Take the Cure in Paso Robles
CREATORS NEWS SERVICE
Story and photos by John Blanchette
It was the first day of spring and I was headed 200 miles north
on Rte. 1, to visit the third largest and fastest growing wine region in
California, Paso Robles. The Pacific Ocean’s salt air and the warm sun flowed in from the coves
and bays as my convertible sped toward the Central Coast wine country,
lying half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A profusion of
spring wild flowers, including yellow mustard and orange poppies, sprang
from the green rolling hills, newly freshened by the winter rains.
I was headed to the Annual Zinfandel Festival, California’s
signature grape and America’s contribution to the world of fine wines.
Like America itself, the grape is brash, bold and approachable. The
likeable wine makes friends quickly, is drinkable within two years of
bottling and doesn’t improve with age.
The town of El Paso de Robles (“Pass of the Oaks”) sits behind coastal
mountains, lightly dotted by giant California oak trees, growing at
respectful distances from each other.
The area was once covered by an inland sea, accounting for the
calcium-laden rock that characterizes the land. Volcanic activity over
the years added lush, red mineral compounds to the mix, which gives the
produce and grapes their special flavors. The best tomatoes in
California are also born in these soils.
City Park, the center of life in Paso Robles.
Grapes were first brought to the area by Spanish missionaries who needed sacramental wine to conduct mass, but the modern history of El Paso de
Robles begins after California was annexed from Mexico in the mid 1800s.
It was noticed early on that the hot mineral springs had curative
powers. Indian tribes were the first to enjoy the baths, then
missionaries, and when the Spanish and Mexicans were kicked out in the
mid 1800s, stagecoach routes began stopping in Paso Robles to refresh.
In 1861 the first bathhouse was erected and the town soon incorporated.
Frank and Jesse James visited in 1867 so Jesse could take the curing
sulfur baths and heal his bullet wounds, before going back to their
With the development of the spa crowd, inns and bathhouses started
springing up, most notably the El Paso de Robles Inn. In 1891, after two
years of construction and $160,000 in costs, the new inn was one of the
most beautiful in America. Unfortunately, like many of the grand resorts, spas and bathhouses built
in the 1800s; fire was the main nemesis of these spectacular
structures. In 1941 El Paso de Robles met its demise in a raging
inferno started by a discarded cigarette.
Like other victims, she rose from the ashes, rebuilt as a modern inn,
never to regain her former Victorian splendor. But the healing waters
of the hot sulfur springs remain at the inn, lending their enduring and
discernable aroma to the modern day atmosphere.
With the developing affluence from the tourism and spa trade, Victorian
homes were built for the wealthy merchants and landowners. The bucolic
City Park with its covered bandstand is at the center of the historic
brick and stone faced town. At the turn of the century lovely
Craftsman-style bungalows started adding to the Norman Rockwell charm. Paso Robles remains a friendly country town to this day, despite its
spas, festivals and world-class vineyards drawing thousands from around
the world. A surprising number of Europeans have also invested in the
area, notably winemakers and restaurant owners, bringing a
cosmopolitanism blend to the western ambience.
In 1914 Polish pianist, populist and former Prime Minister, Ignace
Paderewski, visited Paso Robles to take the mineral springs cure for his
aching hands, abused by his world concert tour. He found relief in a
matter of days and was so enthralled by the town that he continued to
visit over the next 30 years, buying two properties, one which he
planted with Zinfandel grapes, introduced to the area in 1882.
Zinfandel’s origin is most probably the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia and
originally came to the United States with Italian wine growers from the
southern area of Puglia, Italy in the 1860s. But it is in America where
this wine variety made its name. It enjoys a cult following, launching
its own fan club (ZAP: Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) and every
third week in March, Paso Robles honors the grape with its own festival.
This year 52 wineries offered tastings of nearly two hundred wines.
They ranged in flavors from delicately balanced Pinot Noir want-a-best to
major flavor bomb show-offs. But there was no mistaking the nose and
bold aromas of this true American treasure in all the wines sampled.
Some of my favorites were Opolo, David Hunt, Bianchi, Christian Lazo,
Eberle, Four Vines, Chateau Margene, Kenneth Volk, RN Estates (which
also produces a spectacular late harvest Viognier that has the aroma of
bananas), Sextant and Steinbeck. Cindy Steinbeck-Newkirk, a sixth
generation Paso Roblean and town historian, conducts the Wine Education
Adventure classes at her vineyard.
There are 26,000 acres of grapes, 40 varieties and 210 wineries in Paso
Robles, most of which have tasting rooms, usually open between 10 a.m.
and 5 p.m. daily. The wine country is astonishingly beautiful,
especially on the Westside. Most of the vineyards are within a 20 mile
radius and easy to find and visit.
The heat of the day draws fog in from the ocean in the late afternoon,
crawling over the hills and dramatically cooling the land on a daily
basis. (It was 73 degrees on March 20th and 41 degrees that night). A
long growing season that can last from bud break in March to harvest in
November, also contributes to the spectacular complexity of the wines.
One of the most beautiful vineyards is Carmody McKnight, situated at the
western edge of the appellation in some of the areas richest soils.
The tasting room guards a tree-shaded pond and is surrounded by the
vineyard. Owner Gary Conway is a renaissance man. A film and television
actor, writer and producer, he is also an internationally recognized
artist and his work is featured on the tasting room walls.
They also grace his wine bottles and have consistently won the wine
label competitions at the Annual California Wine Festival. His wife and
co-proprietor Marian is a former Miss America and an excellent chef,
and his daughter Kathleen runs the winery.
The day I visited their friend Brad Buckley, owner of the nearby Abalone
Farm, was barbecuing some of his product. They were buttery, with the
texture and taste of refined scallops and perfect with Gary’s minerally
IF YOU GO:
There are many wonderful places to wine and dine in Paso Robles. Some
of my favorites were Artisan, whose owner was a manager for the Rolling
Stones and Def Leppard, Bistro Laurent for the best French food in town,
Thomas Hill Organics, a bistro featuring local produce (and the best
tomatoes in California), Panolivo is casual gourmet, Villa Creek for
California cuisine and Kaleidoscope Lounge is a comfortable wine bar.
There are a number of fine olive oil producers in the area including
Gary Conway’s Carmody McKnight Winery, Olio Nuevo, and Pasolivo. We
Olive on Park Street is a shop devoted to the product.
If you have a sweet tooth don’t miss Powell’s Sweet Shoppe on the corner of City Park.
There is a saying in town that it takes a lot of beer to produce a good
wine and Firestone Brewery is helping the industry. Tap room opens from
Noon to 7 p.m. daily. For a good pint visit the Crooked Kilt on Park
Accommodations range from chain motels to bed & breakfasts, country
inns and luxury hotels. I stayed at La Bellasera Hotel & Suites, a
Tuscan styled facility with a restaurant devoted to wine pairings
(Enoteca) and a spa.
For guided tours The WineYard Tour will take you into the heart of wine
country and Wine Wrangler will take you to the tasting rooms as your
There are two other major wine festivals, held the third weekends of May
and October, and the monthly Central Coast Magazine is a good source
For information on tasting rooms and wineries contact the Paso Robles
Wine Country Alliance, www.pasowine.com. For information on Paso Robles,
accommodations, restaurants, festivals, tours, etc. www.travelpaso.com.
John Blanchette is a freelance travel writer, television producer and owns a public relations company in Santa Monica, CA.