After spending a week in the Bay Area and Napa Valley in April 2021, I headed south to the Central Coast of California. I have family friends in San Luis Obispo at Pismo Beach specifically and had never been to the proper Central Coast Area, furthest south from the Bay I been is Monterrey Bay/ Carmel area. I knew about this region from…wine. Paso Robles located a short 25 minute drive from San Luis Obispo Airport is home to a bustling scene of wineries. I learned of it from drinking Austin Hope 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon at my local Atlanta wine shop. The region’s wines are comparable to Napa and Sonoma for a fraction of the cost and the scenery here is just as beautiful. In my short 2 day visit I also visited the many random but charismatic small towns the form the distinct landscape and charm of the Central Coast. From Wild West towns to an entire Danish village, and the many rolling vineyards in between. Oh and the miles of white sand beaches and ocean views. The weather is cool, dry and coastal. And people all round laidback and friendly.
Paso Robles Wine Country
Almost all wineries in Paso Robles can be booked online trough their respective website, most often they will redirect you to Tock or another booking platform. Tastings here are cheap, usually around $25-$45, higher end ones like Daou have a bigger range in tastings, but their starting one is $90, but it comes with a very filling Mezze plate to eat and pair with the wines. All, or at least the ones I looked up and visited, waive the fee with purchase. The area has a West and East side, separated by downtown Paso Robles. I spent my time on the West as thats where the majority of the wineries I wanted to go were, including my visit to Austin Hope. The area is not just known for the wine. There are a lot of breweries too. I stopped at Firestone Brewery in between wineries for a lunch and a beer flight. Highly recommend. At the time of my visit, they were not doing tours or full tastings, but I think with reopening that has changed now.
For Paso Robles region I recommend hiring a driver as well, as there is quite a distance between some wineries. Lyft and Uber have a region specific wine and uber option, that essentially is booking a designated driver for the day. I also recommend staying at least one night. There are a ton of options in the area. High end there is Hotel Cheval, which is famous for its S’Mores butler. But there are also lots of smaller boutique inns and bed and breakfast, and true to its historic Western identity, lots of motels many of which now rennovated. There are also many AirBnB options like staying in airstreams, luxe tents out in the farmlands. All to suit your tastes. I stayed at Summerwood Inn, an inn located on and run by Summerwood Winery. Highly recommended. Top notch and personalized service, rate includes breakfast, free bottle of wine, an afternoon snack and wine.
Now for the wineries. The wineries here based on what I experienced, do things more commercialized style, where either someone comes around and pours, quickly explains then runs off to another group, or they pour all and explain briefly and then let you taste. But, they are all more than happy to answer any questions or explain further. Once things reopen many do tour their facilities and have more tasting options.
Daou Winery, founded by two Lebanese-French brothers who immigrated to France due to the Lebanon Civil War then decided to immigrate to the U.S. to continue to develop wines. They found the perfect limestone soil, which allows them to only water the grapes 2-3 times a year since limestone retains water, and this is most similar to Bordeaux. The tasting room is perched atop the highest point on the estate overlooking their vineyards and all the valley of Paso Robles. It is beautiful and worth a visit just for the views alone.
The wines over all are just ok in my opinion. They arent bad and their signature Soul of a Lion Cabernet is quite good, and has a very lovely background story to its name (dedicated to the founders’ father who went through thick and thin). But just not quite on par with the hype surrounding it. It is definitely more a place for the gram. But I was so impressed with the very tasty mezze platter that came with our tasting. The cool thing about the Cabernet tasting I did was you get to try the varietals from an experimental vineyard where they plant grape varietals from different parts of the world to see how they change and develop in Paso Robles and then the winemaker decides and make it into his final blend, and if one does well they plant more. Got to try 4 different ones, Argentina, Spain, California and Bordeaux.
This winery was founded by a French winemaker who was sick and tired of the wine regulations in France and came out here to experiment. I chose this due to multiple rave reviews and guides recommending it. People were friendly, welcoming and eager to explain the wines. To be honest, I was not impressed with the wines here. If you are a general fan of Rhone style wines, perhaps give it a try.
Austin Hope Family Wines
Hope family started off as hay/cattle farm, then grandson Austin, took on the task to develop it into wine after his grandfather decided they wanted to go into that, but grandfather passed away before it could be realized. Austin’s kids are in college/ high school and help with the estate. It still is one of my favorite Cabernet Sauvignon. We tried around 6 pours plus the welcome pour of Sauvignon Blanc. Most were fantastic, a few missed the mark. The Cabernet, both regular and reserve, Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc were my favorites. The tasting room is also very nicely designed, and I appreciated the way they did the outdoor tastings during COVID, with little “living rooms” separated by hedges and plants. Many of the seating areas overlooked the vineyards.
Pismo Beach is on the coast of San Luis Obispo area. It has a historic small downtown area that extends to its boardwalk. Think quainter, less developed, more local version of the likes of Venice Beach or Santa Monica. Lots of public pedestrian paths that dot the cliff side waterfront that leads you to the main beach and boardwalk. Most waterfront properties are hotels but they have designated public and private walkways so everyone can enjoy the beautiful scenery. From the drops of the cliff and sandy beaches is the Pacific Ocean and right behind are the tall mountains and rolling hills that form the landscape of the region.
There is the Oceano Sand Dunes, you can drive and camp on this massive beach with sand dunes. Driving through felt like I had entered the likes of Mad Max. Lots of surfers in the water as well. Many public hiking trails throughout the various hills and mountains. Some popular spots for food are Old West Cinnamon Rolls which I did not get to try on this trip. Splash Cafe for no frills burgers, which I also didnt try. A nice spot we had dinner at with beautiful sunset views is Marisol at the Cliffs. Must order their insane nachos. The famous dish in the area is Clam Chowder even though over fishing of local clams has caused the government to ban anyone from fishing clams here.
Los Alamos and Los Olivios
A 40 min or so drive south of Pismo Beach in the valleys of the region is Los Alamos. A small and quaint town with a main “downtown” area with a few historic Western Frontier buildings still intact and operational. Specifically The Union Hotel and Saloon, a functioning bar and event space that was unfortunately closed on Easter, the day I chose to visit.
Further south, and you can take a quick detour through more vineyards and farm lands tucked away in the valleys and hills, is Los Olivios. Another small town with one main street. This area also houses a lot of historic buildings that used to be a variety of local businesses, merchants and inns but has now been taken over by tasting rooms, unfortunately. There are still a handful of local boutiques and even a very nice art gallery that you should visit and support. I would say, dont do the tastings here. Have a lunch or snack at Los Olivios Wine Merchant, the baked brie is quite good. They also have one of the most extensive selections of Central Coast wines I have ever seen, a great pit stop to grab a bottle or learn a bit more about the wines of the region.
Solvang, California, the Danish Capital of America, founded by 3 Danish immigrants in the early 1900s. I kid you not, it feels a bit like Disneyland. The architecture is truly Nordic/European. But the tourist crowds and shops selling Danish/Nordic foods and goods give it this weird yet magical vibe. It most definitely does not feel natural to have such a town pop up in this climate or region. But there is actually history to it, and it was not intended to be a tourist attraction but rather to bring Danish culture and home vibes with the immigrants and founders. I can only imagine how magical it would be to visit during Christmas though! This place is worth a stop for sure. Its quirky, unique, definitely transports you to another country, and in some corners really quite beautiful.
I spent a very short 3 nights and 2 full days in the area. But I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed it. Its got a lot of charm and charisma and I really love all the small towns that dot highway 101 that takes your through the hills and valleys. The air is fresh, crisp, dry and comfortable. The scenery is beautiful and picturesque with mountains and sea all in one frame. The food is fresh and mostly tasty. And you can taste and enjoy incredible wine for a fraction of Napa/ Sonoma up north for an equally wonderful tasting experience. I will be back and next time may stay overnight in one of the smaller towns like Solvang, and I have been told I need to check out Santa Barbara as well.