The cliché is that it’s what Napa used to be. But Paso Robles doesn’t seem to care for the comparisons with the long-established wine country to the north. Oh, they’re happy to provide fruit for those big “Napa Valley” Zins and Cabs, but appear happy to carve out their own distinct niche in the wine world.
Less than four hours north on the 101 in beautiful San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles is perhaps the outermost outpost of civilization for Southern Californians on this inland route. Your next stop, unless you’re desperately low on gas or blow out a tire, is Salinas, where you can at least get a salad. As such, Paso should be on every Angeleno’s shortlist of weekend getaways.
That aforementioned cliché, to be clear, is not without some merit. While Paso Robles lacks much of the pretension—and price—of Napa, it also lacks some of the prestige. This is to say that you won’t find the same degree of luxury dining and opulent accommodations. Fewer helipads, too, one assumes. The idea here, however, is not to emulate other wine countries, but rather, to fully embrace that which is unique to this region.
Located on and around two-lane state Route 46, this is a wine region whose beauty transforms with the changing of the seasons. Summertime will see bicyclists riding from tasting room to tasting room, while the rains of winter cast the rolling hillsides in verdant shades of green. Spring offers gorgeous blooms and ideal temps, and now is the time to start planning your visit.
Estate bed-and-breakfasts are a fantastic way to soak up fresh air, birdsong, and seclusion. But the town has Allegretto. This pet-friendly Ayres hotel is a Mediterranean villa exquisitely filled with art from around the world, including a hall of enlarged photographs of the early construction of Los Angeles, like the ribbon-cutting of Pico Boulevard and early images of Santa Monica. The owner, Doug, may just drop into the tasting room and regale you with stories of his family’s part in building the city.
The rooms feature high ceilings and most seemed to have private, hedge-enclosed patios. There’s a small chapel and a Zen garden to provide sanctuary for weary souls, as well as a vineyard-adjacent pool and hot tub, for weary bodies that just spent four hours behind the wheel of a car and just want to relax with a glass of Chardonnay and not read emails or watch the increasingly more exhausting news. We all have our reasons for escape.
Best of all, you needn’t go far for the best dinner in town. It’s at Cello’s Ristorante, right off the lobby. The menu is a showcase of Italian masterpieces of seafood and pasta, including a ravioli in a buttery garlic sauce that will melt you. The chef is renowned for his Beef Stroganoff, as well as his risottos. And of course, the wine list is a treasure trove of Old World and local gems.
As for that local vino, there are so many wineries to visit, you could get away every weekend of the year if your heart desired and your liver allowed. For your sake and mine, I’ll focus on one in particular, as it captured my imagination and some of my sobriety. Nestled along meandering Vineyard Drive in the idyllic Templeton Gap, Opolo Vineyards is probably what you see in your mind’s eye when you envision a Platonic winery.
Opolo is one of the many vineyards that sells its fruit to Napa labels. One taste and you’ll understand why it’s in such high demand. The grapes that are grown here are hearty—Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons thrive in this region—due to the 40-degree temperature swings over the course of a day. And if you want to talk shop about the nutrients in the soil or which sunlight a certain hillside gets, these folks are happy to oblige, but the team here seems much more interested in creating a memorable experience than bragging about scientific facts and figures.
Wine here is something to drink, not just talk about. For a place that strongly resembles what one might conceive of a Heaven, it sure is down to Earth. In fact, they celebrate more than just wine, they distill spirits with the same creative spirit in which they make their wines. They make a crystal-clear cherry brandy that actually tastes like tart cherries, not cough syrup; a chamomile brandy that is like a honey-scented cognac; even a delicious walnut liqueur sourced from trees on the estate. If that’s not enough, they even have a brick oven and make an amazing wood-fired pizza.
Paso Robles is a burgeoning wine country just far enough away to clear your head before refilling it with wine and wonder. As they say at the vineyard which I’ve just gushed about, “Opolo!”
For more tips on Paso Robles, California:
The Field of Lights
Paso Robles 2019
Paso Robles 2018