by Ron Bernthal
“It’s still a discovery process here for people who want to visit California and feel that they are discovering something new. Paso Robles has not been commercialized, we are a small town with a growing wine industry, and where everyone says hello to each other.” Christopher Taranto, Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance
The Spanish who settled this area in the 1700’s called it El Paso de Robles (Ro-blays), The Pass of the Oaks, because of the great oak trees that still flourish throughout this sun-splashed valley that lies between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Cholame Hills to the east.
The small town that grew around the San Miguel mission would eventually become known for its hot mineral springs, and its perfect climate– hot days and cold nights– where almost seed thrown into the soil would sprout. It also would become known as Paso Robles (Ro-bels), a mispronunciation that the early California settlers adopted when Mexico lost the territory after the war in 1848.
These days the locals just call it Paso, an informality that is evident everywhere here, in the casual dress of town business leaders, in the lovely family farms just a few minutes drive from main street, where horses and cattle, almonds, figs, and apricots are all local products. It is also evident in the dozens of tasting rooms that area wineries have established as visitors from around the world are now discovering the one product that is finally putting Paso on the map.
Although the town had been getting along fine as a quiet farming and ranching community, where cowboy hats were commonly worn in downtown bars, and residents were used to driving long distances to see a movie or visit a fine dining restaurant, Paso’s current popularity as a rising star in California’s tourism industry can be traced back to two events, its downtown revitalization and the 2004 film Sideways. Norma Moye, Executive Director of the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association (www.pasoroblesdowntown.org), and a long-time resident, is the Grande Dame of Paso Robles, and was instrumental in securing funding for participation in National Main Street Program.
“We became a Paso Robles Main Street Association program in 1988, and the program really worked for us. Our downtown is now very comfortable to work around in, with shops, more than 34 restaurants, winery tasting rooms, and we have lots of downtown festivals that bring everybody into town, locals and visitors,” said Ms. Moye as she sat on a park bench in the middle of Paso’s historic town square. “There was nothing to do in town before we started our main street project, but now on weekends it’s sometimes hard to find a parking space.”
Revitalizing Paso’s downtown meant bringing in a movie theater, supporting new art studios and galleries in a former auto parts building, upgrading building facades, and enticing new restaurant owners and other businesses with low rents in creative spaces that had once been empty stores and warehouses. An old fire house has been converted into a children’s museum, and some of the dark cowboy bars are now light filled clothing boutiques and cafes. In 2004 the downtown revitalization project won the Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The rapid expansion of the town’s wine industry followed on the heals of Sideways, a film about two college pals who drive up to the central coast from Los Angeles for a weekend of wine tasting and casual sex. Although most of the film was shot on location south of Paso Robles, in and around Santa Barbara, Buellton, Solvang, and Los Olivos, it was the first time in pop culture that American audiences were made aware that there are other wine regions in California besides Napa and Sonoma.
As the popularity of wine continued to grow in every region of America, the fields surrounding Paso Robles, including some former barley, lettuce, and pear farms, began to fill up with grape vines, and both the long-established area wineries and new comers opened tasting rooms in Paso’s revitalized downtown district. The Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA), which was created in 1983, is now the third largest, and fastest growing, AVA in California. Perhaps an even more impressive statistic, at a time when more corporate conglomerates are buying wineries, is that more than 95% of the region’s wine brands are family owned and operated.
“My dad was in on the modern wave of planting vineyards in 1982, but until the 1990’s the wine industry stayed small here, with only about 30 wineries around Paso Robles. Today there are more than 200 wineries in the region, mainly because winemakers in the U.S. and around the world have gotten the word that really great wine can be made here,” said Cindy Steinbeck, a fifth generation member of a vineyard and farming family (www.steinbeckwines.com) that arrived in the area in the late 1800’s, and continues to live with her husband and extended family members on 500 acres just east of town. The Steinbeck’s started their own label this year, and will continue to sell a variety of their grapes to other producers.
Farms, vineyards, and horse and cattle ranches are larger on the east side of Paso Robles, where the land stretches for miles to the foothills of the sun baked Diablo Mountains, than to the west, where the vineyards and olive groves are planted on rolling hills covered in rocky limestone soil. The vineyards on the west side are often bathed in a cooling fog that drifts in from the Pacific Ocean just a few miles away. The land for Tablas Creek Winery (www.tablascreek.com) was purchased and developed by a partnership that includes the Perrin family, European wine growers from Château-neuf-du-Pape, and their Beaucastel vineyard. The first cuttings arrived from France in 1990, and Tablas Creek now produces a great quality Rhone-blended wine.
Neil Collins, the vineyard’s manager and wine maker is convinced that the soil and climate are what persuaded his European bosses that this was the right place for their American vineyard. “They looked at many of the excellent wines around the world, many of them come from limestone soil, with the high pH and great acidity, and the retention of water, which is perfect for our dry farming (not irrigated) method. The limestone really adds a classic flavor to the wine. The climate here is also very good for wine, with usually good rainfall, and the marine influence of having the ocean just a few miles away is a big plus. In addition, the big differences in temperature between day and night, sometimes as much as 40 or 50 degrees, is unique to Paso, so choosing this 120-acre location for their winery was made after extensive research in all other areas of the country.”
The French owners of Tablas Creek found the prefect Mediterranean climate for growing grapes, and the owners of nearby Willow Creek Olive Ranch love it as well for their 6,000 Tuscan olive trees, which they use to make the award winning Pasolivo olive oil (www.pasolivo.com).
“My mother-in-law planted the trees about 16 years ago, when many of our neighbors were planting grapes, but she understood that olive trees do well wherever grapes flourish, so we waited six years for our first harvest, bought a press, and we’ve been making extra virgin oil for about ten years,” said Joli Yaguda, of Pasolivo. Last year the company was voted among the top ten olive oils in the world by professionals in a German food competition.
Joe and Debbie Thomas moved to Paso Robles about six years ago, buying ten acres of land on the east side of Paso, hoping to become organic farmers. Mr. Thomas, a former teacher, wasn’t sure what would grow here, so he planted a little bit of everything and hoped for the best. “Over here we have a small orchard of pluots, plum cots, and apriums, and some regular plums to pollinate everything in the area. And there we have two rows of various pomegranates, and below them is our apple orchard, with about ten different flavors and colors. On the other side of the apples are the white peaches and nectarines, apricots, and some of the fall fruit like jujubes, quince, Asian and European pears, and pistachios,” Mr. Thomas says, swinging his arm from side to side as he points out all the sections of his neatly organized farm.
Thomas Hill Organics Farm has lots of product these days, and the couple has been entrepreneurial in other ways as well, buying a small building in downtown Paso Robles where they have opened Thomas Hill Organics restaurant (www.thomashillorganics.com), with almost the entire menu supplied by their farm. Whatever the family organic farm does not produce, like eggs, meat, and chicken, is obtained from other organic farms and ranches in the area.
“Paso has really grown just since we’ve been here,” says Debbie Thomas, as she tends to customers during a busy week day lunch. “As the number of wineries have grown, the amount of visitors coming in from Los Angeles and other big cities has increased each year, and many of these visitors appreciate the “farm-to-table” organic menu that we have here. They also like the easy, casual atmosphere in town, where no one needs to dress up, even on Saturday night.”
Although Paso Robles, located inland between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is best known for its burgeoning wine industry, it is just a twenty minute drive from the center of town to the Pacific Ocean. Drive a few miles north along the coast and you get to San Simeon and Hearst Castle (www.hearstcastle.com).
There are about a dozen different tours of the Hearst estate, including the lower level ballrooms and guest houses, upper story private quarters, and tours that go through the extensive gardens and the Hearst cattle ranch nearby.
Another attraction nearby is less spectacular looking, but for abalone lovers it is certainly worth planning a visit during summer months, when free tours are offered to those who call before visiting. The Abalone Farm, Inc.(www.abalonefarm.com) is located on the rocky shoreline a few miles south of the Hearst estate. The country’s largest and oldest producer of California red abalone, the farm was established in 1968 and produces the delicate, clam-like creature that grows in one-half of a shell, from tiny hatchlings to full grown abalone, which can take anywhere from three to seven years. The product is packaged and shipped off to the finest restaurants in the country, where they are a prized, and expensive, treat for discerning seafood lovers.
On several acres of hilly property running all the way down to the ocean there are outdoor tanks, filled with seawater, where abalone grow, and several wooden buildings nearby where the product is packaged for delivery.
“The owner of the business once said, almost in jest, that he started the farm because he was tired of always diving for fresh abalone,” says Brad Buckley, sales and marketing manager for the operation, which produces over a million abalone each year, about 100 tons.
“Most of our product is shipped out of the area, but as Paso has become more sophisticated, and wine aficionados coming to the region seem to also love upscale seafood, we have started getting queries from restaurants just up the road in Paso,” Mr. Buckley says as he dishes out a sample of freshly sautéed abalone to visitors who are willing to try the delicacy for the first time, all of whom appear satisfied with the taste, and unashamed to ask for more.
Aside from wine, organic farming, ranching, aquaculture, Hearst Castle, and olive oil, the area around Paso Robles is beginning to be known as an art town as well, thanks to Anne Laddon, an artist who followed a man, and her heart, to Paso several years ago, got married, and opened Studios on the Park (www.studiosonthepark.org) in a former auto parts store across from the town square. “This town was ready for an infusion of art,” Ms. Laddon says, as she puts the last touches on an oil painting in one of the 20 studios that are rented by local painters, potters, jewelry makers, and lithographers. “Everyone was so welcoming to the idea of having studio space right in the middle of downtown, and visitors are always stopping by on their way to one of the tasting rooms in town, or while strolling around the square
Paso Robles seems to have it all right now — wine, art, good restaurants, nice places to stay, and, between the dry desert air on one side, and the pacific on the other, a perfect climate. Yet, it still remains a quiet country town with few pretensions. Wine critics say that Paso reminds them of what Napa was like 25 years ago, before it became big and corporate. Residents smile when they hear the comparison, confident that they will maintain the balance between the commercialized wine tourism of Napa and Sonoma, and the successful, but not overwhelming, wine industry lifestyle they enjoy now.
Christopher Taranto, Communications Manager for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (www.pasowine.com), says that Paso, because of its small size and farming background, is giving today’s visitors just what they want– an affordable, high-quality travel experience.
“Paso Robles is the newest, hottest destination in California these days. We’re still a farming community, and yet we’re also becoming a popular wine destination, two industries which really go well together. The folks who visit us because of our wine also love to eat, and appreciate our “farm-to-table” restaurants and philosophy. Visitors want a sense of place when they travel, they want to learn local history, eat local food products, drink local wine, and the wine and food here is certainly a reflection of this place, with all its intensity and freshness.”
- Hotel Cheval (upscale B&B, extremely comfortable, great downtown location near town square, 1021 Pine Street, 805-238-4103, www.hotelcheval.com)
- La Bellasera Hotel & Suites (luxury boutique hotel with large rooms and suites located in Templeton, five minutes drive from Paso, right off Hwy.101 and Rte. 46-The Wine Route, 206 Alexa Court, 805-238-2834, www.labellasera.com)
- Paso Robles Inn (historic inn has been completely renovated, 98 rooms, busy bar scene, nice location across from town square, 1103 Spring Street, 805-238-2660, www.pasoroblesinn.com)RESTAURANTS:
- Artisan (innovative ideas with traditional comfort food, 1401 Park Street, downtown, 805-237-8084, www.artisanpasorobles.com
- Il Cortile (fresh fish, homemade pasta, season menu sourced locally, 608 12th Street, downtown, 805-226-0300, www.ilcortileristorante.com)
- Thomas Hill Organics (freshly picked organically grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables from Debbie & Joe Thomas’ organic farm, outdoor seating on patio, 1305 Park Street, alley entrance downtown, 805-226-5888, www.thomashillorganics.com)
- Villa Creek (fresh California cuisine, extensive wine list, indoor/outdoor dining, 1144 Pine Street, downtown, 805-238-3000, www.villacreek.com)
- Farmstand 46 (homemade pizza in wood-fired, brick oven, gourmet deli sandwiches, breakfast, indoor/outdoor eating, 3750 Hwy. 46, Templeton, 805-239-3661, www.farmstand46.com)
- PASO ROBLES CHAMBER OF COMMERCE AND VISITORS CENTER:www.pasorobleschamber.com; 800-406-4040
© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.