I used to have a sign hanging in my kitchen – Bloom Where You’re Planted. It always reminded me that quality of life was in direct proportion to perspective. Being at peace with where I was made it that much easier to find the beauty around me. It’s always there if we look so I made it a practice to not wish my life away, wanting to be somewhere else. But it’s also nice to have a little getaway now and then – to experience something different and learn about new things. It was with that in mind that we recently headed up the Pacific Coast Highway (320 miles and 5 hrs) to the sweeping, pastoral grandeur of Paseo Robles and its impressive wine region.
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the area known as the Central Coast Region, Paso Robles has become a wine and food lovers delight and destination. The Santa Lucia Mountain Range causes the climate to provide nearly perfect growing conditions for the grapes and I can attest to its delicious hot dry days and cool crisp nights – perfect for exploring, dining and sleeping. Is there anything better?
Once best known for cattle and grain, the land surrounding Paso Robles is now almost exclusively dedicated to grapes and orchards filled with precision plantings of walnut, olive and almond trees. There is an overwhelming feeling of orderliness that is at once calming and satisfying. The smaller vineyards also give one the sense that somehow we’ve stumbled into a privileged and well-kept secret. Lucky us. Intimate restaurants with an eye towards culinary excellence have cropped up all around the charming area and are poised to compliment these wonderful vineyards that are no doubt giving Napa a run for the money. Lovely to have an intelligent conversation with the Vineyard representatives and not have people jammed up eight-deep at the tasting bar.
The number of wineries in the area is staggering – over 200, and they are all tucked into the country roads that wind through the pristine rolling hills. All offer tastings and tours of their facilities, a fee for which is waived if a purchase is made. I readily admit to being a “common sewer of wine,” and I fully expected that most of the “tastings” would be lost on me. But with a little coaching from our most knowledgable guide and new BFF, Michael Garcia, even I began to appreciate the subtle differences between a Sauvignon or a Grenache.
Winemaking is a fascinating blend of art and science and isn’t for the faint of heart or the investor looking to make a fast buck. It’s a labor of love that is anything but a poor man’s game when the vintner must wait for years for the vines to mature before knowing whether or not they can expect a drinkable harvest. Even then fickle mother nature can play havoc, with entire crops being lost to too much rain, not enough rain; too much heat, not enough heat; blights, molds, fungus and on and on.
An interesting example of the quality small vineyards found in the area is Halter Ranch – where in 2000 Swiss entrepreneur Hansjorg Wyss restored a 1,000 acre 19th century ranch. They now have 240 acres dedicated to twenty varieties of vines which are currently producing about 35,000 bottles a year. Their wine making process, with gleaming stainless steel vats and hoppers, is certified sustainable and is a green, state-of-the-art operation in every way. From energy to gravity to water and resource conservation to sourcing their oak barrels, every aspect of the estate is approached with scientific precision. Theirs is a very impressive 150 year plan.
Think the best olive oil has to come from Italy? Think again. Award winning Pasolivo Olive Oil farm boasts 6,000 organically farmed trees, olives from which are handpicked and pressed right on the property, usually in late November. We sampled exquisite oils made from the last harvest and silky and delicate flavors such as rosemary or citrus had our mouths watering for more. I was chomping at the bit to try some on pasta, which I certainly did upon our return home. Outstanding.
Although we found fine dining experiences a surprising norm, I must single out McPhee’s Grill in the nearby village of Templeton. The restaurant, in an old farm-house on the Main Street was an Outstanding Culinary Highlight. A simple salad of butter lettuce with ruby grapefruit, spicy carmalized nuts and port vinaigrette was followed by a macadamia nut encrusted halibut with a ginger sesame vinaigrette, cocoanut rice and asian slaw. Nothing exotic, just delicately and expertly executed by extraordinary chef Ian McPhee. Our dinners were paired with a 2005 Linne Calodo Zinfandel that had everyone at the table nodding with satisfaction – even me! I don’t have the vocabulary to describe our desert of apricot bread pudding with a warm anglaise. The menu touted it as one time won’t matter. Well, that’s not entirely true because honestly, it did matter. It was unforgettably, simply heaven.
After a week, we were happy to head back home where I’m now scouring my recipe books for all the new tastes we experienced, like the orange curd on our breakfast scones, and those delicate vinaigrettes I mentioned. In the next few weeks my kitchen will be blooming with the new tastes and flavors that I’m planting in my own kitchen – for today and for many years to come.