Paso Robles, CA: Sipping between the vines

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Looking out at the undulating topography on the three-hour drive from Santa Clarita to Paso Robles is sort of like being told a story. First come the mountains, soaring, like they are about to swallow us whole. Then, as they level, California’s expansive Central Valley — a 450-mile-long patch of ultra-fertile soil, which produces a quarter of the nation’s food. Sinatra croons in the background as we zip past almond trees, citrus groves and olive trees. Dozens of gift shops and stands try to reel us in with fresh-from-the-farm produce and just-picked fruit. If it were any other time, I won’t lie, it probably would’ve worked. We would’ve stopped at the first place that touted roasted almonds and lavender treats. But, with depleted willpower, we journey on.

Then, out of the blue, the road is flanked by oil fields — with what seem like thousands of pumpjacks, bobbing and nodding as though they’re collectively approving our passage through. The machines stretch into the horizon on both sides of the road as far as my eye can see. But after that? Well, there’s a bit of a lull in the narrative. It’s miles and miles of empty, unforgiving desert before the earth’s cardiogram begins to slowly climb and fall again. We see the first signs of the area’s string of vineyards. 

El Paso De Robles, which means Pass of the Oak Trees, is often referred to as “the wild west of California wine” due to the place’s soil diversity and varying elevation, which renders a mish-mash of stylistic identities. It’s wild, noisy and as far as wine regions go, a bit of a toddler, still. Established in 1983 (and expanded as recently as 1997), the area is known for its Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, to name a few. I wish I could say that’s what we’re there to explore, but since we brought my mom along, who won’t drink wine unless it’s fruit juice, we have to opt for a winery that offers dessert wines. (I realize how big of a sigh this might’ve induced for those of you who really appreciate wine, but alas). So, enter Pear Valley, which boasts a strong selection of both dry and wonderful dessert sips.

Due to COVID-19, the winery is open by appointment only. We’d made one about a week ago, so we hop out of the car, tuck our masks’ elastic cords behind our ears and head toward the lady with the clipboard. She checks us in, gives us a lowdown of what to expect in regards to pandemic etiquette and walks us to our table. The al fresco situation, which overlooks the vineyards, is quaint. There’s enough room to socially distance, and it doesn’t feel cramped enough for us to ever worry about being too close to anything or anyone. 

We order our first round of tastings. A Muscat blend for mom, an Albariño for me, and a warm, rich Bordeaux for Anton. Round by round, my mom and I make our way through the whites, and Anton covers the reds. I can see my mom’s face turn a few shades rosier. Alcohol needs only to tap her on the shoulder for her to fall under its spell (read: she’s a real lightweight drinker). She’s already blabbering in circles about how beautiful the place is, how happy she is, and how enjoying a glass of something in an unfamiliar place feels so weird. It does feel strange to me, too, but in the best way. I don’t know what it is, but suddenly, for the first time in a long time, I forget about the pandemic. Sitting here with my favorite people, wine in hand and more fresh air than I can inhale in a million lifetimes — it’s such a simple pleasure, right?

After the last drop of vino dissolves on our tongues, we make our way up the stone walkway to the top of a hill, which I’m pretty sure is a common site for weddings. The altar overlooks a long and vast view of vines spooling down the hills, geometrically lined and divided, and almost unmoving, like a painting, in this windless afternoon. The heat hangs heavy in the air, but that doesn’t seem to take away from this moment. We stand there for a few minutes, writing this image into our memories, making sure it sticks, before turning around. 

Our next stop, close-to another half hour away, is Opolo Wines. Anton and I have fond memories of the winery. It was the first one we ever visited in Paso Robles, back when we took a day trip out to Hearst Castle. Back then, the place was completely empty. We waltzed in, pointed at the best seat on the patio (a comfy couch with a gorgeous view of the vines), and made it our perch for an hour or so. This time around, things are different. The plush leather couches are gone, and although tables are spaced out to observe socially distancing guidelines, the place is packed. And I mean, packed. We came here to escape the crowds — I guess everyone else had the same idea, so I can’t really blame them.

It’s also hot. And I mean, hot. My forehead is burning as I walk up to the host, who checks my temperature and casts me away to a bench by the entrance. Apparently, the heat is giving me a very short-lived, low-grade fever. “It’s OK,” she says. “It’s been happening a lot.” That makes me feel better. I wait for my body to cool down, and I try again. Just like that, my body temperature is back to normal. 

At Pear Valley, we might’ve forgotten about what’s happening in the world past the vineyards, but here, we’re reminded of it again. That’s not to say we don’t have a good time. We do. The conversation flows, a weak, newly born breeze keeps us cool, and of course, the wood-fired pizza does its part in keeping our bellies full and hearts happy. (Pear Valley doesn’t offer food, but Opolo has a pretty robust menu for a winery). But when I think of Opolo again, I’ll likely conjure up a different memory. Of the day we were on route to a magical castle on a hill, just stopping by for a sip and a bite, and a good, pandemic-free afternoon was ready to receive us.