The Pass of the Vines at El Paso de Robles by Emma Krasov

Photography by Emma Krasov

Still evolving as a Wine Country destination, Paso Robles, California, gradually sheds its dusty farmer/rancher overalls, and tries on new gossamer outfits of gourmet sophistication and world-class tasting presentations. Small family-owned wineries, focused on refined varietals are hotter here than the merciless heat waves that strike at any time from April through October. It’s the rocky limestone and calcium clay soil of the Santa Lucia mountains, plus that relentless summer sun, combined with cool nights and rainy winters of the Central Coast that make dry-farmed local grapes so energetic, resilient and full of flavor.

What used to be called El Paso de Robles – the pass of the oaks – is now wine corridor, or a fair amount of those from downtown (13 wineries) to surrounding areas. Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance ( firmly put the city on any wine-lover’s map. Many outstanding producers reside along the rural Adelaida Road that winds west off Paso Robles proper. Adelaida Cellars winery, owned by the Van Steenwyk family, sits at 1800 feet elevation and offers breathtaking views, an elegant tasting room, and estate grown cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and syrah from its certified sustainable fields, along with other wines from a select group of contracted vineyards. Its 2005 Nebbiolo, “a pinot noir of Italy,” aged for 30 months in French oak, has a brilliant garnet hint and a barrel-induced spice. “When young, it’s very tannic,” said winemaker Terry Culton, “I allow these tannins to resolve themselves.” The result is full of character with a satisfying aftertaste. 2007 Viognier, crisp and citrus-fruity, has some peachy notes without excessive sweetness. “Viognier can be flabby,” said Culton. “I tried to stay focused.” Two wine clubs with special events for members, educational seminars, library tastings and vineyard tours attract more visitors each year. Adelaida Cellars actively participates in winemakers’ dinners and seasonal festivals. The winery is located at 5805 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles.
Closer to the ocean, in the Las Tablas district, two founding families – Parrin and Haas operate their Tablas Creek Vineyard, famous for its certified organic crops descendent from Rhone varieties. “I was in importing business with Chateauneuf-du-Pape,” said Robert Haas, Vice-President. “There I met the owner family of Chateau de Beaucastel. We bought the land here in 1990, and brought in the grape material from France. It took USDA three years to approve.” The Rhone vine enthusiasts persevered and introduced French varieties to the region, previously focused mostly on cabs and chars. “There are over 200 wineries now in Paso Robles,” said Haas, who is now counting his sixth decade in the wine business. “When we just moved here, there were 17.” With the help of winemaker Neil Collins, Tablas Creek produces Mourvedre – a meaty, rich, late ripening grape, which dominates the winery’s signature blend Esprit de Beaucastel, and Roussanne – rich on the palate, with honey character, that comes to about two thirds of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc blends. Cotes de Tablas is another signature blend here, based on Grenache (red) and Viognier (white). The winery enjoyed 23 thousand visitors last year, and anticipates even more this year, with a full tasting of its wines, VINsider wine club, Provencal-themed gift shop, a shaded patio available for picnics. Tablas Creek is located at 9339 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles.
Olive growing is a second-important crop in the Wine Country, and Mt. Olive, a sustainable organic farm, located farther inland, off HW 101, takes full advantage of it. Owned and operated by three families with six children between them, the enterprise started in 1993 with a single olive orchard, and now grows other crops, like walnuts, peaches, nectarines, apples, cherries, plums, strawberries, Asian pears, apricots, and persimmons. The organic sprout house produces alfalfa, bean, broccoli, buckwheat, clover, fenugreek, onion, garbanzo, pea, radish, sunflower, and wheatgrass. “Our three families came from Malaysia, Thailand, and Taiwan,” said Karen Ng, who operated the store with her husband Reiner on the day of my visit. “We do everything here, grow and cure our own olives, dry-freeze fruit, make jams, nougats, juices, caramelized nuts. We make our own herbal teas, dressings, tapenades, and infused olive oil. We train our kids to be happy farmers.” Besides olive tasting and organic fruit and vegetables for sale, the farm offers made to order lunches from its own bakery and pantry. A delectable chicken salad with olive dressing and their signature olive pizza will cost you just over ten bucks, but you won’t soon forget the taste of fresh herbs and vegetables straight from the garden. Lately, the farm added grass-fed beef and free-range chicken to its products, while earthworm beds produce organic fertilizer for added sustainability. Mt. Olive is located at 3445 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles.
Justin Vineyards and Winery on Chimney Rock Road, which runs up north, parallel to Adelaida, is not just a winery, nor is it just an inn; however, many things here are called just that. JUST Inn is a dreamy retreat for honeymooners, anniversary couples, or those who crave an ultimate and unforgettable Wine Country experience. Four luxury suites: Tuscany, Provence, Sussex, and Bordeaux have royally-high feather beds, all modern amenities, and are lavishly furnished and decorated to create an atmosphere of an exclusive hideaway, fit for a king (or a queen, or both). One of the educational tours of the winery is called JUST Barrels & Bottles and features a guided sampling from three different barrels to compare American and French, and New and Neutral Oak. A wine club, Justin Wine Society, among other exciting benefits, offers JUST-In Case – a seasonal shipment of newly released Cabernet Sauvignon, and the list goes on… Owned by Justin and Deborah Baldwin – both with business and financial education, both knowledgeable in producing Bordeaux varieties – the winery developed into a highly successful enterprise, with strong sales, growing facilities, world-wide distribution, and a bouquet of prestigious awards since 1981, when it was first acquired by the Baldwin family. Not everything here is named after the head of the family. Deborah’s Room – an upscale intimate restaurant on premises is a marvel of good taste and the good old joie de vivre. I won’t soon forget a scrumptious dinner (Executive Chef Will Torres) – delicate English pea soup, melt-in-your-mouth foie gras torchon, and short ribs with truffled puree, paired with big, bold, delightful Justin wines, like a wonderfully tannic Savant, inky-purple signature Isosceles, and Rioja-style Tempranillo (Master Sommelier Joe Spellman). Justin Vineyards and Winery is located at 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles.
Along with the growing wine production in the region, downtown area springs to new exciting life as well. Newly built (2007) and centrally located, Hotel Cheval bordering City Park is a stunning example of the rapid transformation of Paso Robles from a country-western ranch town into a tourist destination. A 16-room luxury property is designed to please the most discriminating tastes with cathedral ceilings, private patios and sundecks, outdoor fireplaces, and the most indulgent California king beds with down comforters and 400 thread sheets. A private library, free WiFi and flat-screen TV sets in every room keep the guests entertained, as well as a cozy bar downstairs, called Pony Club, where local wine tastings are paired with gourmet cheeses, cured meats and Marcona almonds. Hotel owners, Robert and Sherry Gilson, are equestrians, so their choice of the theme and names for their cherished enterprise was not only obvious, but also well fitting with the local traditions. A live mascot, named Chester, is a retired farm horse, now offering guests complimentary carriage rides to downtown restaurants on Friday and Saturday evenings. Hotel Cheval is located at 1021 Pine Street, Paso Robles.
Among the downtown restaurants, Artisan is king. Owned by Chris and Michael Kobayashi (Executive Chef and General Manager, respectively) it consistently delights with fresh ideas and creative ingredients. BLTA or, as they call it on the East Coast, California BLT [anything with avocado is “California”] here at Artisan comes with red abalone, fried green tomato, and pancetta. An Italianate salad that looks like a piece of modern art, consists of translucent prosciutto, bocconcini (fried cheese ball), smoked almonds, green olive tapenade, and a filet of white anchovy on the top of all other ingredients. Absolutely excellent braised lamb cheeks are served with delectable mascarpone polenta and salsa verde – a rich combination of mint, parsley, garlic, rosemary, oregano, anchovy, capers, olive oil and lemon. Judging from the amount of patrons on a weeknight and convivial atmosphere in the dining room, Artisan enjoys a well-deserved success among tourists and locals alike. Artisan Restaurant is located at 1401 Park Street, Paso Robles.