When I used to drive through Paso Robles on my way to college in Santa Barbara in the 80s, it was a podunk farm town. I’d sometimes stop for gas there and then quickly be on my way. But now? Now Paso Robles has come into its own. To be fair, it’s been “becoming” for the last decade at least and lately it’s even more on the map that ever. Visitors come from far and wide to visit Paso Robles for wine and so much more.
Situated just the right distance from the Central California Coast and nestled among rolling hills, Paso Robles is perfect for growing grapes. During the summer, days here get really hot – topping 100 degrees. And then the evenings chill down considerably, sometimes blanketed with a coating of foggy marine layer. Turns out these are ideal conditions for growing the kind of grapes that make award-winning wines, and Paso Robles has done a darn fine job developing its viticulture. The wines from this area are simply superb, and they are particularly well known for Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
There’s a whole lot more to Paso Robles now that when I first whizzed through in my beat up old Toyota Celica. Back then I didn’t give it a passing thought. Now Paso Robles is a top destination on my road trip list, and we were excited to visit recently with a whole different mindset.
Visit Paso Robles for Wine – and a Whole Lot More
I knew Paso (as the locals call it) had become popular, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much so. We were lucky to get rooms at the much-nicer-than-you-would-think La Quinta Inn on the edge of downtown. When we pulled into the hotel to settle in for a couple of days, the parking lot was packed and the lobby had a line at the check-in counter. Good for them, I thought as I noted the wine selection for sale in the small sundry shop. (Incidentally, the management here has some pretty fine taste in wine judging from the offerings in the gift shop!)
As we settled into our surprisingly large suites, it was already clear to us that Paso Robles is a pretty unique animal. It’s like a wonderful combination of country farmers and city slickers. The people who tend the vineyards and coax the temperamental grapes to just the right balance are wonderfully expert and willing to share their knowledge. The folks drawn here to complement these fine vintages are now top-notch chefs, designers, architects, surfers, gentleman farmers and more. The visitors come to spend their money and enjoy the bounty this area has to offer, and we joined right in.
We were so charmed by this happy combination of people that all those old images of cowboys and dusty pickups went right out the window.
Well, almost. The cowboys and dusty pickups are still here too but they’re somehow kinder and more worldly than I remember them.
So Much to See and Do in Paso Robles
Yes, of course you visit Paso Robles for the wine. There are more than 200 wineries here, dotting the back country roads and shady lanes that wind between the hills. Wine tasting is an art here, and it reminded me of what Napa Valley used to be like. Small batch wineries making delicious wines from grapes grown in their own vineyards and served in the family barn. The most sophisticated of them having tasting rooms, outdoor gardens, live music, wedding venues, and more. And even still, there is a small-town, family charm to these operations that seems anything but Big City.
Visiting a winery, you are likely to drive up the gravel road and wave to the winery owner ambling by on his tractor. The winemaker might well be the woman pouring you a taste of her favorite bottle. There is a romance to this place. Its chirping crickets and oak-dappled heat just makes you slow down and take a big, relaxing breath. And a nice big slosh of wine as a chaser.
If you’re visiting for the wines, there is a long list of options. Check here for a list of wineries in Paso Robles.
We stopped into Castoro Cellars for a tasting, sitting in the shade under a big oak tree and looking out over the vineyards. This is one of the heritage wineries here and we must have tasted 7 different wines, each one delicious. By the time we finished, there were 4 bottles lined up for us to take home. We particularly loved the Petit Sirah and the Rose.
Paso Robles is So Much More
Yes, let’s agree we all must visit Paso Robles for the wines. Even though we love wine, most folks can’t do that all day long every day for days on end. There are plenty of other amazing things to see and do in Paso Robles beyond enjoying their wines. We’ve created a short list of things to keep you occupied while here that stretch beyond their delicious libations.
Downtown Paso Robles is a charming historic village that surrounds a bustling square and Downtown City Park. Like many towns settled in the late 1800s, Paso Robles began its modest start with an impressive set of buildings surrounding this square. Now home to a lively and creative set of businesses, downtown is thriving. Anywhere along the square and the streets connecting it, there are fun restaurants, wine tasting rooms, galleries, shops, hotels and more.
In the center square, the park is filled with points of interest. A band stand sits ready to entertain with live music, serenading guests and locals sitting on benches or lawns nearby. On the side, there are several horseshoe pits and some folks playing cards and chess at square tables. In the center is the historic old Carnegie Public Library Building, built in 1908 and now on the Register of Historic Places. The building is impressive and draws a crowd of photographers and selfie takers. The whole are is really nice for a stroll in the day or evening, and appears to be very safe.
Where there is good wine, there is good food. Chefs from around the country are attracted to Paso Robles because the wine culture has drawn good palates here. For the last several years, new restaurants have popped up serving a variety of interesting cuisines. We had an amazing meal at La Cosecha, which offers Latin-inspired menus with a California twist. (We loved the craft cocktails here too!)
One morning, we ventured out for breakfast off the square at Cowgirl Cafe . It was funky and authentically local – nothing fancy. If you go do not skip the hash browns or the biscuits. For lunch check out Habeneros Mexican Grill for the largest servings of traditional Mexican food we have seen outside of Mexico itself. Family owned and operated, this sweet little restaurant is really putting its heart into it. We can’t wait to go back for those quesabirria tacos and barbacoa. Prepare for a wait to eat here though, since the place is tiny and its popularity continues to grow.
When we are in Paso Robles next, we want to try Jeffrey’s Wine Country BBQ. We’ve heard amazing things about their Smoked Brisket Mac & Cheese and Slow Smoked Pork Belly Ribs and want to sample them for ourselves. Stay tuned for an update on that.
Olive Oil Tasting
Yes there is plenty of wine tasting going on in Paso Robles, but did you know you can taste olive oils too? We did not realize there were so many nuanced flavors and textures in extra virgin olive oils, but we are now educated. Thanks to a wonderful visit to Kiler Ridge Olive Farm, we learned what fresh, high quality olive oil really tastes like.
Our wonderful “guide” Mary took us through a tasting of 6 different olive oils, each with a different flavor profile. We learned how to taste it properly, and then how to discern the discreet notes of flavor – just like wine! Afterwards they even served us a little dessert – a cup of vanilla bean ice cream topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. Amazingly delicious!
Just up the road from Paso Robles is Lake Nacimiento, a man-made reservoir with boating and fishing nestled in the foothills. We’ve visited here many times with family who own a boat here, and the lake is a refreshing break from the area’s summer heat. Visitors can rent all sorts of water craft, and the lake allows waterskiing/wakeboarding/wakesurfing, jet skis, tubing, fishing, swimming and more. There is a campground right along the beach that is nearly always booked far in advance, and a sweet little resort topping the hill that overlooks the lake.
One of the highlights we’ve enjoyed here is watching the bald eagles. Yes, bald eagles – lots of them. One day on the boat, we witnessed an eagle swoop down to the water, catch a fish in its talons and fly away with her lunch. We were so amazed we could not even get our cameras in place before it was gone.
Word of wisdom: bring your own food or wait until you are back in Paso Robles to eat. There is not much up this way, and we’re not impressed with the few places we’ve tried.
Just west along the coast, San Simeon is the home to the famous Hearst Castle. If you have an extra day, the hour drive from Paso Robles is completely worth it. Hearst Castle is a giant example of wealth from days gone by. William Randolph Hearst, heir to the Hearst Newspapers which began in San Francisco, built this gigantic estate and grounds as a retreat. You can read more about visiting Hearst Castle and its tours in our blog post here.
If you plan to go, do book your tickets well in advance. Tours fill up quickly, and times are staggered to accommodate the many visitors.
If You Visit Paso Robles for Wine and More
If we’ve piqued your curiosity to visit Paso Robles and now you simply must go, start your plan by visiting the tourism bureau website at TravelPaso.com.