Thursday, 28 May 2009

Paso Robles wineries offer taste of Tuscany

Imagine a trip to the vineyards of Tuscany where you will
drive through a sun-drenched region with vine-clad
hillsides, stopping off to visit wineries where fascinating
local craftsmen toil at their labor of love. At night you
will retire to your villa, a shrine of elegance and
testament to good taste.

Now imagine driving just a few hours from Los Angeles or
San Francisco and finding much of the same experience. The
Paso Robles Wine Country is fast becoming just such an
alternative for sophisticated travelers who are often
surprised to find such an exquisite getaway so close to
home.

To be sure, Paso Robles is not going to become a
world-class destination like Tuscany anytime soon – instead
of well over a thousand wineries in Tuscany, you'll find
just about 80 in the Paso Robles area. And the overnight
accommodations in the immediate area are limited compared
with, say, the Napa Valley. Still, there are many inns and
lodges within an hour's drive in places like Cambria, Pismo
Beach and San Luis Obispo and, of course, the nearby
Pacific coastline is an attraction all of its own.

Happily we discovered the perfect complement to touring the
local wineries – an extraordinary hotel called the Carlton
that has just been completely refurbished and re-opened for
business in March 2005. This hotel is located in the heart
of the wine country, taking up the better part of a city
block in quaint downtown Atascadero. The first impression
is the hotel almost seems out of place – it is just as
upscale as the finest Napa lodgings, yet the town of
Atascadero is a simple, laid-back every-day small town with
nary a designer clothing store in sight.

The Carlton Hotel is a "boutique" hotel, capitalizing on
the growing popularity of boutique lodgings both in major
cities and – with the Carlton as a case in point –
sometimes out in the hinterlands. The term has come to
symbolize luxury and a higher level of personalized service
than many larger hotels. Like the Carlton, most boutique
hotels pay a lot of attention to detail and target business
travelers as well as affluent leisure travelers.

The Carlton originally opened in 1929 and was a magnet for
celebrities such as Jack Benny, Bette Davis, Fred McMurray
and Dick Powell. The aging hotel was recently renovated by
local entrepreneur David Weyrich with the idea that it
would reclaim its past glory by creating 52 individually
designed guestrooms with such features as marble bathrooms,
deep whirlpool baths, oversized bath towels, high
thread-count cotton sheets – well you get the picture.

From the moment we walked into the hotel, the feeling was
more like a swank downtown San Francisco hotel than a
country inn. Our guestroom seemed regal – period
furnishings decorated the spacious interior while the
luxurious draperies and bedding added to the upscale
feeling. An oversized bath area offered both the whirlpool
bath and shower and a dressing area larger than most. In
summary, the Carlton has added the special touches that
separate the "nice" hotels from the truly "luxurious"
lodgings.

But we digress. The hotel was a pleasant surprise for us,
but visitors come to Atascadero and nearby Paso Robles
mainly for the stunning combination of wineries and
picturesque scenery. We spent a day traveling the rolling
hillsides of both areas, searching out various wineries,
both large and small. We probably are a bit unusual – we
enjoy just visiting the wineries and chatting with the
winery employees and do not make a point to taste in every
winery we visit. But we did taste a few and found that the
wine tastings were often free compared with other regions
we've visited where every winery charges for the service.

Local winery maps will help you quite a lot as you seek out
the wineries – actually they are something of a necessity
considering the rolling hill topography and many country
roads. Our preference was to read through the local winery
guidebooks and pick out wineries that seemed especially
interesting – then go directly to those. Maybe a more
efficient approach would be to just start driving and stop
at whatever wineries are on your way. Either way, there are
wineries here of all sizes, from larger corporate entities
to Mom and Pop operations that are little more than a spare
room with a few wine vats.

One of the smaller wineries we visited was the Casa de
Caballos Vineyards where we talked with Scott Tobin, son of
the winery's founder Dr. Thomas Morgan. While in residency
at the Orange County Medical Center, Dr. Morgan
experimented with fruit and berry wines as a hobby.
Originally he and his wife, Sheila, just made enough wine
for themselves and friends but it soon became apparent that
they couldn't drink all that they produced. Today the
winery has grown from one acre of grapes to six acres, and
when you visit their scenic vineyards you get a bonus: it's
also part Arabian horse farm, satisfying one of Sheila's
lifelong passions.

Over at Turley Wine Cellars, visitors get a chance to taste
what has become a "cult wine" – a wine that is in limited
supply and often higher priced than many competitors. We
learned that Turley, which produces wines elsewhere in
California, bought the old Pesenti Winery in 2001 because
David Turley wanted the 80-year-old Zinfandel vines on the
property. The winery does small batches of 3,000 cases or
so for each of its vineyards, creating an excellent variety
and high demand for the product.

When we stopped at Wild HorseWinery, pourer Kyle Coots was
more than willing to talk with us about the growing demand
for the Wild Horse products. The winery started about 20
years ago and has grown to be one of the top producers on
the Central Coast -- seven different wines altogether.
Tastings at the Wild Horse are free.

On a previous trip we stopped by EOS Estate Winery just
east of Paso Robles on Highway 46, where we watched
82-year-old Stan Meltzer put on what amounted to a clinic
on Paso Robles wines. Meltzer's been doing this for 16
years and he was not reluctant to share is expertise and
opinions with visitors:

"Certain wines do a far better job of cleansing the mouth
for the most important thing – the next food," Meltzer
explained. "When you bother to cook something eclectic –
using herbs and spices and so on – and all you taste is the
wine, then you've worked hard for nothing. You've
overmatched your food."

Meltzer calls himself a wine "purest" because he closely
matches his wines and foods. For example, the red
zinfandels so prevalent in the Paso Robles area are best
served with stews, pasta sauces, barbecue, French country
chicken – Meltzer offered a long list of options, giving
his visitors plenty of food for thought.

After a day of scenery and wine education, we drove back to
the Carlton for dinner. As part of the renovation, the
hotel has added the fine dining signature restaurant of
diVINE, which was closed during our Monday visit, and the
Carlton Restaurant and Grill. The latter proved to the
perfect conclusion to our day in Wine Country – it's a
stylish restaurant with heaping portions of gourmet-style
cuisine ranging from steaks to seafood dishes, from sushi
to wood-fired pizzas. This closed the deal for us on the
Carlton – this hotel definitely is a prime spot for couples
who want a romantic weekend in Tuscany but may have to
settle for A-Tuscany-dero.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Atascadero is midway between Los Angeles and San
Francisco along the Central California Coast. The city has
several wineries of its own and is minutes away from
wineries in Templeton and Paso Robles.

WHAT: The Paso Robles Wine Country is not as well-known as
Napa, but coming on strong. In addition, San Luis Obispo
County has great beaches and scenic seaside villages.

WHEN: Year-round.

WHY: The area is easily accessible from L.A. or San
Francisco and offers some of California's best coastal
scenery.

HOW: For more information on Atascadero and Paso Robles
area wineries, phone the Atascadero Chamber at 805-466-2044
or visit www.atascaderochamber.org. For more information on
the Carlton Hotel, phone 805-461-5100 or visit
www.the-carlton.com. For more information on San Luis
Obispo County, phone 800-6734-1414 or visit
www.sanluisobispocounty.com.


About the Author:

Cary Ordway is president of Getaway Media Corp which
publishes websites focused on regional travel. Among the
sites offered by GMC are http://www.californiaweekend.com
and http://www.northwesttraveladvisor.com .