When a place is named one of the best winery restaurants in the country, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles has received that distinction not once, but twice. It was among 16 U.S. eateries to get the nod from Food & Wine magazine in 2017 and snagged the 10th spot in USA Today’s list of America’s top 10 winery restaurants in 2018.
Both mentions laud the restaurant’s commitment to sourcing quality local ingredients, including produce from the on-site Chef’s Garden and olive oil from the estate trees.
Given Niner’s emphasis on presenting a memorable food and wine experience, the accolades are well deserved. Surprisingly, the restaurant concept was on the back burner when the LEED-certified facility opened in 2010.
Though an open kitchen and intimate dining area were included in the original buildout, the culinary space was originally used for cooking classes and special events.
Winery founders Richard and Pam Niner didn’t really want to pursue the restaurant idea, son Andy Niner said. He took over business operations at Niner Wine Estates after his parents retired in 2013, and thought the restaurant could be an important part of the estate.
“I’ll always remember the time I had that first ‘food and wine’ experience. It was very impactful,” Niner said. “For us, it’s about showcasing that the Central Coast is a great place — with this particular plate of food paired with this particular wine.”
It was with this concept that the restaurant at Niner Wine Estates opened in 2014.
The high-ceilinged dining room mirrors the ambiance of the elegant tasting room, but in a more intimate way. Natural surfaces and expansive windows bring the outdoors in — an aspect that was greatly enhanced after a 2016 remodel added an inviting patio just outside.
Views from both dining areas spill out to the Chef’s Garden, the tranquil grounds and the winery’s iconic Heart Hill Vineyard. This memorable property gets its name from a heart-shaped grove of oak trees that has been a local landmark since the 1950s.
The menu at Niner Wine Estates lends itself to wine pairings in several different ways.
One option is the three-course tasting menu with suggested wine pairings for the appetizer and entrée. A recent offering featured apple bacon salad paired with sauvignon blanc, osso buco with cabernet sauvignon and a dessert of chocolate marquis with fresh blackberries and housemade whipped cream.
Guests can also order dishes a la carte to enjoy with a wine tasting flight, a glass of wine or a bottle. If you’d like recommendations on wine pairings, the attentive and knowledgeable staff is happy to help.
The menu changes seasonally. Some summer dishes include chilled mango soup, a burrata plate and pan-seared scallops.
Local food purveyors are noted when applicable, such as the baguette for the bahn mi sandwich from Atascadero’s Back Porch Bakery and a cheese board featuring Cambria’s Stepladder Creamery and Paso Robles’s Central Coast Creamery.
Whatever ingredients aren’t local — in this case, produced within a radius of about 30 miles — can usually be sourced from within California, but the emphasis is always about producing as much as possible from the winery’s property.
“Since we’re making estate wine, we wanted to translate that as much as we could to the food,” Andy Niner said.
The Chef’s Garden is a working plot maintained by Avant-Gardener, a local gardening service that coordinates with the kitchen staff as to what to plant for upcoming menus.
As idyllic as this garden-to-table concept sounds, it has its challenges.
“It’s certainly not as easy as calling in a food delivery or even going to a farmers market,” Andy Niner acknowledged. “Everyone has to embrace it, and they have. We’ve got an awesome team, and really, we’d stop doing all this if we didn’t.”
Niner Wine Estates
2400 Highway 46 West, Paso Robles
Hours: Lunch noon to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, brunch 11 a.m. to 3p.m. Sunday.
The scene: Suitable for casual gathering or special occasions, whether dining indoors or al fresco on the covered, dog-friendly patio. (No outside food or alcohol permitted.)
The cuisine: Farm-to-table fare, focusing on fresh ingredients from the estate garden and local producers.
Expect to spend: $14 to $30, brunch $14 to $18.