I call it “the NorCal Schmear.” Thirty or more cars spread out on a Northern California highway, edge to edge like the cream cheese on a bagel, and at least three car-lengths apart. Each lane moves at exactly the same speed, the drivers hedging their bets to prevent any bottleneck that might prevent them from getting from the airport to their 2:30 p.m. tasting in Napa. It was after about 90 minutes of this infuriating phenomenon that this native New Yorker contemplated an act of road rage. It then occurred to me how comparatively effortless my last great grape escape had been. I had already discovered the easiest wine-away weekend a Las Vegan could hope for.
Three Fridays prior, I hopped on an evening Allegiant flight (about $50 each way most weeks) and an hour later descended through a thin veil of sundown fog into Santa Maria, Calif. After a reasonably short drive, I was checked in and freshening up in my motel at the north end of Paso Robles’ Spring Street. Not much can be said for the motel, but the town is quaint, clean and studded with gourmet restaurants, cheese shops, tasting rooms and boutiques.
Paso Robles encompasses a wide swath of hilly, oak- and walnut tree-dotted farmland just 25 miles inland at the very center of the Central Coast. Chalky calcareous shale and sandy, loamy soils dominate, and here, the so-called “Rhône Rangers” cultivate traditional Old World varietals such as grenache, mourvèdre, viognier and especially syrah. Zinfandel, too, has played a vital role in the area’s growth. But Paso winemakers have that Western spirit of independence, so you’ll see everything from Bordeaux-style blends to New World single varietals and unique blends.
Drop-in tasting here is easy. On the winding back roads that start into the hills just west of the tiny downtown area, rustic signs welcome you to family farms and vineyards for wine, olive oil and local beef. But the best way to go is to select three neighboring dots on the map at PasoWine.com, secure reservations, and make a day of those—nothing is as close as it seems.
Each morning, I fueled up downtown at Amsterdam Coffee House, where Morning Glory muffins are served warm and with a spoon. Properly caffeinated, I headed west through twisty hollows canopied by oaks wearing vestments of moss and mistletoe. Tablas Creek Vineyard (TablasCreek.com) offers twice-daily winery tours taking you right into the organic and biodynamic vineyards that the Perrin and Haas families have overseen since 1989. After a grafting demonstration in the greenhouses, where cuttings imported from the Perrin’s Château de Beaucastel were grafted onto American rootstocks, you finally get to taste some juice. The flagship red blend, Esprit de Beaucastel, is widely distributed, so I picked up a tasting-room-only bottle of the 2009 tannat, a grape that has migrated with the Basque people and which has the highest concentration of all that makes red wine good for you.
Not far away is the sleek yet whimsical Justin Vineyards & Winery (JustinWine.com). Reservations are a must to take advantage of any of the educational programs, which range from the twice-daily tours and barrel tastings to the blending seminar and master sommelier Joseph Spellman’s Ultimate Wine Experience, a two-hour immersion for $400. But the regular tour still takes you through the estate’s caves, where the next vintage of Isosceles—the wine that catapulted Justin to fame—bides its time. The 2009 is now available in stores, and there is a waiting list for the 2008, so I selected an outlier, a 2009 reserve tempranillo only available through Justin Winery.
I wrapped the day at the nearby Starr Ranch Vineyard & Winery (Starr-Ranch.com), where cellphone signals dare not tread and where Judy Starr retains only about 10 percent of her grape harvest to make excruciatingly small quantities of her own wine. Just 87 cases each were made of her GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvèdre) Rhône blend and the dark, brooding reserve syrah she recommended I pair with a Brontë novel. The only thing I liked better than Starr’s ’06 Crooked Road “Odysseus” Bordeaux-style blend (“It’s a great metaphor for life”) was her warm, wry, intelligent self. When I drink it, I’ll be lifted by the thought of her effervescence.
Almost any time of year is ideal for a Paso ramble, and it’s easy to pull together a three-day weekend with six or so winery visits and delicious meals at Thomas Hill Organics and Artisan, for example. But you could also time your trip to coincide with one of the area’s many festivals, such as the upcoming Earth Day Food & Wine Festival (April 20-22), Hospice du Rhône (April 26-28) or the Paso Robles Wine Festival (May 18-20).
My visit serendipitously coincided with the Paso Robles Rhône Rangers Experience (RhoneRangers.org) at Windfall Farms, in the wide rolling hills and horse farms 10 miles east of Paso Robles. I sampled to my heart’s content from the proud producers of the 22 Rhône varietals in the very stalls of a brick stable, along with hundreds of other enthusiastic GSM fans. I never Rhône alone.