travelog 66

Another Report from the Wino's...

Everybody knows Napa Valley and Sonoma. Since "Sideways" came to the movie theatres, other California wine-growing regions are receiving the recognition they deserve. Some are pleased about the recognition, but others fear that with all the popularity, Hollywood stars will soon move in and the peace and quiet will be gone.

Once again we stay with our friends in Atascadero and have enough time to visit the wineries in the area. The stretch of land between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara has long been an inside tip with wine connoisseurs. Narrow roads wind through gently rolling golden hills and signs here and there announce a hidden vineyard. They're often old farmhouses with wooden porches and colorful flower gardens. Huge, ancient oak trees give shade during the hot summer months. Many families not only produce and sell excellent wine but also walnuts, organic produce, home-made jams and honey from their own beehives. Of course there are also the big wineries that resemble souvenir shops more than a winery. The visitors sometimes arrive in huge tour busses, taste the wine and leave the locality with scented candles, wasabi mustard, truffle honey, colorfully printed table sets and napkins, t-shirts or caps embroidered with the name of the winery.

Places like Buellton, Solvang, and Los Olivos are well-known in the Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang, for example, looks like a Scandinavian settlement that was transported as is to the US, inlcuding wind wheels and everything else. Known as the "Danish Capital of the United States", it's an exaggeration typical for this country. The entire region is home to nicely restored little villages with many souvenir shops, galleries, wine boutiques, and of course small restaurants and bars where one can taste local wines and other specialties. Culture-oriented tourists can visit an old Franciscan mission in Santa Ynez that was founded around 1800. After that your best bet is to start a tour through the Santa Ynez Valley whose climate is ideal for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Our tour starts in Los Olivos. Along Zaca Station Road we drive through natural California pastures with many oak trees and reach Foxen Canyon Road. One of the better-known wineries in then area is Firestone Vineyard whose Sauvignon Blanc is one of our favorites. A little off the road we find Zaca Mesa Winery where we visit with a friend of our hosts and get a little tour through the winery. Our drive ends near Santa Maria where we are the last visitors at the Cambria Winery and get to talk with the manager. He's enthusiastic about the Swiss wines and especially likes the Pinot Noir which is also a specialty of this winery. Since we're from Switzerland he serves us some Pinot's that normal visitors don't have the chance to try. Most of them exceed our budget by far and sell for around $50. The culmination is a very special Pinot Noir. It comes from Julia's Vineyard, is over 15 years old and there's no way we could say no to that treat!

San Luis Obispo is worth a visit too. There's a beautifully restored old Franciscan mission church that the famous Junipero Serra built in 1770. Downtown SLO, as locals call their town, is easily explored on foot. Despite the entry of some American chains such as Banana Republic and Pottery Barn, the downtown area is still very original with many little shops and great window displays. Thursday nights one main road through town is closed for traffic and local farmers sell their products on the farmer's market. Musicians please the crowds with jazz, rock and blues. One strolls chatting through biting but nonetheless mouthwatering clouds of smoke that waft through the streets from the BBQ stands. If you want to become politically active, you can become a republican, or even better support the democrats. One woman silently prays for all the aborted babies in the world, an old hippie protests against the war in Iraq. Another inconspicuous man who looks like a sales rep for a household appliance company advertises for Jesus and the salvation of the world. Various stalls line the street and one can fill his rumbling stomach with international delicacies. Particularly popular are the grilled ribs that you eat sitting on the sidewalk. Of course we also find some well-known wineries around San Luis Obispo. One of our favorites is Edna Valley Winery where we especially like their Chardonnay and Syrah. At Clairborne & Churchill, well-known for its white wines such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris, we talk to the owner who just came back from a visit to Switzerland and goes into raptures about the Swiss wines. Our Swiss wine seems to be very popular with the Californian wine producers! But whenever we mention Swiss wine to our friends in the US, they look at us all wide-eyed. It seems as if they never heard that Switzerland produces excellent wines apart from watches, cheese, and chocolate. Actually not very surprising because it's impossible to buy Swiss wine in the US.

Our next and last stop on our wine tour is Paso Robles. We start in Templeton where we enjoy a small lunch at Ian McPhee's Grill. Here, one is spoilt for choice. There are the delicious quesadillas stuffed with duck meat, or the Asian marinated ahi tuna, or real hamburgers with California blue cheese, and many other delicacies. The surrounding area is home to many beautiful vineyards. For example Wild Horse where almost every wine tastes excellent. At least until a while ago before the winery was sold to a big chain and the winemaker changed. That could be a bad sign for the quality of this well-known wine.

A short round trip along farmhouses, vineyards, horse pastures, through oak groves and mustard yellow meadows alone is a wonderful experience. If you choose the smaller wineries, you can have great surprises. For example at Laura's Vineyard where we have found one of our favorite wines, a 100% Cabernet Franc, for a reasonable price. To our surprise the owners introduced a $1 tasting fee since the last time we were here. They tell us that many people stop at a winery to taste a glass of wine before going out to dinner. Of course nobody at the wineries likes this kind of behaviour. Wine tasting should be to taste and try out the quality of wines and not to get a free glass of wine for the aperitif. Another surprise is Pipestone Vineyard sitting atop of a hill a little bit off the main road near Paso Robles. This wine producer is enthusiastic about the Swiss wines too, but he also produces excellent wines himself. It's a small family owned and operated business where everybody helps. In the small tasting room you can also buy walnuts and almonds from their own trees, and home-made preserves. Among the bigger vineyards we really like Eberle Winery which produces an excellent Syrah and Muscat Canelli. The winery sits on top of a hill from where one overlooks the surrounding vineyards around Paso Robles.

If you're fed up with tasting and drinking wine, you can also taste some pretty good beer in the area, such as Firestone, a local brewery in Paso Robles. And if you're in the area at the right time, you finally get a chance to visit the Oktoberfest! Since we never made it to Munich in September, admittedly, we never really tried very hard too, we try our luck at the "Old Vienna" restaurant in Pismo Beach. The menu is normally larger but is reduced for the Oktoberfest to just a few special things. The tables are covered with table cloths in the Bavarian national colors. Flags with beer advertising hang from the ceiling. There's even a live band, unfortunately consisting of nothing but Americans who can't say more in German than "sprecken sie deutsch". But that doesn't matter at all, the main thing is the good atmosphere. We're here with a whole group of friends and once in a while they ask us if we can still stand it. Soon they realize themselves that the event is more like Disneyland than Oktoberfest but nonetheless we're having a good time. For homesick Europeans, the food leaves a great deal to be desired but the Americans don't know any different. Our own home-made Schnitzel and the Gulasch with Knoedel, gulyash with dumplings, still tastes the best. Now we also know what we're going to do next weekend: Have a big party with our friends and cook some Austrian specialties!

June-September 2005

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen