San Luis Obispo County wineries have hit on a fun way to get customers up close and personal with the vines that grow their wines — off-road Jeep tours.
“We’re showing someone how we grow rather than talking about the wine itself,” said Dan Smith, the winemaker at Villa San-Juliette in San Miguel, which began offering vineyard Jeep tours in March. “It’s nice for customers to see that. It’s really connective.”
Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery has offered vintage Jeep tours of its extensive Paso Robles property since 2003, long before the Steinbeck family began producing its own wine.
“The wine brand was actually born from the tours,” said Cindy Steinbeck, part of the fifth generation of Steinbecks to ranch and farm in Paso Robles.
Steinbeck, who leads tours along with father Howie and brother Allen, said they’ve seen growing interest from customers wanting to get out in the fields over the past decade. “People are wanting to get closer to the source.”
For an exciting, bumpy look at where your wine begins, check out some of the Central Coast’s off-road touring options.
Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery
Where: 5940 Union Road, Paso Robles
When: Daily, by appointment.
How much: $40 per person (two-person minimum), $10 per additional guest; under 18 is free.
Paso Robles’ original vineyard Jeep tour, Steinbeck’s Crash Course will take you on a bouncy hour-long ride through 600 acres the family has farmed for nearly 100 years. Duck into the quaint blacksmith shop-turned-tasting room to view historical photos and antiques then climb into one of the Jeeps — the 1958 WineYard Willy, the large decommissioned M715 or a modern-day model — for an exhilarating open-air ride through the vines.
Choose from family-led tours focused on sustainable winegrowing, family and area history or a Biblical perspective based around the New Testament verse “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
In all three, you’ll see the spot where a B-26 airplane crashed in 1956, take in dramatic views from hilltop stops and whiz by vines growing 14 varieties for wineries including J. Lohr Vineyards and Winery, Justin Winery and the family’s own label. Steinbeck wines will greet you upon your return.
Villa San-Juliette Vineyard & Winery
Where: 6385 Cross Canyons Road, San Miguel
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays to Sundays
How much: $15, $10 for wine club members
For a shorter excursion, head out to the palatial Villa San-Juliette for a quick spin through the estate founded by Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe, better known for producing and judging TV shows including “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.” Hop into a shiny new Jeep Wrangler and bomb through the 120-acre property with sweeping views of rolling hills and valleys.
A few steep drops and off-kilter paths will have you ready for a taste of rosé at the top of a scenic rise while your guide explains how the terrain and soil create the flavor and minerality of the wines. Stop for a couple more tastes surrounded by the vines before heading back to the calm of the elegant tasting room to sample the rest of the lineup. Or order up a pizza, panini or cheese plate from the on-site kitchen and head out for a picnic on the stately grounds of the Tuscan-inspired villa.
Central Coast Jeep Tour Adventures
Where: Pick-up anywhere around Paso Robles; other county locations for extra charge.
When: Approximately 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, by reservation.
How much: $139 per person (two-person minimum)
Up for an all-day expedition? Book a tour in a bright orange 1980s Jeep Scrambler and spend the day with your hair blowing in the breeze while exploring the back roads and dirt trails of Paso Robles wine country. Sal Mauro and his drivers will take you to a handful of off-the-beaten-path wineries where you’ll often taste with the winemakers themselves. (Mauro’s brother runs the Cloud Climber Jeep Tours in Santa Barbara County.)
Customize the experience to your favorite varietals or include stops to sample the area’s olive oil, craft beer or distilled spirits. Tasting fees are always included, as is a gourmet boxed lunch along the way and at least one hair-raising off-road trek where you’ll kick up some dust and leave civilization behind.
Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter or Instagram @sallybuffalo.