Each year during the Giovanzana family annual trip to the Paso Robles valley, we join our friends who live there, for a fun filled day of wine tasting. We drive along beautiful country roads, that lead us to an assortment of unique and charming wineries. In an area that boasts more than 200 wineries, we never run out of new wineries to visit!
Paso Robles valley facing east
Reported by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website, the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a large, diverse appellation located within northern San Luis Obispo County, comprised of many distinctive grape-growing regions, which are characterized by rolling hills east of the Salinas River, and steeper hillsides cut by small canyons, west of the Salinas River. The AVA’s western boundary is just six miles from the Pacific Ocean. The appellation lies on the inland side of the Santa Lucia coastal mountains, and roughly forms a rectangle 35 miles from east to west, and 25 miles from north at the county boarder to as far south as Santa Margarita. The appellation comprises of 614,000 acres of which more than 26,000 acres are planted in wine grapes. With a greater day-to-night temperature swing than any other appellation in California, distinct microclimates, diverse soils and a long growing season, Paso Robles AVA is a unique wine region blessed with optimal growing conditions for producing premium and ultra premium wines. More than forty wine grape varieties are grown in the region, ranging from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne, to Zinfandel, the area’s heritage wine varietal.
Each year when we go wine tasting with our friends we plan for a large picnic and choose one of our winery stops for our culinary event. We choose a winery with picnic tables in the shade, usually found under an outstretched Live Oak with a beautiful view. We pull out cured meats and pates’, artisan cheese, crusty bread, roasted tomatoes and peppers, vine ripe melon, fresh berries, and desserts, all to be enjoyed with a fabulous bottle of wine that was just uncorked by the proprietor. It truly is a feast for both the eyes and stomach!
Most of the wineries in the region have picnic areas for visitors to enjoy and some even sell picnic food. Some wineries have a bocce ball court, or a horseshoe pit for guest to enjoy, and some have live music and a bbq. Many of the wineries have art collections to view, gardens to stroll, and a gift shop. And in the case of Cass Winery, have a chef and a kitchen that create beautifully crafted dishes that are perfectly paired with their wines. Visitors can sit outdoors at the winery, while enjoying the food and wine with a beautiful view. Cass Winery is one of the many cool places in the region that embrace their cowboy roots. Where else can you ride up on a horse, dismount, tie up at a hitching post, and wander into a tasting room for world class wines?! This is a great way to avoid drinking and driving!!
Cass Winery tasting room and restaurant
On the day I visited Cass Winery with my friend, Executive Chef Jacob Lovejoy prepared for us three dishes from his menu for me to photograph. He first prepared for us his cheese course, which included four delicious local cheeses, which were paired with four Cass wines: Viognier, a Marsanne and Roussanne blend, Grenache, and a Cabernet Sauvignon. For our second course, he prepared his famous crab cakes, which were served with house-made remoulade and a salad of baby greens with nuts and dried fruit. Our third course was a local favorite, Benny’s Burger. This burger was loaded with horseradish black pepper aioli, Rogue Smokey Blue Cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, house-made pickled onions and arugula. All of the dishes were excellent. And after tasting all that food and drinking all that wine, I was ready for a nap!
Cass Winery’s cheese course with wine pairing
Cass Winery’s Crab cake
Cass Winery’s Benny’s Burger
But there is a new crop in town! Olives! The past fifteen years have brought many growers of extremely high quality extra virgin olive oil, which is pressed at the olive farms, and where tourists can visit and taste their olive oils in tasting rooms. Olive oil tasting is truly great fun and a good thing to incorporate along the wine tasting trail. If you are like me and enjoy all things culinary, olive oil tasting is a real treat. You will be amazed how different one olive varietal will taste from another. Furthermore, as your olive oil palette becomes educated, a cook can tailor their olive oil choice to the dishes that he or she is preparing. For example, when I grill steak I will select a peppery and herbaceous olive oil indicative of Tuscan varietals. If I am baking a light and delicate cake that will be served with fruit, I will select an olive oil that is more floral and fruity, such as Arbequina. Two of my favorite olive farms that I enjoy to visit while in the Paso Robles area are Olivos de Oro and Pasolivo. Their olive oils are absolutely delicious yet taste totally different!
Olivos de Oro olive farm
Olivos de Oro olive farm
For a real fun experience in olive oil tasting, visit We Olive in downtown Paso Robles. Imagine a saloon-like wood bar, where you can belly up and taste a large variety of extremely high quality California extra virgin olive oils. The ladies who work behind the bar are highly educated on olive oil and can guide you through an eye opening experience. And what a cute shop! They also sell vinegars, tapenades, cured olives, cheese, bread, and lovely gift items. I always stop by when I am in town.
Downtown Paso Robles is a fun place to spend the day. The downtown area around the plaza has many fine restaurants and cafes. Paso Robles has attracted many chefs that embrace the local and farm fresh organic movement. Many farms, dairies, orchards, cheese makers, ranchers, along with specialty food manufacturers, can be found throughout the Paso Robles valley. The area is a veritable culinary playground for a chef! Coupled with amazing wine from the region, Paso Robles really has a lot to offer the foodie. I visit a few of my favorite restaurants each year with Panolivo on the top of my list for breakfast. The chef at Panolivo prepares traditional French family style cooking. I thoroughly enjoy their Eggs Benidict, Croque Monsieur, Brioche French toast, homemade yogurt with fruit and local honey, fabulous lattes, and delicious pastries from their in-house bakery. Panolivo also serves lunch and dinner.
For dinner, I enjoy visiting Thomas Hill Organics Bistro and Wine Bar. The restaurant is dedicated to serving creative fresh food and highlighting unique wines from the central coast. Each week the menu changes to feature the seasonal availability of local ingredients. Thomas Hill Organics is a lovely restaurant close to the plaza with a fantastic patio with great ambiance.
I have also enjoyed other fine dining restaurants such as Artisan, Bistro Laurent, and Villa Creek. And for those of you who frequent McLintock’s in San Luis Obispo when passing through, you will be happy to learn that Paso Robles has a McLintock’s Saloon too.
Shopping! Yes, I have enjoyed this activity here as well! The downtown has many clothing boutiques, home and garden shops, antique stores, and specialty shops. I always leave town with a treasure. Downtown Paso Robles also has a number of wine shops, which feature regional wines. Knowledgeable wine professionals make it fun to examine the region’s vast varietals by pouring side-by-side tastings for comparison. Many of these wine-tasting rooms serve small plates to go with the wine.
For the outdoor enthusiast, Lake Nacimiento is only thirteen miles away from downtown Paso Robles. This lovely natural lake is a long slender body of water that is eighteen miles long, that is surrounded by unspoiled wilderness. Visitors can enjoy camping, hiking, and boating. Boaters launch their boats at the marina on the east end where Lake Nacimiento Resort is located. Water skiers and wake boarders really enjoy a great ride down the long body water. Fishing is another big sporting activity at the lake. Anglers will find white bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, carp, bluegill, and channel catfish.
I love the Paso Robles valley and the central coast. There is something magical here for me. It is slower here. In our modern world, it is a place that has stayed true to our California heritage and has maintained its identity. Coming from the San Francisco bay area, where it is a metropolis, I am grateful to step on soil and see land as far as my eyes can see. Standing on a mountain on our friends’ ranch, I am grateful to see the horizon with the setting sun, as it casts its long rays of red-orange light across the valley floor, upon the oaks, as they slowly turn dark and become silhouettes. I love the immense beauty of this place. I feel as if I am looking onto California as it all once was, as it should be, in its natural God given state. And my place in it is clear to me.
I give thanks.