The stark taupe landscape stretched in front of us with an occasional gnarled oak tree juxtaposed within the dusty earth. After months of quarantining, we felt as desolate as the barren landscape but decided to find out how several California vintners were handling the “new normal”. What new parameters are in place for those who like us were eager to get back to wine country although challenged with restrictions, mandates, and masks? This trip would answer some of our COVID concerns. What were the winemakers, hoteliers, and restaurateurs doing to pivot through the continuing demands and changes? As the beige rolling hills stretched along the highway, we soon would enter California’s premier wine region of Paso Robles California.
Once closer to the coast, miles of grapevines soon appeared on the horizon, sun glinting off the verdant leaves of the gnarled grapevines. El Paso de Robles means “the pass of the oaks “in Spanish. Several regions of the AVA are protected from the maritime influences of the Pacific Ocean, which then gives way to the sun-drenched, oak-studded landscape. The west side of Paso Robles closer to the Pacific Ocean does have slightly cooler temps influencing which varietals will do best within their present location. With that in mind, we were eager to don our mask with hand sanitizer in hand and meet with several vintners to hear their story on how they were adapting to the current restrictions.
After checking into the La Quinta Inn by Wyndam, we chatted with general manager Victor Pop. With the mask mandate predominately placed on the hotel’s front door, we enter into a spacious lobby area where the masked desk agents were placed behind clear Plexiglas barriers. Victor greeted us with enthusiasm while assuring us that the business, although slower due to the current situation, has held a slight increase with people venturing back into the area. “We are glad to see an uptick in business while we have had time to remodel, we are eager to see more people come back into the area even with the modifications,” said Victor.
Pre-COVID, the lobby would turn into a wine tasting room where area vintners could come to do a complimentary happy hour wine tasting, helping to introduce guests to some of the great wineries in the area. That offering has been eliminated since the county put wine tastings only at outdoor venues and we were eager to experience the gorgeous weather and some great wine.
Quickly settling into our apartment-like suite, we then were on our way to Daou vineyards for the first wine adventure of our short weekend visit. Today Paso Robles covers 26,000 acres and adds more wineries every year to this once sleepy area near the Central Coast of California. The most predominant grapes grown in the area are Cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, merlot, and chardonnay.
What better place to get a stellar 365-degree vantage point of the Paso Valley than Daou Mountain. Considered a “terroir of power, purity and symmetry,” of which Proprietor Georges Daou and wine-maker Daniel Daou, soon discovered that the calcareous clay soils resembled those of Bordeaux’s right bank affording the production of envy worth Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaking authority Andre Tchelistcheff concluded that the surrounding terroir was “a jewel of ecological elements”; referring to its tremendous potential in producing world-acclaimed wines. The terroir is naturally inclined to produce grapes of extraordinary staying power that once nurtured and transformed, can develop into wines of legacy and lasting tradition. “We spare no amount of imagination or technology in harnessing that power to make wines of dimension and elegance,” affirmed winemaker Daniel. With the provenance, passion, and expertise of Daou family, the addition of celebrated Master Sommelier Frederick L. Dame as Daou’s Global Ambassador, has catapulted these exceptional wines into the international market with much acclaim.
Daou Vineyards is committed to its vision of producing exceptional wines with safety standards required by state and local laws. According to emergencyslo.org, the current regulations beginning on July 13th, stipulate outdoor operations only. No indoor operations allowed per state order. We saw firsthand the compliance measures taken as you enter the stunning California mission-like tasting room. Masks are required to enter the gorgeous property as guests are greeted with a refreshing Daou rose and then guided to an outdoor seating area in which safe distances have been established for the eager wine enthusiast. A vibrant food menu is offered along with the tasting including vegan and vegetarian options. Guests are socially distanced at various tranquil seating groups where the stunning views and warm breezes made the small sacrifices to stay safe worth the effort.
Gazing over the now rolling green vineyards, our mask covered visages marveled at the almost Birdseye view of Paso Robles. We tasted through Daou’s exceptional passion-driven wines. The reds, especially their flagship wine, Soul of a Lion, express the complexities of flavors, of black currents and bramble fruits, subtle minerality along with incredible structure. The premier 2014 vintage produced what Jeb Dunnick of The Wine Advocate hailed, “Easily the greatest Bordeaux blends I’ve tasted from Paso Robles.” The Estate, Reserve, and Paso collections are highly sought after. It was indeed a refreshing and exhilarating reprieve from the dusty desert landscape and the confines of staying home for the last several months.
We descended the mountain with a great appreciation for this time in the vineyard but we were also longing to discover ONX vineyard in the morning. Located in nearby Templeton California, ONX Estate Vineyard resides within the Paso Robles Templeton Gap sub-AVA.
This is where limestone and sedimentary soil are comprised of sandy-gravely loam for optimal drainage for the growing vines. The site has the advantage of marine-time influence that spares the vines from the often scorching heat during the summer months. On this site of 57.2 acres, 18 plus varietals are grown under the watchful gaze of Jeff Strekas Director of Operations and Winegrowing along with property innkeeper, Laura Marble. ONX wine tasting room which is now closed due to COVID mandates is located in Tin City an eclectic mix of locally crafted beverages housed in an industrial park where once opened again, you can easily stroll from venue to venue to experience a community of beverage artisans.
ONX vineyards tractor shed is now serving as their outdoor tasting venue, converted with a long table appropriate literature, maps of the vineyard, and tasting notes. This is where the COVID creativity takes a new twist; mini bottles of ONX wine similar to airplane minis allow guests to self pour as the host explains each wine. Masks are required on the property and can serve not only as a protector of COVID but of the dust that comes up as you zoom about on the back of a mule through the vineyard. Jeff gave us the 411 on his background as a previous vaccine scientist and then his ensuing passion for winemaking along with his astute knowledge of the grape varietals and terrior.
The 2016 Fiery Nights which is depicted as an “amalgam of place and time” was indeed an homage to the terroir of the Templeton Gap AVA. A blend of 93% Syrah and 7% Ligonier eases the palate with moderate acidity and velvety tannins with notes of sweet baking spices, savory meats, and dried raspberries. “I didn’t believe that co-fermenting the Viognier with the Syrah would make it more savory, said Jeff. “ This wine really stood out-right out of the gate like a northern Rhone; a bacony- chewy, savory syrah”, he continued. We could not have agreed more, the luscious deep flavor was warm and inviting as the cool gray “sea smoke” of the coastal fog hung lingered in the mid-morning skies.
We learned, laughed, and lingered over each sip of wine. He added that in addition to the in vineyard wine tasting ONX presents an “at home” version. 5 mini bottles packed in straw with tasting notes and instructions on conducting your own wine tasting can be ordered online and delivered to your home. Now you can create a Zoom wine-tasting with family and friends.
A zippy invigorating ride through vineyard with Jeff is where we stopped, sipped, and educated ourselves while pouring wines from “mini-bottles” into our glasses as Jeff elaborated on his inspiration from the vines. And as an extra bonus, Inn Keeper Laura Marble gave us a tour of the property’s stunning-English cottage that is available to guests upon advance reservation and special discounted rates through the ONX wine club loyalty program.
Surrounded by a lavender field and an abundant organic garden, we felt we stepped into the English countryside. This stunning home is available to turn your next wine trip to Paso Robles in onto a time to remember for a lifetime.
Now the ever-important question…..where does one get a great meal after several hours in the vineyard? Outdoor dining is the mandate. Paso Robles has grown to be one of the hottest wine regions in the United States not only for producing world-class wines but for having some excellent dining choices. Here are some of our favorites while visiting the area.
The Allegretto Vineyard Resort by Ayers exudes sophistication with it’s the European-Mediterranean atmosphere. Accommodations at Allegretto are exemplary with 171 guestrooms and suites affording an ideal respite from the day with a classic European flair.
Aside from the wellness-Zen like atmosphere, the hotel is filled with fine works of art, pastoral murals, tranquil gardens and a small chapel on the grounds for quiet contemplation.
The Cello Ristorante and Bar located on the property will capture your culinary senses the outdoor patio overlooks rolling grapevines and the surrounding Paso Robles hills. Begin with handcrafted cocktails created by a trained mixologist.
For the oenophile’s, sample Allegretto’s private label Viognier, Zinfandel, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the many fine wines on their impressive list. A set Northern Italian influenced dining menu made with locally sourced ingredients is available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In nearby Templeton located next to Trader Joe’s in the Vineyard Center is Pier 46. Jeff urged us to try this place and we were grateful for his wise words. Pier 46 Seafood Market offers a plethora of local and imported seafood options. The mission of Pier 46 is in maintaining environmental and sustainable products for the consumer.
We opted for the Fish and Chips, with crispy white arctic cod and house-made tartar sauce and the fish tacos. We fell hook, line, and sinker for freshest seafood we have had in a long time. These folks are serious with their seafood connection and their passion is transformed on the plate.
Downtown Paso Robles has now set up to dining area in their central park where you can grab your grub and sit outside in the lovely oak shrouded central park. A hostess will take you to a sanitized table where you can bring your takeout and beverages, alcoholic and otherwise from the many wonderful Paso Restaurants.
Paso Robles California is doing its best to embrace and reinvent itself by adapting, adjusting, and pivoting into the new world of hospitality with safety measures. Just as the winegrower trains the vines to focus their energy into producing the best possible fruit, let us use our energy to enjoy our lives in focused compliance giving us time to reset, regroup and enjoy a good glass of wine with friends and family.