Editor’s note: Paso Robles wineries and restaurants provided a perfect and memorable California weekend getaway for Laura Diamond, one of The Vacation Gals’ regular contributors. Here, she describes a bit of the wine education she got along the way.
Dreaming of a gourmet food and wine getaway with unpretentious people and prices, my husband Christopher and I headed to the charming central coast town of Paso Robles. We were looking for a weekend to relax and enjoy quality time together. Paso Robles wineries and restaurants fit the bill in every way. Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the town is replete with delicious farm-to-table fine dining, hundreds of wineries, and gracious, knowledgeable wine lovers eager to share their passion, even with admitted wine-ignoramuses like us.
Don’t get me wrong — I like to drink wine. I just know next to nothing about the differences between various wines, regions, years, etc. It seems so complicated! Maybe it has to do with my first experience with wine during my Junior year in Spain, where my favorite beverage was “Tinto de Verano” – a cheap red wine mixed with orange soda. (Still a favorite. Think really quick sangria.) My second favorite wine discovery that year was at a fondue place in Paris that served red wine out of plastic baby bottles. Yes, we drank through the nipples. No, I’m not proud. I’m just giving you the background.
My tastes have matured somewhat, but I still have a hard time keeping Pinot Grigio straight from Pinot Noir. I mean, they have the same first word. Didn’t anyone think that might be a problem?
I hoped that Paso Robles wineries and restaurants would be a first step in my wine education. Admittedly, I was cowed by the estimated 3 ½ to 4 hours drive from Los Angeles. But without kids getting restless in the backseat, we were able to enjoy each other’s conversation, and the quiet in between, while taking in views of the Pacific and gently rolling mountains dappled with trees and lounging cows. The drive itself was a relaxing part of the weekend.
After two and a half hours in the car, we were ready to stretch our legs and fill our bellies. Just off the 101 north of Santa Barbara, the town of Los Alamos offered up an unexpected gift in the form of the casually gourmet Bell Street Farm Eatery & Market.
Owner Jamie Gluck took our order and explained that the Bell Street Farm is open Friday – Monday, and that he spends the rest of the week home in Hancock Park. Anticipating a lot of eating over the weekend, I ordered a rotisserie chicken salad. My eyes popped when I saw, then tasted, the enormous portion of scrumptious chicken filling my plate. Christopher indulged in the pork sandwich and was equally satiated. After lunch, we strolled across the street to spend a few minutes sampling Los Alamos antique stores before settling in for the rest of the ride.
We arrived at the Paso Robles Inn before check-in time, and to my surprise our room was ready and waiting. How often does that happen? We walked through its garden, past koi ponds and the outdoor pool and spa, to our comfortable garden view room with a fireplace. Facing the town square, the Paso Robles Inn enjoys a perfect location for strolling the town, although you’d have to stay for longer than a weekend to sample all the restaurants, wine, olive oil and cheese tasting in the four block square.
We walked around the town square, with its historic old library and new gazebo (which hosts music in the summertime), and arrived at Robert’s Restaurant and Wine Bar. The old black and white photos on the walls and the comfortable armchairs evoke an opulent, relaxed time. Our friendly waiter offered to pour us as many tastes of wine as it took until we found one we liked, but he chose well and I went with the first glass he poured, in what would become many glasses of wine over this weekend.
After dinner, we headed over to River Oaks Hot Springs Spa to indulge in the spa treatment I’d been thinking about since I’d dropped the kids at school earlier that morning. (Was it really still just Friday? Already I was on vacation time.) We arrived as the sun was setting, giving us the last glimpse of the beautiful landscape surrounding it. We were led in robes to a private natural hot springs spa to soak away any tensions that the aforementioned wine might not have reached, and followed the soak with a couples massage. Christopher, friendly guy that he is, has been known to spend the hour chatting with the masseuse. But in deference to his less friendly wife, he kept his banter to a minimum so as not to disturb the quiet in our shared room. Thank you, honey.
The next morning, after eight blessed hours of uninterrupted sleep, we were ready for a jam-packed day of…more gluttony. Not knowing how to choose from among the 200 wineries that call Paso Robles home, let alone how to find them, we opted for something we usually avoid in travel – the group tour. But let me tell you, when you’re tasting 20 varieties of wine, starting at 11 am, you do want someone else at the wheel. Enter the Grapeline.
Grapeline group tour host and driver Peggy was a highlight of the weekend, as were the bachelorette party gals we were matched with for the day. Knowledgeable, funny, down-to-earth, and a Paso Robles wine insider, Peggy expertly led our group to four different vineyard/wineries, each with its own personality. The Tobin James Winery was a rocking party atmosphere, with a wine I liked so much I barely registered that it was $55 a bottle. (Remember, you’re talking to a 2 Buck Chuck gal, here.) Just like with my kids’ school auction, where they liquor you up so you’ll bid on a trip you’d never otherwise buy but you will for sure enjoy, I lined up with the rest of the crowd to buy some.
The Eberle Winery plied us with more delicious wines. We were only on our second winery, and I was already having trouble distinguishing among them. I do remember that they brought us underground to their caves, where barrels upon barrels of wine are stored, and where they hold private parties, from small group tasting menus to wedding rehearsal dinners. These underground caves are also the site of their incredibly spooky Halloween haunted house, benefitting the Dream Foundation.
The Via Vega Winery was a treat, for both its Day of the Dead alter and its modest owner/winemaker Larry, who personally filled our glasses. One wine he described a “breakfast wine” because it was so light and drinkable. Umm, breakfast? We sipped varieties with names like “October Series” and “Bench Warmer” under the glow of a huge-screen television broadcasting some sporting event. He taught us that there is no right or wrong about whether a wine is good, it’s up to the person drinking it. “All you’re tasting now,” he added, “is the weather. How hot or cold it was while those grapes out there were growing.” Thus dubbing me and everyone in the room an expert, how could I not buy one of his bottles? Best of all, his six-year-old daughter Ella was the one who retrieved the 2009 Syrah no one else could find. She read the labels to locate it – a lot more fun than typical first grader’s reading lessons.
Our last stop was at Le Vigne Winery, where they presented our group with food/wine pairings of four unique cheeses with their perfect wines matches. Go there simply for the divine coconut-milk-infused cheese, and enjoy it in the shade-dappled warmth of its patio. It was the perfect end to a delicious day.
After the Grapeline tour we did the only thing we could do – nap. And digest. Because dinner was next on our agenda. We strolled across the town square to Villa Creek Restaurant, whose simple, rustic décor and deep, rich colors evoked a feeling of Santa Fe. To say the dishes are made from fresh, local, organic ingredients doesn’t begin to tell you enough about the dishes we tried. Christopher summed up our meal best: “I love everything I’m tasting.” We didn’t give ourselves the chance to sample their extensive wine selections. When we declined the wine list, the knowing wait staff nodded and commented, “Aha, you’re hydrating.” Yep.
For something different, we strolled over to the Pony Club Bar at Hotel Cheval, and tried out the S’Mores Butler. With choices of homemade marshmallows in flavors like cinnamon sugar, orange, and raspberry, it was an exclamation point ending to our sensory-overloaded (in the best way) day.
The next morning, we bid farewell to the town, leaving untasted many restaurants we’ll have to try next time, and ready for a week-long fast. If we ever manage to get hungry again, I’m certain we’ll be back.
The Travel Paso Robles Alliance provided complimentary services at Paso Robles Inn and Villa Creek Restaurant. Complimentary services were also provided by The Grapeline, River Oaks Hot Springs Spa, Hotel Cheval and Robert’s Restaurant.
Laura Diamond is the editor of Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She writes about family, travel and more on her blog www.lauradiamond.wordpress.com.