Welcome to the harvest crush season in California Wine Country! While wine enthusiasts often flock to the crowded spots of Napa and Sonoma, the lesser known and equally as critically acclaimed Paso Robles should be on your radar. Nestled along the Central Coast, Paso is sandwiched in between SF and LA and home to over 250 wineries. The short drive makes it an easy weekend getaway or in my case, a reunion with my cousin after two long years. Not sure where to start your wine tasting adventure? Do yourself a favour and download the Paso Robles Wineries Wine Tasting Map which includes a comprehensive and complete guide to all the wineries in the area. Can’t get to Paso this season but still want to support small independent wineries? Check out Vinebase.
By accident, my cousin rented a fully electric vehicle instead of the hybrid. This turned into a learning opportunity for the both of us as we had no prior experience calculating mileage against charge. We used the ChargeHubEV app to find charger stations peppered along the route, in addition to the ever-faithful Google maps. We were fully impressed with the amount of infrastructure available; we found charging stations everywhere – at hotels, banks, wineries and all along the 101. With the somewhat seamless (until we ran into some traffic heading back to the airport) smooth ride, it definitely underscored the possibility of EV in the near future and made travelling around wine country even more exciting.
For our first night, we stayed at the beautiful Isosceles Suite at the JUST Inn (one of three suites) located behind the JUSTIN Winery tasting room. Before checking in, we had our first wine tasting overlooking the vineyards. My favorites were the 2020 Rose and the 2017 Isosceles; both are award winning. If the wine doesn’t impress you, the food will. Both our decadent dinner and scrumptious breakfast were prepared by the Michelin acknowledged Executive Chef Rachel Haggstrom and her team of The Restaurant at JUSTIN. The farmstead of the restaurant is comprised of over twenty-six acres of orchards, vegetable gardens & edible-flower fields. With such an expansive resource, it’s no wonder that every dish is thoughtfully curated.
The remainder of our short stay was at the Tuscan-inspired Allegretto Vineyard Resort. The Allegretto has 171 guest rooms and suites and has all the fixings of a destination resort: Spa, gym, outdoor pool with cabanas combined with a number of other amenities like Art Docent Tours, tandem bicycles, meditation classes and a sonic labyrinth too. Walk along the many garden trails on the 20 acres and you’ll not only see grapes, olive and fruit trees, but also bee hives, goats and George, the resident Alpaca. On site, eat at Cello for casual comfort foods or sit in the 12,000 sq ft piazza and try some varietals at the Allegretto Tasting Room. Everything like the word Allegretto, in English, is done with joy.
Our first night, we delayed our dinner to arrive just before sunset to check out Bruce Munro: Light at Sensorio. This 15-acre Field of Light is filled with over 58,000 fiber-optic stemmed spheres that glow and change colors. The view from the VIP terrace is complete with fire pits and an Airstream bar. Or you can walk around the installation to take it all in. Follow the path to the Light Towers, which features 69 towers that are made from 17,388 wine bottles at 252 bottles per tower. Feeling a little peckish? Grab some snacks at the surrounding food trucks and listen to live entertainment by local musicians while you eat. If you can’t make it with the family this year – fear not, the installation will continue on into 2022.
Our last full day we took a visit to the Dirk’s family Pasolivo ranch, which has produced award-winning California olive oil for over a decade. The 140-acre ranch was originally owned by legendary Hollywood director and producer King Vidor. Vidor directed such classics as War & Peace, Stella Dallas, Northwest Passage, and The Champ, as well as the black and white portion of The Wizard of Oz. It’s no wonder that the Pasolivo ranch is so picturesque with large oak trees amongst the property. Stay for a tasting of flavorful EVOO and balsamic vinegars complete with a range of spices and salts. My favorites were the Tuscan EVOO and the Fig Balsamic Vinegar (and I’m not normally a vinegar fan). Pasolivo also has a collection of bath and body products too. All made with EVOO. I loved the whipped body butter and the Grapefruit hand lotion has been a staple since the trip.
From Pasolivo we squeezed in a short stop at CASS Vineyard & Winery. All the more reason to go back to the 145-acre sustainable family-owned boutique winery. We started at CASS Café (a USA Today’s Top 10 Best Winery Restaurant) sampling some Harlen Sparking Rosé which was perfectly paired with Ann’s Crab Cake Salad (with avocado of course!). Then it was off to meet Sterling Kragten, the award-winning winemaker, who, like me, is a huge rosé fan! After our chat, we checked out the beautiful shipping crate construction, Geneseo Inn. This luxury boutique Inn, combined with CAMP CASS – an adult “summer” camp includes activities like olive oil pressing, a photo scavenger hunt, archery and horseback riding making CASS the ultimate destination for discerning individuals, couples and groups alike.
Our last tasting was at Booker. It all started with the Booker brothers, Claude and Dick. Who, as two orphans in the late 1920’s, soon acquired over 1,200 acres on Paso’s Westside. Almost eighty years later, in 2001, Eric and Lisa Jensen purchased 100 acres of the property and released their first Vintage for Booker Vineyard in 2005. Staying true to the altruistic values of the Booker brothers, a portion of proceeds from every Booker Vineyard purchase is donated to must! Charities, helping local people in need. Earlier this year, the vineyard received organic certification and opened a new cave lounge and (my favorite) the beautiful indoor/outdoor terrace for guests to enjoy the scenery, ambiance and delicious wines, topped off with Eric’s personal playlist of tunes to set the mood.
We should all be thankful for the Lekai’s family trips to Italy, which served as inspiration years later for this business venture. While the store is located in Paso Robles Market Walk, you can find Owner/Master gelatier, Niccoló Lekai’s delicious creamy gelato and sorbet in spots around Paso Robles. We picked ours up at Cass Winery and enjoyed it on our drive (writers note: devoured it) to Booker Vineyard. Available in pint size or a smaller grab and go size with a wooden spoon. I’m partial to pistachio myself, but it is also available in Sea Salt Caramel, Vanilla Bean, Cookies & Cream, Chocolate, Strawberry White Chocolate and Santa Maria Strawberry and Tropical Mango sorbet.
AMSTRDM is a coffee house by day, serving locally roasted coffee along with brunch and house baked pastries. By night (3 nights a week), it’s a live music lounge complete with a Steinway & Sons Model B Piano. Owned by Paso Robles natives, Corey Jordan and Kate Smith, the AMSTRDM has hosted both jazz and classical artists since opening in July 2020. Corey Jordan’s love for music started at a young age and while he may have had a decade hiatus, he eventually found his way back to the piano keys as a concert pianist, producer, and recording artist. It was only natural for Corey to share his passion with the people in Paso through the universal language of music and food.
With international influences and Central California roots, Courtney and Julien Asseo made their way back to Paso Robles and opened their own restaurant in November 2019. Drawing upon their years of expertise and knowledge, including being the Executive Chef of Restaurant Guy Savoy and the bar manager of the now closed DB Brasserie, by Daniel Boulud, the couple opened Les Petites Canailles. Translating to English as “The Little Rascals,” which represents their 3 children, Margaux, Maddox, and Phoenix. You can tell the seasonal menu of French-inspired foods is a Paso favorite, just by the incredibly busy heated patio for a Monday night on an oddly windy day. My recommendation is to arrive on a very empty stomach, so you can order a few appetizers like the ever-popular steak tartare and Spanish octopus with your main.
You simply can’t visit anywhere along the coastline and not have fresh seafood in some form. FISHGAUCHO brings the flavors of the Baja with an extensive collection of more than 250 tequila and mezcal varieties to sample. This collection gives way to some interesting cocktails, like the featured cocktail of The Tales of the Cocktail (an annual cocktail/spirits trade conference), Flight of the Conchords – a nod to the New Zealand TV Show and of course, includes kiwis. Respectful of the ocean that supplies seafood for the restaurant, you can pick up a stainless-steel straw for $2 if you forgot yours. Executive chef Chris Beckett sources from local farmers and fisherman to create the inspired Mexican menu. Forget your typical flaked fish tacos, I was treated to the freshest, thickest cut, mouth-watering Halibut tacos of my life.
I discovered The Alchemists’ Garden over Instagram, but I received confirmation from a local that it was The Place for beautiful and innovative cocktails. They were not lying; we visited after our dinner at Les Petit Canailles. With a combination of 60 years in the hospitality industry, the five experts – Tony Bennett, Alexandra Pellot, Norin Grancel, Andrew Brune, and Quin Cody drew upon the study of Alchemy for this hotspot. Hand forged alchemical symbols laid out in the pattern of the business purchase date, 03/03/2020, decorate the bar and over 50 plants add a botanical garden feel. I had the Bella Donna, a rum concoction which tasted as good as the sparks that flew from the drink. A true feast for the eyes. The coordinating Zodiac cocktails are not to be missed. I’ll have to come back for an Aquarian in the new year.
If you are into 1920’s-30’s renditions of modern pop songs and well-crafted cocktails, you’ll enjoy this speakeasy (located behind Pappy McGregor’s Pub in downtown Paso Robles). Once you step inside, you’ll be whisked away to a bygone prohibition era with the candlelit atmosphere and no photos or cell phone policy. It makes it an easy win for those looking to actually have real life conversations (gasp!) with their companions, whilst settled in one of their intimate booths. Offering over 100 whiskeys, scotches and highly coveted spirits, it’s no wonder they were named one of the Top Must See Hidden Speakeasies in the World (Venue Report 2018). For the last drink of the trip, I had Bar Director Mike Kelly’s seasonal milk punch cocktail called Tears in the Storm. I wished we had more time to sample some more libations, but this just leaves me with more reasons to look forward to the next time I visit Paso Robles.