With prices and crowds in Napa and Sonoma out of control these days, Paso Robles is the California wine country destination you need to visit.
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is known for pushing the boundaries in wine creation and always serving up something new and innovative. It also boasts a more affordable sip and savor experience, where you can taste great wine and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants for about half the price of Napa.
With Highway 1 on one side and the 101 on the other, Paso Robles is an unpretentious small town made up of cowboys, surfers, innovators, and winemakers. It also offers easy beach access and the opportunity to visit more than 300 wineries. I recently spent three nights in Paso Robles. Here are my picks for how to experience it yourself.
DAOU was hands-down my favorite wine tasting experience in Paso Robles. The winery has a large tasting room with indoor and outdoor seating. I recommend booking outdoors. Set atop a mountain, the views are as impressive as the varieties.
Owned by two brothers who immigrated from Lebanon in the 1980s, DAOU is known for its big reds. The vineyard was one of the first to introduce Cabernet clones to Paso Robles and today is famous for its world class Cabernet Sauvignons. The Soul of a Lion is their signature bottle and included in the house wine tasting flight. Curated wine and culinary pairings are what to try here, and the Middle Eastern inspired dishes are delicious.
Another top tasting experience in the Paso area is at Tablas Creek Vineyard. It was the first winery in the world to earn the coveted international Regenerative Organic certification. It was also the first to introduce Rhone grapes to Paso.
Founded by the esteemed Chateau Beaucastel family in France's Châteauneuf du Pape, Tablas offers mixed, red and white tastings. These are served in two flights of three, each including their flagship Esprit de Tablas. Tastings are just $25 per person and the fee is waived with a two-bottle purchase.
Copia Vineyards & Winery is set on 26 acres of gorgeous landscape and specializes in Rhone and Bordeaux varietals that have dense, opulent flavors. Also pay a visit to Kukkula Winery. An organic dry farm vineyard, the wines are intensely aromatic with rich color and flavor.
For something slightly different head to Kiler Ridge for olive oil tasting. The family owned and operated far produces superior California extra virgin olive oil and offers tastings. I loved how fresh the different varieties taste and how each had a unique flavor.
Michelin Starred Dining
For such a small town, Paso has quite the dining scene. It has two Michelin star restaurants along with three others recommended by Michelin in its most recent guide.
Six Test Kitchen is the town’s most decorated restaurant, earning Michelin stars two years in a row. Open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday, the tiny restaurant serves a beautifully curated, multi-course menu with one nightly seating.
Dishes are assembled on a pristine stainless-steel counter, and each comes out looking like a work of art. Six Test Kitchen is in Paso’s Tin City neighborhood. Even if you don’t dine at Test Kitchen, it’s worth visiting Tin City just to stroll. Featuring modern industrial-style buildings, it’s entirely walkable and home to more than 20 small-production wineries, distilleries and breweries.
The Restaurant at Justin Winery is Paso’s latest Michelin starred affair. The dishes here are created from fresh, seasonal ingredients grown on the 26-acre farmstead where it’s located. Pair your multi-course tasting menu with their wines.
In Bloom, which earned a Michelin-mention recently, was one of my favorite dining experiences in Pasos. The cuisine is modern Californian, and you can choose from a six-course tasting menu or order a la carte. The food comes out beautifully plated and the ambiance is equally appealing.
The focus at The Hatch is on poultry with fried, rotisserie and roasted chicken all on the menu. For fried chicken you’ll want to visit on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when they fry until it’s sold out. Besides chicken, The Hatch serves American comfort fare including shared plates like hot skillet cornbread and pimento cheese dip with pickles and grilled toast.
If you are craving Italian, check out Il Cortile. It serves a seasonal, rustic Italian fine-dining menu with locally sourced ingredients. The homemade pastas are divine. They also do excellent fresh seafood.
And then there is breakfast. For this meal, I loved the classic American diner and comfort fare at Vic’s Café. Prices were fair and the eggs were cooked just right. The sausage gravy on hashbrowns was another menu modification I enjoyed.
The trippiest sunset experience is Light at Sensorio. The work of internationally acclaimed artist Bruce Munro, it features two light installations. Field of Light is a multi-acre walk-through experience and Munro’s largest artwork in the world. It has more than 100,000 stemmed spheres lit by fiber optics that illuminate the landscape in subtle blooms of changing colors, making the rolling hill landscape appear as a psychedelic field of undulating flowers.
The second installation is the Light Towers that celebrates Paso’s wine country with 69 towers made from more than 17,000 wine bottles illuminated with glowing optic fibers. The colors also change and are paired to music.
Most people arrive just before sunset to catch the fire show with a few drinks from the onsite bar and snacks like a cheese and charcuterie board. After the last bits of light fade to darkness, it is time to stroll through the light fields.
Where to Stay
The Piccolo is a great sleeping option. The boutique hotel has just 24 rooms and suites and is in the heart of downtown. Rooms are spacious and very comfy – I loved the mattresses and pillows. All have thoughtful modern design that also incorporates the region’s wine country heritage.
Head up to the rooftop bar for a craft cocktail or a glass of vino after a day out exploring. The Piccolo is also dog-friendly.
How to Get to Paso Robles
You can fly into San Luis Obispo on several airlines, including United, American and Alaska. There are direct flights from Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. The airport is about 30 minutes from Paso Robles. Amtrak also stops in Paso Robles on its Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight routes.