Free-range zebras, undeveloped California coastline as far as the eye can see and an epic house museum: Welcome to the Hearst Ranch Winery's neighborhood. Few California wineries can compete with the tasting room's charming location, in an historic old San Simeon building shaded by a grove of eucalyptus, across from the William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach. And within view is one of the state's most popular tourist attractions, the Hearst Castle.

Hearst Ranch Winery's story began in 1852 when Sebastian's General Store was built to service whalers, fisherman and ranchers of the Central Coast. That quaint clapboard building–decorated inside with vintage farm equipment and supplies–re-opened in April 2010 as the winery's tasting room. Also inside is perhaps the best sandwich spot along this scenic stretch of Highway 1. A line often snakes out the door as customers wait for hefty burgers and sandwiches piled high with Hearst Ranch's grass-fed beef. (The Yelpers give it much love.)

A must-stop in Paso Robles' wine country, the wines have a colorful backstory.

Stop in for wine tastes and grass-fed beef at the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room; Credit: Kathy A. McDonald

Stop in for wine tastes and grass-fed beef at the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room; Credit: Kathy A. McDonald

Although the Hearst family name is synonymous with California history — and the family trust still owns 125 square miles of the central coast — the winery and tasting room are a more recent enterprise. At San Simeon, you can now taste the inaugural vintages from the winery, a partnership between Steve Hearst and Paso Robles vineyard owner Jim Saunders.

Labels are branded with the Hearst cattle ranch logo and many of the wines are named for an aspect of the storied property. There's the “Julia” Sauvignon Blanc after architect Julia Morgan, who designed the castle. The 2010 is crisp and not too floral. A classic patio wine, it matches well with the hot days of late summer. The Three Sisters cuvee, a typical but very balanced Rhone-style blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc grapes, refers to the three mountain peaks behind the castle.

Grapes are sourced from Saunders' Paso Robles vineyard where hot temperatures produce both fine Tempranillo (the inky Spanish varietal) and Malbec. The 2009 “Chileano” Tempranillo is a touch spicy, with fruit forward aromas and flavors of blackberry and strawberry. Well-liked at the tasting room is the aromatic 2009 “Barbicora” Malbec–pair it with the Sebastian's Store's deli-made, Hearst beef hamburger for a deluxe picnic. Saunders, along with winemaker Adam LaZarre and Steve Hearst, are in the process of selecting a spot to plant grapes on the coastal acres. Visitors will soon see the estate vineyard along the curvy route up to the castle.

Not headed north anytime soon? The wines are available at select Whole Foods. For an unforgettable experience, check out the Friends of the Hearst Castle wine dinner on September 24. A benefit, the dinner is held outside next to the fabled Neptune pool. From there it's possible to see that wild herd of zebras, remnants of William Randolph's Hearst's menagerie.

For more deliciousness, follow Kathy A. McDonald on twitter: @writerkathymcd.

LA Weekly