We turned east on Route 46, away from the fog-covered Central California coast to the verdant rolling hills outside Paso Robles. Unsure what to expect from this “new-to-us” wine region, we were out to discover why Wine Enthusiast named Paso Robles its 2013 Wine Region of the Year. With recommendations from the staff at the Pelican Inn and Suites in hand, we were hoping to repeat our success in Sonoma by finding a few family-friendly Paso Robles wineries out of the 200 that make up this region.
Our first surprise came early, as we crested the first hill to a sea of green — no sign of the California drought in sight. In the distance we could see the coast and a layer of fog over the ocean, but in-between it was nothing but fields of a vibrant green, dotted with clusters of cows in the distance. The Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area) lies along Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo County, between the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, just six miles from the Pacific Ocean, to the Cholame Hills to the east. This location creates large fluctuations between daytime and night temperatures, which we experienced by the 20 degree increase in temperature during our short 45 minute drive inland. These temperatures, combined with diverse soil, have blessed the region with optimal growing conditions for the 40 plus wine grape varieties raised there, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Roussanne, and Zinfandel.
FAMILY-FRIENDLY PASO ROBLES WINERIES
Shale Oak Winery
Our first stop on our quest for family-friendly Paso Robles wineries was the stunning tasting room at Shale Oak Winery. This GOLD LEED certified winery and tasting room is large enough to easily accommodate bus tour groups, yet intimate enough to provide a personalized tasting experience. We were impressed as soon as we pulled into the parking lot by the beautiful design of the building and the large patios with comfortable furniture and chairs made from wine barrel staves. Inside, the geometric pattern of the stained glass wall of windows is a perfect complement to the floating fireplace and stylish furniture that could easily be featured in an issue of Architectural Digest.
At first I wasn’t sure if such a modern and stylish winery would welcome kids, but I was pleasantly surprised. We stepped up to the tasting bar to see our options, and found something I had never seen before — a wine and cookie pairing! Shale Oak also offers a chocolate truffle and wine pairing but a cookie pairing was new to all of us. My 10-year old was eager to get in on the fun with more than just sniffing the wine, and was happy to be our official cookie taster. At $19 per person for the cookie wine pairing and a long day ahead of us (we were flying back east on the red eye that night), we decided to share a tasting.
We started off with something I had never tried before, a 2013 Grenache Blanc, paired with a lemon-laced blondie with a spread of peach jam. I loved the light, crisp notes of this wine and brought some home, which we enjoyed again this past weekend with our picnic at Tanglewood. Up next was a 2013 Rosé with a raspberry cookie infused with rose hips. It wasn’t just the wine that we enjoyed at Shale Oak, the cookies were unique and so well-matched to the notes of the wine. Luckily you can also purchase cookies to bring home, and we just finished up the raspberry cookies that we carefully carted back from California.
We continued on with a 2011 Zinfandel paired with a Mexican hot chocolate cookie with hints of cinnamon and chipotle; a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon with an oatmeal pecan rosemary parmesan cookie; a 2011 Petite Sirah with an orange poppy seed cookie; and a 2011 Ku with a lavender shortbread cookie with pink and black peppercorns. In between our pairings we learned all about the winery’s sustainable practices, down to the tasting menus which contain wildflower seeds and can be planted in the ground (I’m planting mine next week and will watch and see what happens.) Not only were the wines at Shale Oak award winners (and so delicious we joined the wine club), and the cookie pairing fun and tasty, but the staff was friendly, helpful, and welcoming of kids.
Shale Oak definitely gets three thumbs up from our crew.
Oso Libre Winery
At the recommendation of our server at Shale Oak, our next stop was just up the road at Oso Libre Winery. As soon as we walked up, we were approached by the winery’s official greeters, two Australian Shepherds named Ruby and Patron. Since we were eager to soak up the warm California sun before returning to our cold Rhode Island spring, we picked a barrel table outdoors and lined up our first pour. Soon we were welcomed by the official greeter of the two-legged variety, non other than owner Chris Behr, and we soon began chatting about the history of his vineyard.
Chris and his wife Linda purchased land in Paso Robles in 1996. Today it is a family operation, with his son Jeff and his wife Elizabeth helping run Oso Libre Winery, named from a combination of their family names and the spirit of the early California pioneers. Now, Oso Libre offers more than just wine, they operate a ranch that offers pasture-raised beef, and everything is raised using sustainable farming practices. In fact, Oso Libre produces 100 percent of its energy needs with a zero percent carbon footprint, and its wines are SIP (sustainability in practice) certified. Part of how they manage this is by using sheep, chickens, and alpacas to graze the vineyards. Chris welcomed us to walk through the vines and pay a visit to some of their farm animals.
We had so much fun hanging out at Oso Libre we almost forgot about our wine. Luckily our server kept checking in with us and bringing us the next wine for tasting. In between our sips of wine, we took a stroll to check out the animals. When we came across some sheep grazing in the shade, we apparently startled them into the vineyard rows, so I guess we make good sheep herders. They weren’t nearly as surprised as the alpaca whose grazing was disrupted by the spray of a sprinkler turning on. After our stroll through the vineyard, we also spent some time tossing the bean bag and enjoying the views at Oso Libre.
With all the excitement, I didn’t take note of which wines I loved and which were just okay, but our time at Oso Libre still gets three thumbs up. They welcomed us with true family hospitality. Recognizing that our tween was not going to be participating in the wine tasting, they offered up a small plate of cheese and crackers for her to snack on. Between the relaxed, fun atmosphere, the animals, the hospitality, the wine, and the sparkling grape juice and food for sale inside, Oso Libre definitely rates as family-friendly.
When we passed into the drier, dustier east side of Paso, it was clear that Pleasant Valley was much harder hit by the California drought. Our path out to Graveyard Vineyards brought us through acres and acres of J. Lohr vineyards until we passed the small, historical Pleasant Valley Cemetery that gives this winery its name. The setting at Graveyard is certainly more pleasant than its name implies, with a barn style tasting room, green willows weeping into a small farm pond, and an outdoor tasting table dripping with wisteria, attracting both hummingbirds and bees.
Inside we found yet another vineyard dog to occupy Hannah while we did our wine tasting. Graveyard takes it theme a little far, down to the casket shaped wine bottle boxes. In fact, the way Cooper the dog stayed sprawled out in one spot on the floor, I suggested they make a tape outline of him to mark his spot. It isn’t all macabre though. The live piano music lifted the mood and the staff was friendly and welcoming. I wouldn’t recommend a drive east just to visit Graveyard but if you find yourself in the area, it is a pleasant place to visit.
We were so impressed by our visit to Paso Robles and we are already thinking about when we can return. When we do, I’m looking forward to trying some of the other wineries recommended to us, including Justin, Turley, Castoro, L’Aventure, Écluse, J. Lohr, Tablas Creek, and maybe even trying the zipline at Santa Margarita Ranch while visiting Ancient Peaks Winery.
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