Creative Nonfiction


Wine Tasting in Paso Robles

By Elizabeth Cutright

It was a last minute decision based on a coastline socked in with fog and the availability of a spacious minivan able to hold up to eight wine loving ladies. We’d all travelled to Cambria – a woodsy artist community on California’s central coast located about 4 hours north of Los Angeles – to celebrate the 4th of July weekend. Some of us were regular visitors, others were locals getting reacquainted with their old stopping grounds. A couple of complete newbies with eager hearts and voracious appetites for adventure added the final dashes of spice to the mix. On this particular Saturday, our plans for leisurely day at the beach were unceremoniously thwarted by a chilly, overcast morning. A quick call to Hearst State Beach, known as “the cove” to locals, confirmed our fears – the sun had called in sick and terminated any chance of sunshine 20 miles along the coast in either direction.

First just a whispered suggestion, the idea for wine tasting suddenly gained momentum. A full tank of gas later, navigating Highway 46 on our way to the heart of central coast wine country. As we topped the first hill and descended into the valley, “June-gloom” fog melted away, replaced by warm, heavy air, perfumed with the sent of oak trees and lavender.

Paso Robles evolved from a sleepy town – spiced with the annual arrival of the California Mid-State Fair – into a vintners paradise. Over 150 wineries dote the rolling hills that undulate from edge of the Pacific Ocean to the flat lands of California’s central valley; the climate deal for a hearty Zinfandels and Syrahs. Most of the wineries are small set ups – often family run – focusing on one or two varietals and a short list of selections.

On our trip we stopped at four establishments, all quirky in their own way, and each offering different versions of one varietals, allow us to enjoy the wide range of flavors that can come from one tiny little grape. Unlike Napa and Santa Barbara – big players in the international wine scene and now tourist destinations in their own right (thanks to Sideways) – the wineries of the central coast feel less like stores focused on selling a product, and more a like a local hang out interested in inspiring visitors to explore the wines they produce. This difference becomes quite defined when it comes to tasting fees, which are often at least a couple of dollars less than the $15 average that reigns in Santa Ynez. At a couple of our stops, the tasting room manager waived off our money and asked us to just enjoy the tastings.

I am a huge fan of the Santa Ynez valley and the local wineries located there, but I was surprised at how the relaxed feel in Paso Robles allowed me to really “sink my teeth” into the wines and absorb all the flavor and possibility. I didn’t feel as if I’d just ponied up to a bar to order a shot, I felt like I was visiting a friend of friend for a piece of pie. Ultimately, many people in our party bought two or more bottles, and the pourers “comped” our tasting fee altogether. This is apt to happen once in a while in Napa, but I’ve yet to get the same treatment in Santa Barbara (where, in one famous incident, a friend bought a case of wine for her wedding, but the winery still asked us to pay “up front” for the tasting and then hunted us down for the glasses as we strolled the property).

As for the wines themselves, I won’t pretend that I am expert enough to satisfy the true connoisseur with my assessment. For the most part, I found my faith in the Syrah upheld and expanded. It’s a grape that can often serve as a canary in a goldmine: If the Syrah is good, chances are some of the other, more complex wines will also be up to par. What truly excited me though were the Central Coast Zinfandels. I will admit to a personal prejudice against the noble Zin, in part because of White Zinfandel’s budget reputation and association – in my mind at least – with little old ladies and high school party punch gone horrible wrong.  But Paso Robles Zins change my tune, and it’s now become a favorite choice for wine and cheese get-togethers and cozy, rainy night libations.

Four wineries in one day is a good start, but with some many locales to choose from, I doubt even the most seasoned wine taster could get bored in Paso Robles. In addition, at several of the wineries we visited were set up with picnic benches and a picnic friendly atmosphere. One winery in particular offered up some end of the afternoon chardonnay (whites are still far and few between in the area), chilled and ready to give a final, flavorful note to an end-of-day picnic.

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