California's Booming Wine Country in Paso Robles

Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

Napa may be California's supreme wine producer, but after years of flying under the radar Paso Robles is emerging as a strong competitor and is conveniently located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Napa still reigns as California’s supreme wine producer. Its place was assured because of a confluence of three factors. As the top end of the Mission Trail it had religious connections to priests who knew something about wine making and Napa had the Mission’s native work force. It had immigrants from the Gold Rush ready to work the vineyards, also. And it had a true navigable waterway to the coast, the Napa River.

American wine cognoscenti agree Napa comes first. They feel about it as they do about any first love, but now — because the grape growers have to pay so much for land — its wine is overpriced and Napa, the location, the name, has become overly pleased with itself. Nature, as always, abhors a vacuum.

Enter Paso Robles, a town about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Napa needed affordable grapes; Paso had the land and an available workforce. So now Napa has Sonoma, its little sister; Paso Robles; and, also developing, Santa Barbara.

We arrive on a car day where locals have brought their classic and favorite cars to the City Park. The weather is glorious, everyone is relaxed. It’s a magnificent model for Small Town America.

We go into the Carnegie Library, a National Historic Landmark and home to the Paso Robles Historical Society. Its website has a detailed and interesting review of the town’s history. Paso started as part of a 26,000-acre Spanish land grant. The Salinan Indians had lived here for thousands of years but were apparently wiped out during the Mission era.

The Franciscans called the area Hot Springs because of its multiple mineral springs. The post office was later established in 1867 under that name. The railroad came in 1886 bringing travelers to this new “health resort.”

Many celebrities came for the cure in the town’s mud baths, including the famous pianist and one-time Polish prime minister, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who loved this area so much he bought a ranch here.

In addition to celebrities, the town’s health resorts attract physicians, too. The docent makes us welcome, waves her hand at Andrew Carnegie’s photograph and opens up the glass cabinets when she sees our cameras and how we were crouching down to see the museum’s medical exhibits

As we, retired health professionals, get older it is somewhat unsettling to see, documented as an antique, a doctor’s bag similar to one that sat in our house for a lifetime until a granddaughter, Aubrey, got it as a plaything.

One wonders, of course, what today’s medical students would think of the museum’s bottle of Sloan’s Liniment. Earl Sloan was a self-trained veterinarian who lived 1848 to 1923. He developed his capsaicin chili pepper rub in 1871 and, ultimately, became a wealthy philanthropist.

We’re not in Paso Robles for the “cure” but to celebrate a family member’s 50th birthday. He and his wife (hiding behind a wine glass in the above image) love this little town with its 200 vineyards. He sees himself as a wine connoisseur though his sisters may have called him a “wine snob,” which we guess is better than being called a “wino.”

We are eating in all their favorite restaurants including Panolivo Family Bistro with its great in-house baked goods for breakfast and Farmstand 46 for its tasty sandwiches to go with a Denner Vineyard picnic. Dinner gave us good choices between Artisan and Il Cortile.

The restaurants in Paso Robles charge more than simple family restaurants in San Diego, but they are catering for an upscale group — those who come for the wine tasting and vineyard experience instead of the average tourists. In fact, Paso has come late to tourism; it’s a genuine lived-in small town with parks, antique shops and museums.

We’re not looking for a hotel in Paso either. Our family has booked a four-bedroom house for three nights in the downtown area at 1905 Vine Street through Paso Robles Vacation Rentals. (The charge was $500 per couple with an additional booking fee of about $175.)

There are other hotels such as Hampton Inn, the Best Western Plus Black Oak and La Quinta, most near the Highway 101/Highway 46 junction. There is also the attractive and expensive downtown Hotel Cheval with rates May through October in peak season running from $330 to $475 a night, a lot for a small town. (Rates are about $45 less during the weekday and about another $35 less off peak.)

We wanted to take more photographs at the Hotel Cheval, but we must have caught the employee sitting at the lobby desk at a time when she was having a bad day so we had the sense to bail. The brochure says “Hotel Cheval offers well-traveled guests an experience unlike any other in the area.” We believe it.

(Images top left clockwise) A town landmark, the House on the Vine, the entrance to the Carnegie Museum, a bedroom in the house we rented and the striking courtyard of the Hotel Cheval.

Things to do

The fertile land that helps grapes also allows olive trees to flourish. The Pasolivo Olive Company with its 6,000 trees on 45 acres has been in business for 20 years, which is nothing in the lifespan of an olive tree. Reputedly there are trees growing in Italy and still giving some yield after 1,000 years.

The olives are hand picked but processed by expensive machinery that comes from Italy. Sherri Smith has been working here for three years and, after we have seen the mechanical equipment, ushers us through to the olive oil tasting room where all kinds of flavors have been added to the oil: tangerine, lemon pepper, truffle salt even lavender. It’s a new world for most visitors.

We notice the art on the tasting room walls. An Italian etching reproducing how produce was collected in the old days contrasts with a local artist’s depiction of how leisurely harvesting is today.

Anyone who picked potatoes during summer school vacations remembers harvesting never allowed workers to relax in the shade of an orchard as Lowell Herrero has shown it here.

The wineries

There are too many to visit. One makes choices.

Terry Hoage graduated from the University of Georgia as an All-American football player with a Bachelor of Science degree in genetics. His college microscope is on display in his wine tasting room as is his Washington Redskins number 34 football jersey.

“Paso Robles tends to come as a surprise to visitors even those who love small towns in California. We have been flying under their radar!” says Evan Vossler, the assistant tasting manager of Terry Hoage Vineyards, “But that’s changing.”

The numbers are changing too. Now vineyards sprawl over 26,000 cultivated acres in Paso.

Hoage Vineyards is a relative newcomer, a boutique winery with a mere 17 acres planted of the 26 acres bought in 2002 by Terry Hoage, a former NFL defensive back who won one Super Bowl ring (with the Washington Redskins).

It’s been said that Hoage brought the competitive edge he showed in the NFL into winemaking. He is passionate and meticulous, says Vossler. This soil was a former sea bed and when Hoage tested and tasted before buying land he said “the sum of the Paso Robles limestone terrain was greater than the separate parts.”

Ron Denner, owner of Denner Vineyards, in his previous life developed the “Ditch Witch” that was so effective in laying cables. Wealthy, he started dreaming and now — looking around his winery — can say “Dreams do come true.” He wanted to buy land but exactly what he couldn’t describe.

When Ron Denner decided to buy land for his vineyard, he knew what he was looking for, but didn’t know how to describe it.

“I must have been the worst customer a real estate broker could have,“ Denner says. “The realtor would ask, ‘Well what do you want?’ and I’d say, ‘I’ll know when I see it!’ Then I heard a piece of land was available and nobody knew the family who’d had it for 110 years was prepared to sell.

After seeing the land, Denner knew it was the land he wanted. But even though he was agreeing to pay full price, it took the owners six months to agree to sell until they could be convinced that Denner would be a good neighbor.

“Now those who thought I was the village idiot for paying so much for uncultivated land look at my vineyard three years later and think I’m a robber baron,” Denner says. “It’s all about chasing dreams.”

In a land of vineyards where a dentist and a veterinarian both own wineries it’s no surprise to find a physician.

Warren Frankel, MD was born in New York City and graduated from Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx. He decided to go into rural family practice and wanted enough skills for such a role. He chose a year of internal medicine and a year of surgery at UCLA finishing in 1970 then took off for Templeton, Calif., a small town near Paso Robles.

Earlier at age 18 Frankel had wanted to be an artist, though it was his interest in history that took him to Oslo, Norway. He was fascinated by the large uninhibited sculptures of Gustav Vigeland. The sculptor was supported by the new country of Norway but allowed to do what he wanted as he created his life’s output for his country. Frankel thought how great it would be able to work without being controlled by others.

In 1979 he bought 260 acres and started growing grapes in his Sculpterra Winery and Sculpture Garden, first for Napa Valley wineries but then felt his grapes lost their identity when mixed with so many others. His son went to California Polytechnic State University to study viniculture and now they make their own wine very successfully. His daughter graduated from medical school in University of Southern California and is now in practice with him. His wife is a registered nurse whose interest in horses was the catalyst that first brought them here.

A physician getting into grape growing makes more sense than people might think, according to Frankel.

“You know, the Krebs cycle we learned in med school applies to grapes as well; the chemistry of the human body is somewhat similar to the chemistry of fermentation,” he says. “And doctors do like to take care of things.

“I’ve been a doctor for 42 years. The only difficult thing for an experienced doctor is the responsibility. Growing grapes is a lot simpler.”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.