Napa, watch your back! We spent last weekend in Paso Robles and discovered that the erstwhile sleepy little pit stop off of the 101 has become a destination in its own right. Just a breezy couple of hours’ drive north and you’ve got all the fine dining and wining you could want for a weekend getaway.
We got a mid-morning start on Friday, piling Phyllis and her friend, Barb, into the car and threaded our way over the 154 where the yuccas are in bloom, signaling that spring is upon us. Once past Santa Maria on the 101 North, the view begins to open up and there is a temptation to toss it all aside for a seaside visit to Pismo or Avila Beach areas. But trust me, you will be rewarded if you stay on course to “The Pass of the Oaks”, which began its life as a city back in 1889.
No less a personage than concert pianist and Polish composer Ignace Jan Paderewski helped put Paso Robles on the map when he visited the area’s thermal springs in 1914 and later returned to purchase two ranches in the area. A statue of Paderewski stands in the town square and a music festival in his honor is one of a plethora of annual events that draw visitors to this vibrant community.
Our friends Pamela and Kirk drove separately and met us for lunch at Robert’s where the restaurant’s signature fish tacos were a big hit with the group. We discovered at lunch that it was Barb’s birthday and our waitress brought a free dessert to help us celebrate. Kirk and the CE were gallant escorts to us four ladies all weekend.
After lunch, we checked into our lodgings at the gracious Hotel Cheval. Each of the hotel’s sixteen rooms is beautifully appointed, and the in-town location meant that we could walk to dinner each evening. Staff members – especially Rob and Nam – were genuinely dedicated to making sure each guest had a perfect stay.
Kirk and Pamela had been to Paso before, and came armed with restaurant recommendations. At Bistro Laurent, the waiter advised us to “close our menus and let the chef surprise you”. The surprises were all happy ones, including the well-matched wine pairings, which began with a Domaine Vigneau Chevreau Vouvray Cuvee Silex Chenin Blanc and included “Troublemaker” by Austin Hope and a Tolosa 2010 Pinot Noir.
After dinner we had a modest cheese course which, of course, led to a discussion of everyone’s trips to France and the cherished fish forks that Pamela purchased there. Barb is an intrepid world traveler who has just returned from India and is about to set out on an adventure at sea, so she won the prize for best stories.
Saturday was wine-tasting day, with Kirk as tour director and the CE as our chauffeur. Phyllis and Barb demurred as they had plans to play bridge with friends from the area, and since Barb had brought along several bottles of wine from home, we knew they would not suffer.
Our first wine stop was the spectacularly-sited Daou Vineyards tasting room, built with no expense spared by the Daou brothers, who arrived in serene Paso Robles following a childhood spent in France after their family fled war-torn Lebanon. In the United States, the brothers built a successful computer-networking company which led to an IPO that provided the means to start Daou Vineyards. The centerpiece of the tasting room is a bar made from white onyx imported from Mexico; combined with the glorious setting, we found it a perfect place to taste their 2011 Grenache Blanc.
We also visited the Tablas Creek winery, where we agreed the wines were good but a bit overpriced. Then it was on to Justin Winery of “Isosceles” fame, and after that stop at Heron Wines where we were too “wined out” to taste but enjoyed a quick lunch.
After lunch, I was more interested in a nap than I was in more wine, but Kirk said we had one more important stop on our wine route. He guided us to the Lone Madrone and Kenneth Volk vineyards and the adjacent Fat Cat farm where we delighted in its assorted critters. We didn’t taste the wine,and we did not see the fat cat, but we had a nice visit with the goats, bunnies and chickens.
Dinner that night was at Artisan where we enjoyed wine flights and more good food.
Phyllis announced that we were not having dessert at Artisan because she wanted S’mores back at the hotel. As if Hotel Cheval had not already sufficiently wowed us, we had learned that in the evenings, the staff prepares complimentary S’mores in the courtyard’s outdoor fireplaces. They will even bring you a blanket if you’re cold! The marshmallows are homemade and come in flavors like vanilla bean, raspberry and coconut, and you have your choice of flavored Dove chocolates. The graham crackers? Well, they’re just ordinary graham crackers, but the experience itself was extraordinary – especially the part where we got to watch Phyllis and Pamela festoon themselves in melted chocolate.
We somehow all managed to be hungry again the next day and walked over to Thomas Hill Organics for a very nice brunch.
After brunch, we bid adieu to Kirk and Pamela, who headed home that afternoon. The CE, Barb, Phyllis and I stayed on to savor one last dinner at Il Cortile (where Barb and I enjoyed a very nice Pianetta Winery 2010 Barbera) and one last night at Hotel Cheval. I hope they keep those S’mores at the ready, because I’m pretty sure we’ll be back again soon!