For a second year in a row, I planned a destination Christmas with my family. Last year, we traveled to Munich, Germany, Salzburg, Austria, and Salisbury, England, to explore Christmas Markets and visit family living abroad.
This year, we decided to stay more local (at least for me), with a trip through California’s Central Coast.
The enormous region stretches the coastal counties between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It isn’t an official region, so maps may vary. But the area includes some of the most famous and dramatic coastal features of California, and the biggest stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway that hug mountains that rise out of the ocean.
While our original plans involved the epic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, the route remained closed (from mud slides) at a pivotal point along the drive.
Instead, we skipped the long roadtrip and decided to settle into Paso Robles for the week leading up to Christmas. Situated almost exactly in between San Francisco and Los Angeles, we found a home base in the heart of the Central Coast. The plan was to explore vineyards and sites in the region.
Paso itself is a quiet town, surrounded by a growing wine country. Of the 300+ wineries in the Paso Robles AVA, we hit up 8, while visiting small breweries and exploring the coast nearby. Below are the highlights from the trip 🙂
Escaping the City
The first step in getting to Paso Robles was getting out of San Francisco. Per my usual complicated travel logistics, I planned to leave for Warsaw on Christmas Day from Los Angeles, so my escape wouldn’t include a round trip car return. We had travel options, from taking Amtrak’s four and a half hour ride to downtown Paso Robles, flying from SFO, or driving the full distance.
Ultimately, because we would need a car to get to wineries, we settled on picking up a car from Walnut Creek (and avoiding airport surcharges) and driving south from there.
But first I had to get to my East Bay rendezvous point.
About an hour later, I reached the end of the BART line at Dublin-Pleasanton station. I’d traversed tunnels and mountains, and I was outside the confines of my peninsular home.
After a quick lunch at Lazy Dog in Dublin, we finally hit the road to Paso Robles. With little traffic and no stops, we made it to the VRBO rental in time to go grocery stopping. I was at home with my family with no hassle of airports during the peak travel season.
There are many people more qualified to talk about the details of Paso Robles’ wine country, its grapes, various soil types, and the 11 viticultural areas within the AVA, so I won’t venture down that path in this post.
But as we explored the region during the week, we found that the wineries and beer are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the region has to offer.
Starting with wine
We started our wine adventure off at Niner. We spent nearly 3 hours on the property between the tasting room and touring their facilities. They run a very technology-advanced operation with really impressive facilities, but still produce relatively small batches of wine.
After the long, extended tour at Niner, we made our way to Justin to end day one. There was no tour or nearly-ready wine tasting, no extended story about how Justin rose to prominence in the region. We just sat outside under the canopy of the tasting room and enjoyed the sunset into the fog rolling in from the Pacific Coast.
Exploring the coast
After a day of drinking at vineyards, it was time for a break. And what better way to enjoy California’s central coast than to visit the Elephant Seals in San Simeon?
These enormous creatures make weird noises and mostly just lie on the beach, basking in the California sun. But in the winter months, they become more active. That’s when the seals give birth to (relatively tiny pups (which we saw) and mate (which we did not see), so they was a lot of activity on the beach all morning.
We spent over an hour at the lookout spot. The seals went from lazy to playful and back again. But most of them just sat there on the beach.
I couldn’t help taking photos nearly every moment the seals moved. This particularly large male was lying on the beach doing nothing for most of the visit, then got up and started making a ton of noise. He then went back to his previous resting state.
Meanwhile, the smaller seal in the background slowly made its way to the water.
Again, nothing really happened, but they kept us entertained.
Coasting further south
After we watched the elephant seals (do mostly nothing) for over an hour, we headed south to the small coastal community of Morro Bay.
Morro Bay is known for the giant Morro Rock, prominently situated at the entrance to the city’s harbor. The rock is one of several volcanic plugs that surge out of California’s coast and contribute to its nearly boundless geological diversity.
We grabbed lunch at a restaurant called The Galley, hugging the bay, and overlooking the giant rock. Morro is a great stop along the coast, as there are several restaurants that jut out into the water with unimpeded views of the rock. And most of them are fairly good with fresh fish and seasonal ingredients.
After wrapping up lunch at Morro Bay, we headed back north to San Simeon, just short of where the elephant seals spot.
There isn’t much in San Simeon today. There never really was much to the town, as it historically supported communities of whalers with a convenience store. But William Hearst supported one incarnation of San Simeon, and its wharf, which also supplied the enormous Hearst Castle about a mile inland.
Today that store houses the Hearst Ranch Winery Tasting Room. Which was our next stop, before literally crossing the street for a sunset tour of Hearst Castle.
After tasting a few reds, we made our way across the street to the Hearst Castle visitor center, where we caught our bus into the mountain estate.
The tour was brisk, and I didn’t bring a tripod. So my outdoor photos suffered from my shaking (and freezing) hands and lack of time to find a good angle. But the sunset behind the marine layer lit the sky up in orange, and the building became a warm refuge from the harsh, freezing winds whipping the mountain.
Overall, the tour was a nice addition to their normal daytime offerings. But I would recommend visiting during the spring through fall months to experience Hearst Castle at its best.
The main outdoor attraction, the grandiose Neptune Pool, was empty and covered in scaffolding for off-season renovations. And the evening tour didn’t allow for visitors to walk around and explore the property. On a previous visit I’d been able to spend a lot of time wandering around outside after the tour.
But once we stepped inside, we were treated to Christmas decorations and stories about William Hearst’s favorite time of year to host guests at his mansion. This is where this tour really shined.
I was ready for bed, but we had to trek back down the hill (it’s about 20 minutes each way), then drive back to Paso. Thankfully no wineries were open, or I’m sure we would have found another testing 🙂
Back to the beach
The next day we headed to Pismo Beach, just one community further down the coast from Morro Bay. But before we could get there, we stopped at Ancient Peaks, to sample wines from their unique array of soils.
Ancient Peaks is among my favorite wineries in California. They have unique soils that feature soil rich in calcium from an ancient oyster bed that was thrust up from the Pacific over time. Though the tasting room wasn’t on their property, their staff was incredibly knowledgeable about how the different flavors and affects the soil, moisture and climate affect their wines.
I wanted to return for their ugly sweater contest later that evening, but, alas, we had to get going.
The approach to Pismo Beach less awe-inspiring than Morro Bay, and the city and its surrounding towns is more built-up, with hotels, condos and single family homes sprawling across its stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Pismo is known for its beaches and clams — Pismo hosts an annual clam festival each October. While there are surfers and hotels all over Pismo Beach, the area is nice and bustling with activity, but not fancy or extravagant, maintaining roots as a getaway for working class families in nearby Los Angeles.
Here, I took a long walk on the beach with my family. We made it down to the tips of the sand dunes, where there’s usually a lot of ATV activity. Then we grabbed a beer at Pismo Brewing‘s tap room, located just a few blocks from the beach.
For the last stop for the day, we found ourselves watching sunset at Avila Beach, yet another small coastal community along the Central Coast.
Avila Beach was by far the most upscale area we encountered, and it is filled with relatively new wine bars and restaurants overlooking San Luis Obispo Bay (and its three piers). Though the development hid its messy 20th century past.
Like much of what became the State of California, the Avila Beach area was first developed by Europeans as Mexican land grant from the kingdom of Spain. Named Rancho San Miguelito, and granted to Miguel Ávila, the land where Avila Beach stands today was developed after California became a part of the United States. And as the major port for San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach became a leisure destination for Angelenos to the south and San Franciscans to the north by the late 1800s century.
The region had a mixed record following World War II as California’s oil economy developed and a nuclear power plant was built just a few miles up the coast.
After decades of energy production, and subsequent oil cleanup efforts, Avila Beach’s economy became mostly tourism-driven.
The economic boom saw many working-class and highly-skilled employees locate to the region, but the oil company hid contamination from an oil spill that led to a major excavation of homes and businesses decades later. The Diablo Canyon Power Plant never suffered a meltdown, but took a political hit after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011.
We hardly recognized the presence of oil production — until we drove up the prominent hill and saw Chevron’s logo splattered across the fencing.
Regardless of the darker parts of its recent past, Avila Beach seemed to have recovered from the oil spill. The new water-front shops and decades-old piers draw visitors and locals to the expansive beach, and make for incredibly scenic sunsets.
After sunset, we found ourselves at another brewery, Central Coast Brewing, where my parents made friends with the brewer’s wife. And then eventually the brewer himself.
I was the DD, so I only had a few sips. But their beer was really well crafted with complex flavors.
Unfortunately that was about my only option for tasting, as their beers don’t travel very far, even to San Francisco. The brewery they only distributes directly, so they tend to stay within relatively small footprint around the Central Coast.
We ended the evening with a traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue dinner at Firestone Grill in downtown San Luis Obispo. Though a bit of it tourist trap, Firestone makes a mean BBQ tri-tip sandwich that always hits the spot.
Back to wine
After two days of sights and scattered wine tasting away from the vineyards, we were back with a vengeance for another round of exploring vineyards.
This time, we made our way to Daou, revisited Niner for lunch, and finished the day at Donati.
At Daou, we could see part of the smokey haze drift into the nearby valleys. The view was beautiful, though very brown due to the unseasonably dry winter weather.
Niner’s food menu didn’t disappoint — their kitchen was rated one of the best winery food options in the country. And Donati was surprisingly comfortable and unimposing, with its smaller operation and family history literally posted on the walls.
The patriarch of the Donati family was an Italian immigrant, and his story is shared throughout the tasting room from an his ship manifest to the names of the wines themselves.
We had a very full round of wine tasting, and we even made time to sample some very good — though very expensive — olive oil.
It’s a wrap
As Christmas approached, our time in Paso came to a close. The days were short, the season cold, and shops started to close early in the lead-up to the big day.
We had also slowed down, and we started our final day in Paso walking around the town square and ducking in and out of boutique shops in the heart of the city. Inevitably, we found something to drink before noon at the Santa Maria Brewery tap room (and restaurant).
With one drink down, we were off!
We pulled into Proulx, and spent the next hour and a half talking with the wine maker and his wife. They were city-dwelling east coasters who fell in love with the land in Paso, and took to building their winery on land that happened to have some old Zinfandel vines that predated their purchase.
Proulx’s wines were full of flavor, though I missed several tastings because of the energetic conversation.
A band was playing when we pulled into Shale Oak, and the tasting room opened to a cozy outdoor space with a small stage. The space was lively, with the winery’s dog roaming around and people bundled up and singing a long to the cover band.
The week flew by, and it was nearly Christmas. As the weekend hit, we’d reached the end of our wine adventure along the Central Coast.
There were lots of sights, sounds, and, above all, booze, to enjoy along the way, but it was time to venture further south toward Los Angeles — where our next adventure awaited us.
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