A NEW LANDSCAPE UNFOLDS around every corner in Paso Robles, a bucolic swathe of California cowboy country-turned wine region, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Pristine coast gives way to valleys of towering oaks, emerald fields of grazing cattle, ancient forest, rugged mountains, almond groves and, of course vineyards, from gnarled old vines hugging hillsides to delicate new plantings stretching to the horizon. This startling diversity makes Paso, as it’s known locally, a fascinating place to visit. It has also allowed a new generation of innovative winemakers to produce an unusually wide range of world-renowned wines, from cabernets and Bordeaux blends to Rhônes, Spanish and Italian wines, and experimental blends from the 70-plus varieties planted here.
The area has seen a recent influx of young chefs opening farm-to-table restaurants, while boutique hotels abound. The mainly small, family-owned wineries are famous for their genuine, small-town hospitality and expressive, affordable wines. The New York Times recently named this thriving region one of the world’s best places to visit.
Spanish missionaries made communion wine in Paso in the late 1700s and European immigrants, many with a penchant for powerful zinfandels, continued the tradition. But it wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that enterprising winemakers discovered the terroir was ideal for almost any varietal they planted. In 2000, Wine Spectator magazine named Paso’s 1997 Justin Vineyards Isosceles, a Bordeaux-style blend, one of its top 10 wines. A decade later, the same prestigious publication announced, “Paso Robles has earned its place on the world’s wine map,” bestowing its Wine of the Year Award to the 2007 Saxum Vineyards James Berry Vineyard, a Rhône-style blend of grenache, mourvèdre and syrah.
Within minutes of arriving at Tablas Creek (tablascreek.com), Jason Haas, whose family were pioneers of Paso’s Rhône-Ranger movement, shows us one of the secrets behind the region’s superior fruit. Grabbing a rock from the chalky soil in his picturesque vineyard, he upends his water bottle and we watch as the liquid is promptly absorbed by the now markedly-heavier rock.
“Just imagine,” says Haas “how well this stores winter and spring rain for the vines to use in Paso’s hot, dry summers.” This calcareous soil, rare in California but common in French wine regions, helped his father convince the Perrin family, fifth-generation winemakers from France’s prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, to open a winery with him in rural America in the 1980s. They settled on Paso after searching for a region with “calcareous soil like the Rhône, enough altitude to keep things cool, and which was close enough to the coast to have good rainfall,” explains Haas, neatly summing up the qualities that proved perfect for Rhône wines. After years of work importing and nurturing Rhône clones and rootstock, the two families offered them to their neighbours, figuring widespread success would build a reputation for these little-known varieties, and laying the groundwork for a powerful community spirit. “They believed it was a case of a rising tide lifts all boats,” says Haas. “It had a huge impact on the region.”
If you can extract yourself from the wines at Lethbridge, your next stop must be Clyde Park (
clydepark.com.au). The restaurant and cellar door were originally bought as a weekender by owners Terry Jongebloed and Sue Jongebloed-Dixon, but it’s the ideal spot to enjoy your own weekend. The cellar door, a modern take on a rustic farmhouse, sits atop a natural amphitheatre with 180-degree views of the vineyards below. Greeted by friendly staff, the sumptuous smell of wood-fired pizzas and the chitter-chatter of friends and family enjoying themselves, you’ll find it hard not to park up and spend the afternoon sampling your way through the estate wines. The food is inspired – and cooked – by Jongebloed-Dixon. There’s hearty starters to share and pizzas with a twist: Peking duck; turkey, brie and cranberry; or, our personal favourite, roast lamb with all the trimmings. The wine list has current and museum releases; be sure to work through their single site pinot noir and E Block shiraz – both reflect the vineyard’s varied terroir. If you do find yourself there for the afternoon, check out the friends and neighbours’ collection of wines from other producers around the region.
Tablas Creek produces 30,000 cases a year of widely acclaimed wines, from the flagship Esprit de Tablas blend to single varieties showcasing lesser-known grapes like vaccarese. In 2020, Tablas gained further international acclaim as the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified winery. For Hass, certification acknowledges the organic and biodynamic accreditations the winery already held, as well as the steps taken to reduce limited resources like water and fertiliser. It also honours the team’s focus on worker fairness and animal welfare, making them a leader in holistic environmental protection. At Tablas Creek, sheep graze between rows of grapes and then fertilise the soil, pests are controlled by owls nesting in purpose-built boxes, and native vegetation attracts pollinating insects. I come away struck by both the quality of the wine these idyllic vineyards produce and Haas’ passion for ensuring agriculture is part of the solution to the challenges of climate change.
At nearby Alta Colina Winery (altacolina.com), winemaker Molly Lonborg says camaraderie among the community, and the warm welcome for visitors are fundamental to Paso’s success.
“Grapes grow so well here – our job is just not to screw up the good fruit,” she says, with a modesty that belies her reputation as one of the region’s best young winemakers. “But what makes this area so special is the wine community, which is very open and sharing.” Lonborg says the collaborative environment is very different to Napa where neighbours compete to see who has more 100 point wines. “Here, if someone gets a 100 points, we’re all happy because we know it’s good for the entire region.”
Lonborg says this convivial atmosphere extends to the relaxed tasting rooms, where visitors often end up meeting the winemaker. “A lot of people are priced out of tasting at Napa, or they don’t want to go because it’s intimidating,” she says. “At tastings here you find the prestige, but not the pretentiousness.”
Alta Colina’s Summit Wine Tasting certainly sets a high bar, offering excellent, laidback company, and an impressive range of luscious, structured Rhône wines. We relax under a glorious old oak and the sun sets over the patchwork valley of vineyards that bring Piedmonte to mind. Wine tasting doesn’t get much better than this.
Paso no longer flies under the radar, with high-flyers from Napa and beyond buying into the area. But Lonborg is convinced the region’s spirit won’t change. “I’m sure we will still be laidback and community-minded. That’s who we are, it’s how our roots were formed.”
Lonborg moved from Halter Ranch, a larger operation owned by Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss. Halter Ranch makes highly regarded wines and has created an impressive sustainable environment across the spectacular estate – it’s worth visiting for the fascinating chef’s garden alone. However, Lonborg says she is enjoying the freedom that has come with working with the Tillman family at Alta Colina. She is currently making some lighter carbonic wines, a sparkling pétillant naturel and has started putting some of the rosé in cans.
“We have our core customers, our old guard, who love our big red wines but are also intrigued by these new, fun projects,” she says. “Then we have this younger generation who are on social media who are jumping on all these fun, fresh wines, but also end up trying our reds. I love the big, amazing reds we make at Alta Colina. But it’s exciting to do something new and fun and creative.”
Welsh winemaker Damian Grindley from the boutique Brecon Winery (breconestate.com) explains another key aspect of Paso’s success by driving us up a steep vineyard in his Land Rover. He points out both the startling range of microclimates in the lush valleys below, and exactly where the marine layer rolls into his vineyards at night – reminding us that Paso has the greatest diurnal temperature shift of any California wine region.
“You get enough heat to ripen any grape in Paso,” he says. “But what’s important is the cool air that comes in at night. That’s why we make world-class grapes. It’s like air-conditioning for the grapes that lets them ripen over a long time, developing those intense flavours and aromatics.”
Grindley, who studied oenology at the University of Adelaide, won Best Red Rhône Blend and Best Cabernet Sauvignon at last year’s San Francisco International Wine Competition. His albariños have already won several awards this year. He says he has no interest in settling into any established wine category, instead focusing on interesting blends and planting a range of grapes, including a new malbec clone.
“I want to keep exploring to find out what Paso does best, because that’s what Paso wants to be known for in 20 years,” he says. “We can really be the best of everything, but what I want to be is a Paso winery.”
Nestled at the end of an idyllic valley, Thacher Winery (thacherwinery.com) is framed by forest, rolling hills and a particularly evocative, century-old timber barn. As we taste crisp, distinctive wines on a warm summer evening while spectacularly healthy chickens wander around our feet, assistant winemaker Daniel Callan says one of the most exciting things about Paso is its flexibility; so many grapes grow well here and high land prices don’t preclude experimentation.
“We’ve done some pretty intense experimentation over the last few years,” he says. “Because it’s a young area with so much potential, it feels like we have a responsibility to keep exploring.”
Thacher produces around 5,000 cases of wine made with ambient yeasts and minimal manipulation, ranging from a fresh carbonic 2021 Valdiguié Nouveau to a beautifully balanced zinfandel, Rhône blends and a delicate sparkling wine. Callan says he and winemaker-proprietor Sherman Thacher produce wines that are lighter than people expect simply because that’s what they like to drink. They have also planted more than 30 different grape varieties and 20 apple varieties for cider.
The day of my visit, they’ve finished planting half a hectare of mixed grapes, including trousseau gris (grey riesling), chasselas doré, airén and xarel-lo. Callan walks us through with infectious enthusiasm, explaining that many came from an experimental vineyard planted by the University of California in 1889 but later abandoned. In an extraordinary stroke of luck, 132 cultivars were still intact when it was rediscovered in the 1960s. “About half the grapes are varieties that have a long history in California and are well suited to the climate” says Callan. The other half are from the Mediterranean and while many haven’t been planted here, he believes they might flourish in an era of increasingly erratic climate change.
Callan has delved deep into the little-known history of local winemaking, convinced it has a lot to teach winemakers today. During my visit, he pulls out intricate old maps and segues into historical anecdotes during our tasting. As I’m about to leave, he disappears into a barn and sticks a label on a bottle of 2020 Slamdance Kooperative, the first vintage of his own wine, which comes with the tagline: ‘Drink to the undoing of your foes’. After working harvests around the world, in regions formed by their own rich histories, he wanted to make a wine that could have been made in Paso Robles using techniques and varieties common before Prohibition.
“Things change so fast in Paso,” he says. “We’re always doing something different and we don’t have any historic wine to look back on, so I thought I’d make one.”
Paso’s entrepreneurial, Wild West spirit is clearly on display in Tin City (tincitypasorobles.com), once an industrial backwater, now a makers market for up-and-coming winemakers. Standouts include Field Recordings, where Andrew Jones blends pockets of unusual grapes he tracks down across the region; and Hubba Wines, where Riley Roddick serves wines focused on flavour and aromatics, alongside pizza made fresh on her terrace.
Roddick says while there are practical advantages to being clustered with other winemakers. “If my forklift has broken down, I can walk across the street and borrow one,” she says. But having a ready-made community to bounce ideas off is even more helpful.
Tin City offers garagiste-style winemakers, and cider, beer and spirits producers, an affordable, well-trafficked space to work. It also provides visitors with an alternative to traditional wine-tasting with its long drives and a sometimes formal feel. Meanwhile Six Test Kitchen, a tiny, entrepreneurial restaurant serving a set menu for 12 guests, became the first Paso restaurant to win a Michelin star last year. Roddick describes the ethos of Tin City as “typical of Paso in that everyone wants everyone to succeed”.
“Paso is one of the few places where you could start your own winery, without being a millionaire,” she says.” “I don’t think there is another place as supportive of entrepreneurs and small winemakers”.
The local restaurant scene also pushes boundaries. The laidback air of the wide streets and historic timber buildings doesn’t quite prepare you for the sophisticated tasting menu at Les Petites Canailles (lpcrestaurant.com). Young chef Julien Asseo, whose father, Stephan, swapped Burgundy’s restrictions for Californian freedom in the 1990s and became one of Paso Robles most influential pioneers, recently opened this modern take on French cuisine. Standouts on the menu include the Burgundy escargot risotto, with a fresh garden taste and rich, salty depth, and the melt-in-your-mouth steak tartare, while the wine list carries an impressive selection from the family l’Aventure winery. The atmosphere is pitch-perfect, with seamless service and a spectacularly well-informed and slightly quirky sommelier.
Locals recommend the charming Finca (fincapasorobles.com) with notable regularity and again I’m surprised by the superb quality of the fresh, clear flavours of the modern Mexican food, from shrimp tacos to ceviche to the excellent guacamole.
Dinner at In Bloom (inbloompasorobles.com) is also built around local produce: from delicate nettle tortellini to carrot croquettes with heady lavender aioli. Chef Kenny Seliger says the pandemic sparked an influx of people interested in Paso’s growing food scene, leaving the hustle of city life for the slower pace. As I wander back to my hotel on a crisp summer evening, past bustling tasting rooms and restaurants, I can’t fault their reasoning.
Even Paso’s hotels mirror the region’s innovative spirit. As befits the location, the equestrian-themed Stables Inn (stablesinnpaso.com), where chic, compact rooms come with cowhide rugs and wine glasses for enjoying the fruits of the day’s tastings around courtyard fire pits. This cleverly converted motel was voted best new hotel by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2021.
The Allegretto (allegrettovineyardresort.com) is a Tuscan-style resort that feels surprisingly at home in Paso. It boasts olive groves, a romantic courtyard, a pool with vineyard views and a stunning international art collection. Watching the sun rise over the vineyards from the huge room was a gloriously peaceful way to start the day.
Other options abound, including The Geneseo Inn at Cass Winery (casswines.com), where shipping containers have been ingeniously converted into cool, comfortable oases with vineyard views. But it was the glorious glamping at Alta Colina’s Trailer Park (thetrailerpond.com/trailers) that I keep dreaming about: a collection of five, beautifully restored vintage campers and Airstreams set on a pristine pond in the heart of the region’s prettiest vineyards
On my last night in Paso, I watch as the sun sets and the curves of Paso’s hillsides are illuminated by thousands of tiny, solar-powered lights. The ethereal Fields of Light installation (sensoriopaso.com), created by Australian/UK artist Bruce Munro, highlights the beauty of the landscape as it is silhouetted against the night sky, almost as if the stars are both above us in the crisp Paso night and laid out at our feet.
Immersed in the shifting pattern of lights shifting in the breeze like luminous, unearthly flowers, the innovative exhibition feels like a fitting celebration of the artistry of Pasos’ winemakers and the ethereal beauty of the terroir.”