Heralded as the epicenter of Central Coast viticulture for nearly two decades, Paso Robles has long enjoyed its fair share of wine tourism. It's to be expected when you count close to 30,000 acres of planted vineyard — or one acre for every human resident — amid your gently sloped hillsides. But less obvious is the breadth of activity that's arrived throughout the area in recent years.
The once-sleepy community is now home to a gorgeous, 3,300-seat amphitheater; high-minded mixology supporting ethnically diverse kitchens up and down the historic town square; and Firestone Walker, the state's second-largest microbrewery (which features its own sleek, updated restaurant and tasting room). Add to that a bevy of comfortable lodging at affordable rates, and Paso covers all the prerequisites for a wondrous weekend getaway. This might be the best time of year to find out why.
Geography has long been the greatest stumbling block to the appeal of Paso as a tourist destination. Located halfway between LA and San Francisco along Highway 101, you have to make a conscious decision to end up here: If you were looking to head south in a hurry, you'd be on the 5, and if maximum scenery was your thing, you'd be winding your way down the Pacific Coast Highway. Paso sits in between, patiently awaiting discovery, rewarding those who are willing to stray from the beaten path.
Once you get to the general vicinity, the sheer number of vines, viewable from the highway, is a comforting marvel. Trumping quantity, the most remarkable aspect of all these grapes is theirquality— markedly improved from years past.
“The changes have been so big and so fast in the last 20 years,” says Austin Hope, owner and winemaker at Hope Family Wines (1585 Live Oak Road). “We have seen farming go from a quantity mentality to a very sophisticated monitoring of yield, nutrition, moisture levels, and tannin developing in the berries while still on the vines.”
Passion for Hope's native region is readily apparent in his Troublemaker Red, a unique blend of Syrah, Zinfandel, and several other varietals that flourish in the hills that surround any number of elegant tasting rooms, many of which sport a modernized farmhouse aesthetic, the result of significant investment.
Here in the fastest-growing wine area in the U.S., Hope vies for visitors against an increasingly dense field: Broken Earth, Eberle, and Tobin James are wineries with similar drawing power. But when it comes to whiskey, he stands alone. In early 2015, Hope launched Highspire — a 100-percent rye rested for less than a year in oak that formerly held his wine. With a slightly fruity finish, it's an accessible spirit in a curvy, baby-blue, wax-dipped bottle that's easily spotted behind the bar at many local restaurants.
A surprising amount of these eateries would feel right at home in the Mission. At Artisan (843 12th St.), for example, executive chef Chris Kobayashi is plating wild boar loin with fennel risotto alongside wood-fired pizza and inventive vegetable mash-ups. His caramelized broccoli with gremolata and kielbasa could go toe-to-toe with any veggie side in San Francisco. Across the street, Villa Creek (1144 Pine St.) barrel-ages classic cocktails for $10 to accompany seasonal concoctions — like a gimlet that's framed around muddled arugula. Enjoy the refreshing elixir next to a plate of tortilla chips swathed in duck confit, mole negro, and cotija, a dish the restaurant-winery swears is “Not Nachos.”
Classic-rock concerts are soon to become something of a summer tradition now that the Vina Robles Amphitheater (3800 Mill Road) is drawing the likes of Chicago, Steve Miller, and Peter Frampton. But nothing brings in crowds quite like craft beer, which is why on the first Saturday in June, Paso istheplace to be. That's when Firestone Walker (1400 Ramada Drive) hosts its annual Invitational Beer Fest, a five-hour extravaganza uniting 50 breweries from around the globe, 20 food vendors, live music, and some of the most insatiable craft beer enthusiasts in a state renowned for them.
The nightlife in and around downtown is vibrant and diverse. Everything from swanky wine bars and classic cocktail joints — check out The Hatch (835 13th St.) — to bona fide cowboy dives like Pine Street Saloon (1234 Pine St.), where you can down enough $2 PBRs to make karaoke seem like a worthy endeavor. They'll even offer you a free ride back to your hotel.
In the end, Paso is a fun reminder of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Easily dismissed as something of a sleepy town, you'll be amazed at how little time you have to slumber during a weekend here.