You probably think about Napa and Sonoma Valley when you think about California Wine Country. And we visited Napa and Sonoma, but started our vacation by going off the beaten tourist path and headed to Paso Robles Wine Country, located a few hours south of San Francisco.
“Cranky” is most likely the polite word my husband would use to describe my attitude on the drive to Paso Robles from the San Jose airport. Apple Maps taunted us with unending yellow and red lines while sitting stationary on the highway. I had been traveling since 4 a.m. and traffic was delaying my first glass of wine like a long speech at a dinner party. However, my crankiness immediately dissipated as we got off the highway and drove through the winding Wine Country roads. Vines. Sunshine. Pretty farmland. So much closer to my vacation glass of wine.
The official name is El Paso de Robles, which means “The Pass of the Oaks.” Paso is home to more than 200 wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres – and in 2013, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Paso Robles Wine Country the Wine Region of the Year.
Paso Robles is an absolutely stunning area. While Napa and Sonoma Valley have restaurants and winery after winery in between the vineyards, Paso is more secluded. We visited Justin Winery and Vineyard and Daou Vineyards & Winery. Both offered incredibly beautiful scenery and unique experiences.
We wheeled into Justin Winery and Vineyard just in time for our dinner reservation. The restaurant offers a four course Prix Fixe menu with wine pairings and three seatings available at 6, 6:30, and 7pm.
Y’all, this is a wine experience not to miss. Each course was divine. I love a good Prix Fixe with wine pairings – it eliminates ordering anxiety because you don’t have to make a decision… other than the desert course, which we had decide between cheese and a pear dessert. (cheese 🙋♀️)
My ire towards the highway traffic melted away with each sip of wine.
The surprising favorite was the Viognier, a red drinker’s white wine, paired with the summer gazpacho salad. The tomatoes are blanched and then peeled – a time consuming but incredibly delicious way to serve with a salad. Removing the skins took the chewy tartness out of the tomatoes and even my tomato hater husband tried it. They looked like tiny melon balls. Yummm.
The wineries in Paso are able to serve food and have restaurants on-site, which is a big distinction to Napa and Sonoma which only allow for snacks in the wineries.
After the chef-prepared farm-to-table fare satiated us – much better than our airport food diet for the day (yuck!) – we strolled around the corner to check out our room.
Where to stay in Paso Robles Wine Country
Just INN (get it!?) at Justin Winery offers superb accommodations. Our suite was stocked with bottle of wine, a fridge full of Fiji water, a living area and bedroom. We walked from dinner to our room, then back to the winery’s porch by the fire pit with our bottle of wine. Seriously, vacation does not get much better than that!
The next morning, we woke up early since we were on East Coast time. I strolled through the vineyards before I saw the signs warning about snakes in the vineyards. Thankfully, I did not encounter a rattlesnake because you probably would have heard the scream all the way on the East Coast. I did spot a jackrabbit!
This is a bold statement but I’m going to make it anyway: I had the best breakfast of my entire life that morning. And that includes Waffle House, which is the king of breakfasts. We joked that brunch at the fancy vineyard restaurant would either be something normal like eggs or something weird like pickled radish omelets.
Radishes were involved.
The chef served breakfast nachos. That’s right. BREAKFAST NACHOS. This genius concoction consisted of spiced shredded pork and fresh sliced jalapeños and radishes and cheese with an egg cooked over medium nestled on the top. It was insanely delicious. Like, flavor explosion. I love fresh jalapeños. And salty nachos? (Tostitos these were not.) After I stared in awe at the creation, my first thought was “how is this not a thing everywhere?” Also, Waffle House would kill it if they attempted breakfast nachos, right?
After breakfast nachos, coffee, and at least 3 Fiji waters, we drove down to our winery tour. This is an experience to schedule. Our group started with a glass of rosè, then headed to the vineyard while our guide told the story of Justin. The vineyard was first planted in 1981 with the concept of producing old-world, Bordeaux-style blends. It worked out by 1997 when Isosceles was named one of the top 10 wines IN THE WORLD by the boss of wine publications, Wine Spectator. Also it was served at the White House during the Clinton administration, which is basically like winning an Oscar for wine.
Justin Vineyards & Winery Tour
The owner of Justin is a dynamic businessman who got his start in finance, then purchased the winery as a hobby, as one does after making millions. He caught the eye of Fiji water, and negotiated a deal. Fiji owns Justin, and with the Fiji money in Justin’s pocket, the winery expanded. Big time.
You probably have tried the Justin Cab and Isosceles is a fancy wine for a special occasion at $79.99 a bottle. The wine is fabulous – but the winery itself? Definitely worth the visit to Paso. My only regret is staying just the one night – I would have loved to stay a few nights at the Just Inn to explore Paso Robles.
Next, we drove to Daou Vineyards & Winery.
Daou’s Tasting Room is perched on top of a mountain surrounded by other mountains. The landscaping looks like the Versailles gardeners flew over to Paso to create a mountaintop oasis for wine enthusiasts.
We sat outside in a setting with an umbrella, tables, and lounge chairs with a Mountain View. Our host, Kevin, had an angelic voice that my husband described as a massage for your ears. We basically stepped into the Calm App while lounging in chairs, bees pollinating the flora in front of us, the mountains modeling majesty as a backdrop, and Kevin soothingly describing all of the wines. He was a former college professor and decided to switch to a wine career. Ah, the California wine life is so appealing. I’m sure it has drawbacks (drunkards) but also a pretty spectacular office.
Daou was started by brothers who made their millions in tech. The wine is legit – and the winery itself is successful, distributing all over the United States. Our favorite wine was the Soul of the Lion, no surprise, as this wine retails for $150 (!!) – it’s deep, rich, and complex with dark chocolate mingled with blueberries and spice. Against the backdrop of Paso mountains, this wine certainly has soul.
Would we go back to Paso Robles Wine Country? Absolutely. My recommendation is to stay for a few days. Paso is quieter, more laid back, and different than Napa / Sonoma – and that’s a good thing.