Earlier this year, I was flattered to be asked by Decanter Magazine to write an insider's guide to Paso Robles for inclusion in their annual California supplement. My goal was not to recommend wineries, but instead to give potential visitors an idea of some of the other gems of the area: things to do that you might not know about, or that might not appear in a guide book. What fun. The article was published last month:
Unfortunately, it isn't available online. So, I wanted to share it here. This also gives me the opportunity to provide some additional details on my recommendations that weren't able to fit into the magazine due to space constraints. So, here goes:
My Paso Robles
I was sitting in our downtown park last summer on a warm Thursday evening, listening to a local band play and watching my kids thread their way through the crowd with their friends, when I realized that this is what people look for when they come to wine country, and more than that, what we were looking for when we moved out fourteen years ago from a city life to join my family in working on our Tablas Creek project. We were drinking local rosé out of plastic tumblers, sitting with two other winemaking families on blankets, and eating caprese sandwiches from tomatoes we’d gotten at our local farmer’s market that week. And it’s not just that concert series. Paso is like that: few pretensions, still country, but with an appealing overlay of cultural opportunities brought by the wine community over the last three decades.
Justin Baldwin, the founder of the pioneering Justin Winery, is fond of saying that when he arrived in Paso Robles in 1983, the best meal in town was the tuna melt at the bowling alley. When I first started spending time out here in 1995, it wasn't quite that bleak, but still, when you wanted a great meal, or interesting shopping, you went over to the coast, or down to San Luis Obispo. No more. Our little town, which locals just call "Paso" (population, about 30,000), is now home to a remarkable collection of restaurants, hotels, and shops, driven by the dramatic growth of our local wine community, from 17 wineries when we started Tablas Creek in 1989 to some 260 today.
Local agriculture means more than wineries. The area has a long history of ranching, and the ample (for California) natural rainfall west of town made it a historical centre of both grain and nut production. Several local olive ranches are producing some of California's best olive oils. Just 20 miles away, the coast offers fishing, kayaking and surfing, a milder climate in which citrus and avocado orchards thrive, and Hearst Castle, the most visited state park in California.
In Paso, you have a vibrant mix of three communities, which interact in interesting and rewarding ways. You have the old ranching community, many of whose members have in recent decades dedicated a portion of their ranches to vineyards. Cowboy hats here are not worn ironically. You have the wine community, which has attracted a mix of new graduates, young families, and second career refugees into the area from (mostly) other parts of California, bringing a more urban, multicultural aesthetic. And you have a vibrant Hispanic community, both first and second generation, with taquerias and mercados, some of which play it straight and some of which incorporate influences from California and beyond.
Whatever you do, plan to stay for at least a few days. We're not near any major cities (or airports, for that matter, although the one-gate San Luis Obispo airport makes for a convenient arrival point) and the pace here isn't one where you should try to do it all in a day or two. Slow down, limit your winery visits to 3 or 4 per day, and take in some other attractions. And then plan to come back.
- Stay at Hotel Cheval. When this 16-room boutique hotel opened in 2007 it brought a whole new level of luxury and professionalism to lodging in Paso Robles. It's still the town's classiest spot to stay, with live music evenings in their great bar (the Pony Club) and the benefit of being just half a block from the downtown park: an easy walk to (and more importantly back from) the town's restaurants.
- Visit the Abalone Farm in Cayucos. San Luis Obispo County's agriculture isn't all wine. Ranching is big here too, as are strawberries, citrus, and avocados. Abalone fishing has a long local history, but decades of overharvesting from which wild populations are only beginning to recover means that if you want to try local abalone you should come here, just up from the kelp forests of Cayucos, to one of just three licensed fisheries in the state. You have to call and make an appointment, but a visit is a fascinating look at the five-year journey this mollusk makes from spawn to plate.
- Shop like a local at General Store Paso Robles and Studios on the Park. Less than a block apart from each other are my two favorite places in town to shop. Studios on the Park is a cooperative work space and gallery for a dozen local painters, sculptors, and printmakers. It even offers classes if you're feeling creative. The General Store is the place to go for anything Paso Robles-themed, as well as a curated selection of cookbooks, housewares, and picnic items. I'd go even more often if my wife Meghan hadn't already bought everything there.
- Play a round of disc golf at Castoro Cellars. I played Ultimate Frisbee competitively for two decades. Disc golf is more my speed now, and the Udsen brothers Max and Luke built a course that takes players through the gorgeous hillside vineyards of their family's winery.
- Try the cider at Bristol’s Cider House. Made by our winemaker Neil Collins in homage to his Bristol, England roots, the line of Bristol's Ciders is available to taste at his Atascadero cider house. The ciders are creative and delicious, and the themed food nights (curry Thursdays, anyone?) are great fun.
- Eat a plate of al pastor tacos at Los Robles Café (no Web site; 805.239.8525). Don't be put off by the bare-bones exterior, a few blocks north of the park on Spring Street. This is the kind of place you think should be everywhere in California: a great, inexpensive local taqueria, where they're equally comfortable taking your order in Spanish or English.
- Go to the railroad station for the best sushi in town at Goshi (no Web site; 805.227.4860), and know that half the tables there will be winemakers out with their families, refreshing their palates with beer, sake, and amazingly fresh fish.
- Go for cocktails and appetizers around the square, hitting Artisan, Villa Creek, Thomas Hill Organics and La Cosecha. Everything is within a few blocks, so rather than spend all night at one restaurant, try several. At each stop, try an appetizer and a drink. If you're wined out, sip cocktails made from local craft spirits, like Alex and Monica Villicana's re:find distillery.
- Order the cauliflower at The Hatch or the French onion soup at Bistro Laurent. New classic, or old? Chef Laurent Grangien was the first to open a fine restaurant in Paso Robles back in 1997. His onion soup has been a staple on the menu ever since, and is a requirement for my boys if we've been out shopping. Meanwhile, the Hatch, started by Maggie Cameron and Eric Connolly just in 2014, is Paso's newest culinary hotspot, with southern-inflected sharable plates and particularly delectable cauliflower with their version of hot dip.
- On a summer Thursday, bring a blanket, a picnic (try 15degrees C in Templeton), a bottle of local rosé, and join the rest of the community for one of the concerts in the park. Fun for all ages.
So, that's my Paso. What are the can't miss stops in yours?