Two decades ago, Paso Robles was just a sleepy, Western-themed town on the 101 freeway with a few dozen wineries. Today the region, halfway between L.A. and San Francisco, boasts more than 200 of them — and many are producing wines that give Napa, Sonoma and Santa Ynez a run for their money.
To visit the best ones, you’ll need to get out of Paso’s charming but touristy downtown, which has a handful of mostly mediocre tasting rooms, and hit the winding country roads, many with picturesque names — Chimney Rock, Peachy Canyon, the inevitable Vineyard Drive — that weave through the valleys and canyons of Paso’s 11 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Covering more than 600,000 acres, Paso Robles is one of the state’s largest wine-growing regions, so bring a designated driver, because you’ll be covering a lot of ground (and sipping a lot of juice).
Historically, zinfandel was the grape of choice in this region, and the city still hosts an annual zin festival (now called Vintage Paso) to celebrate those roots. These days, the most acclaimed wines coming out of Paso Robles are red Rhône blends, often called “GSMs” after the three predominant varietals: grenache, syrah and mourvèdre.
But with more than 40 grape varieties and a freewheeling approach to blending, Paso’s greatest strength is its diversity. Even small wineries here often produce a dozen or more different wines — and if you’re lucky, they’ll let you try whatever’s open, even if it’s not on that day’s tasting list.
For the classic Paso GSM, visit the winery where it all started: Tablas Creek. Co-founded in 1989 by a French winemaking family from the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, Tablas Creek still produces some of the best Rhône-style blends in California, particularly its flagship Esprit de Tablas, a spicy, mourvèdre-dominated red, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, a luscious, honeyed white blend.
Like many Paso winemakers, Tablas Creek’s Neil Collins also does his own label on the side. At Lone Madrone, Collins is free to wander off the Rhône grid to experiment, and the results are, if anything, even more stunning than his work at Tablas. Check out what the man can do with zinfandel and petite sirah on the earthy, blackberry-laced Old Hat, or his crisp, racy take on chenin blanc. His mastery of Rhône blends is on display at Lone Madrone, too. The Points West White, a fruit-forward mix of roussanne, viognier and picpoul blanc, is comparable to Tablas’ best whites at only two-thirds the price.
Of all the Rhône varietals grown in Paso, the rising star might be viognier, a white grape capable of remarkable richness and complexity in the right hands. Overripe viogniers can taste like a supermarket peach cobbler, but the best ones balance the grape’s natural aromas of peach, pear and honeysuckle with tart acidity and pair well with anything from seafood to barbecued chicken to Thai and Indian food.
With a tasting room on the outskirts of downtown Paso Robles in a converted Victorian train station, Anglim Winery does several delicious single-vineyard viogniers, playing with different types of oak and fermentation methods to highlight the grape’s versatility. Four Lanterns, on the main 46 West wine road, does an unusually crisp version that cuts through the usual peach and honey flavors with bright citrus notes.
Other wineries worth seeking out include zinfandel specialists Turley; Vines on the Marycrest, which makes a delicious GSM-based rosé aptly called Summertime; and Starr Ranch, a tiny, off-the-beaten-path vineyard where winemaker Judy Starr holds court and pours tastings in a barn converted into a barrel room.
But really, half the fun of visiting Paso is exploring it on your own. Most tasting rooms don’t require appointments on weekends, so ask one winery to recommend others, or just get lost on those winding back roads and see where they take you.
Getting there: The fastest route to Paso, the 5 North to the 46 West, takes about 3½ hours. For a longer but more scenic alternative, take the 101 North, which is about a four-hour drive from Los Angeles.
What to do: Tasting fees at most wineries are $10 to $20 per person but often are waived with the purchase of a bottle. Some are appointment only, so check websites or call ahead, especially on weekdays.
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Where to eat: The Hatch is a cozy gastropub-style joint specializing in rotisserie chicken and Southern-themed small plates, which they will happily help you pair with their good, local wine list. hatchpasorobles.com. At the more upscale Artisan, James Beard Award–nominated chef Chris Kobayashi serves up the kind of simple but creative cuisine you’d expect to see in a trendy new Arts District eatery, from saffron-laced rabbit paella to wild boar with fennel risotto. artisanpasorobles.com. With its large, shady patio, Justin Winery’s restaurant is a great brunch or lunch spot, right outside of town. justinwine.com.
Where to stay: Hotels and B&Bs in Paso can get pricey, so for budget travelers, your best bet is Airbnb. On most weekends, there are numerous options in town for around $100 to $150 a night. For a splurge, the Wild Coyote Bed & Breakfast is set on a 40-acre winery and has private, “Santa Fe–style” casitas starting at $295 a night. wildcoyote.biz.
Wild card: Most of Paso’s best wines come from its cooler, hillier west side, but it’s worth a trip to the hot, dry east side just to check out the bizarre sculpture garden at Sculpterra Winery. There, semi-abstract elephants, horses, dragonflies and jungle cats, cast in bronze, granite and stainless steel, strike poses not found in nature, to kitschy but undeniably fascinating effect. The wine’s not bad, either. sculpterra.com.