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Paso Robles

Where the Oaks Roam

35 degrees N 120 degrees W

October 15, 2006|Ann Herold | Ann Herold is managing editor of West.

DESTINATION: Central Coast Loop

TOWN: Paso Robles

ELEVATION: 735 feet





TEMPERATURE SWING: 33° (winter low) to 94° (summer high)


In Paso Robles, cattle ranches that go back to the 1800s border vineyards that were planted five minutes ago. The same downtown deli where cowboys eat tri-tip has a better wine selection than many L.A. restaurants. And the tasting rooms at the wineries are larger--and better decorated--than most of the locals' houses.

I love the variety, although at times the pace of change is bewildering. When I first came here as a child, the family ranch in nearby Templeton was populated by cattle, deer, oak trees and the neighbor's gypsy goats (a sore subject for years). For a brief time, we grew almond trees, and one Easter our family received a giant bar of almond-studded chocolate from the growers association. A rancher neighbor, sensing a shift in the economic tectonics, talked about putting in a few vines.

I remember, fondly, wine-tasting in the pre-boom '80s, when a few wineries huddled like a pioneer town not far off the 101. Their tasting rooms were humble, almost apologetic. Or eccentric: For the Bonny Doon tasting room--now closed, a victim of its own success--Randall Grahm wrote tasting notes that were gems of japery, so cleverly composed that I taped them next to my computer.

I hold fast to these memories because they are being obliterated by the flat-screen TV, upholstered armchairs, marble fireplace and sexy glassware inside a tasting room on Highway 46, Paso Robles' main wine drag. The TV is off, which sets me to wondering on this fall day what would be playing if it were not. CNN? Too much of a buzz kill. Football? Has potential. What Viognier goes with Green Bay?

To my sensitive eyes, the 46 is looking more and more like Beverly Hills. I head over to Vineyard Drive and it's the old world, still lined with oaks and laurels, the occasional winery. Time to catch your breath, remember that a $50 bottle of wine brings only fleeting happiness.

I also find some inspiration in the way old ag is striving to become new ag here. At Paso Robles' Windrose Farm, you can stay in a rented RV on the property and learn to grow the sort of organic tomatoes and apples sold at Whole Foods and farmer's markets. Just off 46 on Vineyard Drive is Willow Creek Olive Ranch, a vigorous olive oil operation with public tastings, apparently bent on defying the mercurial history of the olive industry in California.

But every time I visit it looks as if another big spread has been carved into ranchettes too small to sustain a cow. I am conflicted here, because I know many Angelenos who have bought pieces of the Paso Robles dream. But I compare this development to my own home: When did the clutter take over?

Just north of Paso Robles, near Bradley, is the cutoff to Ft. Hunter Liggett, where I have an epiphany.

I will probably be buried alive in a field of California poppies for saying this, but I think we need a co-state tree. Know that this is said in full recognition of the redwood's glorious hugeness. That tree is big. But like us, the oak has a million faces. On the coast, the trees creep along the ground like primordial creatures that have just crawled out of the ocean and are thinking of crawling back. As they make their evolutionary march inland, they rise up and up until, standing tall in the valleys, they explode like fireworks.

Maybe my Central Coast childhood is to blame, that I'm hopelessly imprinted like one of Konrad Lorenz's geese. I've been to the great redwood groves of the north and never felt the rush I get at the sight of Quercus agrifolia floating on the Santa Ynez Valley floor, standing sunstruck on a Templeton hillside or dripping fog on the Cambria coast.

I am at Hunter Liggett because of my friend Susan. Years before, on a trip to Monterey, I took her advice to cut over from the 101 to Highway 1 on a country road that just happened to run through a military base. There was an oak savannah there I would never forget, she predicted, and I haven't.

Much of this Army installation in the San Antonio Valley was once the ranch of William Randolph Hearst. Near Bradley and also at King City, cars can exit the 101 and use the Jolon and Nacimiento Fergusson roads to pass through the base to the ocean. The check-in at the guard post is painless, as if 9/11 never happened. I ask about travel time and am told two hours. Weaving west, I pass the occasional military building and paraphernalia. They look surprisingly vulnerable, as if the high grass--ungrazed and untilled--could swallow them up.

John Steinbeck probably gazed on the many graybeards among the oaks. In his novel "To a God Unknown," he's writing about the San Antonio Valley, which he calls Nuestra Senora, "the long valley of Our Lady in central California."

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