It should come as no surprise that the initials for San Luis Obispo County translate to SLO. Slow is how visitors will want to approach the Central Coast, allowing enough time to savor the arresting landscape, meander through small towns and sample the bounty of the land, including an ever-increasing number of wineries and hands-on family farms.
On all my forays south, I’d somehow missed exploring this county, but with evocative names such as Santa Margarita, Atascadero and Paso Robles, I thought it would be my kind of place. I discovered a landscape full of surprises, one that prompted multiple photo-stops. Here, broad green hills are jolted by fingers of erupting rock pointing skyward and majestic ancient oaks displaying winter-bare branches. Vineyards spread rows of pristine vines toward the four points of the compass, and along the coast, sandy beaches alternate with rugged cliffs and secluded coves. It was definitely my kind of place.
San Luis Obispo County is enjoying a growth spurt of back-to-nature businesses. I couldn’t do them justice on my own during a weekend stay, so I put myself in the hands of experts, joining the daylong guided Bounty of the County tour, presented by Boutique Hotel Collection. (It ended in June.) Shuttled by private coach from town to town, we toured a historic ranch in Santa Margarita and sampled wines from Ancient Peaks; wandered wine caves and tasted select vintages at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles; received an education in goat farming, with more tasting thrown in, at Happy Acres Family Farm in Templeton; and enjoyed a multi-sensory lavender experience at Green Acres Family Farm in Atascadero.
First up, was Santa Margarita, the kind of town that harks back to the old west, offering a slow pace and taste of rural life. At the heart of the town lies Santa Margarita Ranch, where Franciscan missionaries planted the first vines in 1774. Capitalizing on the Santa Lucia Mountains, warm temperatures, cool marine breezes and petrified oyster beds that are millions of years old, Ancient Peaks produces estate grown wines that combine depth, balance and character.
We toured the beautiful oak-studded open range land of the ranch, learned about the mortars on Indian Rock and caught a glimpse of El Camino Real, a wide, paved trail that bisects the property. The oldest building on the property is the stone estancia, which houses an array of artifacts discovered on the land, including Confederate money and a rock fashioned as a device to straighten arrows. Karl Wittstrom, one of the winery’s owners, showed us a tack room filled with old saddles and the original Franciscan plot, planted with new vines.
Furnishings, photographs and artifacts also echo the old west at Ancient Peaks’ tasting room. Here, we sampled several excellent vintages, including a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a smooth and deep Merlot, and Oyster Ridge, an artful blend of several reds crafted to exemplify the year’s best wines.
Above and below
Eberle Winery in nearby Paso Robles boasts 16,000 square feet of underground caves used to store wine, two standard poodles aptly named Cabernet and Syrah, and a bronze boar that greets visitors in front of the winery. German legend says that if you rub the boar’s nose and toss a coin into the fountain, good luck will come your way. Owner Gary Eberle, along with wife Marcy and the two poodles, led our group on a tour of the winery and caves. Thirty-five-feet underground, the caves are winter-cool and moist year-round. This is where 1,600 barrels of wine are aged.
Above ground, a redwood tasting room is garlanded with the gold medals the winery has won. One of a dying breed, Eberle Winery doesn’t charge for wine tasting. The wine list included a floral Viognier, a Syrah Rose with a hint of strawberries, a crisp dessert Muscat Canelli and their flagship estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Outdoors, we enjoyed a gourmet boxed lunch—included with the tour—on the Vineyard Deck, gazing out at ever-marching rows of vines back dropped by coastal mountains. It was a postcard-in-the-making.
Next we traveled to Templeton for a visit to Happy Acres Family Farm. The name fit. It was difficult to determine who was happier: the resident goats, the enthusiastic women who run the farm or the tour group itself. Owner Stephanie Simonin began this working dairy with one goat, Stella; today she has 200, each one wearing a name tag. The all-natural, hormone-free high butterfat milk produced from Simonin’s four distinct breeds is used in a wide assortment of products, from cheese and ice cream to lotions and soaps.
On a behind-the-scenes tour, we practiced the finger and hand technique for milking goats, earning an “I milked goats” blue ribbon for our efforts. After donning gloves and hats, we also tried our hands at making cheese, and then headed to the barn to learn about the farm’s controlled breeding program, while cuddling adorable kids, who were recently born. We sampled creamy goat cheese spreads and the newest product, strawberry ice cream made from goat milk. At a recently constructed farm stand, we tested goat’s milk body lotion in several fragrances and checked out fresh eggs and farm-fresh produce that is grown on the farm’s 56 certified organic acres.
In Atascadero, the heady scent of lavender filled the air. At Green Acres Lavender Farm, owners Janice Silva and Bob Bostwick have been harvesting the herb since 2004, with more than 13,000 plants on 4.25 acres. Touring the farm provided insight into the labor-intensive nature of harvesting the buds. As Bostwick explained, during a distillation demonstration in a copper still, one pound of flowers are needed to produce just a single ounce of oil. The farm sells the oil in its pure form, to be added to soap, water and pet products. It’s also used in lavender cookies and lemonade, both of which we sampled as we toured the sales rooms. We admired lavender-themed art,culinary lavender, dried bundles and sachets and various products infused with lavender, including honey, salt, pepper, tea and olive oil.
Rest and relaxation
At the end of an informative and thoroughly enjoyable day, I retired to the Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach, one of the five hotels that participated in the special tour. The sound of waves drifted in through the sliding glass door of my room, perched atop bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Recently renovated rooms reflect a seaside ambiance, from the earth tones to the rich textures of the furnishings, including a multi-pillowed king-size bed in brown and sand, a comfortable sitting area with a desk, armchair and sofa, and an all-glass wall with plantation shutters and private balcony overlooking the pool. I was tempted not to leave the room.
The on-site restaurant, Marisol, serves Latin cuisine. Options for dining include an elegant dining room and casual bar; I choose an alfresco table, ogling an orange and purple sunset while I feasted on Pismo clam chowder, cilantro lime fish tacos and a wild rocket salad. As the sun set on my ideal day, I knew I would be back. Next time, perhaps I would explore on my own. After all, I’d barely brushed the surface of all that was here.