Paso Robles deserves more love. This breathtaking part of California's Central Coast has historically been overshadowed by the state's other marquee wine regions: The siren call of Napa and Sonoma up north, and the fact that it's more than three hours by car from both Los Angeles and San Francisco, have generally been enough to keep it overwhelmed by its more famous neighbors.
But a recent trip, focused on the areas in and around Paso Robles, made it abundantly clear that the time for Paso's star turn has arrived. (And if their amazing recent ad campaign doesn't sway you, check your pulse.) Top wine producers here are turning out some truly remarkable juice, and the stereotypes that have for so long colored perceptions of the region's bottlings—ripe-fruited, high-alcohol bombs— no longer apply. The range of styles and expressions, across the gamut of varietals that grow so well here, is both unexpected and delicious. Paso does elegant just as well as it does powerful. And the top restaurants are taking full advantage of the abundance of fresh produce and meats, and crafting meals worthy of serious consideration.
For example, Artisan is a standout in Paso Robles. Executive chef and owner Chris Kobayashi is turning out exciting dishes like wild boar tenderloin with caramelized fennel risotto and a green garlic pistou that tastes like the coming of spring. It has actually seen so much success, that it's moving to a larger space in June. Il Cortile takes inspiration from Italy and makes it perfectly suited to the vibes and flavors of the Central Coast. Think lamb ravioli, paired with a local grenache from Austin Hope. And Thomas Hill Organics, the highly lauded wine bar and bistro not far down the road from Artisan, turns out a menu bursting with whimsy and intelligence. Chicken wing confit with a Sriracha glaze? I'll take seconds, thank you very much. (And I'll enjoy it with either a great local Rhone-style blend or one of the remarkable beers from Paso's Firestone Walker Brewery, which you should also visit for a tour and tasting.)
Sometimes, of course, you want to go straight to the source to see where your food comes from. For that, make an appointment at The Abalone Farm, Inc. It's been around since 1968, and is now the both the oldest and largest producer of California red abalone. Olivas de Oro (literally "golden olives") is helmed by master blender Frank Menacho, whose estate-bottled olive oils are nothing short of stunning. Pack light: You will need extra room in your suitcase for all the bottles you'll invariably go home with.
All of this great food demands impressive wines, of course. Fortunately, there is no shortage of that in Paso Robles. Longtime favorites like Tobin James are as excellent as ever, and their tasting room is one of the most fun I've ever visited. Tastings are free—they're that confident (justifiably) that you'll purchase what you taste. Steinbeck Vineyards and Winery, now in its seventh generation, offers a unique take on what the Central Coast is capable of, and if you have a chance to take a trip through the vines in their vintage jeep, jump at it. It's a ride you won't soon forget. Chateau Margene is a testament to the ever-climbing quality of wine from the Central Coast: Their cabernets and bordeaux-style blends are among the most complex, age-worthy wines I've tasted recently. Vina Robles is in the process of constructing an amphitheater that will host some of the best acts in the region. Aronhill Vineyards not only produces remarkable cabernet sauvignon and primitivo, among others, but lunch on their terrace overlooking the Templeton Gap is a must.
Even from my home base on the East Coast, getting there was easy: Philadelphia to Phoenix and then a quick hop to the San Luis Obispo airport. My recommendation is to book a room—La Bellasera was lovely and well-located—find a convenient flight, and get there as soon as possible. Paso Robles is still somewhat under the radar, but it won't be for long.