How the West Was Wined

Paso Robles, CA

Oct 12, 2006
Outside Magazine

PASO ROBLES: Good Libations
Sipping on the success of a Sideways glow
IT WAS FOOLISH TO THINK that one case of zinfandel could sustain five couples through the long weekend. I realize this now, sifting through the empties the morning after our arrival, and I very briefly regret the error in planning. But not for long. Thankfully, we're in the Paso Robles wine country, a 24-square-mile patchwork of 100-plus wineries in central California, three hours from both San Francisco and L.A. Running out of wine here is like running out of gas in the middle of a Saudi oilfield—except here, refilling the tank is a lot more fun.

Wine consumption is not our only objective, however; we've come sufficiently stocked for more robust activities than sipping. In addition to the liquid cargo that we picked up on the way into town, our weekend caravan from the L.A. area carried seven bikes, ten pairs of hiking shoes, and two fishing poles to our plush base camp at Cottontail Creek, a guest ranch on 850 oak-studded acres in Cayucos, at the southwest corner of the wine zone. Our second day's mission is now apparent: Explore the ranch's ten-mile network of trails, then replenish the wine supply so as to enjoy depleting it once again.

We chose Paso Robles because it's nothing like California's other wine country. Vintners here are more likely to wear overalls than neckties, less likely to shun tasting-room visitors caked in bike grease and sweat. The roads are car-free, and the resident wine aficionados are a hodgepodge of aging cowboys, escaped professionals, and urban renegades—a lot like us.

Paso is the precocious teenager of the California wine family. It may not have Napa's history or polished presentation—in fact, it flat-out refuses to fancy itself up—but it has worked hard to create its own distinct identity, with the buzz of a place on the verge of transition. This is the fastest-growing wine region in California, with ranchland quickly giving way to fields of grapes. In the past decade, the total number of wineries has more than doubled, and what was once the secret domain of a few connoisseurs is becoming de rigueur on the California wine circuit.

Credit the 2004 sleeper Sideways, filmed 90 miles south in the Santa Ynez Valley, for much of this newfound notoriety. After the movie exploded, so did wine tourism along this stretch of the Central Coast, and some of the wineries featured in the film suffered unexpected growing pains. At Foxen Winery, in Santa Barbara County, pinot noir sales more than doubled, and the owners had to start hiding the tasting bottles behind the counter to prevent inebriated film fans from following protagonist Miles's lead in helping themselves to seconds.

Though Paso's wineries have thus far been spared weekend parades of stretch Hummers and tour buses, the movie boosted sales significantly, especially among producers like Wild Horse and Windward Vineyard that make pinot noir (Miles's varietal of choice). The former saw pinot sales jump 135 percent from the previous year, during the movie's Oscar run, while the latter, which produces only pinot noir, saw total annual sales increase by 25 percent.

The grape that first put Paso on the American wine map is zinfandel, which came to California from Croatia in the 1850s. French Rhône varietals like grenache and syrah have also done well; each spring, international experts flock to Paso Robles for Hospice du Rhône, the world's largest festival of Rhône varietals, which attracts around 3,500 people.

That's precisely the sort of glitz we're hoping to escape, so we lose ourselves in Cottontail Creek's web of trails. We spend the morning pedaling past orange and avocado groves to an oak-shaded back road that skirts a deep-blue reservoir, then hike amid grazing cows to a ridgeline with panoramic ocean views. Soon enough it's time to replenish the stores, so we drive to Justin and L'Aventure, two of the few local wineries that have garnered international attention and 90-plus-point ratings from critics. Justin is the local celebrity, whose success with a rich, earthy Bordeaux blend called Isosceles has elicited some sour-grapes sentiments from less celebrated neighbors who snub the winery's frescoed ceilings and posh decor. For us, though, the opulence is a welcome break from cattle country, and everyone agrees that the wines stand up to the ambience.

At the much homier Opolo Vineyards, whose peppery zinfandels and rich syrahs have come into prominence in the past few years and whose Rhapsody blend is my favorite find of the trip, we are the only tasters. Likewise at Dark Star Cellars, Linne Calodo Cellars, and Fratelli Perata, a family-run vineyard planted in 1980, one of the oldest in the region. As general manager Carol Perata pours a Bordeaux blend called Tre Sorelle (Italian for Three Sisters), she tells us how her husband, Gino, and his brother, Joe, the sons of an immigrant Italian winemaker, still insist on doing everything from picking grapes to labeling bottles by hand. We're sold, and leave with a case, one of only 2,000 produced each year.

That night after dinner we sit around the lodge's outdoor fire pit, sipping a beefy zinfandel blend we picked up at Linne Calodo. The wine, called Problem Child, is in some ways Paso's kindred spirit—robust, irreverent, and underappreciated. We raise a glass to Problem Child and to Paso Robles itself: May they never grow up.

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