Wandering East, Sip by Dip
Turn left on 101. Stop for wine and olive oil tastings. Repeat 95 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Today, while the traditional crops remain, they have been superseded by grapes grown in arrow-straight lines that stretch along the rolling hills, reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside.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.

And who could blame them? The mission is beautiful, and it's possible the lecture would have been intriguing, but who wouldn't prefer browsing the boutique clothing stores and cool art galleries, to say nothing of the stores with New Age gadgets and leftover hippie stuff? I happily spent an afternoon just strolling the town, which offers much more than you'd expect of a place its size. Then again, it's a college town, home of California Polytechnic State University, and tourists no doubt also help keep the town vibrant.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped for a look at the Madonna Inn, easily the oddest little resort in all of the Americas. Each of the 109 rooms is uniquely decorated. The caveman room, for example, features solid rock floors and walls; the tack room walls are covered in red leather and pony pictures. A spa, slated to open this winter, will have a waterfall cascading into a lagoon, a 90-foot-long pool and bridges and walkways leading to a gazebo. Meanwhile, you can dine in the steakhouse, where the plush red seating and gold tinsel make it seem like an odd cross between a bordello and a Venetian castle.

I rather wished I could have stayed and eaten at the Madonna Inn, but I had mentally reserved dinner at the farmers market. Neither the food nor the ambiance disappointed.

You can find a farmers market any day of the week within the county. Paso Robles hosts them on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The San Luis Obispo market on Thursday evenings is a major party that shuts down numerous blocks to traffic.

Several bands were playing when I arrived. Farmers were selling gorgeous piles of every fruit and vegetable known to North America, including hybrids I've never seen before, such as a cross between a plum and a peach, and a cherry and a grape.

There were fortunetellers and New Age evangelists and booths where Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians looked for voters. Best of all were the food booths, with ethnic fare and barbecue, pies made by farmers who also grew the fruit inside them, handmade gourmet chocolates and platters served up by local restaurants, high-end and low.

Only warning: No matter how beautiful the fruit appears, if you fail to resist temptation and buy more than you and an army could possibly eat in several days, it will rot.

Flights and Fancy

Paso Robles, founded by an uncle of Jesse James, was once a major destination for travelers seeking natural hot springs. By the 1990s it had fallen on hard times, but it has since experienced a renaissance.

A good place to start a winery tour, Paso Robles is also home to a growing culinary scene. Historic buildings surround a large, wooded town square with a gazebo-style bandstand that features live music on Friday nights in summer. The square is also a staging area for three major wine festivals each year, including the Harvest Wine Tour the third weekend of October. The fest offers cooking classes, lessons in pairing wine and food, and events such as grape stomping and jeep rides through vineyards.

I settled in at Villa Creek Restaurant and Cellars, an elegant establishment where lunch begins with a flight of wines. Most of the finer restaurants in Paso Robles are committed to sustainable agriculture and the slow-food movement, meaning fresh ingredients from local farmers. Villa Creek follows this trend, with a special focus on early California, or Rancho Mission, cuisine. The ever-changing menu features such items as blackened buffalo rib-eye with grilled corn spoonbread, butternut squash enchiladas and fish with heirloom tomatoes and avocado salsa.

Having soaked up the flight with food, I strolled a couple of doors down to Vivant Fine Cheese Tasting, where 200 kinds of artisan cheeses were paired with wines. Across the street in a historic bathhouse, another wine-tasting room with a terrace beneath a vine-covered pergola was preparing for a September opening. Next door sat the newly opened Hotel Cheval, a 16-room European-style luxury inn that provides a horse-drawn carriage to carry guests to nearby restaurants.

A few more tipples at Vinotech, a wine bar that on Friday nights features various local winemakers pouring barrel samples, and I was in no condition to drive myself to the estate wineries.

There are several ways to get there without driving yourself: balloon tours from overhead, tours by van, tours by an open trolley car or a new tour that combines a hike with a gourmet picnic and winery stops. In my case, I'd arranged to meet with Christopher Taranto of the Paso Robles Wine Alliance, who does the driving.

The wine industry in Paso Robles is expanding quickly. In 1983, a count showed 20 wineries; today, 170. Quality also continues to rise, says Taranto, with Paso Robles wines winning prizes at world shows and showing up as top picks by publications such as Wine Spectator.

Everything Olives

It's worth driving the countryside just for the scenery. Oak forests provided Paso Robles with its name, which means "oak pass." The Midlife Crisis Winery is shaded with lines of Italian cypress. Adelada Winery is surrounded by walnut and almond groves.

I put off more tastings until arriving at Justin Winery, a beautiful property with a rare feature: a winery restaurant, one of only a handful in California. Lunch is served on a patio overlooking a rose garden. Dinner is a formal affair, a five-course dinner in a six-table restaurant that oozes romance.

The winery also has four luxurious suites with fireplaces, flat-screen TVs and glorious views of farm and field for overnight guests.

Then it was on to Pasolivo's olive grove, where the Guth/Yaguda family and its seasonal workers each year pick 72 tons of olives by hand from their 9,000 trees during a two-week period. The olives are rushed to the grinder, pulverized into mush, then put into a centrifuge before being bottled on site.

Joeli Yaguda says her family is one of 200 olive oil producers in California. The tasting room is rarer still and was opened as an afterthought: Olive oil enthusiasts were constantly stopping by wanting to see the operation and taste the various mixtures. The family ended up moving their home to make room for the tasting room, where samples from the grove are offered, along with tangerine olive oil chocolates, olive oil soaps and other skin products, and cooking gear.

Who knew olive oil could carry such a strong and distinctive taste? Unless you own a grove and press, you probably don't want to use it for ordinary cooking, seeing as how a half-liter bottle of the really good stuff costs $28, Yaguda says. But dribbled on a salad or over pasta, you want the best.

Olive oil should be used within about 18 months of the time it is pressed, and the most vibrant taste is from the olio nuovo, Yaguda said. Most supermarket varieties are old and tired, she added. First thing back home, I rushed to the cupboard to inspect the two bottles of extra-virgin Italian I had on hand and could not find a date on either of them. A few weeks later I read a New Yorker magazine expos┬┐ of a major scandal in Italy, in which tanker loads of soy oil from Turkey are received and bottled with extra-virgin Italian olive oil labels.

Frankly, I found Pasolivo rather strong when taken with just a small chunk of bread, but it turns out, as I discovered after returning home, that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my homemade salad dressing. I even decided to upgrade my balsamic vinegar to make it worthy of being mixed with Pasolivo, which, by the way, just won two best-of-show awards at an international olive oil competition.

Less than 30 minutes after leaving the inland olive grove, I was in an oceanfront room at Avila Beach, also in San Luis Obispo County, watching the waves roll in. By morning, within a few minutes, I was back on Route 1 at the beginning of my beloved Big Sur.

That particular California pleasure is still the be-all, in my mind, but it's not the end-all. Behind those rocky cliffs pounded by the ocean lies a destination treasure.

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