Two-lane roads traverse the rolling hills surrounding Paso Robles in California’s Central Coast region. With all of 32,000 residents, the city feels more like a country town. But when it comes to wine, this inland metropolis midway between Los Angeles and San Franciso plays above its size. Thousands of acres of vineyards and 300 wineries spread out in all directions from Paso, as locals call it. No longer a hidden gem, Paso is the Golden State’s third-largest wine region (behind Napa and Sonoma). Its innovative winemakers continue to attract new devotees to the premium wines crafted from the 40 different grape varieties that thrive in nearly a dozen different microclimates. Paso’s diverse soil types, wide-ranging temperatures, and long growing season still yield plenty of traditional big red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon alone makes up about 40% of the grapes planted. But it is the variety of handmade small-batch varietals that is impressing wine enthusiasts and elevating this formerly out-of-the way wine region.
It does not hurt that Paso resonates with small-town charisma, from the gazebo in its shady downtown park to eclectic art galleries and fashionable shops. The city boasts several Michelin-recommended restaurants, spirit distilleries, wine tasting rooms, and craft brew pubs big enough to boast live-music venues. For visitors seeking a weekend getaway, there are two dozen resorts, boutique hotels, and B&Bs, some settled amid the grapevines. Plus, the beach is just a 30-minute drive to the west.
With two winery stops on the schedule, I knew I needed a healthy breakfast and strong coffee. Fortunately, the buffet at Paso’s Hampton Inn & Suites was stocked with my favorites: bagels, yogurt, fruit, and fresh-brewed coffee.
A comfortable van from Uncorked Wine Tours made getting around Paso easy. A knowledgeable local driver for the female-owned company picked us up at the hotel and delivered us to tasting tours at wineries as well as stops at distilleries, restaurants, and city sites.
Barton Family Wines
The drive southwest of Paso to Barton Family Wines is short but picturesque. Trellises laden with grapevines climb the hills on both sides of a two-mile stretch of California Highway 46 known as the 46 West wine district. Nearly a dozen wineries are scattered among the vineyards, including one resembling a castle.
Giant oak trees shade the modest-looking white farmhouse where Joe Barton Sr. started Barton winery with his wife Shirlene in 1994. Joe Barton Jr., the working owner who greeted us in a baseball cap and sweatshirt, took over the winery when his father died in the late 1990s.
His mission, then and now, is to continue his father’s legacy by building the family business and creating premium craft wines bearing the Grey Wolf and Barton Family labels.
Now beautifully renovated and expanded, the farmhouse is the centerpiece of a modern pastoral winery, with attractive tasting rooms and serene outdoor patios. The estate’s wine selection has grown as Barton, a farmer at heart as well as a winemaker, has identified microclimates in west Paso that produce the best grapes.
With fruit from his vineyards and others, he and his team handmake about 7,000 cases of wine, blending Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and both red and white Rhone varietals. In 2020, Barton was honored as the county’s Winemaker of the Year.
Barton and Jenny, his wife and business partner, love wine but they are also savvy entrepreneurs. In 2013, they opened Barton’s Kitchen, the first farm-to-table restaurant in the 46 West wine district. They added adistillery, Vine + Wine in 2022, with a separate tasting area where visitors can sample vodka, gin, aged rum, bourbon, and rye whiskey made from grains grown on the farm.
Joe joined us on a patio overlooking the vineyards to pour a selection of wines named after rock and pop songs. I tried to separate my musical tastes from my wine palette but, as a Prince fan, I couldn’t help favoring the spicy Pinot Noir called Purple Rain. The Dance, a Cabernet Sauvignon named for a Garth Brooks hit, was my more full-bodied favorite.
Back inside the airy tasting room, we sampled several more wines with a gourmet lunch. Our first course, a gooey baked brie with apple basil compote, paired perfectly with a mellow rose called Soul Mate (a Justin Timberlake song). California Love, a blend of Grenache and Counoise and named for a Tupac song, proved a sturdy complement to an herb-crusted beef tenderloin with asparagus and truffled sweet potatoes.
I left the winery savoring the wine, the food, and the songs. “We want to show guests everything we can do in Paso,” Barton told us. “There’s a lot of young energy here creating unique food, cocktails, wine, and more.”
Thacher Winery and Vineyard
A quick nap in the van might have been nice, but the twisting road to Thacher Winery and Vineyard kept us alert. A canopy of trees concealed the wineries along curvy Vineyard Drive in far west Paso.
The first thing I noticed as we drove up to Thacher was the Gothic-style roof of a century-old barn. Long before Sterling Thacher and his wife Michelle bought the property in 2004, it was known as the Kentucky Ranch – home to quarter horses and cowboys.
Today neat rows of grape vines climb the hills, though we did spy a lone horse grazing contently in a pasture. The barn is mostly empty, aside from a barn owl lurking in the rafters. And Thacher is making small-batch wines in a modern steel building with solar panels.
Dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans, Thacher walked us around the farm, pointing proudly to rows of specialty grapes. Then he ushered us into a rustic tasting room that was once a horse stable. A beer brewer before wine became his passion, Thacher embraces a creative approach to winemaking setting the winery apart even among Paso’s inventive vintners.
After Thacher proved he could produce traditional Paso wines, he said he began expanding varietals by planting more obscure European grapes. “I got hooked,” he told us. Now he grows some 20 different varietals, from French Cinsault to Spanish Graciano grapes. The results are 5,000 cases of mostly red wines made in small batches that are lighter and fresher than typical reds.
We sampled half a dozen wines bearing Thacher’s whimsical grasshopper label. I was awed by the 2021 Cinsault for its smooth taste and the Graciano for its crispness. But my favorite was a 2019 Merlot which, as Thacher said, is finally enjoying a comeback.
Even the Kentucky Ranch Cider, made from the winery’s apples, offers a tart change of pace. It was a wonderful winetasting experience.
Cane Tiki Room
Thacher Winery would have been a peaceful place to spend the rest of the day, but we were due in Paso for Happy Hour at the Cane Tiki Room. With its palapa ceiling and authentic tiki wood carvings, the bar instantly transported us from the vineyards to the South Pacific for exotic drinks and pu pu plates of eggrolls and pot stickers.
This downtown oasis is known for its tropical rum cocktails, with names like Passion Out Early and Cain Mai Tai. Its drinks promise an alcohol punch, which is why the menu actually warns customers about the potency of its cocktails with one-to-four skulls and crossbones.
Novelty bar glasses are part of the fun. My favorite was a pig-shaped mug full of barrel-aged rye and rum, plus pineapple juice and bitters. It gets a two-skulls warning. If you order a drink in the bar’s custom tiki mug, you can keep the glass for $50.
Dinner at Fish Gaucho
Lucky for us, Fish Gaucho is just a short walk from Cane Tiki, both of which are part of the local restaurant group Park and Pine. The décor of this restaurant and tequila bar is old-world Mexico. Rough-hewn tables and ladder-back chairs made of reclaimed materials welcome diners.
Fish Gaucho specializes in Californian seafood with a Mexican twist, from halibut tacos to ceviche, and plenty of intriguing drink options. The bar has one of the state’s largest tequila and mezcal selections, including more than 250 from Jalisco, Mexico alone. This is the place for tequila tastings, but the bar also offers craft cocktails, local wines and brews.
We started with appetizers including aguachile (sashimi halibut, with avocado and yuzu chili sauce) and my favorite, mejillones con chorizo (mussels and chorizo in a white wine-chipotle cream sauce).
Their seafood tacos are a restaurant specialty as are the lobster enchiladas. Meat eaters’ options included a humongous beefy burrito. I opted for a non-alcoholic beverage, a mango aqua fresca. But others in my group praised the margaritas.
Too full for dessert, we rolled into the van, staying awake just long enough to get to our hotel rooms. It was a glorious and unforgettable day in Paso Robles.