I have been passing through Paso Robles in California for over 50 years and have seen the city change tremendously in that time. The city, whose name means “Pass of the Oaks”, was a place you went for the Mid State Fair or the Rodeo but has turned into a first-class wine destination complete with a lively food scene. Here is what I found in my most recent visit in 2021.
Table of contents: ()
- Downtown City Park
- Art – Studios on the Park
- A Brief History of Paso Robles
- Templeton Famer’s Market
- Tin City
- Getting to Paso Robles
- Where to Stay
Downtown City Park
One of the things that was always attractive about Paso Robles was the downtown area with its beautiful Downtown City Park and Carnegie Library. What has changed is that this park is now surrounded by lively restaurants, art galleries, and wine-tasting rooms.
My prediction is that the town and the visitors will not easily give up this wonderful new version of the city where so much happens outdoors. Paso Robles is hot in the summer but wonderfully warm in the spring, fall, and even sometimes winter with the cool nights that you find in California’s Central Coast area.
When you get into town park near the Downtown City Park. Parking is free on the weekends. Parking on weekdays is free for the first 2 hours and then $1 an hour until 6 pm.
Art – Studios on the Park
While you are at the park, cross the street to visit a series of art galleries that is run by a non-profit called Studios on the Park. This is a lovely space with a great variety of art from different artists as well as a space for kids to create their own art. In non-pandemic times, Studios on the Park brings in a local vineyard on Friday nights to have a wine tasting while you are looking at the art.
The person who is at the information desk might be one of the artists so stop and say hi. We met Jordon Hockett this way whose bright geometric paintings are across the way from the information desk.
While you are downtown stop in some of the local shops. We picked up a card at the Paso General Store and the nearly mandatory cookies from the Brown Button Cookie Company.
A Brief History of Paso Robles
Paso Robles did not start as a wine-growing region, it started as a cow town. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense. The region from Paso Robles down to San Luis Obispo was part of the 40 square miles Rancho Paso de Robles which was part of a land grant to Mexican Naval officer JosÃ© Pedro NarvÃ¡ez who served as a captain of the port of Monterey. It was sold to Corporal Petronilo RÃos who commanded the soldiers at nearby Mission San Miguel ArcÃ¡ngel who sold it to a group of American ranchers in 1846. There are still cattle in the hills and an abundance of good BBQ in the city’s heart.
There are at least 200 wineries in Paso Robles and at least 50 more in the larger San Luis Obispo county. You can’t try every winery on a weekend, even with a wine tour or a designated driver so let me make a couple of suggestions.
Right across the street from Downtown City Park is the wine-tasting room for Asuncion Ridge. Note the longhorn steer skull on the wall which harkens back to the cattle ranch they bought to plant vineyards. Asuncion Ridge has vineyards as well as a few luxury accommodations on its various vineyards.
Winemaker, Philip Krumal and Real Estate Entrepreneur, Michael Dilsaver met in a wine-tasting class in 1995 and went into business together in 2002. They started with a vineyard in the cooler part of the Santa Lucia Mountains near the coast overlooking Moro Bay. There they grew the cool weather Pinot Noir Grapes. They have expanded their holdings into the warmer inland hills and have expanded the number of wines they offer in the process.
When we were there the tasting menu included:
- 2019 Chardonnay
- 2107 Pinot Noir
- 2017 Grenache
- 2016 Nefarious – 91% Syrah, 9% Grenache
- 2016 Inception – 90% Cabernet, 10% Syrah
The winemaker’s style is lightly oaked wines that are easygoing and approachable like Buddy the eleven years old tasting room dog. While these wines would pair well with food, you can easily enjoy them with nothing more than a good group of friends or in our case some good friends and the sound of a bagpiper practicing in the park across the street.
John, who runs the tasting room and owns Buddy also, let us try a glass of the wine he blended which is Olivia a Cab Franc blend. That was the bottle we ended up buying, but we had been leaning toward the Grenache.
John schooled us on local winemaking. The Chardonnay grapes come from an area called the Templeton Gap which is closer to the ocean and has more of a breeze so you can grow the cooler weather loving Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir grapes. But most of the region is warmer so Pinot only makes up about 2% of the wine in the area.
With wine names like Nefarious, Lascivious, and Voluptuous you might get the impression that they have some fun naming the wines and probably think up the names after a glass or two. The name of their wine club is the Half-Mile High Club which, I am sure, derives from the elevation of the vineyard. Why? What were you thinking?
If you are a fan of Pinot Noir then I would definitely recommend a visit to Windward Vineyard which I have written about elsewhere. They focus just on Pinot Noir wines.
For a change of pace, we paired our visit to Asuncion Ridge with one to Clesi Vineyards which is a small winery owned by Chris and Adrienne Ferrara.
Winemaker Chris focuses on Italian varietal wines like Sangiovese in a nod to his Sicilian heritage. Clesi is his great-grandmother’s family name. There is a Sicilian family registry that you can be listed in if you are the son of a son of a Clesi. Ferrara makes a nod to that in both his “Clesi” brand and in the “Son of a Son” brand that he sells directly to restaurants. Clesi produces around 3,000 cases of wine a year split between the two brands.
Clesi is in the cooler Templeton Gap AVA close to the town of Templeton.
Of the hundreds of local wineries, Adrienne speculated that about 6 focus on Italian wines so this is a great stop to introduce your palate to some different wines.
Our tasting featured:
- 2019 Rose of Aglianco
- 2017 Aglianco
- 2018 Sangiovese
- 2018 Convivio
- 2105 Monalpuciano
Other than Sangiovese, these wines were not familiar to me. Aglianico is a grape from the Campania and is sometimes called the “Barolo of the south” in Italy because of its similarity to that Piedmont varietal. Becky who runs the tasting room also let us try a Malvasia Blanca which she described â€œlike a wedding in a bottleâ€. It is a strong floral bouquet with a clean finish. We went home with a bottle of the Rose.
If you have kids, they might enjoy that Clesi keeps down the weeds between the vines by grazing sheep who live just over the fence from the tasting room.
Drinking wine is not just a great way to spend an hour or two, but a great way to talk to locals about what they would recommend in the area.
- Driving to Santa Margarita Lake and Pozo to see the spring wildflowers in the region during March and April. Normally Carrizo Plain National Monument east of Paso Robles has great wildflowers but not in a drought year like 2021
- The Zip Line in nearby Santa Margarita
- The local horse competitions and horseback riding which is gaining popularity locally
Becky added some recommendations for local restaurants:
- “The Range in Santa Margarita is iconic”
- La Reyna Market in Paso Robles has great grab-and-go tacos
- Fish Gaucho
Templeton Famer’s Market
You can’t spend all day drinking wine… or at least I can’t. John at the Asuncion Ridge tasting room suggested we stop by the Templeton Famer’s Market on Saturday morning in the downtown park in Templeton.
If you have not been to Templeton, it looks a bit like it is getting ready to be the setting for some Western movie. But on Saturday morning it shows off its agricultural prowess. If it is edible, it seems like they grow it nearby. We picked up fresh baked goods including some chocolate croissants and a bacon and cheese scone. I was seriously tempted by the apple rhubarb pie at another stall. We picked up some delicious and gorgeous strawberries. We oogled the artichokes, the salad greens, the citrus, and the squash. I was a bit taken aback by how much fresh meat was available for sale, but remember there is still ranching in those hills.
There was a dance presentation going on in the gazebo and two young men busking with their guitars. It felt like the whole town came out for this event. There were a few crafts stalls and some food trucks if cooking your own food is not your gig.
This was my first trip to Tin City and I love it. Tin City started as an old industrial park but is now the home to 21 tasting rooms for small wineries, a brewery, a cidery, a distillery, a sheep milk ice cream shop, and a handful of restaurants.
Barrel House Brewery
The Barrel House Brewery draws the biggest crowds. Co-owners Jason Carvalho and Kevin Nickell founded Barrel House in 2013 and it is now the largest family-owned brewery in the county.
Barrel House has a great outdoor space with picnic tables, misters, and a stage that is used for outdoor concerts, typically country-western bands.
Tin City Cider
We had a cider tasing at Tin City Cider. Winemakers Curt Schalchlin of Sans Liege and Andrew Jones of Field Recordings started Tin City Cider to branch out from wines into products made from California apples. Their motto is “Extra dry, dry hopped and barrel fermented. Just the way you like it.” I can’t comment on whether that is the way you like it or not, but that is the style of their cider. If you drink cider because you don’t like the bitterness hops gives to beer, this is not for you.
Some of their ciders are mixed with wine, and some with watermelon or citrus for a unique palette of flavors. If you love cider and like hops, Tin City Cider is worth a stop.
Have you ever had sheep milk ice cream? Neither had I but I liked it. Negranti Creamery was founded by Alexis Negranti who loves sheep and loves ice cream. She bought a flock of sheep in 2010 before she had ever milked one. Sheep milk is lower in fat, higher in vitamins and proteins, lower in saturated fat, and easier to digest for the lactose intolerant. Of course, none of that would make any difference if it didn’t taste good, but it does. If you are more a cow fan than a sheep fan, they also make cow’s milk ice cream.
I had the salted brown sugar which is one of their more popular flavors. I would go back.
WineShine is one of a dozen or so distilleries in the Paso Robles area making spirits like brandy, whisky, gin, vodka, and grappa. WineShine is one of the distilleries on the Paso Robles Distillery Trail. WineShine was started in 2014.
WineShine produces gin and vodka from corn but they have a greater number of Brandys which are all distilled from locally purchased excess grapes (mostly Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah).
They sell spirits by the bottle but also have $12 cocktails on their cocktail tasting menu. We tried a Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki drink and a Patrick’s Peaches. Both were great.
The art installation by artist Bruce Munro: Light at Sensorio is back in Paso Robles in 2021. It reopened in April and will be there until September. If you have not heard of Sensorio, it is a 15-acre field cover with 58,000 solar-powered, fiber-optic lights. The lights slowly change color and it is both lovely and very popular. If you want to attend a nightly performance you should get your reservations ahead of time.
We had VIP tickets to the evening’s show which means that you can hang out in the VIP Terrace with the view above while you wait for the sun to go down and the sky to grow dark. We had media passes but normally a VIP ticket would come with one drink ticket and you can also purchase a charcuterie or crudités platter. The night we attended the parking lot opened at 7 pm and the lights weren’t fully on until about an hour later.
Sensorio is a self-guided walking/taking selfie tour… mostly the latter. You can go out before dark and see what the setup is like to enjoy the effort that this project took, but it doesn’t become magical until it gets dark.
For the 2021 exposition, a new installation with 69 7′ tall light “towers” made from 17,00 wine bottles was added. The bottles change color over time as in the background a vocal composition by Orlando Gouph called “Rise and Shine” plays. Rise and Shine is partly sung in English and partly using the word “sunshine” in a number of different languages. We read a lot about the music and how it corresponded to the natural pulses of the Eart, but honestly, we could hardly hear it. It always felt like the music was just out of reach.
The light towers were interesting but the star of the show was the field of lights.
Tickets for Adults are $30-40 and for the VIP Terrance $79-104.
Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ
Just a block away from the Downtown City Park in Paso Robles, Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ had a great patio dining area before outdoor dining was cool… and mandatory. Jeffry’s has become one of our favorites in town with its unpretentious BBQ menu.
Jakes is the place if you are wanting some great brisket, burgers or tri-tip. They also have some great sides like potato salad or seasoned fries.
Red Scooter Deli
Local friends recommended the Red Scooter Deli across from the park as the best place to pick up your picnic lunch or that sandwich for the car on the way home. You can get all the classic sandwiches or some imaginative ones like the Begg’n which is egg salad, bacon, red onions, and BBQ sauce on toasted cracked wheat sourdough.
In Tin City, make a quick stop at McPhee’s Canteen for a great salad or a brick oven pizza. While you wait for your meal, head next door to Etto to pick up some food products imported from Italy or fresh pasta made locally.
Getting to Paso Robles
Paso Robles straddles the Salinas River and Highway 101 almost equidistant from San Francisco as is is from Los Angeles along the Highway 101 drive. Highway 101 is a somewhat slower but much more attractive drive than Highway 5 and Paso Robles can be enjoyed as a stopover or as a destination in its own right.
Where to Stay
Paso Robles is only getting more interesting. If you love wine and food it is a particularly interesting destination. You can combine it with other places on the Central Coast like Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Pinnacles National Park, Cambria, or San Simeon for a longer trip. So there are things to do other than drink wine… not that there is anything wrong with spending the day wine-tasting.
Our tastings at Windward Vineyard, Clesi Vineyards, and Tin City Cider and our tickets to Sensario were sponsored (paid for) by the Paso Robles Tourism Board. All opinions expressed are my own.