Route SIXTY: Paso Robles is Closer than Napa and Almost as Cool

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As the hot summer days wind down into temperatures truly meant for human existence and children everywhere get to ring in the season with back to school outfits and inspired lunch boxes, I find myself getting jealous. Why we all decided to stake our resolutions on the heart of winter is beyond me; I’ve always thought the new year should be in September, when leaves change and semesters begin and bulky sweaters are worn atop everything. Also, red wine. Summertime is all about refreshing cocktails and crisp, cold glasses of white and rose, but as the days become more bearable around these parts, it’s time to break out those bottles of red. And what better way to celebrate than with a road trip? A road trip toward wine, of course.

Here in California, Napa gets all the glory, but if you’re an Angeleno, you have to face reality—that trek is beast. Paso Robles is only three hours north, decidedly cheaper, less crowded, stupid pretty, and well worth the trip. Oh yeah, and the wine ain’t bad either. Sure, there’s plenty of overripe, blow-out-your-palate juice that hovers at upsettingly high alcohol levels, but there’s also plenty of delicious, balanced, and exciting wine if you know just where to look. (Note: If you hurry, you can still catch the tail end of the harvest, which comes with lots of special dinners and events.)

Downtown Paso Robles is the epitome of California quaint, full of sweets shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants all within walking distance of one another. In terms of drinking, there are plenty of options. Paso is perhaps known best for the styles and blends of Bordeaux and Rhone, but a few winemakers are pushing the varietal envelope. Bodegas Paso Robles is dedicated to producing wines using Spanish and Portuguese varietals such as albariño and graciano (the garnacha blanca is a real standout), while Pianetta Winery is going the Italian route, offering a barbera and sangiovese that outshine the more common syrah, cab sauv, and zin. Bodegas and Pianetta both have tasting rooms downtown, where you can pop in for a glass of wine and likely get to chatting with one of the pretty badass women behind these brands. (Dorothy Schuler is the owner and winemaker of Bodegas, and Pianetta is headed up by Caitlin Pianetta, who runs the family winery with her dad.) Both are committed to making delicious wines that tend to be higher in acid, lower in alcohol, and super well-balanced. Here, here, ladies.

Before you depart city limits, be sure to swing by Paso Underground, a hip and cozy collective tasting room with a lovely back patio in which you can sip the current passion projects of four up-and-coming winemakers you’ll be hard-pressed (get it?) to find anywhere else. Plus, it’s right next door to Villa Creek, a restaurant dedicated to highlighting the best ingredients the central coast has to offer. There’s no shortage of farm-to-table touting meals around here, but this one is arguably the best.

But let’s get out of the city for a minute, because a trip to Paso is really all about that big blue sky and those sweeping vineyard views. There are literally hundreds of wineries you can visit, countless rows of grapes you can traverse, so many chilly tasting rooms in which you can wish you brought a sweater. But I’m pretty sure that Halter Ranch is the only winery that offers a three-hour excursion tour in which one of the winemakers will tour you around the gorgeous vineyard in a restored 1984 Land Rover Defender and serve you their latest vinous offering atop a mountain beneath the shade of the largest coastal oak tree in the world. Um, yes, please.

And if this isn’t outdoorsy enough for you, I will do you one better. You can actually zipline through the Santa Margarita Ranch, which is, sure, a tad on the touristy side, but hey, you’re on vacay, so just own it.

Some other standouts include Vines on the Marycrest, a boutique family owned and operated winery known for their bold yet delicate wines named after their favorite songs and epic outdoor events that always revolve around music. And speaking of epic, Epoch Winery is another spot sure to wow, welcoming you in to its rustic, hipster-ish tasting room stocked with their estate-grown offerings.

When your palate has had enough, stop in for quick cleanse at Olivas de Oro, a small, family-run olive oil producer from which you can buy too much (wait, no such thing) of their delicious cold-pressed oils and vinegars and instill deep envy in all your friends by filling your Insta with too many pictures of their idyllic olive trees and fluffy sheep.

Photo courtesy of Tim Mossholder

Jennifer Cacicio

Jennifer Cacicio

Jennifer Cacicio is a Boston-born, LA-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, PUNCH, Food & Wine, and elsewhere. She's currently at work on a novel, a cookbook, and a television series. In her free time, she bakes a lot of pies.