How to taste wine like a pro: Tips from a SLO sommelier
Wine, it’s often said, is best enjoyed with food.
Wine tasting, however, is largely a liquid-only affair, with the possible exception of a couple crackers or maybe a few bites of cheese.
To bring in more visitors, put the focus on their food-friendly vintages and highlight the region’s culture and cuisine, some San Luis Obispo County wineries are showing off their stuff in kitchen as well the vineyard.
No room in your itinerary for spendy epicurean undertaking? Not to worry. San Luis Obispo County wine country serves up various tasty options to tide you over to dinner, many of them quite budget-friendly.
When you’re out on a tasting adventure and hunger strikes, here are some spots to refuel.
Barton’s Kitchen Window at Grey Wolf/Barton Family Wines
A stop at Barton’s Kitchen Window can feel like stumbling upon a farm-country outpost, even though it’s right off Highway 46 West just minutes from Highway 101.
The original face behind the window, beloved paella champion Jeff Wiesinger, has moved on to his own place, Jeffry’s Wine Country BBQ. Now a new Jeff is making his mark there.
Jeff Thomas carries a passion for quality ingredients and sharp attention to detail honed under master chefs Gordon Ramsey and Curtis Stone into the relaxed realm of rustic wine-country fare.
It’s hard to pass up an authentic muffuletta — generously stuffed with meats, olives and cheeses — from a New Orleans native like Thomas. (A quarter portion is sufficient for all but the hungriest of diners.)
But there’s plenty more to try, from a hearty but refreshing quinoa salad, bahn mi or meatloaf sandwich to a gouda mac and cheese that pairs surprisingly well with a meaty cabernet. And don’t miss the buttery house-made pâté, a rich but not too filling luxury.
Thomas even has kid-friendly options such as grilled cheese sandwiches and buttered noodles.
Snag a shady spot on the stylishly funky multi-level patio, with lush vines stretching out in every direction, and you may not want to leave — except possibly to sample some post-meal spirits at the on-site Krobar Craft Distillery.
Details: $5 to $14 sides, salads and sandwiches. 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday to Monday. 2174 Highway 46 West, Paso Robles. 805-712-5871 or bartonfamilywines.com.
Cello Ristorante & Bar at Allegretto Vineyard Resort
“Wait”, you may be saying, “That’s a hotel, not a winery.”
True, it is a hotel, and an enchanting one at that. But proprietor Doug Ayres planted 8 acres of vines before building the Tuscan-inspired retreat, and as of 2017, you can taste a lineup of old-world-style wines in the grand, old-world-style courtyard dotted with fountains, statuary and 100-year-old olive trees.
Afterward, make your way to the front portico for a creative but unfussy meal overlooking alluring gardens growing a number of kitchen ingredients. Keep it light with thoughtfully composed salads peppered with seasonal delicacies, or indulge in the steak or scallop-topped ones.
Calamari delicately crusted in cornmeal makes a nice shared plate, as do the trio of savory pizzas.
Those with bigger appetites can choose from several sandwiches, including a classic Reuben or falafel slider platter brimming with Mediterranean accoutrements. If you’re feeling a bit brunchy, there’s even a gourmet huevos rancheros.
Walk off your meal while exploring the property’s extensive art collection or the new sonic labyrinth, a first-of-its-kind maze using motion-activated sounds to deepen your meditative stroll. Or stick around for a culinary tour of the gardens, where executive chef Justin Picard explains how he uses the estate’s numerous plantings in his dishes.
Gourmet Deli at Old Edna and Sextant Wines
Stepping inside the tin-sided building housing Sextant’s wine tasting bar and deli is like stepping into the past — if the past featured the magic of a panini press.
Head to the back of the historic townsite’s one-time mercantile to place your order, then saunter over to the tasting bar to sample Sextant’s Paso Robles and Edna Valley-grown wines. Two varieties — the Caledoc and Marselan — are cross-pollinated hybrids you’ll find nowhere else.
The hundred-year-old spot has gone through a number of iterations over the decades, serving as a live theater for a time. The deli, which has operated for more than a decade, recently returned to the basics: fresh, filling ingredients pressed together into crusty, gooey goodness.
A simple combination of mozzarella, tomato and pesto simply bursts with flavor. Chicken gets jacked up with pepper jack and a spicy aioli, and Italian meats meet zesty pepperoncini and aged provolone.
There’s also a daily stromboli and hearty salads including a standby kale caesar and seasonal creations.
Kids can get in on the melty action with a cheese quesadilla and fruit, followed by a romp around the treasure-filled town site. They can get up close and personal with the resident goats and chickens while you take in unique sites like the 1887 Bluebelly barn, an old gypsy wagon and other funky fixtures.
Details: $11 to $13 for salads and panini. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 1653 Old Price Canyon Road, San Luis Obispo. 805-542-0133 or sextantwines.com
The Café at Cass Vineyard & Winery
Planning a trek out to sample the acclaimed Rhône wines from the Central Coast Wine Competition’s Winery of the Year? (And not just 2018 — it earned the honor in 2015, too.). Bring your appetite. You’ll want to stay for lunch.
At Cass, farm-to-table cuisine means the food travels a distance of about 100 feet. With a fertile garden growing just beyond the covered veranda, you can enjoy its bounty while sampling award-winning wines tableside.
The winery also has its own chickens and cows. It cures and smokes its meats in-house, often over culled grape vines.
Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Michael Learned took over the kitchen in early 2018, but longtime favorites such as crab cakes and watermelon arugula salad still feature on the menu.
How about some estate-raised beef to go with the estate-grown wines? The grass-fed Benny Burger, topped with house-cured bacon, tangy horseradish aioli, blue cheese and spicy arugula, is one of the best you’ll find.
Still, it’s hard to choose among the sandwiches: Mediterranean chicken, Southwest portobello, pulled pork. Or try the too-fun Figgy Piggy, with two kinds of prosciutto, fig jam and whipped goat cheese on a French baguette.
Cass also has your sweet tooth covered, with seasonal frozen desserts from Paso Robles-based Leo Leo Gelato and creamy, flaky lemon bars.
Details: $5 to $19 for starters, salads and sandwiches. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 7350 Linne Road, Paso Robles. 805-239-1730 or casswines.com.
Other winery eats
Ancient Peaks Café: Casual ranch-to-table fare prepared in collaboration with nearby restaurant The Range, available daily in a posh Western setting. Ancient Peaks Winery, 22720 EL Camino Real, Santa Margarita. ancientpeaks.com
AronHill Vineyards Bistro: Small but fresh selection of salads, sandwiches and shared plates available daily on a patio with hilltop views. AronHill Vineyards, 3745 Highway 46 West, Templeton. aronhillvineyards.com
San Antonio Winery: Casual pizzas, pastas and more available daily inside or out on the patio. 2610 Buena Vista Drive, Paso Robles, sanantoniowinery.com
Vina Robles Winery: Gourmet pastas, salads and sandwiches are served up Thursday to Saturday with a refined, Old World ambiance. 3700 Mill Road, Paso Robles. vinarobles.com