The 101 Cafe in Oceanside, southern California, is a shrine to the Pacific Coast Highway, America’s most beautiful drive, which stretches almost 2,000 miles ahead of us. If you want a Highway 101 coffee mug, baseball cap or bumper sticker, this is the place to buy it. They do a pretty good coffee and ice cream, too. The guy at the next table hears where we are headed.
“When you get to Cambria, you must, must drive inland through Paso Robles wine country. Take the Santa Rosa Creek Road, a back road that goes through the wineries. It’s gorgeous,” he says.
Well, what’s a road trip for if you can’t make diversions? Three hundred miles later we’re in Cambria, on California’s Central Coast, almost midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We’ve checked out Hearst Castle, the overwhelmingly grand former home of William Randolph Hearst, and visited Piedras Blancas Beach, home to 17,000 elephant seals, so we take the stranger’s enthusiastic advice. And that’s when we fall in love with Paso Robles wine country.
Save Sonoma, much further north, for another visit and let the crowds have the more commercialised Napa Valley. A drive through Paso Robles lifts the spirits before you’ve even raised a glass at one of the 220-plus vineyards that combine Bacchus with the region’s natural beauty. Roads with names like Jack Creek Road, Chimney Rock Road and, of course, Vineyard Drive, all weave and wind their way through gently curving hills and fields which, even in spring, are as lushly green as on an English summer’s day. Horses and cattle graze peacefully. We crawl carefully around a zig-zag bend and are plunged into a shady woodland where Spanish moss hangs from the trees and we brake hard to spare the life of a suicidal squirrel that scampers across the road.
We sometimes have to brake hard to find the vineyards too, as the roads can curve suddenly and, if you drive by, it could be another mile before you can turn around. At the Jada Vineyard (www.jadavineyard.com) we drive through their vines to the Tasting Room, where they match each wine with a cheese.
WALNUTS AND ALMONDS
“First,” says the girl with the bottles, “I want you to try this smoked cheddar from France, which we’ve paired with our flagship Rhône-style wine, Hell’s Kitchen. You enjoying your visit?” We say we’re impressed by the scenery as well as the wine. “We have lots of variety here, with walnuts and almond trees, which were planted to take the place of the vines that were ripped out during Prohibition.”
Our next winery, the Adelaida Cellars (www.adelaida.com), is surrounded by 600 acres of those walnut trees. Here we sip our way through chardonnay, pinot noir (which is rare in this region), zinfandel, a syrah, a Rhône-style red, a reserve cabernet and a viognier.
“The vineyard is at 2000ft elevation,” we’re told by the woman doing the pouring, “and the soil type is distinctive. It’s rare in California but they have it in Burgundy and the Rhône. The elevation is the only difference. The cold Pacific air makes it cool in the afternoons, which is good in summer for the grapes.”
“The climate of Paso Robles is peculiar,” we’re told by Brian, our tour guide at the JUSTIN Vineyards (www.justinwine.com), where we’re staying the night. “There are many different micro-climates, which is why you get such variety in the wines. One day we had a record high of 118 degrees, but on the very same day we had a record low of 52 degrees. It can make wine-making challenging.”
One way the JUSTIN Vineyards faces the challenge is by employing a Master Sommelier, one of fewer than 200 in the world. Despite having only four rooms, they also maintain a restaurant, Deborah’s Room, where the food rivalled any Michelin-starred restaurants we’ve eaten at in Europe. It began with an amuse-bouche which combined scallops, pork belly, petite tangerine and micro greens, and soared from there. Each course was matched with one of the distinctive JUSTIN wines, from their crisp sauvignon blanc through to their sweet and fruity, port-like dessert wine, Obtuse.
The meal and wines certainly put a dent in the credit card, but long after the dent has been straightened out, the memories still tingle the taste-buds. And besides, falling in love is never cheap.
Mike Gerrard publishes a website devoted to the Pacific Coast Highway:
WAY TO GO
Stay on the coast in Cambria surrounded by the gorgeous gardens of the Cambria Pines Lodge (www.cambriapineslodge.com) and take a short drive into wine country.
Stay on a vineyard like the exclusive JUST Inn (www. justinwine.com).
In town, stay in the historic Paso Robles Inn (www.pasoroblesinn.com).
For more information on Paso Robles, visit www.travelpaso.com.