Wines of Central California are gaining respect as big-time players in the world of wine. Like their counterparts the the better known Napa and Sonoma regions, winemakers in Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Monterey, and Santa Cruz are producing remarkable wines. When Paso Robles was named 2013 Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, we considered it our civic duty to make the pilgrimage to California’s largest and most diverse wine region and check it out.
We were expecting Paso Robles to be similar to other wine regions we have visited where wine tours have included sampling wines with cheese and crackers. But in Paso Robles we discovered not only an incredible wine scene but also an emerging foodie scene.
Located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, downtown Paso Robles is a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting; there’s a park surrounded by boutique shops, restaurants, art galleries, and even a general store. In the hills surrounding downtown, Paso Robles is home to dozens of wineries. The region has recovered completely from a 2003 earthquake that rattled it to its bones.
What impressed us most is that the entire community seems to have a penchant for the art of pairing food with local libations. All over town, at restaurants, wineries, and breweries, we encountered chefs who create dishes intended to be paired with a specific wine or beer. As a result, we enjoyed some of the best food and beverage pairings we’ve ever experienced. Here’s a rundown on some of our favorite stops along the way.
Viewfinder Tip: For an enhanced dining experience, ask what wine the chef would suggest pairing with a particular dish.
Burbank Ranch Vineyard and Winery
We first experienced wine-inspired foods at Burbank Ranch Vineyard and Winery, which sits about 15 minutes from downtown. We sampled several creations of Chef Philippe Shapiro’s, along with the wines that inspired them. Some of our favorite courses included the steamed organic yellow beets stuffed with Laura Chenel chevre (goat cheese), the herb-crusted lamb rack lollipop, and the grass-fed beef carpaccio on whole grain pumpernickel topped with chimichurri.
Niner Wine Estate
The heart-shaped cluster of trees on the side of a hill in the middle of Niner Wine Estate’s vineyards makes it one of the most photographed vineyards in Paso Robles (see the header image if you can’t visualize what we’re talking about). The estate’s beauty extends beyond the vineyards into the bottle and on to the table. Executive Chef Maegen Loring and Sous Chef Matt Rameriz prepared an amazing meal of beef flatiron steak, braised pork belly, summer squash gratin, crab timbale, and late-summer fruit crisp. Each course was paired with one of Niner’s wines. The 2010 Fog Catcher, a blend of Bordeaux varietals, made its way past our palates and into our hearts, as it now resides among the best wines we’ve encountered in our travels.
One of our favorite tours in Paso Robles was at Halter Ranch, a beautiful property featuring a 1,500-year-old Live Oak tree, a covered bridge, a grand Victorian farmhouse that was featured in the movie, Arachnophobia, and what seems like miles of caverns where wine barrels are stored. In the tasting room we were able to sample the wines with a assortment of meats, cheeses, nuts, and olives.
Wine is not the only beverage crafted in Paso Robles. We toured the Firestone Walker Brewhouse and had beer, too. When we visited, our hosts paired our beers with each course of a lunch that comprised pork roast, crab cakes, and seared tuna. For dessert, we had an amazing beer float. Yes, you read that right; it wasn’t a ROOT beer float, but instead was a beer float. Who knew that a Double DBA beer poured over vanilla ice cream could be so good?
FISHGAUCHO is a Baja California-inspired restaurant and tequila bar located in the heart of downtown. It has an old-world Mexico vibe and a menu featuring ingredients from local farmers and fishermen. During our visit, we tried some amazing fresh ceviches and fish tacos paired with some of the best margaritas we’ve ever tasted. Made with 100 percent Blue Agave Tequila, organic agave nectar, and fresh squeezed lime, the margaritas were not overly sweet and proved to be a refreshing complement to our meal. The restaurant also offers several different tequila flights for anyone wanting to sample or learn more about tequila.
A farm-to-table restaurant we absolutely loved was Il Cortile, a rustic Italian restaurant located downtown. Executive Chef Santos MacDonal uses fresh local and regional ingredients for the handmade pastas, seafood, meats, and antipasti. During our meal, we were fortunate enough to dine with Jim and Azmina Madsen, owners of The Farm Winery. With the goal of pairing our dinner with Jim and Azmina’s wines, Chef MacDonal prepared several food-gasmic dishes, including a homemade pappardelle with mushroom ragu and some melt-in-your-mouth lamb chops.
Though we were in Paso Robles for three days, we felt like we only scratched the surface of sampling fruits of an area that offers much to see, savor, and sip. We definitely will be back to explore more of California’s Central Coast wine region.
What are some of your favorite food and wine destinations?