Leslie slips the wine thief into the barrel, a little of the ruby liquid dribbling down the French oak, already stained with soft pink patches. Sample secured, she hands out glasses of a 2013 pinot noir still three months away from bottling. Later she gives us a part-fermented pinot grigio, still slightly “frizzante”, to sip while feeding carrots to one of the winery’s resident llamas, Pink Floyd.
It’s hard to imagine any of this happening in the formal tasting rooms of Napa Valley, California’s more popular wine region. Yet 250 miles south, Paso Robles is just as pretty – and far less pretentious.
We’re at Wild Horse Winery, the first stop on a small group tour with local firm Breakaway ($109, www.breakaway-tours.com), and visitor centre manager Leslie is taking us beyond the typical tasting experience.
Later we nibble sandwiches at Still Waters, reclining under centuries-old olive trees. The wooden picnic bench groans under bottles of peppery sangiovese and viognier, which tastes like butterscotch, poached pear and hazelnut.
We polish off the lot and, consequently, arrive at next stop Steinbeck with wobbly legs and woolly heads. After a giddy flight of cabernet sauvignon and petit syrah in the rustic tasting room, housed in an old garage, owner Cindy whizzes us around the hilly vineyards in a rusty 1950s jeep. We pause for photographs halfway, nearly tumbling out on to the terroir.
Wine tasting should always be so deliciously languid. And in this area of San Luis Obispo county, central California, it invariably is.
Nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains halfway between LA and San Francisco, Paso Robles – “The Pass Of Oaks” after the ancient, elegant trees that stoically stud the fields – was first settled by Salinan Indians, who made wine for medicinal purposes. Today there are more than 200 wineries, making wine for enjoyment purposes. Tasting rooms are intimate and casual. A flight might cost $5-10, but most waive the charge when you buy a bottle. And the pours tend to be on the generous side.
The mineral-rich soil, Pacific Ocean breeze, sunny days and cool nights create ideal conditions to grow grapes, from rust-red pinot noir to the area’s signature zinfandel, like summer pudding bottled. Paso has pedigree too, with 11 official viticultural areas (AVAs) and many award-winning vintages. So it’s hard to fathom that traffic isn’t bumper-to-bumper, let alone how so many people don’t know it exists. Because while nearly half a million visitors a year flock to Napa’s vine-combed hills, Paso feels like a secret treasure.
Most of the wineries are sprawled along Highway 46 and down curly Vineyard Drive, interspersed with fields of lavender and pistachio, trees laden with sherbet-sweet Meyer lemons and farms specialising in wild honey, goat’s cheese and olive oil. Dunning Vineyards is in the Willow Creek region, three miles off Highway 46 West.
Bob ambles down the steep driveway to greet us as we pull through wrought iron gates, dog Ralph bouncing by his side. In the tiny tasting room, wife Jo-Ann has already lined up bottles of their creamy chardonnay and plummy petit syrah. The Dunnings produce 2,500 cases a year and only sell here, via their wine club and a few local retailers. Most winemakers in this area are in it for the love of the craft and the lifestyle, Bob explains – “not to make a fortune”.
“We don’t want to be jetting around the world,” adds Jo-Ann. “Why would we want to go anywhere else?”
Spending the night in their hilltop private villa, we can see her point. Sipping zinfandel on the terrace, we gaze across a stripy patchwork quilt of grenache, cabernet franc and meritage vines, the ocean shimmering in the distance. Ralph, shaped somewhat like a barrel, appears on the patio, tongue lolling and body squirming with happiness. Perhaps he knows how lucky he is, to have free rein of such a place.
There is more to the area than wine or, depending on your viewpoint, stuff to do between sips. There’s San Luis Obispo, the biggest town in the county and America’s happiest, according to its slogan. It’s hard to argue as you potter about, perhaps picking up an air plant at Growing Grounds, bargain vinyl at Boo Boo Records and redwood jewellery at The Gold Concept.
Come evening, locals like to graze – a cheese plate at Monterey Street Wine Bar, pizza and craft beer at Blast Tap Room, which has 40 pour-your- own brews, and glazed Brussels sprouts on the patio at hipster Granada Bistro, likely served by young men with voluminous beards.
Downtown Paso Robles is another charmer, arranged around the green town square with bandstand and quaint Historical Society. Get lost in labyrinthine Relics Mall, or perch in the Rabbit Hole tasting room, with local bubbles and a bunny-sized door cut into the main entrance. Try zingy beet salad and crab cakes in the twinkly-lit courtyard at Thomas Hill Organics, tender fish tacos at Estrella, flatbreads and root beer negronis at Artisan, and fat juicy burgers at kitsch 1950s diner Good Times Cafe.
The area is blessed with natural hot springs, and day spa River Oaks is one of the best places to take the waters. The outdoor hot tubs ($30 per hour for two people, www.riveroakshotsprings.com) are wonderfully secluded, each tucked in a screened private terrace overlooking vines and oaks. Upgrade your soak with a glass of local fizz and charcuterie plate, sold on site.
Highway 46 links Paso Robles to the famous Pacific Coast Highway, which squiggles along the coastline like a streamer unfurled into the breeze. Half an hour north is Hearst Castle, media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s ambitious hilltop estate, still unfinished when he died in 1951. The Grand Rooms tour ($25, www.hearstcastle.org) covers the areas where Hearst threw lavish parties for guests including Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo.
Drive a few miles north to see elephant seals at Piedras Blancas Rookery, squished together on the beach in a squirming, squealing soup.
Central California is crammed with one charming seaside town after another, each with its own quirky attractions. We head south to Morro Bay, its strip of seafront restaurants and quirky stores (one boasting the world’s second biggest skateboard) overshadowed by the huge peaked rock in the centre of the natural estuary. The waters are protected from ocean waves by a four-mile sandspit, making it ideal for kayaking. On a tour from the marina ($79, www.centralcoastoutdoors.com) we paddle past grey herons, pelicans sunbathing on a rusty trawler and sea otters drifting by, pups snuggled on their bellies.
Nearby is picture-perfect Cayucos, an arc of vintage shops, saltwater taffy stores and wine tasting rooms curled around a vanilla sand beach. It really is teeny, but big on charm. Pier View Suites, with marshmallow beds and cool seaside decor, embodies the laid-back luxury of this area. Checking us in, the owner asks the magic question: “Red or white?”
We uncork our complimentary bottle sprawled on the huge, circular cabana on our private terrace, watching the sky swirl with shades of chardonnay, rosé and the garnet of a rich, inky syrah.
• British Airways (www.britishairways.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to San Jose, with returns from £493 including taxes. From there it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to Paso Robles. Alternatively you can fly to San Luis Obispo from LA, San Francisco or Phoenix, or take a scenic six-hour Amtrak train from LA, hugging the coast (www.amtrak.com). The private villa at Dunning Vineyards (www.dunningvineyards.com) costs from $160 per night, based on two sharing. Rooms at Pier View Suites (www.pierviewsuites.com) in Cayucos start at $259 a night. See www.visitsanluisobispocounty.com and www.prcity.com to help plan your trip.