Redneck Wine Country

My friend Sonia (aka Twinkle Toes) and I had been planning a Napa weekend get away for months.  Alas, it is on fire.  Horrid, horrid, horrid.  Not only is it not possible, it just wouldn’t seem right.  Instead we made a U-turn south to the much lesser known Paso Robles area.  When I was living in San Luis Obispo, CA in the 1990’s, Paso Robles was considered a dump, an eyesore, a place you’d rather speed past on 101, only stopping if your bladder was not cooperating.  That was before wine.  Wine happened and now Paso Robles is happenin’.

Unbeknownst to us, Pioneer Day was also happening.  So thaaaat’s why we got the last (most expensive) room in town.  This parade and festival has been going on since 1931 and is pure Main Street Americana.  We pulled up to a barricade blocking the street and saw a horse-drawn wagon roll by.  We rolled down the window and asked the policeman standing guard what was going on.  “Why, don’t you know?  It’s Pioneer Day!”  There was no way we were going to get to our hotel which sat right on the town square in the middle of the parade route.  If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, so we pulled over and got out to join the crowds.  It was great fun to see an old-fashioned parade, this one with a definite California flair.  It was the high school cheer squad meets El Mariachi.

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Holy Cow!

Girls with blonde pony tails were tossed acrobatically in the air, tractors pulling hay wagons rumbled and snorted by, marching bands clashed their cymbals, vaqueros rode by-the silver on their saddles flashing in the sunlight, their horses prancing and rolling their eyes.  Sonia and I voted to join the Wranglerettes next year because they rode beautiful horses and got to wear red sequin shirts.  The parade announcer reminded us not to miss the “free bean feed”.  We looked at each other and wondered, “What’s that?” We turned and trudged across the city park dodging kids playing chase and moms chasing their kids.  There was a big banner that read “BEANS”.  Clearly the spot.  You’ve never seen such a thing.  Vat after vat was being attended to by volunteers.  950 pounds of beans.  I showed such interest that I was invited to duck under the barrier and see how difficult it was to stir such an enormous pot of beans.

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Beans, beans, the magical fruit…

After a snack, we decided to leave the flag waving crowds to cheer the next parade entry and gear up for a bike ride.  The back roads of Paso Robles are quiet and pretty and roll gently through the country side.  We zig zagged through vineyards and farms and passed horses swishing their tails in the heat till we arrived at our destination J. Lohr winery.  We clip clopped in our bike shoes up to the copper bar.  We were greeted by a friendly, older gentleman who let us know that the tasting was free.  He seemed to have all the time in the world and even offered to keep track of our tastings for us so that we could go sit outside if we wanted to.  Toto, we aren’t in Napa anymore!  The big, white farmhouse had a rambling, wrap around deck where we sat in the shade sipping wine, looking out over the vineyards and listened to the quiet and the crickets chirp.

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A picture of peace

Only a little rumble in the belly let us know that dinner time was approaching (or was that the beans…) and perhaps we should start our ride back to town.  It was a hazy, happy ride, toodling along with the lowering sun.

Back on the ranch (ok hotel), we donned our cowboy boots (now no one will know we are from out-of-town!) and clomped down the block to The Hatch which had come highly recommended by both Yelp and a J. Lohr employee.  They are known for their handcrafted cocktails and innovative menu.  I eyeballed a man sitting next to us at the bar.  He had a tiny black skillet of tiny potatoes stacked like firewood.  I turned to look again and they were gone!  I inquired and he said they were so good It would be wrong not to try them and he might just order us a skillet too.  We surrounded ourselves with tiny skillets: duck meatballs, fire-roasted, wild mushrooms, ox tail stroganoff, blackened brussels sprouts with pomegranates.  Let us not forget the cocktails.  The bar was lined with fresh and interesting ingredients.  There was a bowl of smoked, dried limes; rose petals; fresh, green herb sprigs; little black Amarena cherries; glistening olives.  Mmm.  Sonia sipped on a “My Grandpa’s Old Fashioned” and I opted for “Thyme and Roses” an unusual concoction of gin and pink peppercorn bitters topped with a live spring of thyme and crumbled, dried rose petals.  It was brilliant.

The next morning we wanted to see a little more of the country side so we mounted our trusty steeds and pedaled out to Peachy Canyon, a ride I’d been hearing about for years.  We don’t get fall colors like they do back east, but the vineyards do turn colors and that’s quite nice.IMG_6880

Paso Robles means Pass of the Oaks and the oak trees were all getting ready for winter, dropping their acorns like little missiles.  Deer stood beneath the oaks switching their tails and munching acorns getting ready for winter too.  A small buck lifted his antlered head and watched us with interest as we pedaled by.  Sonia and I screamed as what appeared to be a big leaf in the road suddenly moved.  She flew left, I flew right.  It was a tarantula!  Halloween arrived early this year.

Ride Peachy Canyon.  Check.  Next on the list, visit a few more wineries.  It’s noon, that’s not too early to start tasting is it?  I love driving the swooping, twisting back country roads that lead to beautiful wineries, each with its own feel and character.  It’s like a treasure hunt and you’re never sure what treat you’re going to discover next.  Opolo was first on our list today and we were interested to learn they had a wood fired pizza oven that was rip-roaring and had just opened a distillery next door to the winery.

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Not for the faint of liver

Of course, the fires in Napa were on everyone’s mind and it was neat to see the wine community coming together to support the folks up north who have suffered so much.  Sonia and I decided to try to get a group together to do a ride and fundraiser for the Food Bank up in the wine country area that was hit so hard.  More on that later.IMG_6883

Next on the to do list was Cass Winery.  All those little tastes add up to a belly full of wine and it was time for snacks to keep the balance.  A charcuterie and cheese board with house made pickles, marcona almonds, and fat, green, salty olives seemed to fit the bill.  A watermelon and arugula salad would round things out.  I dreamily savored a square of white cheese with a vein of sage.  It brought me back to a prior trip to France, hiking through the vineyards up a dusty, limestone gully, the smell of wild sage and thyme being crushed underfoot.

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Mmmm

It was hot, hot, hot and the thermometer was reading about 90.  I thought maybe it was the heat when I saw a cloud of dust and a pair of ears floating through the vineyard.  But no, it was a vaquero on a black Andalusian mare and to our delight, he rode right up to the table!  I pet her soft nose as she huffed and the rider explained all his old-fashioned gear.  He used only hand-made raw hide and horse hair ropes and was in the process of training this young mare.

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Isn’t she lovely?
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Tapaderas.  Ornate stirrup coverings used to protect the feet from heat, cold, and brush.

The day was so warm, so beautiful, so relaxed, and yet I felt an underlying sense of urgency to make the most of it.  Winter is coming and make no mistake.  Soaking up the heat and sipping a cool white wine felt like the most important thing in the world to do.  Don’t let these moments pass by unappreciated.  Store the memories away for the cold, wet winter.  Take in every last drop of golden sunshine as summer sighs her final exhale.

Salud!

 

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