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Central California Life Magazine

Central Coast: A weekend in Paso Robles

Feb 17, 2015 10:53PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

Central Coast

A weekend in Paso Robles

by Amy Guerra

I arrived at the Paso Robles Inn early on a Saturday morning. It was less than two hours away from my home in Fresno – an easy drive along Highway 41 – and I couldn’t remember why I thought it was longer and had waited so long to come back.

“Paso,” as it is affectionately known, is bordered by grapevines and other signs of agriculture. Its food and wine industries have exploded during the past 10 years, making the small Central Coast city a prime destination for tourists.

On this weekend, I would be visiting seven of the city’s food and wine businesses. My first stop was the quaint inn with the brick façade on Spring Street. The newly renovated Paso Robles Inn is the only hotel in the area where guests have access to private Jacuzzis fed by mineral hot springs renowned for their therapeutic power. (It is said that John Wayne, Judy Garland and Clark Gable are among those who have sought rest and healing at the hot springs.) The core of the hotel is home to the Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse, the Cattlemen’s Lounge and a small coffee shop. Outside, a large patio with fire pits overlooks the courtyard where one of the chefs grows a small garden. Rumor has it that the ballroom above is haunted.

By mid-morning, we were making our way toward Panolivo Family Bistro, a small brightly decorated restaurant within walking distance of the inn. Co-owner Didier Cop and his wife Beatrice greeted us. The menu, a collection of French and California fusion, featured housemade muesli, Croque Madame, tartiflette (touted as a “French melt”) and brioche French toast. The restaurant and the food were comfortable – the perfect way to start a long day of food and wine decadence.

We took a short drive from the inn to Bianchi Winery and Tasting Room, located on the east side of Paso Robles. The grounds of Bianchi are distinct from other wineries; the tasting room overlooks a small lake surrounded by stone. Remote controlled sailboats and a summer concert series draw a wide crowd, but it’s the collection of award-winning wine that keeps people coming back.

We were met by winemaker Tom Lane, who believes the most rewarding part of his job is enjoying “a great bottle of wine among friends over good conversation and laughter.” As we walked through the vineyards, testing the sugar content of the grapes still on the vine, then later through the plant where we see grapes being moved from various points in the fermentation process, two things became apparent: winemaking is hard work, and passion like Lane’s goes a long way in determining the ultimate product.

After the tour, we sat lakeside for a catered lunch that began with an organic apple-avocado salad composed of field greens, basil, quinoa, pea shoots, oranges, pumpkin seeds and finished with Olivas de Oro olive oil. It was paired with a 2012 Chardonnay. An olive oil sous vide salmon accompanied a 2012 Pinot Noir. It was served with baby potatoes, curried cauliflower puree and charred tomato relish and was finished with smoked paprika oil. For dessert, we were treated to a dark chocolate creme fraiche panna cotta paired with a 2010 Petite Sirah. Each pairing underscored the versatility and complexity of Bianchi’s wine. The laughter and good conversation that Lane finds so rewarding was ever-present.

A few minutes up the road by car, we reached the edge of Paso Robles, very close to where Spanish Lt. Col. Juan Batista de Anza led a frontier group from New Spain to Alta, Calif. in 1776. Just up the street is BarrelHouse Brewing Co. “Liberty and Justice for Ale” is painted prominently on the metal walls of this warehouse-like brewery known for its sweeping views and inimitable half-acre beer garden. Hoppy ales with background flavors of peach, lemongrass and mango brighten the menu. Favorites include reserve beers with names like “Brazz Monkey” (described as a “delicious tropical blonde with Clementine orange blossom honey”) and seasonal favorites like “Harvest Ale” (described as imparting “all of the chocolate and roasted nut flavors of a classic porter with a BarrelHouse twist – fresh vanilla beans, local organic spice and fresh roasted pumpkins for a roasty, spicy, vanilla porter experience”). The owners of BarrelHouse Brewery are Central Valley transplants; all three co-owners went to high school together in Lemoore.

The growing popularity of establishments like BarrelHouse Brewing Co. is proof that the wine industry is not the only alcohol-related industry enjoying growth in Paso Robles. Re:Find Handcrafted Spirits, Paso Robles’ first craft distillery, is another sign. Owners Alex and Monica Villicana said the idea behind Re:Find is to reuse saignée, the prized free-run juice removed prior to fermentation to enhance wine quality, and refine it into top-shelf spirits like gin, vodka and Limoncello. The results we sampled – cocktails made with a local farmer’s Bloody Mary mix – were authentic and impressive. Re:Find’s outstanding flavors and quaint and rustic tasting room made this a favorite stop.

After a few hours relaxing back at the inn, we walked to our second restaurant – Artisan. Seated with some of the area’s most prominent wine makers, we enjoyed a selection of wines with each dish: Terry Hoage’s 2013 Cuvee Blanc with Artisan’s oysters Rockefeller; Windward’s 2012 Pinot Noir Monople with California duck, farro, chantrelles and summer squash; and finally, Hearst Ranch’s 2012 Three Sisters Cuvee with Mongolian barbecued pork wings, Carolina rice grits and herb salad. Consistent with the other establishments we revisited that day, the food and drinks were outstanding – catalysts for deep laughter and memorable conversation.

Before driving home the next day, we drove into San Miguel for brunch at the luxurious Villa San-Juliette Winery, owned by reality TV star Nigel Lythgoe (best known for his role on So You Think You Can Dance) and American Idol producer Ken Warwick. The expansive, 168-acre grounds are beautiful, framed by large trees and vineyards with an unrivaled Mediterranean feel. Guests can partake of small, seasonally-inspired dishes from antipasti to housemade pizzas to complement the wines. A true destination, San-Juliette is a must-see.

Paso Robles, long regarded as “that city you pass as you’re heading to Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay,” has emerged as a place to be reckoned with – a place with friendly people, a wonderful character and a dynamic food and beverage scene that is second to none. I look forward to spending more time here in the future.