Dangling Over Vines: Adventures in Paso Robles Wine Country
Hanging high above the vineyard, I wished for a glass of wine to toast the panorama of grapes and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Perhaps a crisp Zinfandel, given its alliteration with “zip line,” the transport device that got me into this pleasant if precarious predicament at Santa Margarita Ranch.
My thrill ride above this 14,000-acre cattle ranch turned vineyard made for a fun introduction to Central Coast California’s Paso Robles AVA. In this American Viticultural Area, established in 1983, 200 wineries produce more than 40 winegrape varieties. This powerhouse AVA, where no edges touch another AVA, is planted with Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and Rhone varietals and ruled by unconventional winemakers who enjoy breaking rules and making their topography double as entertainment venues.
My wine getaway began with gliding “Sip and Zip” ziplines across Santa Margarita Ranch, Ancient Peaks Winery’s estate. The five-zip line course, operated by Margarita Adventures, is one of the ways Paso winemakers are bringing wine lovers into their landscapes. My vineyard flight’s unscheduled stop resulted from a (pre-wine tasting) weight just shy of that needed for the momentum to reach the destination platform. After my cable slid back to the lowest point, I struck acrobatic poses and laughed to signal I was fine. The gallant zip operator rope-towed me to the platform.
Post-zip-trip, my friends and I sipped with renegade winemakers in a tasting barn made of reclaimed wood. The wines came from Ancient Peaks (try the Oyster Ridge Cab Sauv), San Antonio Winery, Peachy Canyon Winery and Robert Hall Winery, whose winemaker, Don Brady, worked at Llano Estacado Winery and earned a Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association award.
Besides ziplines, Paso vineyards offer many other attractions.
Saucy wine geekery you don’t hear through the grapevine in Napa.
“Fickle...thin-skinned...voluptuous.” The banter can get as saucy as locker room gossip.
Talking about the weather is a major pastime among Paso’s hyper-gregarious winemakers, their staff and wine enthusiasts entering their orbit. Hot air mixes with cool to create a grape-friendly climate; Morro Bay, distinguished by a dream-like extinct volcano jutting from the water, retains nourishing fog. “Fire hose effect”...“mid-afternoon breezes aerate the crevices”...“the gap effect.” My connoisseur-level friends drink up details like sponges; I just sip and nod.
J. Lohr assistant winemaker Brenden Wood credits the concentrated flavor to vines as old as 80 years while pouring a wine he described as “physiologically and eatologically close to the most popular Sauv Blanc today.”
Gary Eberle, whose creamy Eberle Cab Sauv 2007 is redolent of black currants, recounts his mentoring by Robert Mondavi. His tastings are free: “I sell more by not charging.” He prefers corraling thirsty passersby.
Vic Hugo of Victor Hugo Wines muses about self-conscious tasters. Americans often forgo tasting different wines from fear of mispronouncing names such as Viognier: “‘I’ll just have the Chardonnay.’” (For the record, it’s “vee-own-yay,” according to winefolly.com)
Showtime: Vina Robles Winery has become a social hub, with its cathedral-ceiling’d stone tasting room and dining patio overlooking vines of 20 varietals. The food’s gourmet and the amphitheater’s 3,300 seats face a stage featuring acts from Tony Bennett to Marilyn Manson to Slayer. Winemaker Kevin Willenborg is usually on-site to explain the magic of terroir. I preferred tasting the magic of his Petite Sirah.
Ring a bell: DAOU Vineyards, at an elevation of 2,200 feet, grows grapes that are dry-farmed even during droughts, getting ocean moisture through Templeton Gap. In the tasting room, Daniel Daou speaks passionately about terroir and a perfect 4½-foot canopy, holding my friends spellbound. My mind wandered, and feet followed, to Daou’s Spanish Mission-style bell tower housing a 1740 bell acquired from a Madrid monastery. Centuries ago, vineyards rang bells during harvest to let villagers know where to go for work. I got to ring the bell. Super-cool.
Higher education: Spit! That’s among secrets learned from the pros. Simply ask for cups, which are opaque, since transparency is not a virtue in this endeavor. (I demurely turned my head indoors, and outdoors, trotted to the nearest tree.) There’s no other way to properly taste 30 wines in a single day, and tasting, not getting wasted, is what you’ve come to do, right?
Notable tasting notes: Pre-spitting lesson, my strategy for staying sober was half-inch pours. Rookie error. At Vina Robles, Willenborg advised that to properly evaluate aromatics and flavors, fill the glass just shy of the widest part of its bowl. Taste whites before reds. And no need to cleanse my glass between reds.
Castles, magnificent to bizarre. William Randolph Hearst’s Mediterranean revival-style Casa Grande shimmers like a dream on a hillside in what’s now San Simeon State Park. Facing mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the Hearst Castle’s construction began in 1919 under the direction of architect Julia Morgan. Centuries-old sculptures, paintings, tapestries, carvings, Persian tiles, bell towers, ornate church choir stalls, chandeliers and other artworks decorate 165 rooms floor to ceiling. Outdoor and indoor pools dazzle; a theater screens Hearst’s celebrity-filled home movies. The 127 acres of hilltop gardens are dotted with Italian cypress, palms and softball-sizeroses of all colors. Bus rides to the estate pass enclosures Hearst used for polar bears, kangaroos, antelope, leopards and camels.
The Hearst Castle property borders the sprawling historic Hearst Ranch, which has a large herd of grass-fed cattle and produces its own wine. The ranch is private, but its wine shop on the Pacific Coast highway is open to the public. The Hearst Winery Tasting Room at Sebastians’ Brothers General Merchandise is the gathering place to sample Hearst wines.
Eight miles away in the coastal village of Cambria stands “The Anti-Hearst castle,” caretaker/tour guide Mike O’Malley’s nickname for Nit Wit Ridge. Trash collector and self-taught architect Art Beal began construction of his madcap masterwork in 1928. Made of salvaged junk, rocks, tires, beer cans, iridescent abalone shells and a rooftop ocean-view commode, it stands strong on a steep hill.
Zebras and elephant seals and whales are not wine hallucinations. Between Hearst Castle and Cambria, elephant seals sunbathe and frolic in the rock-flocked surf at the Piedras Blancas rookery edging Highway 1. There’s plenty of parking at the overlook. In roadside cow pastures in San Simeon, descendants of Hearst’s zebras quietly graze. Beyond the dramatic waves dotted with wet-suited surfers swim majestic humpback whales.
Walk off that wine. Halter Ranch Vineyard offers hikes up its hillside, rewarding visitors with picnic-table tastings at a shaded, mountain-view overlook. Drink in intoxicating views on such San Luis Obispo area trails as Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria and Bishop’s Peak, which meanders up one of the area’s distinctive, extinct volcanic formations called morros.
Paso is a terrific place to hang out with wine. And for me, amusing discoveries included a new definition of “hangover.”
Robin Soslow is a writer-photographer based in the South and can be reached at email@example.com.