How To Spend A Gourmet Weekend In Paso Robles

I first visited Paso Robles fifteen years ago. I remember a charming, docile little town surrounded by several dozen wineries amid picturesque hills. It was a far cry from the mainlining pace of every adult's Disneyland — Napa Valley. A revisit this summer gave me a chance to see it again and, wow, what a change! Over 300 wineries are now registered in the area (San Luis Obispo County), and the gates of almost every property on the roads radiating from downtown Paso Robles (Paso) have the name of a vineyard or winery on them. Downtown, the selection of restaurants weaves a much richer tapestry than before. New genres, new chef and owner backgrounds, new experiences and new expressions of (mainly local) ingredients. Paso also has more residents. Here is a long weekend visit distilled to its best parts, and I am sure readers will have their own locations as well.

Imposing, sumptuous and welcoming, Allegretto Vineyard Resort and Winery by Ayres is a brand spanking new (it opened in 2015) luxury resort –  the first luxury resort in Paso, and our hosted jumping off point for the weekend. Set just on the "east side" of town (U.S. 101 is the dividing line),  Allegretto gets its own entrance lane off the public road which leads to its main driveway, divided by olive trees, and directed amidships of the imposing Italianate style facade. Circumnavigate the renaissance-style fountain outside the automatic front doors and leave your car to the valet.
The newness creates sparseness on the front grounds that will inevitably disappear. Vines occupy part of it (and those old enough contribute to the resort's Allegretto brand wine). Olive trees are establishing themselves between parking lot rows and will provide oil and fruit. Diminutive poplar's will assume Tuscan formidability in due time. The clean lines of the lobby are punctuated by an ornate chandelier fixture in which glass strands burst out in flowing willow patterns.

Walking to my room, I cannot help noticing the art on the walls and sculptures set into alcoves. This is not mass-produced hotel art, and I discover later that a lot of the paintings are by local artist Erin Hanson. Art collecting is an obsession with owner Doug Ayres who has provided such things as a 1882 bell for the cupola on the chapel at the resort. A chapel that is used for weddings and music recitals.

Rooms at Allegretto are large and well equipped. We welcome the in-room Keurig coffee maker with UHT milk (not a trace of the powdered stuff). The king-size bed with sumptuous beddings is just what the doctor ordered as well. Fortuitously, our location near the southeast corner is just up the stairs from the pool. My objective of zero calorie gain on this trip requires that I use the pool twice daily for 20 lengths and this one is long enough (42.5 feet) to be called a real lap pool. There are also cabanas and a snack bar to make it a great place for hanging out. Check out the spa for a relaxing experience, and rejuvenate before a day exploring wine country.

The resort restaurant, Cello, led by executive chef Eric Olson serves Italian food with a Californian sensibility. At lunch, we loved the Scallop Salad made from butter leaf lettuce with thyme seared day boat scallops, Morro Bay avocado, mango and ginger for a tropical touch, drizzled with Halter Ranch chardonnay reduction dressing. At dinner, the all-natural beef filet with 'cabernaise' (Bearnaise with a drop of cabernet sauvignon. The chef invented the word) cooked medium-rare, hit the spot with some of the large selection of local red wines. Cello's extensive veranda overlooking the vineyard and chef's herb garden is a great place for breakfast.  There are also a range of rooms for event dining from a 500+ person ballroom down to intimate drawing rooms.

West Side Winery Tour
With over 300 wineries in the county you need some way of narrowing the number visited. Out of the millions of permutations, here is one. Start with the most famous winery in the area, Tablas Creek Vineyard, winner of hundreds of awards and The Daily Meal's 2015 Best Winery In America. They are located about a 25-minute drive across on the west side. Tablas Creek is the New World extension of the renowned Perrin family of Châteauneuf du Pape (in France's southern Rhône region) in partnership with U.S. importer, Robert Haas.
They are a leader in Rhône grape varieties in California and chose Paso Robles as their U.S. vineyard site because it had the right terroir. In particular calcareous (chalk) soil. When they purchased their first vineyard in 1989, people scratched their heads that such 'smart money' had not gone to northern California. Paso was not renowned for Rhône-style wines at the time. However, the decision proved prescient, led to great wines, and influenced the growing decisions of hundreds of other growers. They are now also a leader in organic grape farming.

The winery offers a number of tastings, including scheduled theme tastings that are posted on their web site. The staff are knowledgeable and dedicated to education. The wines are all good examples of their type. On the drive up to Tablas Creek you will have noticed numerous other vineyards. Including the Halter Ranch vineyard whose wine that chef Olson used to make the chardonnay reduction dressing.

On the way back, head to DAOU Vineyards and Winery, which is a significant property in two respects. First, and immediately apparent, it qualifies as having one of the top vistas from a winery anywhere in the U.S. Built on the top of a mountain, the Spanish style tasting room building sits brooding, as if surveilling its surroundings from 2,200 feet elevation. It can be over 100  degrees in the town of Paso, but in the low 80s here.DSC_0267.JPG

The second distinction of DAOU is more profound. The estate, owned by French brothers who made good in the tech industry and who revere Bordeaux, is dedicated to making Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blend wines. After almost a decade of work, I think they are there. I consider that they have succeeded in making a Cabernet Sauvignon that stands side by side with the great boutique Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley. Check out their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the flagship Estate 'Soul of a Lion'. Both are 100% estate-grown fruit and worthy of long ageing. Demand for visits to the winery is large, so make reservations online and select one of the wine and food tastings as part of your visit.

For an equally quality-focused visit, but in a totally different milieu, visit Deovlet Wines. Tablas Creek and DAOU ooze the solidity of being long established, Deovlet wines is the punk kid who is punching above his weight. Established in 2008, at the bottom of the recession, the modest tasting room is one of the easiest to miss on CA-46. Ryan Deovlet is focused mainly on Central Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (although he offers a Cabernet-Merlot blend as well). Focusing on single vineyards he makes very small quantities of vineyard designated wines. Best known among the vineyards are Sanford & Benedict in the Santa Rita Hills (Chardonnay) and Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley (Pinot Noir). The tasting is homely and welcoming. Ask to taste the California sparkling wine that he makes in collaboration with McPrice Myers. It is a ringer for good Champagne.

Head back to Paso and park on the north side of City Park. That puts you close to the center of the downtown walkable area. You will find that many storefronts downtown are tasting rooms for local wineries. Try to visit Parrish Family Vineyard for a tasting of wines from a large variety of grapes that have hitherto mainly been in other people's wines. Their Paso Robles Petite Sirah and Zinfandel are especially good representatives of the area. Owner Dave Parrish has a host of stories about the area from his time in the industry and a must-sit-down-with if you are lucky enough to find him there.

On the way back to Allegretto stop at San Antonio Winery.This winery was founded by Italian immigrants in 1917 in Los Angeles and still makes wine there, although a new winery is under construction in Paso Robles. There is a vast range of wines. The Heritage, Windstream and Opaque lines are the best.

Venturing into town, Paso Robles offers more and better choice than ever before. Brunch is a great time to go to Thomas Hill Organics, just a block from Parrish Family Vineyard. Founded by an emigrée from Los Angeles corporate life, Debbie Thomas, this restaurant endeavors to source as much as possible locally and organically. Combine that with executive chef Tim Veatch's experience (check out his impressive resume online) and you have a menu that springs with surprises.

It evolves so quickly that the online copy is always out of date — and that's really a good thing. One item we tried that is online is Baby Beets (available at dinner and lunch). Just coarsely chopped beets, macerated torpedo onions, watercress, chopped pistachio nuts, and yogurt.
It is a recipe that is as simple in preparation as it is brilliant in conception. The earthy distinctiveness of the beets melds harmoniously with the seductive creaminess of the yogurt, combined with the latter's acidic tang and the textural variation of the pistachio, to produce a complex mélange of flavors in the mouth, much as a good wine can.

Hamachi crudo placed sinews of the yellowtail atop a bed of avocado paste dotted with halved blackberries. Another clever idea that, incidentally, is also masterful in that it is preparable totally in advance, leaving just the assembly for service time.

The N'duja sausage dish was such a clever twist on bruschetta. Sliced baguette, made the way the French Baguette God intended (crust crispy enough to lacerate the inside of the mouth and cause rivers of blood to flood out of) sliced and spread with n'duja, and then topped with leaves of arugula and flakes of cheese before a light drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. A poached egg is plopped on the same plate (come to think of it, gratuitous poached egg tends to be a ubiquitous menu item here, but I am not complaining).  

Another example of a great dish, pork belly with grits and poached eggs. Viewed closely, it is a distant cousin of eggs and bacon, but so much more rewarding. That illustrates that Thomas Hill is the kind of breakfast place that every town should have.

For high-end dining, reserve a space at Il Cortino, just a block west of City Park. Another ex-Angelo creation – this time Santos and Carole MacDonal bring sophisticated city dining to Paso Robles in the guise of their charming jewel box with loggia-style courtyard. We loved the antipasti of grilled octopus with fresh vegetables marinati in a spicy vinaigrette and, for that matter, anything made from the homemade pasta. More detail here.

But Wait, There's More
Wineries and restaurants are not the sum of gourmet activities in Paso Robles. Virtually every week there is a festival close by. To see how flimsy an excuse is needed for a good time, we went to the Paso Pinot & Paella Festival in Templeton. It was a fantastic afternoon, wandering around a park tasting wine in the provided real crystal wine glass from the 20 Paso pinot producers represented and tasting paella from the 16 restaurants – all while listening to a live band.

And, small world, there were Allegretto and Thomas Hill Organics, each participating with their take on paella! Like all such festivals, the chefs are given broad discretion in their interpretation of the themed food, so this was also the single event in my life where I have had more expressions of paella than ever before. As well as the fun part, it is also a place to discover small Paso pinot producers. For example, ever had an Asuncion Ridge or Calcareous Vineyard wine (to mention two of the best)?

Wine is not the only locally produced beverage. Firestone Walker Brewing Company and the unusually named Re:Find Distillery make beer and hard liquor, respectively. You may have noticed the latter on your way to DAOU Vineyards and Winery. Shortly, they will be closer to town as the abandoned Fox Theatre (a disused cinema) downtown is being repurposed as their distillery.

Can you make a gourmet weekend in Paso Robles? Yes.The problem is actually finding enough time to skim the surface of what this gastronomic paradise has to offer. Plus, with rumors of new air service to San Luis Obispo from more cities, it will get even easier to reach for many people.

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