Wine and Whimsy in Paso Robles

Napa Valley has some serious competition.

Far from the hustle and bustle of Southern California, and the overwhelming popularity of the “Wine Country� of Napa and Sonoma Counties, Paso Robles is coming into its own.

Winemaking and grape growing have been part of Paso Robles since 1797, beginning with the Franciscan missionaries at the historic Mission San Miguel Arcangel. Father Junipero Serra planted more than 1000 vines to make wine for sacramental purposes and brandy to export. In 1882 Andrew York, a settler from Indiana, was given a land grant by Ulysses S. Grant to begin commercial winemaking. York Mountain Winery, then known as Ascension Winery, is the oldest winery in the area.

Until 30 years ago, local wineries were few, and in the past 10 years the area has literally exploded with growth, creating a niche for itself by emphasizing Rhone varietals. Boutique wineries have sprung up, adding personal touches and doubling the number of wineries from 50 to 100 in the past six years. Beyond the basic Zinfandels and Cabernets, wines with unfamiliar names are emerging. Mourvedre and Counoise roll off the tongue as easily as Merlot would elsewhere.

Today, Paso Robles can hold its own against any wine district in the world, producing award-winning wines from many local wineries. It offers a casual, unhurried atmosphere with fewer people, allowing intimate conversations with owners and winemakers, leading to spontaneous tours. Yet, while maintaining a low profile, it hosts some high profile wine events. The largest Rhone wine celebration in the world, the Hospice du Rhône, attracts wine producers from many different countries. Every March the Zinfandel Festival fills hotels and restaurants to capacity, and the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival in May gives the local community an opportunity to “strut their stuff,� as the park comes alive with wine and food booths offering samples of their finest accomplishments.

High on the list of “not to be missed� is Clautiere Vineyard. As described in the local guide, “Think Edward Scissorhands meets the Mad Hatter at the Moulin Rouge.� Words defy description of this whimsical yet utterly tasteful work of art, in their wine as well as their tasting room. Owned and operated by Claudine Blackwell and Terry Brady who have put their heart and soul into this place. Brady is a man who learned the craft of winemaking by the seat of his pants, growing into a respected winemaker who won a “Double Gold� for his 2003 (Vintage style) Estate Port at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

While Brady’s art form can be tasted, Blackwell’s shines the moment you approach their property, getting better the closer you look. A master of mosaics, she has created a shining globe to guide you into her world, balanced by pillars of mosaic with reflections and colors of the sky. As you enter the periwinkle tasting room the senses are confused until you recognize the elegance within the whimsy, a feat that takes extreme talent. Brady and Blackwell have added the final touch by hiring Raelyn Stiles, who adds even more personality to this already magical place. While Stiles has only worked there a year, you would swear that it was built with her in mind. Her sparkling eyes and colorful personality are matched by her intellect and wit. The end result is a total package of a unique experience in wine tasting.

Paso Robles has made its way into the wine world. While maintaining the feel of a small town, it edges on trendy, attracting wine connoisseurs who are willing to try something new, leaving old ideas and expectations behind while learning a whole new language.

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