On one corner of Paso Robles' main square—a charming place with a park and gazebo at its heart and a sweet mix of historic buildings, wine-tasting rooms and boutiques at its edges—is a clock tower shaped like an acorn. It is meant as a tribute to the oak trees that give the area its high visual drama. And although Paso Robles without its oaks would be, well, pretty boring, you would think someone would have the good sense to monumentalize the grape, at the very least, and maybe even the olive, depending on whether this artisanal olive thing has legs.
If it weren't for the wine boom in Paso Robles, what is a beaming little downtown would be stone dead. Its nadir was the 1980s, when big boxes landed with a thud on the fringe of town, killing off local businesses. "We had 33 vacancies," says Norma Moye, executive director of the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Assn. Now, 24 restaurants and 12 wine-tasting rooms flank the sidewalks, with a cheese-making operation to open this year in my favorite building, a Mission Revival beauty erected in 1905 as a public spa.
At times this boom, which began in the '90s with a stampede of new winemakers focusing on Rhone varietals, feels like a Gold Rush. Lots of folks pouring in but not a lot of infrastructure.
I don't know about you, but after a long day of drinking wine I like a nice place to sleep it off. Something like the Fairmont Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma. Or the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, a hop over the hills from the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Yet for years in Paso Robles the only place that made people feel even slightly pampered was the Best Western Black Oak Motor Lodge, mostly because it's well-run. But it's right off the 101 Freeway and looks out on a Denny's, McDonald's and Carl's Jr.Cris Cherry, owner of Villa Creek restaurant and winery, had one regular customer, a wealthy New Yorker, who was wondering where to stay in the area. "I asked what he had in mind, and he said, 'You know, like a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons.' We just don't have anything like that yet."
But over the last 15 years a handful of charming inns and B&Bs ranging in style from ultra-luxe Mediterranean to tranquil traditional have been built. Most of them are on the grounds of wineries, which, consciously or unconsciously, stepped up to fill some of the lodging vacuum. And these are certainly not your falling-down-old-house, second-life B&Bs.
Not being a fan of the moldy-oldie B&Bs and disliking even more the overpriced predictability of the chain hotels, I am eager to try these new interpretations of the country inn.
I'm contemplating how the best hotels make you want to move in. The suite I booked at Villa Toscana Bed & Breakfast is having that effect. All the room names—this one is called Pinot Grigio—invoke the Italian varietals featured at the Martin & Weyrich winery that owns the place. There's an elegant mural above the fireplace that mimics a stone carving, one of several touches by local artist Stephen Kaylor throughout the grounds. There's a deep couch and two comfy armchairs. The TV disappears into a wooden bureau that doubles as a desk. Around the corner is a marble-topped kitchenette with nice tableware in the cabinets. The kitchen table where I eat the breakfast that comes with my $315 midweek package—I choose eggs Benedict, which arrives with a gorgeous fruit plate—has a view of the vineyard through the French doors.
But it's the Florentine blue-and-gold tile in the bathroom, which has a mosaic floor and oversized spa tub, that settles it. No question, I am moving in.
The Mediterranean experience at Villa Toscana starts at the ornate iron gates in the parking lot and winds along the stone walkway into an expansive courtyard. I don't know where to look first: the decorative hotel colonnade or the splashing fountain or the giant oak. Lawns and gardens beckon to the bistro, where appetizers—that evening it was spicy sausage, pork loin and seared tuna—are served at happy hour with Martin & Weyrich wines in a fireplace-lit, beamed-ceiling room.
There is no spa, but off-site services will come to guests. I was more tempted to try the River Oaks Hot Springs & Spa, near Villa Toscana just off Highway 46 East. It's situated in a new housing development that looks, spookily, like a Camarillo tract. The spa itself is more aspirationally decorated and has open-air bathing rooms with tubs of mineral water from the natural hot springs and wood-deck seating, the better to soak in the views of the celadon hillsides. All for $12 an hour.
Figuring there should be more to a getaway than drinking and sleeping, I play the nearby Hunter Ranch Golf Course, unquestionably the best course in Paso Robles. It was designed by Ken Hunter Jr. and is the sister to La Purisima, a PGA-qualifying course in Lompoc. As at the spa, I am surprised by the low cost, especially the $60 greens fee that kicks in at noon Friday through Sunday. Not that the locals are happy to pay that, which may explain why you can get a spa-and-golf combo here without incurring the debt of a small Indian Ocean nation.
I am paired on a Saturday afternoon with two locals who declare every other golf course in the area a "dogtrack." Indeed, the oak-lined fairways are unsullied, the greens are smooth and fast and I'm really enjoying the round. But the fun is about to end. There's a surprise in store, say my new buddies as we make the turn at the 10th. All manner of course-designer trickery and deceit awaits, they warn, and sure enough, between the water and the arroyos, we're struggling. On a tricky par 3, their balls disappear. "Dragons got 'em," one mutters. "Yup," says the other, "they're with the dragons." This is one tough back nine, softened only by the twilight view of a lacy oak canopy over the chenille fairway. Is that a dragon behind that tree?
My room at the Summerwood Inn has a Jacuzzi, which looks aesthetically weird in the English country-floral setting, but makes perfect sense when you sink in to watch post-wine-tasting TV. It also makes the room, called Moscato Allegro, a little more pricey at $310 a night on the weekends. Guests pay from $260 to $290 a night for the seven other rooms in what looks like a Virginia farmhouse.
Although the Summerwood, which is older than the Villa Toscana, lacks the latter's luxury appointments, it has excellent service and food. That evening at happy hour there are scallops in a phyllo shell, sausage with tarragon mustard on puff pastry and a connoisseur selection of cheeses. Later that night, as guests return from dinner, they find coffee and tea and brownies waiting in the sitting room. The breakfast menu the next morning includes a rich mushroom tart and a spicy eggs Benedict. Juice is poured and repoured. Did I say the service is amazing?
Summerwood, on 46 West, is a good launching point for the area's best tasting, with two dozen wineries within a few minutes' drive. The wineries of east Paso Robles are ferociously sinking in vines and assembling colossal tasting rooms, but here in west Paso Robles are the God-given limestone-covered Santa Lucia Mountains, the water and just plain better grape weather.
But before losing your palate, descend on the Summerwood Winery, which has a cosmopolitan tasting room. Love the view through the glass wall of hundreds of hibernating wine barrels. And I'm happy to pay upward of $35 per bottle for their Rhone blends that, along with the wines at nearby Tablas Creek, are my Paso Robles favorites.
From Summerwood it's a straight shot over the 101 to Templeton for a quick taste of the area's other bright star, artisanal agriculture. Every Saturday morning from 9 to 12 Templeton holds a farmers market that I am told trumps the one in Paso Robles. I have been to farmers markets all over the state but never one where you could shop for sustainable meats, from beef to lamb to pork, from animals that did their grazing a few miles away. Looking at the gorgeous lettuces and tomatoes, I remember that kitchenette at Villa Toscana.
Although there are two dozen restaurants in downtown Paso Robles, the foodie network suggests that two stand out. Artisan is a newcomer whose opening has generated a buzz. Chef Chris Kobayashi was at Robin's in Cambria, where he produced terrific "global" cuisine, which means he cooked whatever took his fancy. But he turned that vine-wrapped old house into a destination. At Artisan he's thinking lofty: venison Wellington and steak with Cabernet butter. The décor is West Hollywood minimalist beige and black. I order the cornbread, which is shaped like pinky fingers. It comes with lavender honey butter and tastes like a delicious cloud. There are three wine flights to choose from, and I opt for a trio of reds that includes a hefty Cabernet Sauvignon from Justin, one of the region's celebrities.
As much as I like Artisan, I am won over by Villa Creek. The combinations are precocious and explosive, such as the local sea bass with a preserved lemon and red onion crème fraîche. The shepherd's plate of local cheese and olives arrives with a twist of preserved lemon. By the time the lamb shank is served with perfectly sautéed greens and—more lemon here—a lovely gremolata, I should be tired of the flavor, but no, it's that smartly done.
Villa Creek's interior is more in keeping with the region's roots, mission style in shape and colors, with Oaxacan weavings on the walls. Owner Cris Cherry is a passionate advocate of local food producers, and regularly buys goat cheese from Rinconada Dairy; heirloom tomatoes and apples from Windrose Farm; and Pasolivo and Olea Farm olive oils. "We want to do everything possible to keep agriculture a major part of this county's economy," he says.
Cris and wife JoAnn came to Paso Robles 10 years ago, back when "the nicest vehicle was a new truck," and they've had front seats on the rapid changes. Now the square outside their restaurant is ringed with BMWs and Range Rovers. Which brings Cris back to how Paso Robles could use a destination resort. "We need a small boutique resort where people could come and stay for four to five days," he offers. "It should have nice gardens with a pool and spa."
There are some new hotels, but not the sort Cherry is talking about: Four years ago a Hampton Inn came to town, a La Quinta just opened off 46 East and a Courtyard by Marriott is under construction. Not exactly romantic hideaways. A colorful Mediterranean-style hotel with the name La Bellasera is opening in May, but it has views of the Hampton Inn and 101 Freeway.
I send Cris to survey the Hotel Cheval, scheduled to open April 11 next to that stunning 1905 Mission Revival building. It's the latest project of Santa Barbara financier Robert Gilson, who's doing for San Luis Obispo County what Ty Warner's been doing for Montecito: buying and restoring historic buildings. The new hotel is his baby.
Cris likes its sophistication, especially the Old World Spanish inner courtyard, but is still hoping for a Napa-style resort. He'd been there recently and was amazed at the Disneyland-size crowds. He does a credible impression of weaving down the sidewalk, dodging the throngs. Maybe, I tell him, he should be careful what he wishes for.