Four Days in Paso Robles Wine Country
It’s been a few years since we have explored the Northern regions of the California Central Coast, so we decided to take a road trip north and spend a few days exploring Paso Robles and it’s wine country. We discovered as with most things, time has brought change to this mostly rural area. Now home to over 300 wineries, numerous acres of newly planted vineyards and improved lodging and food establishments catering to the influx of visitors to the region. We’re taking this trip in late October, witnessing the end of harvest for wineries and blessed with the beauty of early color change in the vineyards and orchards of the region.
Make sure to click on the < or > arrows in the photos to view all in each group
A beautiful fall morning driving up highway 101 through the central coast we planned our first stop in the partially gentrified town of Los Alamos for lunch. Should we stop at the ever-popular Bobs’ Well Bread for some of their amazing bread, pastries, Ficelle sandwiches or wood-fired pizza in the outdoor garden? Or should we try some of the best BBQ around at the Station? Our decision was made for us on arrival as we quickly learned that Tuesdays are considered a holiday in sleepy little Los Alamos as most of the highly anticipated stops are closed for a well-deserved rest from the tourist-filled weekend. Still a big disappointment for us.
With our taste buds left temporarily unsatisfied, we set our sites on plan B and snacked on nuts and fruit, we brought along for the road trip to hold us over. Near Pismo Beach, we detoured off the freeway and headed out Price Canyon road to the small town of Edna and a visit at Sextant winery's Old Edna complex. A great opportunity to stretch the legs a bit and walk the quaint grounds of the Old Edna townsite with preserved ranch house and outbuildings from the 1880s. Although we opted not to do a tasting here the facilities were perfect for a picnic lunch or grab a bite from their small deli and enjoy it outside on one of the many tables scattered throughout the site.
After our short break in Edna, we made our way north and reconnected with the highway. Passing through San Luis Obispo, over the grade and through Atascadero we soon approached Templeton where we hopped on the 46 east. Plan B was to stop for lunch at Niner wine estates, touted as having one of the best winery restaurants in California. Pulling into their beautiful grounds and facility only to be once again disappointed to find their restaurant is also closed on Tuesdays. One of the few perils of being retired and venturing out mid-week is finding anticipated stops unavailable. Happily, plan C is just up the road where we stopped into the flamboyant castle-like facilities of Tooth & Nail winery where it just so happens to be “Taco Tuesday”! Much to our hungry pleasure the tacos were very good and paired nicely with our first tastings of some of the local wines. Not our favorite wines but A sight to experience complete with a moat surrounding the castle.
Hunger quenched we're back on highway 46 headed slightly east to Turley wine cellars. Turley has two locations one here in PR (Paso Robles) and the other in Amador County in the foothills of the Sierras in Northern California. Turley PR purchased the Pesenti family’s winery and vineyards which was one of the original vineyards and wineries in the region. Frank Pesenti planted the vineyards first Zinfandel vines in 1923 and founded the winery in 1934 on sixty-five acres. Turley, with over 45 wines specializes in Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, the majority are single-vineyard designate, focusing on old vine vineyards and are mostly certified organic or are on the way of becoming certified organic. Our tasting was good and covered a small but compelling representation of their wines. We opted to grab a few bottles of Old Vines Zinfandel and a Zinfandel from another local pioneering vineyard J. Dusi.
Speaking of J Dusi, we headed back west on the 46 and stopped into J. Dusi winery and vineyards. You’ll find a small, humble but modern facility here, not too many frills but a unique small family-run vineyard and winery. After several generations of farming, the family only recently began making wine for the public from their old-world vineyards that were established in the 1920s by the Dusi ancestors. You’ll find some of the high-end wineries in the area utilizing the grapes from vineyards planted by Sylvester and Caterina Dusi who emigrated from Northern Italy and settled in Paso Robles. The Dusi’s introduced some of the first Zinfandels to California’s Central Coast; vineyards were rare in Old California in the early 1900s. Working together with their three sons – Guido, Dante, and Benito, eventually planted their additional Zinfandel vineyards in 1945, the mainstay varietal of the family farm today. Janelle Dusi, the winemaker behind the Dusi label who according to Mom, was making wine for fun at the age of 12, grew up farming and learning the trade from her great grandfather Dante and she’s producing some great wines today.
We had a fun tasting with the crew and Mother Dusi who happened to be in the small tasting room today. Dusi was one of our favorite stops for the genuine small family feel and their great wine. We hear that they throw a great party too as we just missed the annual pick up party for club members that sounds like it was a blast. We couldn’t resist joining their wine club and left with a few of their blends…Sly, Fiorento and The Other Brother. Be sure to ask about their Paper Street Vineyard wines.
Back on the road we headed to downtown PR and checked in to the Paso Robles Inn, our home for the next three nights. Very centrally located near the town square and many of the town's top shops and restaurants, all within walking distance. The Inn is a nice mid-scale hotel with nice gardens and grounds. Individual two-story buildings scattered throughout the grounds hold the small but comfortable guest rooms. A solid three-star facility also has a great Steakhouse and Lounge. Reasonable rates for the downtown location make this an easy choice. There are other options around, mostly high end and much more expensive, I’ll outline these later.
We opted for dinner in town so we could catch game 6 of the world series, not many choices with TVs to catch the game so we opted for Street Side Ale House. Basic pub food, great beer selection and TV’s everywhere.
Since there is so much ground to cover, locals’ recommended allocating a full day to explore the regions west side for day 2, we’ll do the same for the East side tomorrow. The 101 freeway is the divider between east and west with Highway 46 being the main artery dividing the north and south. The west side can be characterized by narrow rural country roads winding through the hilly terrain that is covered by forests of old-growth oak trees, an occasional Olive or Walnut Orchard, and a few large open ranch pastures with roaming cattle or sheep.
We first ventured out to Justin Winery and Vineyard, wanting to see how it’s remote location has changed since our last visit in the early ’90s. Now a flashy corporate-owned giant owned by the Fiji water company virtually nothing remains of the small family-run tasting room of the past. Some locals we spoke to were not fans of the new Justin due to an alleged un-permitted Oaktree clearing done by the winery to clear the way for additional vineyards. Justin is one of the farthest west facilities out on Chimney rock road but easily accessed by a scenic drive on Adelaida road. Arriving at the winery following a beautiful drive over narrow country roads frequent sightings of wild turkeys, deer, farm animals and several hawks soaring overhead looking for their next meal. The tasting room facilities and grounds are modern and expansive, including a well-respected restaurant and plenty of outdoor space to sit and enjoy the vineyard views. We didn’t do a tasting here as we are familiar with Justin wines.
Back down Chimney rock road we soon joined the aptly named Vineyard road experiencing the scenery and rural surroundings similar to our trip up to Justin. Our next stop is for lunch at Opolo Vineyards. We sampled their wines previously at one of the wine festivals in Santa Ynez and heard that they had great food and an outdoor wood-burning pizza oven, a great stop for lunch. The winery is well known for its events and offers a wide range of tasting experiences, from tours and cheese pairings, varied flight options, pairings on the Patio to Their Distillery and Inn located on the property. The tasting facility is small and humble, a large covered industrial looking outdoor space with plenty of seating and a small food venue. The creative menu includes pizza, sausages, and salads. We shared a fantastic wood-fired mushroom and caramelized onion pizza and a nice spring salad. The items on the menu include wine recommendations and the price includes a glass of your choice. The estates 300 acres of vineyards feature a wide range of mostly Bordeaux varietals which allows for the production of many unique single varietals as well as award-winning blends.
Backtracking a bit back up Vineyard Drive we stopped at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Created as a joint French/American venture between two families. Tablas Creek focuses strictly on grape varietals from the Côtes du Rhône appellation and more specifically the complete Chateauneuf du Pape collection. They have imported and planted 16 varietals from their French partners, Chateau de Beaucastel estate. The 120-acre organic estate vineyard practices dry-farming and Biodynamic techniques. Don’t be surprised to see their herd of sheep, alpacas and two guard donkeys roaming through the vineyards and hillsides. The modest-sized tasting facility and outdoor space feel like a location in the French Countryside. Tastings were extensive and offered selections most American visitors have yet to experience both in varietal-specific wines, unique bottlings, and traditional French blends. We enjoyed our time here and highly recommend a stop.
Our last stop for the day is at the opulent Daou Vineyards and winery perched on a hilltop at over 2,000 feet elevation provides spectacular panoramic views of the region. Spacious and well-appointed indoor and outdoor sitting and tasting areas allow for several experiences while you are there. Seated tastings are available in each area or reserve one of their tasting experiences like the curated culinary tasting experience or a tasting out in the vineyards. Many require a reservation so check their website for options. Focus is on big bold Bordeaux Varietals that are well done here. Most wines are allocated but a broad selection is available at the tasting room. We particularly enjoyed the 2017 reserve 1740, a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot and the 2017 Estate Cab. Pricy tasting and wines but well worth the visit. Plan on spending some time here and schedule so you can enjoy the sunset.
Tonight, we grabbed an Uber ride over to the Allegretto Resort for dinner at Cello Ristorante. We discovered their happy hour and ordered a flatbread pizza and salad at the bar instead of a full sit-down dinner. This worked out well since tonight was game seven of the world series and the only TV was above the bar. They have a very creative drink menu and a nice wine selection. The Resort is nice too but a bit out of the way from the heart of town. Works well if you are just looking for a wine country destination and you could certainly take an Uber or drive the 10 minutes to the downtown area.
Our focus for Day 3 is on the east side, one of the wineries has a bottling called Straight outta Paso so we used this as our motto for our east side day. This side of town experiences less cooling from the fog and ocean influences farther west and is generally drier and warmer. You’ll find low rolling hills of grass or vineyards with vast open spaces and the occasional scattering of Oak trees.
We started at Sculpterra Winery and Sculpture Garden, which you might think doesn’t fit in our East Side theme but surprising enough the art and sculptures include some amazing metal work (homage to the Watts Towers). World-renowned sculptor John Jagger (who is deceased), local sculptor Dale Evers who has taken over the reins as the sculptor in residence, and Master Blacksmith Robert Bentley who we are told has a shop on the Vineyard property have populated the outdoor spaces with their massive works and added decorative touches to the building’s interior and exterior. You could spend hours at this place and probably not discover all of the treasures here. Everywhere you look from the metal posts to the ceiling work, chandeliers and sculptures in the garden there are beautiful works of master crafters. Don’t expect a stuffy gallery here but feast your eyes on the sculptures thoughtfully placed throughout the gardens surrounded by stately Oak trees and rolling vineyards. Go there, taste some wine and walk the property to view the amazing works.
Cutting across the dusty but well-maintained Penman Springs road, through the open expanses and rolling hills that make up the east side, passing a few more remote wineries along the way then back on the pavement at Union road to our next destination Vina Robles. Expect to find here a large tasting room, gift shop, restaurant and of course as every winery should have, a 3,000-seat amphitheater where some well-known acts are drawn to perform. We heard that the food was good at their restaurant but didn’t have lunch here as we had our eyes on our next stop for that. Didn’t care too much for the wines here but the facilities were impressive
For lunch today we ventured just across the east/west divide back to Niner Wine Estates as we kept hearing how good the food was. Featured in “Best Winery Restaurants in America” by Food & Wine magazine and Named one of "The 10 Best Winery Restaurants in America" by the USA today. Beautiful restaurant, open kitchen and spacious outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards. Food was good, well prepared and presented but priced like they are in the big city ($24 Burger). Wines were good, we opted for a red and a white flight with lunch which was perfect. The staff was great and provided a fun experience.
Back to the Eastside, we stopped at Bodega Edgar’s east side tasting room located in an industrial warehouse. No frills tasting but small producer makes some solid Spanish varietals. Growing slowly and consolidating to a new facility soon.
Eberle was our last tasting stop for the day. One of the only wineries still offering a free tasting and tour of their wine making facilities and caves below the tasting room. You can also opt for the fee-based reserve tastings on the weekends if you choose. Solid wines, especially the Rare and Reserves. Fantastic patio/picnic area outside for lounging with some of their wine and cheese while overlooking the great views of the valley. Killed a little time relaxing on the patio before heading to our next PR experience
Field of Light, by Bruce Munro, is a walk-through sculptural composition of over 58,000 lights spread across Sensario’s 15 acres of rolling hills. We arrived before sundown to see what the installation looked like before dark. You can choose the VIP experience which included a boxed dinner, two drinks, and a reserved seating patio or join the commoners like us grabbing a glass of wine and some tacos from Ricky’s Mexican food truck permanently parked on site. We walked through the paths woven between a few large Oaks to view the open areas filled with small spheres that would soon be illuminated by fiber-optic light, gently swaying on their long stems. Very cool as the dusk turns to night, the moon hangs overhead filtering between the outstretched Oak branches while the thousands of small spheres gently change color. Not something we thought would be captivating but certainly was a sight to see. The installation is currently scheduled to run until January 2020, followed by grand plans for a new Hotel, Resort, and Botanical garden.
It’s Halloween so we encountered many of the winery staff in costume today. We arrived back to the hotel just in time to miss the big children’s trick or treat event in the town's central park but ran across a few costumed revelers, young and old as we walked to a casual dinner at Jeffry's Wine Country BBQ. A casual BBQ patio with great food and a nice selection of beer and wine. try the chicken tacos or the rib/brisket combo plate.
Last day in the PR region, we headed just north to the under-visited Mission San Miguel, one of the 21 Missions in California. Unlike some of the more popular Missions, this one looks like it was frozen in time preserving the feel of life at the isolated mission. We appreciated the homage paid to the natives from the area that are often overlooked or forgotten in the stories about early California.
We decided to head west back out to Justin for lunch at their highly touted restaurant. Just south on 101 take the rural San Marcos road to Chimney rock road, through farms, stately Oaks, and occasional wildlife sightings. We sat on the patio overlooking the chef's garden and hillside vineyards while enjoying the tasty and well-prepared Templeton Valley Greens Salad with a generous portion of grilled chicken, and the Ora King Salmon with a nice pesto served with a glass of Justin Sauvignon Blanc and Reserve Tempranillo. One of our best meals on this trip.
Following lunch, we began our journey south stopping at Halter Ranch for one last winery experience on this trip. The Halter Ranch estate includes over 2,000 acres, dedicating 281-acres of SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified wine grapes, 15-acres of walnuts, and 10-acres of olives. With a focus on sustainable practices and environmental stewardship, only 18% of Halter Ranch is dedicated to farming and structures; the rest is left to the natural landscape, mainly oak woodland and wildlife corridors. While they are producing mostly Rhone Varietals, the CDP (Côtes de Paso) and Ancestor Estate Reserve blend are standouts. Arrange one of their experience tours before arriving to see more of the ranch and vineyards or take the complimentary production and cave tour along with your tasting. From the tasting room look off in the distance to see the Ancestor Oak, said to be the oldest Coastal Oak in existence with a 29-foot diameter trunk, impressive!
Before hopping back on the 101 we made a brief stop at Tin City. Several locals suggested spending time here, it’s a grouping of industrial buildings housing a Brewhouse, restaurant, wine production, and tasting rooms, etc…
Where to Stay
A few Vineyards offer rooms or cottages; https://pasorobleswineries.net/lodging/
Piccolo – Downtown, Opened in October 2019, small upscale hotel with a great roof top bar
Allegretto Resort Hotel – Hwy 46 East - Large modern facility, many of the owners collections of art and objects displayed throughout the property. About a 10 minute drive from the town square.
Hotel Cheval – Downtown, small boutique luxury hotel that feels like a small garden estate. Just off Paso Robles' historic town square and within walking distance to many of the towns best shops and restaurants.
The Paso Robles Inn – Downtown, centrally located near the town square and walking distance to many of the town’s top shops and restaurants. The Inn is a nice mid-scale hotel with nice gardens and grounds. Individual two-story buildings scattered throughout the grounds hold the small but comfortable guest rooms. A solid three-star facility also has a great Steakhouse and Lounge. Reasonable rates for the downtown location make this an easy choice. We stayed here and enjoyed what limited time we spent at the hotel.
Wineries to Visit
I would recommend spending one day on the west side of 101 and one day on the east side. The wineries and tasting rooms are too spread out too tray to fit both in to one day. 3-4 wineries per day is a good pace and plan on one of the four being your stop for lunch. There are also several tasting rooms now popping up downtown too…
Many wineries in the area have restaurants or serve food, which is different than what we experience in other wine regions and a very nice touch. Check websites or call to ensure they are serving for the day and in some cases to reserve your seat. We found that the websites were not accurate for same day or next day restaurant availability so call.
Vineyard Road on the west side is a great place to start and a majority of the wineries are located on or near this rural stretch. On the east side Linne, Pennman Springs, Union Road and Hwy 46 East will provide close access to some of the top spots on this side of town.
For Great Wines - J. Dusi, Turley, Justin, Tablas Creek , Daou, Bodega Edgar
For Great Scenery - Tooth & Nail, Niner winery, Justin, Halter Ranch, Tablas Creek, Daou, Opolo, Sculptera, Eberle
For Good Food - Tooth & Nail, Niner, Justin, Daou, Opolo, Vina Robles, Cass Vineyard and Winery
Edna Valley – Although not in PR it was a quick detour while driving north, stopping at Sextant tasting room and Old Edna town site
Where to Eat
Old Town PR - The Hatch Rotisserie & Bar, Side Street Ale House, Jeffrey's Wine Country BBQ, Il Cortille Ristorante, Somm’s Kitchen, Thomas Hill Organics.
Cello Ristorants @ Allegretto
Once the new “Paso Market Walk” opens in early 2020, Go get some of the best Gelato in the region at Leo Leo, Joebella Coffee Roasters, Paso Robles Wine Merchant, etc…
Winery Lunch - Opolo, Niner, Justin, Cass, Vina Robles, Daou
Los Alamos (If you're driving North from So Cal.) – Bob’s Well Bread, The Station (Cisko Kid BBQ), Grocery, Pico (Los Alamos General Store), Bell’s