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The art of country living in Paso Robles

Times Staff Writer

A reputation as the new Napa Valley is drawing wine drinkers here, but with two boys in tow, my husband and I found other reasons to visit one recent weekend. Reasons like garbage.

A class on holiday table decor I had registered for at Sycamore Farms, the popular herb grower and tasting room, had been canceled, so I shifted to a session on composting. Yes, composting. Funny thing was, the workshop turned out to be interesting, one of several pleasant surprises during our family weekend on the farms of Paso Robles and Templeton.

We crawled north out of Los Angeles through Friday evening rush hour, stopping for dinner in busy downtown Ventura at the Anacapa Brewing Co. My salad -- greens with oranges and a spicy dressing topped with grilled salmon -- was good, and the boys loved their fish and chips. Most of all we liked the snappy attitude of the place, as in its slogan: “Save the ales, drink more beer.”

We arrived late Friday night at Carriage Vineyards Bed & Breakfast in Templeton and found a two-story mushroom-colored house with two guest rooms and two suites. A note taped to the door offered us tea and snacks in the kitchen. Our hosts were very thoughtful, also providing books and games, a list of places to eat and visit and, best of all, the run of their 100-acre ranch. There was even a warning card about poison oak.

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Though I shushed our boys as they climbed into a high double bed, I didn’t need to. We had the whole place to ourselves.

Our suite had two bedrooms with a bathroom in between. Mitchell and I had a king-size bed, and both rooms had rockers. The decor fit the name: prints and models of carriages everywhere.

Bed-and-breakfasts can be annoying if you’re looking for solitude but find yourself forced into friendly chatter in a stranger’s home. Co-owner Larry Smyth struck just the right note on Saturday morning. After serving breakfast, he left us in peace after showing off his horse carriage collection in an adjacent building.

In one of those now-or-never moments, Larry and his wife, Diane, moved to Central California from Orange County in 2000 and opened their bed-and-breakfast two years later. Their horse carriage collection here totals 12, including two on loan. Most are about 100 years old. Galen, 9, and Sam, 11, were enchanted and began making up stories involving robbers, the living dead and other exciting characters. We had to drag them away.

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Driving among vineyards full of red autumn leaves, with hawks soaring overhead, the boys volunteered from the back seat: “I’m so happy,” and, “Me too.”

Me too. It was a glorious fall morning, and we meandered through Templeton. We found centerpieces for our Thanksgiving table -- beautiful and exotic pumpkins -- and a few snacks at the Templeton Farmers Market, held Saturday mornings at a park in the middle of a town holding fast to its cowboy heritage.

Our sons made a beeline for the playground. I had the Sycamore Farms’ seminar on biodynamic composting, the organic system the farm uses in its herb gardens and vineyards. A big appeal of this compost: no turning required.

“Boring,” Galen declared. “Why do you want to go to a class to learn about decomposing food?”

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Why not? Whether you have a tiny city garden (like me) or 6 acres (like one of my classmates), everyone has garbage that can be turned into rich soil. Biodynamic farming is based on a philosophy some might consider New Age and involves moon cycles and such, but our instructor, Bruce Shomler, said, “It really works.”

While my husband and our boys went to the free Pioneer Museum in Paso Robles, a place full of frontier artifacts, including hundreds of types of barbed wire, I got my hands dirty with the composting class.

Sycamore’s year-round classes cover other gardening topics, plus cooking, soap making and other crafts. I was amused by my session, able to ask lots of questions, even sample arugula and lemongrass growing nearby. By the end of the two-hour class, armed with Shomler’s tips and his offer to field questions by phone, my classmates seemed ready to go forth and compost too.

Come in and taste

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The countryside of the Central Coast is thick with wineries -- nearly three dozen in one Paso Robles tourist guide, most of them with signs out front practically begging passersby to come in and taste. Visitors easily could spend days doing nothing else. When I reminded my husband that this was not a wine-tasting trip, he looked so crestfallen that we made two quick stops: Bonny Doon’s tasting counter at Sycamore Farms and Turley in Templeton, where Mitchell tasted a sublime Petite Syrah.

We also wandered around Paso Robles, a town of 28,000 where damage from a deadly earthquake last year remains evident in the scaffolding and empty spaces downtown.

Paso Robles is not just growing, it’s growing hipper, with chic restaurants and shops. But its small-town, turn-of-the-century charm remains: When we showed up at Dan’s Economy Tire two hours past closing time, owner Dan Ozar replaced our two bad tires and even insisted on checking the spare.

Dinner at the 10th Street Vineyard Cafe in San Miguel made us feel as though we had been invited to a terrific party. Three nights a week, Caren and Dallas Holt turn their 46-seat cafe into a Basque and French feast, served family-style at long tables. There is just one seating, 7 p.m., and reservations are strongly recommended.

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Wearing red berets and banging a wooden spoon on a pot lid for attention, the Holts gave a preview of our dishes.

First course was tapas: pickled vegetables, stuffed mushrooms, chicken and olives. A creamy pumpkin soup followed. Then migas (“crumbs” in Spanish), a down-home dish of bread, ham, saffron and garlic made from a Holt family recipe. While we were eating, Dallas introduced everyone to the bota bag, a suede wine bag that was tipped so a stream of wine hit the back of the mouth without dripping onto clothing.

There was more: salad, roast chicken and carrots, a wonderful lamb in a Merlot sauce with potatoes, sherbet with champagne. And everyone shared a birthday cake for one of the guests. Our party lasted nearly three hours.

We moved slowly on Sunday morning, starting with a breakfast of ham and egg crepes, yogurt and granola, and apple muffins. Then we wandered the Smyths’ property, through olive groves and vineyards, accompanied by their loping, friendly dogs, Sutton and Soda. It’s a working farm, and our urban boys were charmed by the barns, the horses and bulls, and trees with olive-laden branches.

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We periodically worried about rain, but for no good reason. It didn’t start until we were headed home, south on the 101, passing Pismo Beach. Even the close of our weekend was a reward: Double rainbows appeared in front of us.

*

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Budget for four

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Expenses for this trip:

Lodging

Carriage Vineyards,

two nights with tax $370.60

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Dinner

Anacapa Brewing Co. $64.76

Class fee

Sycamore Farms, for one $15.00

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Dinner

10th Street Vineyard Cafe $98.61

Snacks, other meal $31.10

Gas $61.24

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Final tab $641.31

CONTACT:

Carriage Vineyards Bed & Breakfast, 4337 S. El Pomar Road, Templeton, CA 93465; (800) 617-7911 or (805) 227-6807, www.carriagevineyards.com.

Sycamore Farms, 2485 Highway 46 West, Paso Robles, CA 93446; (800) 576-5288 or (805) 238-5288, www.sycamorefarms.com.

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Pioneer Museum, 2010 Riverside Ave., Paso Robles, CA 93447; (805) 239-4556.


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