Paso Robles: California’s Most Sincere Wine Region

Rows of grape vines in the Central California town of Paso Robles, with rolling hills in the background.

If you remember the Peanuts Halloween classic It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the titular Great Pumpkin was reputed (by Linus) to rise out of the most sincere pumpkin patch around. It always struck me as humorous that the relevant trait for the pumpkin patch was sincerity. How can a pumpkin patch be sincere? The question is perhaps answered in the statement that Paso Robles in Central California is California’s most sincere wine making region.

I’ll contrast this with California’s other premier wine making region, Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys, which one could argued are somewhat insincere, this based on being overrun with tourists, and coated in heavy layers of pretense. The wine in Napa is excellent, to be sure, but much of the scene is quite firmly wrapped up in a sense of self-importance– one might even say it is fairly well lodged up it’s own backside. Enter Paso Robles. The wine is on par with much of Napa’s or Sonoma’s production, but with none of the pretense or pompous patronizing one can often experience in Napa. That’s why I’m comfortable calling Paso Robles California’s most sincere wine region.

The town is not on the Central Coast of California, nor is it in the Central Valley, but it is in Central California. It’s about half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Highway 101, and about 30 miles inland by car from the Central Coast town of Cambria near Hearst Castle. It straddles the Salinas River, and its rolling, oak-covered hills are home to some 40,000 acres of vineyards, and more than 200 individual wineries.

The commercial wine industry in Paso Robles began in 1882, though the Franciscan Friars of nearby Mission San Miguel planted the first wine grapes in the region around 1797. Much of the early wine produced in the region was Zinfandel, but today, Cabernet Sauvignon makes up the largest percentage of wines produced.

The dining options in Paso Robles are as varied as the wine choices, and a few notable spots include Berry Hill Bistro for salads, sandwiches, and comfort food, Buona Travola for excellent traditional Northern Italian fare, Paso Terra for traditional French preparations of fresh seafood, Cello for upscale modern Italian, and Margie’s Diner for huge portions of classic American diner fare and great breakfasts. Nearly every restaurant in town has an excellent selection of fine local wines.

Paso Robles is not just about wine and food. Firestone-Walker Brewing Company produces dozens of excellent beers, including the now-legendary 805, a refreshing blonde ale named for the local telephone area code. Brewery and barrel room tours are available, and every year on August 5 (8/05), the brewery celebrates the date with special offers, exclusive merchandise, and live music.

The biggest event every year in Paso Robles is the California Mid-State fair in late July, which includes the annual Central Coast Wine Competition. A panel of experts blind-tests hundreds of local wines, recognizing the best Red, White, Rosé, Sparkling, and Dessert wines from the region. Other traditional fair activities include live music, livestock shows, and plenty of great fair food.

With so much to see and do in Paso Robles, one hopes that this gem of Central California will remain modest and relaxed, sincere, in a way that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would appreciate. It never feels like a tourist destination, the crowds are moderate, the traffic is reasonable, and the locals are friendly and inviting. Here’s hoping it stays that way.