Villa Creek in Paso Robles features such items as blackened buffalo rib-eye with grilled corn spoonbread and butternut squash enchiladas.
Villa Creek in Paso Robles features such items as blackened buffalo rib-eye with grilled corn spoonbread and butternut squash enchiladas.
Joann Cherry

Wandering East, Sip by Dip

The "Old World" room at the Madonna Inn features rock floors native to San Luis Obispo. (By Mel Melcon -- Los Angeles Times)
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

I'm a California coast hugger who believes that once you've hit Route 1 anywhere south of San Francisco or north of Morro Bay, you've pretty much reached nirvana. Why stray farther?

But I proved myself wrong on a recent trip by wandering slightly to the east, onto Route 101. A mere 30-mile stretch of 101 carries you between two of California's most attractive, walkable towns, San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. The country roads around both towns wind past almond and olive groves, orchards heavy with fruit, and tens of thousands of acres of vineyards that have in the past decade made this California's third-largest wine-growing region, according to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

John Steinbeck, who wrote so provocatively of central California in the middle of the last century, would still feel at home in the valleys and hills of San Luis Obispo County, where Spanish dons once controlled vast plantations. Zoning laws have protected the agricultural character of much of the county, once best known for grazing cattle and producing most of the nation's almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

Today, while the traditional crops remain, they have been superseded by grapes grown in arrow-straight lines that stretch along the rolling hills, reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside.

You won't find any huge corporate-owned estate wineries. Instead, at the 95 tasting rooms in the area, you'll likely find your wine being poured by the winemaker, or perhaps his children. The owners are still involved in the winemaking and are often on hand to greet you on arrival.

An easygoing country lifestyle predominates. Although I am far from being a wine expert, I never felt intimidated. Instead of pretending to know what the people pouring the tastes were talking about, I asked questions. Pretensions? Look elsewhere. Hospitality? Come here.

During my trip I equally enjoyed strolling the towns and hiking the countryside. I had remarkable meals at sophisticated restaurants featuring local products and gorged one night from the stands at one of the seemingly ubiquitous farmers markets. The hours between these meals were filled with numerous snacks involving wine, cheese and crackers.

Perhaps my favorite discovery: artisan olive oils. Call me naive, but after growing up on Crisco and corn oil, I thought myself rather suave when buying extra-virgin Italian olive oil during my supermarket trips. But at an olive oil tasting room, I learned from a master taster to appreciate a truly fine olive oil and its various attributes in the categories of fruitiness, pungency and bitterness.

Olive oil connoisseurs are as discerning about their beloved product as any sommelier. Just as a certain kind of wine aficionado eagerly anticipates the newest shipment of Beaujolais nouveau, knowledgeable olive oil enthusiasts sign up months in advance of the October bottling of the newest press of olive oil, or olio nuovo, as it is known.

The question is not whether to take a slight detour from Route 1 to experience yet another level of pleasure in central California. For me at least, the question on any future trip will be whether to stay in town at a cool hotel during my detour or in a countryside B&B.

History Meets Oddity

San Luis Obispo, a town of 44,000 residents, is centered on the gardens and terraces of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772 by Father Junipero Serra. The glaring white stucco of the graceful old building topped by red clay tiles is one of the best remaining examples of the 18th-century mission style.

Although brochures promise rare collections of California artifacts and photographs, to someone accustomed to the riches of the Smithsonian, the collection seems a bit paltry. The thing I remember best: A group of high school girls crouching behind a wall as their teacher led a tour to the mission. Once their classmates were inside, the girls went dashing down the street in a hail of giggles.

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