Vineyards and A Winding Road
I have most often passed through the Central coast of California like a fast train, driving the 101 in our family car heading due north or south and usually in a hurry to get somewhere. There were summer trips to Big Sur with our younger children. Then some college visits. Recently, one daughter had a summer internship in San Francisco and we hauled a car load of her stuff up the 101 in a single day turnaround from Orange County. That time, we stopped in San Luis Obispo for lunch and my 19 year old was mostly interested in a famous alley in town encrusted with old wads of gum. No, really, it is a gum alley.
A much better reason to stop in San Luis Obispo is their Friday night Farmers Market in the summer which feels like a full stop block party with vegetables, live music and beer.
I was intrigued to be able to have some time to just stay on for a few days in Paso Robles last summer and have a chance to learn how to unwind. And unwind we did.
Just 3 miles from the Bakersfield exit along the 101 we headed due west and dropped into a rolling valley of vineyards and small ranches. Our Google map led us to a lane called Oak Flat Road. The curving lane turned right at a cow gate, and we drove straight on entering the Oak Flat Retreat property following the rise of a small country road flanked by live oaks. The driveway gradually leads up a gentle hill and about halfway landed us on a flat parcel where the charming house sits elevated in the trees. The structure is flanked by porches and the view is simply spectacular.
It is so quiet. This takes a few minutes to even comprehend. The softest breezes carry faint bird chirps or sheep sounds far in the distance, barely audible. I enter the house and I am impressed with a sense of California heritage. This is a stately western room with comfy leather chairs, a fireplace, rich Kilim rugs, deep wood patina floors in a spacious beamed great room with a line of windows for views beyond belief. There are a collection of landscape paintings, a display of ranch and cowboy hats on hooks and a curated western style that speaks to this place and a rural history.
I explore the grounds a bit and walk up the lane as the property rises further above the house and the driveway continues to another level place with a gorgeous shade tree. In it, a spacious tree house platform overlooks the valley and is suitable for entertaining. This is known as Joe's Place which features a covered camp trailer with a deck. The views are spectacular in patterns of deep rust and green. Black oaks dot the landscape beyond and rows of vines curl over the dome-like hills to the horizon. Unreal panoramic vistas fade into the blue distance right into the rising cloud decks at the Sierras.
Of course, I inhale deeply upon this scenic vista and immediately realize, "Wow, I am extremely hungry". Fortunately, Paso Robles has outstanding restaurants....Zagat rated restaurants. So, my husband and I head into town for a bite. We decide on a casual meal at Firestone Walker Brewery where the massive warehouse style building is already bustling with people. I guess I expected Paso Robles to be slower, maybe a little podunk and filled with a bunch of farmers and ranchers. There are farmers and ranchers, but there is also a surprising flow of hipness and people from all over. The attire ranges from hipster, urban, western chic, biker leather, wine maker denim to waxed Barbour coats. There is also a bustling TraderJoe's in nearby Templeton and the new seafood restaurant Pier 46 is on the same parking lot with bright cafe umbrellas. The parking lot at Firestone Brewery has battered pickup trucks encrusted in real California dirt, Range Rovers, Jaguars, a Maserati and nice Harley Davidson motorcycles.. My local friend drives an ancient Range Rover that has a roll bar but no roof. The upholstery is sun cracked and the exterior is painted boldly in the African zebra stripes of a safari bush truck. It has an enviable winch on the front. We wait a few minutes before deciding on a pub side 4-top with comfy stools. Above us, a shiny steel conveyor belt shuttles a line of 805 beer bottles parading above the bar. The factory machinery is integrated into the soaring bar ceiling space. I dine on a mountain of chopped salad and my cohorts share a plank of six micro brew shots to sample the on tap offerings.
This brewery is delightfully crowded and energized with people of all ages. This could be a boisterous happy hour in San Francisco but there is a rich relaxed wine country vibe in the experience that feels laid back and fun. We headed back to the Oak Flat house and relaxed on the porch taking in the sunset. Later, I curled under exquisite linens where I was able to gaze out the window for miles right from the bed pillows. The cool breeze picked up and darkness fell. The coyotes howled on some distant ridge. I was asleep in 5 minutes.
The next morning we greeted our two daughters and headed off to Thomas Hill Organics for brunch. We walked to the back of a very modern and sleek restaurant of dark wood and glass. The bar leads us out to an intimate courtyard sheltered from the morning sun with fabric canopies. It is an ideal setting to begin the day. We have a leisurely breakfast of beautifully presented poached eggs, fresh avocado slices, vegtables and bacon. We sipped our coffee and plan an afternoon wine tour. On the way out I stopped in at the We Olive store for a divine bottle of basil infused extra virgin olive oil. This is a perfect compliment for the fresh salad we plan to prepare for our dinner in the Oak Flat kitchen.
The Adelaida Road loop was our tour preference because Oak Flat Retreat is also situated on the west side of Paso Robles. That side of town offers a dynamic landscape having rolling hills and clusters of black oaks. The east side of Paso Robles is much flatter but it has some outstanding wineries as well; Eberle, Broken Earth, Hug Cellars and more. The Adelaida Road loop is a scenic drive with shady oak canopies over the road and dotted with wineries from corporate to quaint. There are sheep, cows, deer and a few jack rabbits. We stopped in at several of the vineyards. Among some notable ones are the Justin Winery ( Cabernet Sauvignon). Justin has a beautiful white wood and glass atrium structure featuring a modern clean tasting room. The floor to ceiling windows and beautiful tan umbrellas standing in rows across a veranda make for a charming lunch. The views are intimate of workings of the vineyard grounds and beautiful hills surround the property. We move on to a family owned winery called Thatcher ( Zinfandel) which boasts a rustic white 90 year old barn. Then on to the wonderful down home family tasting room of Whalebone. Their rustic tasting house feels like a little cabin party inside. Two guys in loud tropical shirts were chatting up the counter. They have a dark chocolate labrador at their feet thumping his tail at every new visitor. Another boisterous group was finishing a fun taste and fawning over the Whalebone Winery Cabernet and the official winery bulldog (as seen on the label) The chunky bulldog is eager to see us and then pads outside to charm all the patio guests. The pours were generous.
We were tired as the heat was building in the summer afternoon so we drove onward to Hwy 46 and headed down to the coast where we had a few Brown Butter Cookie Company cookies in Cuyacos. These dense shortbreads are rich, buttery and a mid-coast institution. The temperature shift was dramatic and the high hill vineyard temperatures dropped from 86 to 67 degrees at the beach. As the summer sun started to lean into late afternoon, we headed back to Paso Robles following the big hill up to Oak Flat Road. We uncorked our wonderful basil olive oil and drizzled it with a dark balsamic over some farmers market produce, chopped tomatoes and mozzarella. The fresh greens were so crisp that the lettuces must have been growing yesterday. We strolled up the lane to the big treehouse and climbed the stairs to the platform. The arm chairs felt heavenly as we sat sipping wine and watching the sun dip into the haze of an orange horizon. The coolness returned and epic views of rural California were laid out below in a patterned blanket that shimmered. The entire vista is bathed in the amber light Paso Robles is famous for. Pure Gold.