Every evening when the cotton ball cloud cover rolls in over the coastal mountain range, the temperature in Paso Robles drops almost immediately. Just inland from the Pacific on the California Central Coast, fog is one of the contributing factors to an incredible range of more than 40 wine grape varieties thriving in Paso Robles, along with different soil types, topography and temperature changes attributed to a gap—the Templeton Gap—in the coastal mountain range that allows winds from the Pacific to blow in cool air.
An American Viticulture Area (AVA) since 1984, Paso Robles—Paso for locals—is home to about 200 wineries and more than 40,000 vineyard acres in a rectangle area of roughly 25 miles north to south and 35 miles east to west. With craggy mountains in the backdrop, winding country roads and an undulating patchwork of vineyards, pastures and groves, Paso Robles retains a rural, quiet charm. Cattle and feed grasses are still an important part of agriculture here, as are walnuts, almonds and olives.
Zip Wine, Zip Line
In the southernmost part of the AVA, Franciscan missionaries established an Asistencia (assistance mission) in 1787 as a food and lodging stop to help travelers on their arduous foot journey between the missions of San Luis Obispo (to the south) and San Miguel (to the north). As was common at missions along the 600-mile El Camino Real, the friars at the Asistencia raised cattle and grew Mission wine grapes.
Today’s travelers don’t have to traverse the Santa Lucia mountains on foot to come here. Most historic landmarks—including the original Asistencia as well as the historic railroad town of Santa Margarita—can be visited on a day trip to the historic 14,000-acre Margarita Ranch.
In fact, you can see the property even faster: On a quiet morning fossil shells in the ocean bottom soil crunch under my feet as I make my way up the slope, strapped in a harness for a very fast, adrenaline-soaked tour of the vineyards on the Pinot Express. It is a zip line that dips from a hilltop all the way across the Pinot Noir vineyard to stop just before the old mine entrance. The Pinot Express is one of five zip lines that give a bird’s-eye view of the ranch.
Soaring high, too, are predatory birds that are encouraged as a natural way to control vineyard pests. “We installed bat and owl boxes and perches for predatory birds. It is part of our commitment to sustainable farming,” said Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins (the Wittstroms are one of three longtime local families who have owned Margarita Ranch since 1999). . Margarita Vineyard—home to Ancient Peaks Winery—was awarded the Sustainability In Practice (SIP) certification in 2009.
From Rhône to Adelaida Road
At Tablas Creek Vineyard on Adelaida Road in the northwest of Paso Robles AVA, herds of donkey, sheep and Alpacas help out on the vineyards. They graze down winter cover crop, provide natural fertilizer and hoof it into the limestone soil as they move around. The farm animals are part of Tablas Creek’s move towards biodynamic viticulture. They’re also pretty cute and can distract from an otherwise entertaining demonstration of grafting scion to rootstock—part of the scheduled vineyard tours. Tablas Creek Vineyard—certified organic since 2003—has been instrumental in the growth of Rhône varietals counting in the most common reds (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) and whites (Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne). Grafted from cuttings that originated in the vineyards of Château de Beaucastel in the southern Rhône in France, Tablas Creek Vineyard (TCV) clones find their way to vineyards throughout the Paso Robles AVA and beyond.
SIP Wine, Grow Food
At SIP-certified Niner Wine Estates on wine route Highway 46 West, executive chef Maegan Loring only has to walk out the kitchen door to find ingredients, literally, for the picking. The vegetable garden this spring season is abundant with leafy greens, edible flowers, root vegetables, bushy celery, fat leeks and more.
Niner occupies an idyllic spot on Paso Robles’ popular wine route at the foot of Heart Hill, so named for the heart-shape grove of blue oaks on the hilltop. Niner was the first winery on the Central Coast to receive LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—certification for its buildings.
Long-term plans to grow food on the estate include raising meat animals. “All our wine is 100% estate-grown. We want to achieve the same for our food,” said Andy Niner, partner and general manager. “Produce and olive oil are going well. Meat animals [are] next but it is a complex process. We’ll start with poultry and pigs.”
HOW TO GET THERE
The regional airport of San Luis Obispo is the most direct way to fly in and drive up to Paso Robles. Otherwise, both San Francisco and Los Angeles are three to four hours’ driving away. Or take the time and take Highway 1: From San Francisco it travels through Big Sur and opens up incredible vistas of the high cliffs and rocky coastline. Stop at the famed Hearst Castle near San Simeon before heading inland to Paso Robles.
Margarita Ranch/Ancient Peaks
(ancientpeaks.com), 22720 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita. Tasting room hours daily 11am–5:30pm daily. Zip line tours and adventures: margarita-adventures.com.
Niner Wine Estates
(ninerwine.com), 2400 Hwy. 46 West, Paso Robles. Tasting room hours 10am–5pm daily. Restaurant is open for lunch Thursday–Sunday 11am–4pm.
Tablas Creek Vineyard
(tablascreek.com), 9339 Adelaida Rd., Paso Robles. Tasting room hours 10am–5pm daily. Vineyard and nursery tours available (firstname.lastname@example.org).
NB. I was invited on a media trip to Paso Robles.