Unbeknownst to me, we picked up a travel writer a few weeks back. Our dear friend, Nancy from Castoro Cellars, just called to let us know that a friend of hers sent her this new article. Here’s the full text:
California’s Central Coast offers an alternative blend
By KRISTIN FINAN Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
April 30, 2010, 4:35PM
PASO ROBLES, CALIF. — Bless me, father, for I have zinned.
Until now, I had assumed zinfandel was nothing more than a blush-colored lightweight of a wine purchased by sorority girls seeking something a little classier than Boone’s Farm on a Saturday night.
But during a recent three-day weekend in California’s Central Coast wine country, I learned that while its white counterpart is better known, zinfandel is more often a hearty, peppery (and darn good) red that partners perfectly with a juicy steak.
I know what you’re thinking: Central Coast wine country? That’s right. Napa Valley may still be a mecca for wine lovers, but California has about a dozen distinct wine regions. Of them, Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, has in recent years gained a reputation among Californians as an alternative to Napa because its 200 wineries offer rich reds without pressure or pretense.
This laid-back little enclave of rolling hills, family-owned wineries and gourmet restaurants is used to being a pit stop for people traveling on Highway 101 to the state’s bigger, better-known attractions. When you visit, though, it’s easy to see San Luis Obispo County as a perfect weekend destination. The geography is reminiscent of parts of Ireland, with the lush green landscape bumping up against the severe coastline battered by crashing waves. The towns of Paso Robles and the nearby San Luis Obispo, where we stayed, are charming without being sleepy, thanks to the population of college students who demand late-night dining and drinking options. And our hotel, a quirky confection of a place called the Madonna Inn, would have been worth the trip itself.
The main draw, of course, is the wine. We dedicated Sunday to visiting the wineries and used a company called the Wine Line, a hop-on, hop-off shuttle service in Paso Robles that includes hotel pick-up and drop-off as well as transportation between the wineries. The service takes the guesswork out of finding each winery and eliminates the need to drive should you have a few too many glasses of wine.
During our tour, seven passengers used the van, each of us choosing the wineries we wanted to visit. Coordinating it all was manageable because most of the wineries were close to one another.
My husband and I like wine but aren’t particularly picky or knowledgeable about it, so we stuck to wineries that didn’t charge tasting fees or waived them if you purchased a bottle. (Some wineries charge $3-$10 for tastings). As we went from place to place, it was fascinating to see each winery’s personality emerge.
At Four Vines, which someone told us was run by “a crazy winemaker and his harem of anarchist women,” the vibe was lively, bordering on raucous. Tasting-room workers poured generous samples of the Biker, a strong, spicy zinfandel, and Heretic, a delicious, bold petite sirah, for groups that clustered around the long, dimly lit bar.
Rotta Winery, one of the first three wineries established in Paso Robles, is proud of its family history, and we heard stories that had been passed down through generations.
At the picturesque JanKris, the mood was more mellow. A cat napped on the tasting room floor as acoustic songs were piped from the speakers. I’m not a big dessert wine fan, but the sparkling almond was incredible — I can only imagine how delicious it would be with a dark chocolate dessert.
Many of the wineries offer outside seating areas so you can look out at the vineyards, which stretch into the nearby hills.
In addition to the vineyard views, the scenery of San Luis Obispo County can be spectacular. Stop on the side of Highway 1 and watch the foaming waves pound the rocky shore, or hike to the top of Montaña de Oro State Park’s 1,347-foot Valencia Peak and be rewarded with a 360-degree vista.
Perhaps it was the views that prompted William Randolph Hearst to ask architect Julia Morgan to help him “build a little something” on his property in nearby San Simeon in 1919. The result was the sprawling Hearst Castle, now a popular area tourist attraction managed by the California State Parks system.
As you stroll past the sparkling Neptune Pool, through the 18-room Casa Del Sol guesthouse or have a seat in the theater inside the main house, you can almost picture guests like Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney milling around after a tennis match.
Our base for the trip was San Luis Obispo, a city of 50,000 that is also home to California Polytechnic State University. As a result, the town brims with character, offering blocks of shops, galleries, restaurants and nightlife options. One of my favorite meals was breakfast at Louisa’s Place, a hole-in-the-wall with a huge selection including bacon waffles (bits of bacon are mixed into the batter), biscuits and gravy, and 27 types of omelets.
Another remarkable meal came from the Gold Rush Steak House at the Madonna Inn, where we stayed. The restaurant is decorated entirely in pink and features a 28-foot gold tree fixture in the middle of the main dining room. The food, however, was the attraction, with juicy steaks, hearty sides and soft rolls the perfect cap to a long day of wine tasting.
The rooms at the Madonna Inn are just as unique, each featuring a different theme. Our room, the Matterhorn, was filled with Alps-related touches, from an authentic cow bell near the door to a stained glass window of the Swiss Alps to an oil painting of — you guessed it — a mountain. At times the themes made it appear as though we had stumbled onto the set of Tim Burton’s next blockbuster.
But overall we found the Madonna Inn, with all its quirks, to be much like the Central California coast — charming, entertaining and ripe for visitors.
Until the next drop!
The Wine Line