In early May, TasteSpotting/The Delicious Life escaped to California’s Central Coast for a 3-day combination work/break. This post is an overview of what we are now officially calling a “retreat” (minus the team-building exercises). A series of posts will follow with more-detail-than-I-should-reveal about how we enjoyed each of the places we wined, dined, and reclined.
Somewhere along the 20-mile westbound drive from the gently rocking and rolling hills of Paso Robles to the misty coast town of Cayucos, you might start crying. It won’t be so much the red-faced, hiccuping, sniffling, sneezing, so you can rest madness. Rather, it will be a painfully cliché welling up of tears that starts when the mesmerizing view of perfectly parallel budding vines loosens into a softly lit, softly edged mountain fantasy. The tears will just barely teeter along the edge of your lower lashes all through the valleys, flirt with your mascara over the hills, and when an ever-so-slight swerve gives you a peek of the Pacific through a break in the clouds, you won’t be able to hold back from blinking your eyes into a tiny, briny spill.
Thank God my mascara is waterproof.
Yes, somewhere between Paso Robles and Cayucos, I had been brought to tears, but I’d be a fool for trying to identify the exact reason why. It was such an uncharacteristic display of weepy, womanly femotion in the middle of a car ride, in the middle of a trip, in the middle of California. We had just come off our last wine tasting in Paso Robles and were heading west toward the practically unknown town of Cayucos for the second half of our Central Coast “retreat.” Every part of our drive is a little bit fuzzy for me, partially the the effect of a long, slow-acting wine buzz that was unraveling straight into the low, late afternoon sun directly ahead of us, but mostly the result of trying to process so much information – wines, grapes, names, faces – at once.
I’d be a bigger fool for trying to pinpoint exactly where we were along the hilly, winding stretch of westbound CA-46 when we found ourselves disregarding all traffic rules, pulling across the highway, and taking “a moment” in a turnout overlooking a valley that was so impossibly technicolor green that it looked like a Hollywood backdrop. I had no idea where we were; we could, in fact, have been on a movie set for all I knew. My smart phone has even smarter GPS, but when I had realized earlier on the drive that no signal weaker than the sound of music was going to clear the hills that were surrounding us on all sides, I had tossed the phone into the glovebox. Or maybe under the seat. Possibly shoved it into my purse.
Out there in the middle of everywhere, I couldn’t make a phone call, couldn’t send an email, couldn’t twitter to let people know in advance that I wouldn’t be twittering. Every digital tie that I had to My. Daily. Life had been severed by a stunning vista on my left and doe, a deer, in the five foot tall grass on my right.
A f**king deer.
That must have been “the moment” — not a particular point in time, not a single destination point on a map, but the perfect, utterly ambiguous “afternoon-ish, somewhere on the Central Coast” that was never planned, never added to an agenda, never scheduled into offline google calendar, never numbered into an outline-numbered outline, when I realized I was experiencing the exact opposite of my life.
I had to enjoy it right then and there, exactly for what it was because I couldn’t share it via email, or IM, or twitter or text with anyone else.
It took 200 miles, a couple of glasses of wine and Bambi, for goodness’ sake, but I had finally escaped.
PASO ROBLES WINE COUNTRY – Reality Star
Having spent four years at Cal and now regularly visiting northern California as a Bay Area “alum,” I’m no stranger to the popular masses’ fermented infatuation with Napa and Sonoma. Both have the same appeal as that of a movie star – fame, fortune, and flash – curiously appealing because those things are all a little out of reach. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been seduced by the sprawling vineyards, stunning estates, and luxurious tasting rooms of some of the most well-known wineries along the CA-29, Napa’s own version of the Walk of Fame. I have gone, just another anonymous fangirl in a crowd of tourists, excited to see the place with the name that everyone else only gets to read on a label, cherishing a taste of a limited release Cab like an autographed picture.
But to the slick, sophisticated, somewhat superficial celebrity of Napa, there is the sometimes rebellious, sometimes rugged, but always very real, personality of El Paso de Robles.
Personality. I know what it means to have “personality,” believe me. My younger sisters are model-pretty, but I’m the one in the family with a great personality. In the case of Paso Robles though, personality has much less, in fact almost nothing, to do with making up for any sort of deficiencies in physical appearance. Personality has everything to do with the root of the word, “person.” Every winery (and restaurant and hotel) we visited in Paso Robles had attached to it, not a corporation somewhere far removed in the background, but a real person with a name, a face and his or her own individual charm.
We met the winemaker whose name is on the grapes that make his wine, chatted in a tasting room about retiring in Paso Robles, cruised through vineyards on a golf cart chauffeured by the grower, and met a dog whose owner’s name was on the label on the bottle that’s sitting empty on my desk right now. I will admit, it was a little jarring for a girl from LA who hides her “great personality (!)” behind a photoshopped avatar and clever handle to be face-to-face with real, live people, having real conversations, and really laughing out loud, not “LOL.” But when you are escaping your ordinary, anonymous life that is filled with things that are represented by nothing more than stock symbols and two-dimensional logos, real people are the best kind of fantasy.
It is not often that we get to do that – meet a person who is responsible (other than yourself, of course) for what you’re drinking – but that is precisely the point of Paso Robles.
Paso Robles comprises 26,000 acres of vineyards, 200 wineries, and 40 varietals. That is smaller than say, oh, France, (which is still not the largest wine producing country in the world) but the numbers are sizeable enough to make a thorough tour of the area impossible in less than a month, let alone three days. If you have “done Paso,” and have strong opinions about any of the wineries you visited, please share them in the comments to add to the 4 wineries we visited.
L’AVENTURE WINERY & STEPHAN VINEYARDS
L’Aventure Winery was not only the first winery on our tasting tour, but they very first stop on our whole Central Coast itinerary. When we made the turn off the highway onto the long, narrow road that led up to L’Aventure, I felt a nervous giddiness take over. We were going to L’Aventure. Stephan Asseo‘s L’Aventure. It was the same feeling I had watching Duran Duran as a pre-teen: a combination of wanting to release a high-pitched, hyperventilative Hello Kitty squeal and wanting to throw up. The sight of horses along the road on the way up to L’Aventure’s driveway spurred conversation of unicorns. Now I know why.
I knew who Stephan was the minute we drove up and saw him walking across the patio. Stephan has the look of a winemaker, with crinkles at the corners of his blue eyes that could be from squinting from the sun, or smiling, or both. He sat down with us on the front patio and with a hypnotizing French accent, told us a love story – the one about how he came to the Central Coast, fell in love with Paso Robles, and started making wine the way he wanted. “Haute couture viticulture, ” he called it. I love them term.
Sarah’s Favorite Taste from L’Aventure:
Optimus 2006 (bought it!)
TasteSpotting Dev Team’s Favorite from L’Aventure:
Estate Cuvee 2007 (bought it!)
From the outside, Adelaida Cellars is the sort of pretty, quaintly picturesque winery that dominates our imagination – on a hilltop that overlooks vineyards, with a couple of picnic tables on a small lawn out front. When we first walked into the tasting room, I thought the smooth-talking silver haired gentleman behind the bar might to try to sell us something. If you’re a winery, Dominic is exactly the sort of person you want in your tasting room, chatting up customers, pouring tastes, and selling another wine club membership. But just that first pour of Vin Gris de Pinot Noir in and it was clear that the USC-supporting (I forgave him for that when we tasted the “fruit flavored Sharpie in a glass” 2006 Pinot Noir) was just being himself, reflecting a little bit of his previous life as a high-powered financial executive in LA. Escape to the Central Coast, it seems, is not just a travel theme, but one for life, too.
Sarah’s Favorite Taste from Adelaida:
Pinot Noir HMR Estate 2006
TasteSpotting Dev Team’s Favorite from Adelaida:
Cabernet Sauvignon Viking Estate Reserve 2005 (bought it!)
EDWARD SELLERS VINEYARDS & WINES
We missed the Edward, but when we finally made it over to Edwards Sellers‘ tasting room in the town of Paso Robles, we got to meet his blue-eyed Australian Shepherd. We also met Amy Butler, the winemaker, who poured us through the Summer Tasting that included grapes that were foreign to me. When I asked what mourvedre, counoise, cinsault and rousanne were, exposing my ignorance, I braced my cheeks for the blush, but it never came. Amy talks and jokes about wine in the same way that my favorite food writers write about food – just a pure passion without pretense.
Sarah’s Favorite Taste from Edward Sellers:
Grenache Rose 2007 (secret admirer sent TasteSpotting HQ a box?!)
TasteSpotting Dev Team’s Favorite from Edward Sellers:
Cuvee des Cinq 2005 (Cognito 2006 a close second)
HALTER RANCH VINEYARDS
In the same way you find yourself the only couple on the dancefloor after the club has unplugged the speakers and turned on the ugly lights, we lingered at Halter Ranch a little longer than we had expected. We started the tasting with Solene Christophe, talked to Leslie Wyss, who runs the business side, and Bill Sheffer the winemaker, then zipped off in a golf cart for a tour of the vineyards with Mitch, the grape grower.
We saw Mitch’s “swat team” of chickens that chase away vineyard pests, the enormous Coast Live Oak at the top of a hill in the middle of the vineyard, a lake where guests can picnic, and of course the vines, from which Mitch pulled a small set of buds with the tenderness of daddy so we could see his babies. Seeing Mitch next to the vines with a pair of clippers attached to his belt, I was reminded that no matter how sophisticated, luxurious or ridiculously expensive the wine, all of it still starts in the hands of farmer.
Sarah’s Favorite Taste from Halter Ranch:
Sauvignon Blanc 2008
TasteSpotting Dev Team’s Favorite from Halter Ranch:
Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (a tie!)
DINING IN PASO ROBLES – I’m Just Here for the Food
Three meals between two restaurants had me asking myself if the food alone of Paso Robles – not the wine – could be the real reason to make a trip.
The reality is, you can’t ever have one without the other. I know I can’t.
THOMAS HILL ORGANICS MARKET BISTRO & WINE BAR
Debbie Thomas is from LA, an ex-marketing executive from a giantgiantgiant athletic brand. She now lives in Paso Robles with her husband, who grows organic produce at Thomas Hill. Their operation is small and very local, mostly producing CSA boxes for the people who live along the Central Coast. A few months ago, they took over a closing wine bar in the town of Paso Robles and serve food made from their own farm and other organic producers in the area. Lunch at Thomas Hill Organics was our first meal in Paso Robles and it was the perfect introduction to the food culture of the Central Coast. We sat on the back patio facing a huge sign that, if you weren’t already indulging, demanded “WINE.” The way we spent the early afternoon there is how I want to spend an entire afternoons for days at a time: trying cheese, drinking wine, and getting to know our hostess Debbie.
I might be Debbie Thomas one day.
When we sat down for dinner at a table right in front of Artisan‘s open kitchen, scanned the room filled with white tablecloths and, and started discussing the menu, it didn’t feel unlike sitting down at any number of restaurants back at home. Artisan Restaurant’s sleek, modern sophistication at first seems slightly out of place in a tiny town. But then you realize that the chef-owner, Chris Kobayashi is three feet behind you cooking your food, and his wife, Shandi is making sure you’re comfortable, chatting with you about family, and sharing your fear of horses. Artisan’s own urban-in-a-rural-setting personality itself is unique, fitting right in with the individuality that is characteristic of Paso Robles.
The restaurant doesn’t try to be something it’s not; it’s just a real reflection of place, Paso Robles, and people, the Kobayashis. Foods, sourced locally whenever possible, showcase the what Central Coast has to offer, like Cayucos Red Abalone in the “BLTA” with Green Tomatoes and Pancetta we had to start. The menu and preparation reflect Chris’s training and experience in the Bay area, but of course, are his own expression. Shandi, tall, thin, pretty and well-dressed, fits the atmosphere at Artisan, but there is a smart, sweetness to her that is difficult to explain but easy to understand when she flashes a grin after saying “the quiet Asian-y looking one back there in the kitchen is Chris. He belongs to me.”
SLEEPING IN PASO ROBLES – A Little Bit of Luxury
I half-expected to stay in a “renovated” truckstop motel when preparing for this trip, but The Hotel Cheval is about the furthest thing from a Motel 6 possible. Hotel Cheval is luxury down to the details.
We were greeted in the lobby then escorted to one of Hotel Cheval’s 16 rooms. As we walked across the charming stone courtyard, I made a note to come back outside after dinner with one of the bottles we had picked up during wine tasting and relax in front of the fireplace. Everything about the room at Hotel Cheval plays right into the equestrian theme, down to the horseshoe shaped chocolate. There was bottled water in the room, welcome hydration after a day of wine tasting, and all the amenities of a big city luxury hotel. At the end of the evening, I wanted to go back out to the courtyard, but as soon as my body sunk into the bed, I fell asleep. The courtyard was going to have to wait for a future trip.
CAYUCOS – Hidden in a Silver Satin Mist
CASS HOUSE LUXURY INN & RESTAURANT
Something about the tiny town’s position and placement on the Central Coast lets mother nature and king neptune keep Cayucos a secret – the land just to the north swings a protective arm out, a physical barrier that keeps a thick, silver fog over Cayucos. LA escapees who flee northward end up just shy of Cayucos in Morro Bay, a slightly larger, sunnier version of a “sleepy California beach town,” or overshoot to get to the spectacle that is Hearst Castle. Perhaps the tourists just never see Cayucos, hidden under that heavy blanket of mist. It is just as well. Cass House, the luxury inn where we stayed overnight, only has five rooms.
Grace and Jensen Lorenzen run the Cass House and it seems they have somehow captured in one setting both professional quality food and wine experiences and a charming intimacy you can only get when you’re a guest in a friend’s home.
If Paso Robles was an escape from my daily life, then Cayucos was an escape from my escape.
SAN LUIS OBISPO – Exactly the Way to Head Back to LA
Chances are, there is a restaurant almost like Novo in your neighborhood – a family owned operation that just serves good food in a comfortable, California casual atmosphere. It may even have outdoor seating on a patio in the back like Novo.
But it won’t be Novo because Novo’s back patio overlooks a creek that, if you stop your conversation, or put down your cell phone, or just simply sit back in your chair, you can hear. Novo Restaurant in San Luis Obispo was the final stop on our Central Coast itinerary, and the sparkling wine, the Avocado Summer Roll the size of a burrito, and the Roasted Vegetable Sandwich were the perfect way to ease back toward LA.
If you take a long weekend to visit the Central Coast, or just a standard weekend to stay in Paso Somewhere along the westbound drive from the gently rocking and rolling hills of Paso Robles to the tiny coast town of Cayucos, you might start crying.
Or you might not. I don’t know how an escape to the Central Coast will affect you.
I just know that it will.
Where to Wine, Dine and Sleep in Paso Robles, Cayucos and San Luis Obispo
WINE IN PASO ROBLES
Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance
5805 Adelaida Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
1220 Park Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Halter Ranch Vineyard
8910 Adelaida Road
Paso Robles, CA 93446
2815 Live Oak Road
Paso Robles, CA
DINE IN PASO ROBLES
1401 Park Street
Paso Robles, California 93446
Thomas Hill Organics
1305 Park Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446
SLEEP IN PASO ROBLES
The Hotel Cheval
1021 Pine Street
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Cass House Luxury Inn & Restaurant
222 North Ocean Avenue
Cayucos, CA 93430
IN SAN LUIS OBISPO
726 Higuera Street
San Luis Obispo, CA
Thanks also to Chris and Shandi Kobayashi of Artisan Restaurant, Debbie Thomas of Thomas Hill Organics, Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure Winery, Amy Butler & the rest of the Rhone Rangers at Edward Sellers, Bill, Mitch & Leslie at Halter Ranch, Grace & Jensen at Cass House Inn, and the guys at Novo. You all were an amazing group of hosts and hostesses and we’re hoping to see you again soon.