Paso Robles, Calif. — It's not hard to find the center of Paso Robles. It's the city park, a green square where giant shade trees spread their branches over picnic tables and park benches. Here, a farmers market takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays and weekends often bring bustling food and wine fairs. The gleaming windows of jazzy food boutiques, alluring restaurants and even a tony wine bar line its edges. At night, its sidewalks are alive with couples strolling arm-in-arm on their way to dinner.
This bump in the road just about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is California's newest wine boomtown. And with wine have come money, new residents, tourists and the national reputation necessary to support serious restaurants, ambitious farms, dairies, bakeries and food purveyors.
While the transformation from a beef and barley economy to the next Napa or Sonoma is just beginning, the number of new wineries in the area is staggering. In the last 10 years, Paso Robles has seen an increase from 35 to 90. By 2009, the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Assn. predicts there will be at least 150 wineries. (Although neighboring Santa Barbara County is roughly a decade ahead of Paso Robles in terms of the maturity and quality of its wines, that area appears to be topping out at 80 wineries.)
"The huge growth in the number of wineries tells you that these are smaller wineries, and smaller wineries make better wine," wine industry analyst Vic Motto says of the Paso Robles boom. As a result, the local economy is in "an upwardly mobile spiral."
Boarded-up storefronts -- a downtown fixture throughout the 1990s -- are now home to thriving businesses. The city has also been quick to start rebuilding after suffering heavy quake damage last Christmas season. A fancy inn is being built off the park, a welcome addition to a region where an eclectic collection of 20-some small guesthouses is the primary source of luxury accommodation.
Food is the caboose on this speeding train, with the first wave of culinary endeavors led by dreamers willing to invest in a future that's still a bit hazy.
A small but passionate group of organic farmers, food artisans and restaurateurs has come here determined to transform the local steak-and-potato mentality into something, well, higher up on the food chain and yet still unique to this rustic section of the Central Coast.
Bill and Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm are among them. The land around here is special, says Bill Spencer. And, no two ways about it, he and his wife were "called" to be farmers here. Not a voice from on high, as he explains it, but more an earth-reaching-up-to-draw-your-soul-to-it kind of thing.
For nearly a decade, the two have worked hard turning overgrown pasture land into an organic truck farm, along the way discovering that the Paso Robles area offers ideal soils and climates for growing just about everything. Their midlife conversion to farming (previously, she was a Hollywood session cellist and he sold real estate) has been an experiment with heirloom seeds, the kind of produce cultivated before science created hybrid plants with pest-resistance bred in and the flavor bred out, says Spencer.
The farm now produces a profusion of tomatoes, along with 43 varieties of apples, plus peaches and nectarines. The couple raise 20 varieties of melons, more than 15 kinds of winter squash, a dozen types of eggplant, as well as beets, cucumbers, peppers, dry beans and okra.
With their savings sunk into their heirloom adventure, Spencer says with a shrug of his shoulders, "No sane person would do what we're doing."
But the endeavor has paid off. When Lucques chef Suzanne Goin needed fresh produce to photograph for her upcoming cookbook, she had the Spencers back a truck up to her restaurant and unloaded crates of their winter squash, heirloom tomatoes and scores of other vegetables.
Bruce Marder, chef at Capo in Santa Monica, recently bought all the Ashmeads Kernal English apples that Barbara Spencer had at the Santa Monica Farmer's Market. The Spencers make the trek there every Wednesday morning, and to the Saturday morning market at Santa Monica Airport.
Jason Travi, chef at Gino Angelini's new L.A. restaurant La Terza, stopped by the Spencers' stall to buy a mixed box of melons. Tasting one that smelled of grapefruit but had a flavor like lime, he shrugged and admitted he had no idea what kind of melons they were. "I serve them for breakfast, use them for an amuse and as a garnish for certain cheese plates," he said. "But mostly, Gino and I just cut them open and eat them in the kitchen. They are really good."
For six years, Christine Maguire has been making cheese in her kitchen, trying to create a perfect raw sheep's milk round. The Paso Robles area is too hot and dry, she says, for her herd of European dairy sheep, East Friesians. "I'm spending a fortune to feed them alfalfa because there is no grass most of the year."