It’s not hard to find the center of Paso Robles. It’s the city park, a green square where giant shade trees spread their branches over picnic tables and park benches. Here, a farmers market takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays and weekends often bring bustling food and wine fairs. The gleaming windows of jazzy food boutiques, alluring restaurants and even a tony wine bar line its edges. At night, its sidewalks are alive with couples strolling arm-in-arm on their way to dinner.
This bump in the road just about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is California’s newest wine boomtown. And with wine have come money, new residents, tourists and the national reputation necessary to support serious restaurants, ambitious farms, dairies, bakeries and food purveyors.
While the transformation from a beef and barley economy to the next Napa or Sonoma is just beginning, the number of new wineries in the area is staggering. In the last 10 years, Paso Robles has seen an increase from 35 to 90. By 2009, the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Assn. predicts there will be at least 150 wineries. (Although neighboring Santa Barbara County is roughly a decade ahead of Paso Robles in terms of the maturity and quality of its wines, that area appears to be topping out at 80 wineries.)
“The huge growth in the number of wineries tells you that these are smaller wineries, and smaller wineries make better wine,” wine industry analyst Vic Motto says of the Paso Robles boom. As a result, the local economy is in “an upwardly mobile spiral.”
Boarded-up storefronts -- a downtown fixture throughout the 1990s -- are now home to thriving businesses. The city has also been quick to start rebuilding after suffering heavy quake damage last Christmas season. A fancy inn is being built off the park, a welcome addition to a region where an eclectic collection of 20-some small guesthouses is the primary source of luxury accommodation.
Food is the caboose on this speeding train, with the first wave of culinary endeavors led by dreamers willing to invest in a future that’s still a bit hazy.
A small but passionate group of organic farmers, food artisans and restaurateurs has come here determined to transform the local steak-and-potato mentality into something, well, higher up on the food chain and yet still unique to this rustic section of the Central Coast.
Bill and Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm are among them. The land around here is special, says Bill Spencer. And, no two ways about it, he and his wife were “called” to be farmers here. Not a voice from on high, as he explains it, but more an earth-reaching-up-to-draw-your-soul-to-it kind of thing.
For nearly a decade, the two have worked hard turning overgrown pasture land into an organic truck farm, along the way discovering that the Paso Robles area offers ideal soils and climates for growing just about everything. Their midlife conversion to farming (previously, she was a Hollywood session cellist and he sold real estate) has been an experiment with heirloom seeds, the kind of produce cultivated before science created hybrid plants with pest-resistance bred in and the flavor bred out, says Spencer.
The farm now produces a profusion of tomatoes, along with 43 varieties of apples, plus peaches and nectarines. The couple raise 20 varieties of melons, more than 15 kinds of winter squash, a dozen types of eggplant, as well as beets, cucumbers, peppers, dry beans and okra.
With their savings sunk into their heirloom adventure, Spencer says with a shrug of his shoulders, “No sane person would do what we’re doing.”
But the endeavor has paid off. When Lucques chef Suzanne Goin needed fresh produce to photograph for her upcoming cookbook, she had the Spencers back a truck up to her restaurant and unloaded crates of their winter squash, heirloom tomatoes and scores of other vegetables.
Bruce Marder, chef at Capo in Santa Monica, recently bought all the Ashmeads Kernal English apples that Barbara Spencer had at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. The Spencers make the trek there every Wednesday morning, and to the Saturday morning market at Santa Monica Airport.
Jason Travi, chef at Gino Angelini’s new L.A. restaurant La Terza, stopped by the Spencers’ stall to buy a mixed box of melons. Tasting one that smelled of grapefruit but had a flavor like lime, he shrugged and admitted he had no idea what kind of melons they were. “I serve them for breakfast, use them for an amuse and as a garnish for certain cheese plates,” he said. “But mostly, Gino and I just cut them open and eat them in the kitchen. They are really good.”
For six years, Christine Maguire has been making cheese in her kitchen, trying to create a perfect raw sheep’s milk round. The Paso Robles area is too hot and dry, she says, for her herd of European dairy sheep, East Friesians. “I’m spending a fortune to feed them alfalfa because there is no grass most of the year.”
But this is the breed with the right milk for the pressed, natural rind cheese she wants to make. And the Paso Robles area is home.
Maguire is only the second person in California licensed to make sheep’s milk cheese. “And if you saw how little milk each sheep produces, you’d know why,” she says. There’s no one nearby to repair the special sheep milking equipment when it breaks, and she has to send away to Europe for her cheese molds.
But when her Rinconada Dairy finally was licensed this year to sell her Pozo Tomme -- a sharp, hard cheese with the consistency of a Spanish Manchego -- one of her first orders came from Campanile’s chef-owner, Mark Peel. When the spring milking starts, Maguire hopes to have doubled her herd to at least 100 ewes, which will allow her to keep Paso Robles’ shiny new cheese shop, Di Raimondo’s, as well as Peel, fully stocked.
‘Buy Fresh -- Buy Local’
The local food culture is starting to loosely organize itself politically, says Maguire, noting that the “Buy Fresh -- Buy Local” and “Slow Food” movements are gaining traction. “We have to band together here.”
Several small farmers are actively promoting a November ballot initiative to prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified crops in San Luis Obispo County, according to local farmers and food artisans.
“I sense big, big changes coming,” Maguire says. “There are now enough new people from Los Angeles living here who have traveled and want to eat well.”
At its heart, Paso Robles is a cow town, says Tom Fundaro, the chef at Villa Creek, a popular restaurant right off the town square and a cornerstone of the community’s nascent food movement.
Fundaro, an Atascadero native, learned to cook in New York City. Coming home didn’t make sense for the ambitious chef until he hooked up with restaurant owner Cris Cherry. Together, they are crafting “cuisine from early California” that is dependent on local, organically cultivated food. They are aggressively seeking out farmers and ranchers willing to go the extra mile to deliver food to their specifications.
“We try desperately to get people to eat organic food and grass-fed beef,” Fundaro says. “But the locals don’t want it.” Fundaro expresses frustration that many of his customers balk at smaller portions and the leaner grass-fed meat. “I do an oxtail soup, even though it doesn’t sell, and offer sweetbreads twice a year anyway. These are the peasant cuts,” he says. “Hey, there were peasants when the dons were here.”
To accommodate local tastes while satisfying their own ambitions, Fundaro finds ways to elaborate on favorites. His poblano chiles rellenos is baked with an Asian panko crust, filled with Asiago cheese and garnished with an intense red chile sauce with complex sweet-hot flavors and spicy aromas.
He serves his rib-eye steak with sweet potato fries and a pork porterhouse with sauteed cabbage and chorizo, all recognizable dishes with surprising twists.
Cherry, who is also a vintner, has turned Villa Creek’s open-air bar into a hangout for fellow winemakers. “When Paso Robles pops up to the next level,” says Fundaro, “we will already be on our game here.”
That is, as long as the city can keep out chain restaurants. “When I say my prayers at night, it’s that the people here won’t let the Olive Garden into town,” Fundaro says. If that were to happen, he said, it would mean the end of Villa Creek and the half-dozen other restaurants that have cropped up around the square.
All true, according to Claude Chazalon, who discovered central California while on a family vacation two years ago. He decided to move here, returning home to Paris to sell his restaurant so he could open Paris Restaurant in Paso Robles. A year after his grand opening, and nine months after last winter’s devastating earthquake, Chazalon has learned that his uncompromisingly French bistro menu is a tough sell. People who live in Paso Robles “don’t know sweetbreads, leeks or fluke,” he says. “They know rib-eye and salmon.”
Still, the weekend tourists from L.A. enjoy French food, he says. And, although it took a while for him to discover California’s organic produce, Chazalon says he now is committed to serving it. “The other is big and beautiful, but there is no flavor. Organic tastes better,” he says.
Chazalon wasn’t the first Frenchman to open a restaurant in downtown Paso Robles. Ten years ago, Laurent Grangien opened Bistro Laurent, making his Franco-California food the definition of fine dining here. When McPhee’s Grill opened in neighboring Templeton, the number of restaurants with gastronomic aspirations in the area grew to two.
More recently, Buona Tavola, a trattoria off the park in Paso Robles, has opened to offer rustic northern Italian fare. A Thai restaurant, Basil, and a restaurant featuring the cuisine of northern India, Tiger Paw, have opened as well.
Donnie Monroe joined the region’s new wave a year ago when he opened Hush Harbor Artisan Bakery in nearby Atascadero. Chazalon swears by Monroe’s baguettes, a staple at Paris and other local restaurants. Monroe’s flaky croissants are served in the guesthouses scattered throughout the Paso Robles vineyards.
After working in France, New York City and L.A. -- carrying his pungent 13-year-old starter dough with him wherever he’s gone -- Monroe thinks this is where he can successfully build a bakery business. “The middle of the state is in transition,” he says. “It’s growing. A cool place to be.” He adds that there are even enough musicians in nearby San Luis Obispo to fill his cafe during weekend jazz sessions.
It’s more than just new restaurants and bakeries. The recently opened Di Raimondo’s offers downtown Paso Robles shoppers a wide assortment of cheeses, as well as such hard-to-find specialties as Molinari’s dry salami from San Francisco and Baratti chocolates from Italy. Next door, We Olive has a tasting bar featuring more than a dozen olive oils, several of which are locally pressed.
With artisan olive oils proliferating in California, a standout among the local offerings is Pasolivo, which is made by Karen Guth, her son Joshua and daughter-in-law Joeli Yaguda. Guth got the idea during a visit to Italy and started planting trees eight years ago. Since then, Willow Creek Olive Ranch has evolved from a hobby into a bit of olive artistry, producing a peppery-tasting oil pressed at the ranch within two hours of hand harvesting.
The farm has more than 9,000 trees producing mostly Italian olive varieties including Frantoio, Leccino, Lucca, Moraiolo and Pendolino. Guth purposely harvests some of her olives a touch under-ripe. She likes a green flavor that, when the oil is tasted by itself, can catch at the back of the throat. It’s an acquired taste designed for an epicurean’s palate.
“It’s only been the last six months to a year that we’ve felt the local food scene come alive,” says Yaguda. “Everyone is working their tails off to make it happen.”
One barometer of progress is the growth in organic farms in northern San Luis Obispo County. The current 26 certified organic growers is a drop in the bucket for the intensely agrarian region around Paso Robles. But the purists are gaining converts, with five to six new farmers a year being certified organic, according to state statistics.
The population of Paso Robles has grown as well, rising from 19,200 to nearly 28,000 in the last 14 years. It seems as though new housing developments are cropping up everywhere here, as the median price of a home has soared from $124,000 in 1994 to today’s $347,900, according to a study by the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project.
Don’t be surprised if the super-heated local economy cools down a bit. “There is a world-wide glut of wine and there is price pressure on Paso Robles wine,” says Bill Watkins, author of the UCSB study. “But it’s held up better than I would have thought.” Still, he says, prosperity in Paso Robles is here to stay.