By CARY ORDWAY
Imagine a trip to the vineyards of Tuscany where you will drive through a sun-drenched region with vine-clad hillsides, stopping off to visit wineries where fascinating local craftsmen toil at their labor of love. At night you will retire to your villa, a shrine of elegance and testament to good taste.
Now imagine driving just a few hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco and finding much of the same experience. Paso Robles wineries are fast becoming just such an alternative for sophisticated travelers who are often surprised to find such an exquisite getaway so close to home.
To be sure, Paso Robles is not going to become a world-class destination like Tuscany anytime soon – instead of well over a thousand wineries in Tuscany, you’ll find just about 80 in the Paso Robles area. And the overnight accommodations in the immediate area are limited compared with, say, the Napa Valley. Still, there are many inns and lodges within an hour’s drive in places like Cambria, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo and, of course, the nearby Pacific coastline is an attraction all of its own.
Happily we discovered the perfect complement to touring the local wineries – an extraordinary hotel called the Carlton that has just been completely refurbished and re-opened for business in March 2005. This hotel is located in the heart of the wine country, taking up the better part of a city block in quaint downtown Atascadero. The first impression is the hotel almost seems out of place – it is just as upscale as the finest Napa lodgings, yet the town of Atascadero is a simple, laid-back every-day small town with nary a designer clothing store in sight.
The Carlton Hotel is a "boutique" hotel, capitalizing on the growing popularity of boutique lodgings both in major cities and – with the Carlton as a case in point – sometimes out in the hinterlands. The term has come to symbolize luxury and a higher level of personalized service than many larger hotels. Like the Carlton, most boutique hotels pay a lot of attention to detail and target business travelers as well as affluent leisure travelers.
The Carlton originally opened in 1929 and was a magnet for celebrities such as Jack Benny, Bette Davis, Fred McMurray and Dick Powell. The aging hotel was recently renovated by local entrepreneur David Weyrich with the idea that it would reclaim its past glory by creating 52 individually designed guestrooms with such features as marble bathrooms, deep whirlpool baths, oversized bath towels, high thread-count cotton sheets – well you get the picture.
From the moment we walked into the hotel, the feeling was more like a swank downtown San Francisco hotel than a country inn. Our guestroom seemed regal – period furnishings decorated the spacious interior while the luxurious draperies and bedding added to the upscale feeling. An oversized bath area offered both the whirlpool bath and shower and a dressing area larger than most. In summary, the Carlton has added the special touches that separate the "nice" hotels from the truly "luxurious" lodgings.
But we digress. The hotel was a pleasant surprise for us, but visitors come to Atascadero and nearby Paso Robles mainly for the stunning combination of wineries and picturesque scenery. We spent a day traveling the rolling hillsides of both areas, searching out various wineries, both large and small. We probably are a bit unusual – we enjoy just visiting the wineries and chatting with the winery employees and do not make a point to taste in every winery we visit. But we did taste a few and found that the wine tastings were often free compared with other regions we’ve visited where every winery charges for the service.
Local winery maps will help you quite a lot as you seek out the wineries – actually they are something of a necessity considering the rolling hill topography and many country roads. Our preference was to read through the local winery guidebooks and pick out wineries that seemed especially interesting – then go directly to those. Maybe a more efficient approach would be to just start driving and stop at whatever wineries are on your way. Either way, there are wineries here of all sizes, from larger corporate entities to Mom and Pop operations that are little more than a spare room with a few wine vats.
One of the smaller wineries we visited was the Casa de Caballos Vineyards where we talked with Scott Tobin, son of the winery’s founder Dr. Thomas Morgan. While in residency at the Orange County Medical Center, Dr. Morgan experimented with fruit and berry wines as a hobby. Originally he and his wife, Sheila, just made enough wine for themselves and friends but it soon became apparent that they couldn’t drink all that they produced. Today the winery has grown from one acre of grapes to six acres, and when you visit their scenic vineyards you get a bonus: it’s also part Arabian horse farm, satisfying one of Sheila’s lifelong passions.
Over at Turley Wine Cellars, visitors get a chance to taste what has become a "cult wine" – a wine that is in limited supply and often higher priced than many competitors. We learned that Turley, which produces wines elsewhere in California, bought the old Pesenti Winery in 2001 because David Turley wanted the 80-year-old Zinfandel vines on the property. The winery does small batches of 3,000 cases or so for each of its vineyards, creating an excellent variety and high demand for the product.
When we stopped at Wild HorseWinery, pourer Kyle Coots was more than willing to talk with us about the growing demand for the Wild Horse products. The winery started about 20 years ago and has grown to be one of the top producers on the Central Coast -- seven different wines altogether. Tastings at the Wild Horse are free.
On a previous trip we stopped by EOS Estate Winery just east of Paso Robles on Highway 46, where we watched 82-year-old Stan Meltzer put on what amounted to a clinic on Paso Robles wines. Meltzer’s been doing this for 16 years and he was not reluctant to share is expertise and opinions with visitors:
"Certain wines do a far better job of cleansing the mouth for the most important thing – the next food," Meltzer explained. "When you bother to cook something eclectic – using herbs and spices and so on – and all you taste is the wine, then you’ve worked hard for nothing. You’ve overmatched your food."
Meltzer calls himself a wine "purest" because he closely matches his wines and foods. For example, the red zinfandels so prevalent in the Paso Robles area are best served with stews, pasta sauces, barbecue, French country chicken – Meltzer offered a long list of options, giving his visitors plenty of food for thought.
After a day of scenery and wine education, we drove back to the Carlton for dinner. As part of the renovation, the hotel has added the fine dining signature restaurant of diVINE, which was closed during our Monday visit, and the Carlton Restaurant and Grill. The latter proved to the perfect conclusion to our day in Wine Country – it’s a stylish restaurant with heaping portions of gourmet-style cuisine ranging from steaks to seafood dishes, from sushi to wood-fired pizzas. This closed the deal for us on the Carlton – this hotel definitely is a prime spot for couples who want a romantic weekend in Tuscany but may have to settle for A-Tuscany-dero.
WHERE: Atascadero is midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along the Central California Coast. The city has several wineries of its own and is minutes away from wineries in Templeton and Paso Robles.
WHAT: The Paso Robles Wine Country is not as well-known as Napa, but coming on strong. In addition, San Luis Obispo County has great beaches and scenic seaside villages.
WHY: The area is easily accessible from L.A. or San Francisco and offers some of California’s best coastal scenery.
HOW: For more information on Atascadero and Paso Robles wineries, phone the Atascadero Chamber at 805-466-2044 or visit www.atascaderochamber.org. For more information on the Carlton Hotel, phone 805-461-5100 or visit www.the-carlton.com. For more information on San Luis Obispo County, phone 800-6734-1414 or visit www.sanluisobispocounty.com.
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Click here for Central California Coast lodging.
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If Paso Robles wineries is your kind of California vacation, also check out our articles on a Balboa Bay Club, Dana Point and Napa Valley.
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