Fabulous Paso Robles in central California: not the next Napa Valley, I hope.
PASO ROBLES, CALIFORNIA - It ain't Napa. It ain't Sonoma. Heck, it doesn't even have the cache of the lesser-known Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez wine region, which at least has the Sideways movie going for it.
No, the folks who are in the know about Paso Robles tend to be the real wine types who don't give a tinker's damn about Napa Valley faux Italian castles and cable cars rising to a mountain-top tasting room. For people down here, it's pretty much all about the wine. And that's a good thing.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Paso Robles is a few miles inland from the Pacific (hence the warm weather) and perhaps 200 miles south of San Francisco and a little more than that north of Los Angeles. It's on Highway 101, which still gets a fair bit of traffic for folks heading upstate from Santa Barbara or down from Monterey Bay.
Because of its warm weather, it's a fabulous place for growing Rhone varietals and other grapes that enjoy the heat. They make some great Zinfandel and Chardonnay, but for me the king here is Syrah. They call it Syrah, not Shiraz, partly because it tends to be a bit more like French Syrah versus the big, jammy, fruit-bomb (and sometimes cloyingly sweet) Shirazes that the Aussies send our way. I used to love Shiraz from Down Under, finding it far more enjoyable than the dry, dusty stuff the French tend to make. Lately, however, I find that Paso Robles and central-coast Syrah is the perfect marriage between the two.
They do some great stuff down in the Santa Ynez valley, too, at least in the warmer parts. But Paso Robles might be a touch better for red wines in my opinion.
A personal favourite is Opolo, up in the hills to the west of the town. It's in gorgeous, rolling country studded by grassy hills and gnarly, old oak trees; a place where cowboys and farmers and wine-makers mix together nicely. The tasting room isn't fancy, but that just means you're not paying for all the goo-gaws and simply focussing on the wine.
They make an awesome, full-bodied Pinot Noir that tastes almost like a soft Zinfandel. I also grabbed a great blend of Sangiovese and Barbera and some Zin, which grows fabulously up this way.
You can try a large group of wineries in the town of Paso Robles, which is a charming, old-style place with brick buildings (many of them new after a major earthquake in these parts several years ago) and a large, public square with huge trees. Grab a sandwich and eat in the park, then check out Pianetta's tasting room on 13th St. for some wonderful red wines.
They make some great, serious reds but also have a fabulous, fun blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah that they pour into cool-looking, clear-glass jugs and sell for about $20. It's not an award-winner, but it's a fun, tasty wine and the jug will be a conversation piece.
They also sell cheeky t-shirts that say "Best Jugs in Town."
After some wine, stop in at the fabulously atmospheric Amsterdam Coffee Shop on 13th, where you'll find hipsters on iPads and country folk happy to help with directions.
As I said about Avila Beach in a recent blog, this isn't a real DESTINATION in and of itself, unless you're a big wine person. But it's a great stopping point on a tour of California, and it's only a few hours south of San Francisco and maybe two hours at the most from Monterey, which can be kinda cool and foggy compared to the heat that Paso Robles sometimes get.
Definitely a place to check out, as well as Avila Beach and the nearby city of San Luis Obispo. Wonderful Hearst Castle is only a short drive away, as well.