious way to enjoy Sherman Thacher's top-notch whites and reds. thacherwinery.com