Take the Cure in Paso Robles
Photos and story by John Blanchette
was the first day of spring and I was headed 200 miles north on Rte.
1, to visit the third largest and fastest growing wine region in California,
The magnificient vineyards of Paso Robles await
the late afternoon clouds moving in from the coast.
The Pacific Oceans salt air and the warm sun flowed
in from the coves and bays as my convertible sped toward the Central
Coast wine country, lying half way between Los Angeles and San
Francisco. A profusion of spring wild flowers, including yellow
mustard and orange poppies, sprang from the green rolling hills, newly
freshened by the winter rains.
I was headed to the 17th Annual Zinfandel Festival,
Californias signature grape and Americas contribution to
the world of fine wines. Like America itself, the grape is brash, bold
and approachable. The likeable wine makes friends quickly, is drinkable
within two years of bottling and doesnt improve with age.
Barren vineyards, walnut trees and wild mustard
flowers welcome the arrival of spring in Californias third largest
The town of El Paso de Robles (Pass of the Oaks)
sits behind coastal mountains, lightly dotted by giant California oak
trees, growing at respectful distances from each other.
The heat of the day draws fog in from the ocean in the
late afternoon, crawling over the hills and dramatically cooling the
land on a daily basis. (It was 73 degrees on March 20th and 41 degrees
that night). A long growing season that can last from bud break in March
to harvest in November, also contributes to the spectacular complexity
of the wine.
The area was once covered by an inland sea, accounting
for the calcium-laden rock that characterizes the land. Volcanic activity
over the years added lush, red mineral compounds to the mix, which gives
the produce and grapes their special flavors. The best tomatoes in California
are also born in these soils.
Grapes were first brought to the area by Spanish missionaries
who needed sacramental wine to conduct mass, but the modern history
of El Paso de Robles begins after California was annexed from Mexico
in the mid 1800s.
It was noticed early on that the hot mineral springs
had curative powers. Indian tribes were the first to enjoy the baths,
then missionaries, and when the Spanish and Mexicans were kicked out
in the mid 1800s, stagecoach routes began stopping in Paso Robles to
In 1861 the first bathhouse was erected and the town
soon incorporated. Frank and Jesse James visited in 1867 so Jesse could
take the curing sulfur baths and heal his bullet wounds, before going
back to their banking careers.
With the development of the spa crowd, inns and bathhouses
started springing up, most notably the El Paso de Robles Inn. In 1891,
after two years of construction and $160,000 in costs, the new inn was
one of the most beautiful in America.
Unfortunately, like many of the grand resorts, spas
and bathhouses built in the 1800s; fire was the main nemesis of these
spectacular structures. In 1941 El Paso de Robles met its demise in
a raging inferno started by a discarded cigarette.
Like other victims, she rose from the ashes, rebuilt
as a modern inn, never to regain her former Victorian splendor. But
the healing waters of the hot sulfur springs remain at the inn, lending
their enduring and discernable aroma to the modern day atmosphere.
At the site of the mineral hot springs that changed
a dusty western cattle range into the jewel of the Central Coast.
With the developing affluence from the tourism and spa
trade, Victorian homes were built for the wealthy merchants and landowners.
The bucolic City Park with its covered bandstand is at the center of
the historic brick and stone faced town. At the turn of the century
lovely Craftsman-style bungalows started adding to the Norman Rockwell
City Park, the center of life in Paso Robles.
Paso Robles remains a friendly country town to this
day, despite its spas, festivals and world-class vineyards drawing thousands
from around the world. A surprising number of Europeans have also invested
in the area, notably winemakers and restaurant owners, bringing a cosmopolitanism
blend to the western ambience.
In 1914 Polish pianist, populist and former Prime Minister,
Ignace Paderewski, visited Paso Robles to take the mineral springs cure
for his aching hands, abused by his world concert tour. He found relief
in a matter of days and was so enthralled by the town that he continued
to visit over the next 30 years, buying two properties, one which he
planted with Zinfandel grapes, introduced to the area in 1882.
Zinfandels origin is most probably the Dalmatian
Coast of Croatia and originally came to the United States with Italian
wine growers from the southern area of Puglia,
Italy in the 1860s. But it is in America where this wine variety
made its name. It enjoys a cult following, launching its own fan club
(ZAP: Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) and every third week in March,
Paso Robles honors the grape with its own festival.
This year 52 wineries offered tastings of nearly two
hundred wines. They ranged in flavors from delicately balanced Pinot
Noir want-a-bes to major flavor bomb show-offs. But there was no mistaking
the nose and bold aromas of this true American treasure in all the wines
Some of my favorites were Opolo, David Hunt, Bianchi,
Christian Lazo, Eberle, Four Vines, Chateau Margene, Kenneth Volk, RN
Estates (which also produces a spectacular late harvest Viognier that
has the aroma of bananas), Sextant and Steinbeck. Cindy Steinbeck-Newkirk,
a sixth generation Paso Roblean and town historian, conducts the Wine
Education Adventure classes at her vineyard.
There are 26,000 acres of grapes, 40 varieties and 210
wineries in Paso Robles, most of which have tasting rooms, usually open
between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. The wine country is astonishingly
beautiful, especially on the Westside. Most of the vineyards are within
a 20 mile radius and easy to find and visit.
One of the most beautiful vineyards is Carmody McKnight,
situated at the western edge of the appellation in some of the areas
Entrance to Carmody McKnight Vineyards
The tasting room guards a tree-shaded pond and is surrounded
by the vineyard. Owner Gary Conway is a renaissance man. A film and
television actor, writer and producer, he is also an internationally
recognized artist and his work is featured on the tasting room walls.
They also grace his wine bottles and have consistently
won the wine label competitions at the Annual California Wine Festival.
His wife and co-proprietor Marian is a former Miss America and an excellent
chef, and his daughter Kathleen runs the winery.
The day I visited their friend Brad Buckley, owner of
the nearby Abalone Farm, was barbecuing some of his product. They were
buttery, with the texture and taste of refined scallops and perfect
with Garys minerally chardonnay
If You Go:
There are many wonderful places to wine and dine in
Paso Robles. Some of my favorites were Artisan, whose owner was a manager
for the Rolling Stones and Def Leppard, Bistro Laurent for the best
French food in town, Thomas Hill Organics, a bistro featuring local
produce (and the best tomatoes in California), Panolivo is casual gourmet,
Villa Creek for California cuisine and Kaleidoscope Lounge is a comfortable
There are a number of fine olive oil producers in the
area including Gary Conways Carmody McKnight Winery, Olio Nuevo,
and Pasolivo. We Olive on Park Street is a shop devoted to the product.
If you have a sweet tooth dont miss Powells Sweet Shoppe
on the corner of City Park.
There is a saying in town that it takes a lot of beer
to produce a good wine and Firestone Brewery is helping the industry.
Tap room opens from Noon to 7 p.m. daily. For a good pint visit the
Crooked Kilt on Park Street.
Accommodations range from chain motels to bed &
breakfasts, country inns and luxury hotels. I stayed at La Bellasera
Hotel & Suites, a Tuscan styled facility with a restaurant devoted
to wine pairings (Enoteca) and a spa.
For guided tours The WineYard Tour will take you into
the heart of wine country and Wine Wrangler will take you to the tasting
rooms as your designated driver.
There are two other major wine festivals, held the third
weekends of May and October, and the monthly Central Coast Magazine
is a good source for activities.
For information on tasting rooms and wineries contact
Robles Wine Country Alliance. For information on Paso
Robles, accommodations, restaurants, festivals, tours, etc.
Napa Valley; Northern
Sonoma County; California
Central Coast; San
Luis Obispo County