Over the Hill

Wine tourism has energized North County

Special to The TribuneFebruary 27, 2014 

Phil Dirkx

Hotel building is booming in Paso Robles. I read that on the front page of Saturday’s Tribune. One hotel is being constructed, one is expanding and others have been approved or are in planning stages.

Hotel companies have apparently noticed that Paso Robles attracts tourists, who visit Paso for many reasons, but often to go to wineries.

Some North County people seem to hate vineyards and wineries, but that industry’s contribution to the area economy is obvious. It makes and sells a popular product and attracts tourists who spend money.

Wine fans are something like sports fans. They enjoy discussing wines. They form clubs and enjoy excursions to winemaking regions, individually or in groups. They may also enjoy driving on our North County rural roads, especially if they’re from a megalopolis.

Paso Robles has a long history of tourist hospitality. It was already a tourist destination in the 1860s because of its naturally flowing, hot mineral springs. In those medical dark ages, hot mineral springs attracted medical tourists. They believed drinking hot mineral water, bathing in it or applying its hot mud could treat almost any illness or disability.

At first the medical “tourists” arrived by stagecoach. They were housed in a two-story wooden hotel or in cabins. In 1891 one of the town’s founders built the huge El Paso de Robles Hotel, bristling with chimneys and towers. It was on the west side of Spring Street between 10th and 12th streets.

Most of that hotel burned down in 1940. The present Paso Robles Inn was built in 1941 and ’42 at the same location. It has several separate buildings surrounding a small park.

By 1942 the public’s faith in cure-all mineral water had waned, but Paso Robles still attracted visitors. Spring Street had become Highway 101 and was lined with hotels and motels. Also, the highway from the San Joaquin Valley terminated at Spring Street. Paso was also the center of the Almond Empire.

But the North County’s economy was soon buffeted by several blows, including the opening and closing of Camp Roberts twice; the almond production moving to irrigated orchards in the Central Valley; and the closing of the Brian Meat Co. slaughterhouse on River Road.

Today, however, thriving vineyards and wineries are energizing North County prosperity.

That’s all the more reason why the Paso Robles groundwater basin must be properly managed and regulated. If it gets thoughtlessly depleted, it could collapse. Then commercial wine grapes would be history, as would our prosperity.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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