The Grape Escape

Paso Robles wine country offers memorable inns, fine restaurants, and these 25 terrific tasting rooms. Really, who needs Napa?

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With its rolling hills and leafy vineyards, Paso Robles beckons Orange County travelers longing for a quick wine-country weekend. Local vintners have enjoyed rave reviews for decades, and the luxury hotels and dining rooms are catching up. Its hundreds of wineries are just 20 minutes inland, but the local highways are uncrowded, and the tasting rooms warmly welcome visitors. World-class wines and laid-back charm, that’s Paso.

Tasting Rooms
Paso Robles teems with more than 200 wineries. Here are our 25 favorites, based on wines and settings. Most charge a fee, but many waive it when you buy a bottle.

1. Adelaida Cellars
The winery is named for the surrounding area of Adelaida, originally a path for Spanish soldiers, later a bootleggers’ route. Its storied history suits a high-toned cellar with a tasting room to match, employing low-key, well-schooled pourers. Every bottle is elegantly balanced, from striking Rhone whites to fleshy cabernets.  10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 5805 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles, 805-239-8980, www.adelaida.com 

2. Booker Vineyard
Encouraged by Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure, Eric Jensen began making his own wines. His bottles earn Parker scores in the 90s, and he specializes in Paso blends such as Spanish tempranillo mixed with syrah, cab, petit verdot, and grenache in his 2008 Alchemist ($50). His 2007 My Favorite Neighbor ($55), a tribute to Asseo, has sketches of both vintners on the label. Temporarily closed; opens mid-October.  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. $10 tastings. 2640 Anderson Road, Paso Robles, 805-237-7367, www.bookerwines.com 

3. Calcareous Vineyard
Drive out of your way for the panoramic, hilltop view. Owners Dana Brown and Erika Messer named their winery after the region’s rocky soil, evident in the complexity of the wine. Taste the cherries and spice in the 2007 Calcareous Meritage ($36). 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $5 tastings. 3430 Peachy Canyon Road, Paso Robles, 805-239-0289, www.calcareous.com  

4. Denner Vineyards
With a curvilinear building and abstract sculptures on the grounds, Denner brings a breath of fresh air to a landscape once dominated by barns and barrels. Winemaker Anthony Yount supervises the production of Rhone varietals and blends. Estate Bordeaux blends are coming in spring 2011.  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 5414 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, 805-239-4287, www.dennervineyards.com  

5. Eberle Winery
Along with Jerry Lohr, Gary Eberle is one of the big boys from the east side of the valley. Both wineries produce consistent bottlings at high-production facilities—25,000 cases a year. Eberle has worked in Paso since 1973. His wines run the gamut from bright chardonnays to Italian varietals such as barbera and sangiovese. Don’t miss the cave, a 16,000-square-foot wonder filled with enormous barrels, and room for formal banquets.  10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in summer; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in winter. Free tastings. 3810 State Highway 46 E., Paso Robles, 805-238-9607, www.eberlewinery.com  

6. Four Vines Winery
When the tasting notes read “freak show” and “spank me again,” you know you’re in tattooed vintner Christian Tietje’s world. He crafts wines to suit his uncompromising tastes: Naked Chardonnay ($14), an un-oaked, easy drinker, and Phoenix ($120) sold exclusively in a three-bottle set because the label art must be displayed as a triptych. The tasting room, filled with art-glass chandeliers, sits in a buzzy location adjacent to Farmstand 46.  11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. $7 tastings. 3750 State Highway 46 W., Templeton, 805-237-0055, www.fourvines.com   

7. HammerSky Vineyards & Estate Wines
An all-estate winery on a bucolic site owned by an Orange County couple produces powerful wines. Let them breathe and you’ll be rewarded. Party of Four, 2007 ($59), a Bordeaux blend, comes on strong with huge tannins; the 2007 Reserve Estate Zinfandel ($39) is elegantly structured. Friday through Sunday by appointment, and at Meritage Wine Tasting Lounge. (See Page 84 for accommodations at HammerSky.)  $5 tastings. 7725 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, 949-338-7813, www.hammersky.com   

8. J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines
Jerry Lohr started out planting in Monterey County for his San Jose winery, but by the ’80s was growing vines in Paso: cab, merlot, syrah, petite sirah, and other reds. A visit to his large tasting room on the east side presents an ideal opportunity to compare wines sourced from different regions: fruit-forward Monterey chardonnays, earthy Napa cabs, and rich Paso syrahs. With production at 1 million cases, there’s something for everyone; try the 2009 Wildflower Valdiguié ($10), a light red comparable to Beaujolais.  10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Free tastings. 6169 Airport Road, Paso Robles, 805-239-8900, www.jlohr.com

9. Jada Vineyard & Winery
They planned to make olive oil; fortunately they caught wine fever. Jack and Robyn Messina converted an old barn into a gravity-flow winery where they turn out jazzy blends such as Jersey Girl and Jack of Hearts. They’re served in a tasting room with glass walls to show off the view. Hell’s Kitchen 2008 ($48), a blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache, and tannat, that French-Spanish varietal brought by Basque immigrants to Uruguay, packs a punch with blackberry and black cherry flavors. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. $10 tastings. 5620 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, 805-226-4200, www.jadavineyard.com   

10. Justin Vineyards & Winery
Justin put Paso on the map, and its cabernets still attract attention, especially the Isoceles, a Bordeaux blend. It also produces syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, tempranillo, zinfandel, malbec, petit verdot, and a Port-style wine. Spend some time on the grounds, at the restaurant, or at the inn. (See Page 84). 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. Winery tours daily; the cave has a cathedral-like feeling. 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles, 805-238-6932, www.justinwine.com    

11. L’Aventure
Trained in Burgundy, Frenchman Stephan Asseo worked in Bordeaux for 18 years, then left to produce wine without Old World rules. Lucky for us he chose the Central Coast to make his voluptuous Paso and Rhone blends. Most bottles are $80, so join his wine club for a price break. Finish in the zero-atmosphere tasting room, then grab a table outside to perch with a bottle of his Estate Rosé 2009 ($25).  11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and by appointment. $10 tastings. 2815 Live Oak Road, Paso Robles, 805-227-1588 ext. 204, www.aventurewine.com 

12. Linne Calodo Cellars
This respected label moved into a sleek, contemporary tasting room with sexy lounge furniture in 2009, but still serves the same great wines. Vintner Matt Trevisan sometimes kicks up his Rhone blends with zinfandel for marvelous results, as in 2008 Problem Child ($55).  10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 3030 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, 805-227-0797, www.linnecalodo.com 

13. Lone Madrone and Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Both wineries keep shop in a refurbished barn that used to be the site of a Bonny Doon tasting room. Lone Madrone is Neil Collins’ passion outside his regular gig at Rhone-heavy Tablas Creek, and it’s one of the best labels in Paso. He makes a supple nebbiolo ($25), as well as cabernet, other varietals, and blends. Kenneth Volk has its own tasting bar, a satellite facility for wines made in Santa Maria with fruits sourced from Sierra Madre to San Benito counties.  10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 2485 State Highway 46 W., Paso Robles, 805-238-0845, www.lonemadrone.com, and 805-237-7896, www.volkwines.com  

14. Meritage Wine Tasting Lounge
A tasting mall with bartenders devoted to each represented label, including HammerSky, Roxo Port, and Hope Family Wines. It throbs with live music and tapas, creating a nightclub vibe.  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Tuesday. $5 tastings at each bar. 810 11th St., Paso Robles, 805-238-9456, www.meritagelounge.com  

15. Minassian-Young Vineyards
He has a bachelor’s in viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; she earned a doctorate in plant biology from Berkeley. It’s a match made in heaven. David and Amparo Young take a minimalist approach to winemaking, and each bottle contains fruit from a single vineyard. Their value-priced wines—nothing more than $26—really deliver. The 2007 Black St. Peter is a wild blend: zin, mourvedre, petite sirah, carignan, and a touch of viognier; hefty yet refined.  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. $5 tastings for groups of six or more, otherwise it’s free. Thursday through Sunday. 4045 Peachy Canyon Road, Paso Robles, 805-238-7571, www.myv.com 

16. Niner Wine Estates
A must-see because venture capitalist Dick Niner spared no expense: soaring ceilings, a lounge area with fireplace, and a striking view of the hillside. Niner will host Sunset-Savor the Central Coast’s wine dinner by chef Bradley Ogden on Oct. 2. (See Page 85.) Why not? The on-site kitchen could support a full-sized restaurant. Wines by Amanda Cramer—winemaker of the year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition—are still finding their way, but we thought 2007 Twisted Spur ($25) showed promise. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10 tastings. 2400 State Highway 46 W., Paso Robles, 805-239-2233, www.ninerwine.com 

17. Norman Vineyards
Walk up a flight to a tasting room with ’50s diner décor. Focus on the wines: bold, aptly named reds, including zinfandels called The Monster ($28) and Mephistopheles ($32). Taste syrahs, Rhone blends, barbera, merlot, and a few whites. A good place to shop in volume; Norman sells magnums and has tempting price breaks on cases. Pretty picnic area with horseshoe pit. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 7450 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, 805-237-0138, www.normanvineyards.com  

18. Opolo Vineyards
Hunker down with big, chewy reds served by friendly pourers in a no-nonsense tasting room, or step outside for free samples of barbecued sausage right off the grill in summer. Wear hiking boots; trails lead to picnic spots and vineyards.  10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $5 tastings. 7110 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles, 805-238-9539, www.opolo.com  

19. Paso Wine Centre
A robo room where you pour it yourself from a dispensing machine. Lounge furniture, live music, and snacks make it a hangout. Drink up, do-gooders: 100 percent of net proceeds go to provide clean water to needy communities around the world. Noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday. $10 tastings. 1240 Park St., Paso Robles, 805-239-9156, www.pasowines.com

20. Tablas Creek Vineyard
An American winery with a French accent, Tablas Creek is a joint venture with Chateau de Beaucastel. The site was chosen for its soil similarities to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and most wines are made in classic Rhone styles. Consistent, balanced, and food friendly, they’re poured in a tasting room with top-notch hospitality and sharp servers. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Daily tours at 10:30 and 2 p.m., reservations required. $10 tastings. 9339 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles, 805-237-1231, www.tablascreek.com   

21. Terry Hoage Vineyards
Raves from Robert Parker are justified by the first sip of these silky, gently structured Rhone estate blends. Former NFL defenseman Terry Hoage and wife Jennifer strive to produce “minimally processed” wines through sustainable practices.  11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. $10 tastings. 870 Arbor Road, Paso Robles, 805-238-2083, www.terryhoagevineyards.com

22. Tobin James Cellars
Chardonnays, sparklers, and dessert wines—Tobin James makes everything. But the winery’s claim to fame is over-the-top reds. It produces heavy cabernets for a chilly winter’s night, and uncommon varietals such as brambly primitivo and earthy lagrein. Still, it’s the giant zins—nine of them—that are unforgettable. They’re all-American; a perfect match with the Wild West tasting room. (See Page 80.)  10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Free tastings. 8950 Union Road, Paso Robles, 805-239-2204, www.tobinjames.com   

23. Turley Wine Cellars
One of Napa’s premier single vineyard zinfandel winemakers, Turley arrived in 2000 and took over the old Pesenti winery. For the first few years, Pesenti fans rolled up with empty gallon jugs expecting cheap refills. Now the place is completely remodeled. Turley sources fruit from throughout the state for its old-vine zins. The 2008 Dusi Vineyard ($48) is a classic expression of Paso fruit with a wet stone and spice bouquet. Turley also makes Rhone varietals and blends.  9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 2900 Vineyard Drive, Templeton, 805-434-1030, www.turleywinecellars.com   

24. Windward Vineyard
Windward makes some of the tastiest estate-bottled pinot noirs in America. Unfussy food wines, they’re Burgundian in style. Buy some to drink in the Lath House, a barnlike structure in a peaceful setting, surrounded by vines.  10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $10 tastings. 1380 Live Oak Road, Paso Robles, 805-239-2565, www.windwardvineyard.com   

25. Zenaida Cellars
Full-bodied reds are the mainstay here, including the 2008 Zephyr ($32), a chewy mix of syrah and zin with 10 percent viognier. Lovely grounds with vines all around, and a rentable apartment and suite. (See Page 84.)  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. $5 tastings. 1550 State Highway 46 W., Paso Robles, 805-227-0382, www.zenaidacellars.com

 

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.

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