Paso Robles-is it just about the wine or can golf and grape get along?
Being someone who understands that the key to life is compromise, it was in that vein that She Who Is Really In Charge (SWIRIC) suggested that we add a trip to Paso Robles during our annual vacation/family visit trip to California. SWIRIC is a fan of wine…on several fronts but mostly the enjoyment of a really good glass or two of wine.
Paso Robles is approximately two hours’ due north of Santa Barbara via US-101. The drive is a bit of everything; ocean views start the drive before an inland turn, followed by another quick hit of coastal views before heading further inland until coming upon this town. When I used to drive between San Francisco and Orange County, Paso Robles was a town on the way back to San Francisco…I’d never so much as stopped for gas.
We got in on a busy holiday Sunday evening; tired from a long day of travel and approximately four hours driving. The summer months mean one thing- heat and lots of it. After some aimless searching, we stopped for wine at Artisan, a great restaurant in their central business district (a 3-4 block area of shops and restaurants). It was over a couple glasses of wine that we began to relax.
Dinner was at Firestone Walker, a brew-pub amid hundreds of wineries. We both enjoyed pizzas that were outstanding; SWIRIC enjoyed the Portobello mushroom pie while I opted for the barbecue chicken pizza. Both were outstanding. We didn’t imbibe in any of their brews, but if wine’s not your thing, they have beer tasting tours as well.
If you go to Paso Robles and you like wine, then you’re in luck. There are hundreds of wineries in the area; several locals touted their area as “the new Napa” which might be a bit of a stretch, but while I’m not the wine lover in the family, my admittedly less-than-perfect taste buds know a good wine when they taste it.
This is a golf blog…with limited time I only played one of the two area courses- Hunter Ranch (considered the tougher and more upscale of the two). At just over 6700 yards from the tips and just under 6300 yards from the middle tees, I found the middle tees offered plenty of challenge. The starter in the pro shop was friendly, affable, and sent me on my way. I took a cart as is my style, but I saw a few people with pull carts so I reckon it’s walkable (having said that several holes have lengthy distances between them).
The course may not look that menacing on the scorecard, but the one characteristic that came true is that in order to score you have to not just be in the fairway but on the correct side/position. It’s not true target style golf, but is definitely in the vein of rewarding positioning and punishing wayward shots. Several holes abut into vineyards (on the front nine the third and fourth holes vineyards are in view but unlikely to come into play unless you get completely wild). Bermuda greens rolled very fast and true. Wayward shots are punished with hardpan dirt and scrub after a small area of rough (given the water issues that plague the area I suppose it’s understandable). Playing it a second time rather than a pedestrian Paso Robles Golf Club may be a bit heavier on the wallet but their refusal to allow a single golfer to make a tee time made it a non-starter. I suppose if you’re with a group or have a partner who plays you could play both tracks. One thing- the afternoons tend to get breezy so keep that in mind when making plans.
Two courses aren’t exactly becoming of it being a true golf destination, but you could do worse than playing Hunter Ranch. Both courses are close to most of the hotels in the area. Without knowing or caring about details I know water use is an ongoing area of controversy and it’s possible that this might be limiting future courses from coming in.
After my fairly quick morning 18 before it got too hot (temperature swings of 40-50 degrees are not uncommon so if you go, plan and dress accordingly), we set out for a day of wine-tasting. There are literally hundreds of wineries in the area so use my list for what it is- indicative of one day’s tasting while insisting on driving relatively sober and not wanting to break any traffic laws. We started at Hope Family Wines; we had enjoyed one of their wines the night before and wanted to get a better sampling. We were met by some really friendly folks and some very good wines (they were easily the friendliest group we ran into).
One surprise that we encountered was the quality of rose wines…I admit to associating rose wines with the giant 1.5 liter jugs of sugar-sweetened swill that people drank. The rose wines we drank were not sugary-sweet, but were blended wines that tasted like…well, adult wines that you’d serve at a summer cookout and not be ashamed to uncork.
Our next trip was to Zenaida where another group of friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable staff answered questions and were generous with their pours. A trip to Jada offered a tasty wine and cheese pairing tasting; while their wines were fine, it was their cheeses that were, in my opinion, the real treat.
Inspired by a rather interesting scene from the book “Vertical” (a very readable sequel to the book “Sideways” which was made into the seminal movie by the same name) that took place at Justin Winery, our day of wine took us to the palatial offerings of Justin. Their restaurant wasn’t open, however their staff pointed us in the direction of some charcuterie and cheese offerings. Their wines were more than worth the drive; the Savant (a blended wine mainly of petite syrah) and the Isoscoles (another blend) are the pick of a very good group of offerings.
After a stop for a late lunch, we headed to Tobin James; a cacophonous building selling Tommy Bahama shirts amid a crowd that looked like they belonged at Margaritaville; I half expected to see Jimmy Buffett break out into song or at least a guzzling of the spit bucket take place. I’ll admit to being put off by a large number of children- my deal has always been that I’ll stay out of Chuck E. Cheese and the kids leave places like wineries to me. It was a bit much, but if that sort of thing is to your liking, then have at it. Maybe Tobin James is a good starting point; by the end of the day when fatigue sets in you’re just not prepared for TGI McWinery.
All in all, SWIRIC and your humble blogger had a great time in Paso Robles.