The Alluring Secrets of Paso: Now, Then and Always

Crowdsliningup 12By Melanie Webber 

I first discovered Paso Robles and the Central Coast nearly 20 years ago, when a close friend moved to the area from LA and, like all who first experience its joys, I felt it was my special secret. As someone who spent a good part of my youth in Georgia, I was enchanted by the California version of Spanish moss weeping from grand oaks that gnarled across Paso’s Fest Crowd Sunset(2)golden hills, and that stooped their branches over rocky creeks.   I had never seen it outside the South, but this was a kinder, gentler version, still mysterious, but plush and pale green, not the haunted dark wires that drip down in the South.

Back then, the wine industry was just getting going and Paso's oaken landscape was not as blanketed with vineyards as it is now. My very first wine tasting was at Adelaida Cellars, pioneers back then, and I was hooked.  I fell in love with Paso and the treasures that surrounded it, from the awe-inspiring views, to the sweet and winding cow-fringed country roads; from the mission in SLO to the hot springs of Sycamore, the guano ‘snow’-covered Morro Rock, the lost-in-time beach town of Cayucos and the British-tinged charm of Garagistefestivallunch 11 12Cambria.   I loved the fogs that rolled in across the hills from the west, woolly ghosts with ice on their breath, and the gold-parched, sun-drenched hills to the east. I loved having breakfast at the Paso Robles Inn with its bubbling artesian springs, hanging out in Paso’s elegant town square, devouring gravy-slathered biscuits at Hoover’s Beef Palace.  I loved Paso’s cow-town feel, the down to earth people, the freshness of its farm air, and the wine… 

Like so many before and after, I felt that Paso and its surrounds were MY secret. When I would tell people in LA (although I had been warned Garagsiteteam 11 12not to by my friend, who feared a stampede of tourists) that I had been to Paso Robles and the Central Coast, they would say “oh yeah, right Monterey, Big Sur, I been there” and I would think to myself no you haven’t, but didn’t correct.

While much has changed in the past 20 years – Paso has indeed been ‘discovered’ as a stunning travel destination and celebrated as one of the most important wine producers in the world, its once bare golden hills and meadows now boasting row after row of vineyards, the town 2013GaragisteLogo(1)offering up an array of culinary delights and artisan shops – there is still much to discover. 

So, when my Central Coast friend decided to start a wine festival dedicated to small lot, artisan winemakers, it took little persuading for me to jump in. My task? To share a Paso ‘secret’ with the world, this time its over 125 garagiste winemakers. 

What an irony…. the ones wanting to keep this amazing treasure of a place secret, now having a hand in letting its secrets out. But, lack of awareness was one of the key challenges facing the area’s small-lot winemakers. Anyone who has had anything to do with making wine (let alone distributing and marketing it) knows what an all-encompassing task it is (not to mention the labor involved for those with their own vineyards).  Who has time or resources for marketing? These operations are so small and focused more on quality and passion for the art, than on telling the world.

The secret of these garagiste winemakers was one that we felt privileged to hold, but for them to survive, of course, the world needed to know.  So, when festival co-founders Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick decided, in 2011, to take that task on, and recruited Lisa Dinsmore and me to help make it happen, we threw our hearts and souls into it, not having a clue whether the festival that we put together in less than five months would attract the world --- or remain a secret.  

We had no problem getting garagiste winemakers on board (parameters – no more than 1200 cases); and some of the area’s most famous winemakers (Saxum’s Justin Smith, Four Vines/Cypher’s Christian Tietje, Lone Madrone/Tablas Creeks’ Neil Collins and Adelaida’s Terry Culton) were right there to help us with our opening seminars. But, when we pulled open the heavy wooden doors of Windfall Farms stallion barn that first crisp November morning, we wondered if there would there be anyone there except for our remarkably dedicated army of volunteers?

Well, indeed there was, and one of our proudest moments was hammering a sold out sign into a Windfall pasture, although we were sad to turn people away.

There is, in my opinion, no better way to experience the wonders of Paso Robles than at the annual Garagiste Festival (held November 7th – 10th this year), an event that keeps it intimate, enables wine lovers to interact directly with the winemakers, offers its attendees multiple new discoveries and is a true celebration of Paso’s quintessential local artisans, both wine and food, and set in some of its most stunning landscape. 

And so, this is the magic of Paso and the Central Coast: although today, there is more to love, more vineyards, more wineries, more garagistes, more restaurants, more festivals and events than ever before, it still feels like that privileged secret it was to me nearly 20 years ago.  Paso Robles, full of intimate charms, stunning natural beauty, diverse terroir, world-class wines and friendly people, continues to yield new discoveries for those that visit – all while remaining a place that each visitor feels is his/her own special secret. 

For tickets/information about the Garagiste Festival, held November 7th - 10th, go to

Garagiste Festivals are produced by Garagiste Events, a non-profit dedicated to furthering the education of future winemakers and those training for employment within the wine industry.  Proceeds from the festivals are donated to the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program.

As part of The Garagiste Festival team, Melanie Webber spearheads Public Relations. Her public relations agency, mWEBB Communications, Inc., won a 2011 American Business Award for PR/Communications Campaign of the Year. A lover of all things Central Coast, especially the wines, she recently received her WSET Level 3 certification.