For a long time, the recipe for a successful wine-tasting experience was pretty straightforward: Friendly staff pouring good wine in a relaxing space, possibly with some snacks or gifts for sale.
But today’s savvy consumers are seeking more unique, personal experiences, and many area wineries have responded, offering new, behind-the-scenes tours, in-depth tastings and creative ways to get customers more acquainted with the plants and plots of land that produce the wine they drink.
“People dig it when they get to see how the winery works,” said Kevin Jussila, the owner and winemaker at kukkula in Paso Robles. “And we get to show them what we’re all about.”
Many of these experiences aim to enhance a wine drinker’s knowledge of wine, but some appeal to the nonenthusiast as well, and may even turn new people onto San Luis Obispo County’s thriving wine scene.
“It’s a way to share wine in a not-so-obvious manner,” said Chris Taranto, communications director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
Here are a few of our favorite new ways to tour, taste, stay and play at the region’s wineries.
Boars and brunch at kukkula
Tour companies taking visitors around to a handful of wineries while arranging gourmet lunches and other add-ons has been a staple of wine country for many years. Recently, more wineries have begun offering their own tours, getting visitors up close and personal with the vineyards, the winemaking and often the winemaker.
At kukkula, a small estate winery in the far reaches of the Adelaida district, a new hiking tour takes participants through the vineyard and into the owners’ hilltop home for brunch and a uniquely intimate experience.
The tour, with no more than 20 participants, sets off from the winery at the bottom of the hillside vineyard and meanders up through the vines as owner/winemaker Kevin Jussila describes his decadelong journey of transforming an old walnut grove into an organic, dry-farmed winery producing artisan Rhône varietal blends.
With plenty of wildlife in the area, hikers may spot a jackrabbit bounding through the vines or golden and bald eagles flying overhead, and Kevin is sure to share his battles with the wild boars that roam the area at night, rooting destructively through the ground.
After working up an appetite over the 400-foot climb, Paula Jussila welcomes the tour into the couple’s home, with architecture to match the striking 360-degree hilltop views. An avid cook, Paula serves an inviting brunch of pastries, fruit, yogurt and homemade wine jelly. The menu may even feature the boar that Kevin traps and kills on the property in a hearty dish, such as savory kale and wild boar sausage frittata.
Bellies full, the tour treks back down the road, past the olive grove that the Jussilas planted to make their Provençal field blend olive oil, and back to the winery. There, guests taste the fruit of Kevin’s labor: medleys of earthy, chocolatey syrah, spicy-yet-velvety counoise, spice-box grenache — the aromas and flavors all the more vivid after walking the ground from which they spring.
Details: The three-hour “Experience kukkula” tour is offered May 21, Aug. 20 and Oct. 22 for $40. Best for active wine drinkers, the 1-mile hike gains about 400 feet in elevation over uneven ground. Water-resistant hiking boots are recommended, as are a change of shoes for after the tour.
Other touring options: For those who’d prefer a more leisurely experience, ONX Wines offers weekly, hourlong tours of its rolling Templeton Gap vineyard, with stops at scenic oases to taste the wine where it’s grown. $15, www.onxwines.com. Halter Ranch offers an in-depth “Excursion Tour” that takes visitors around the sprawling property in a 1984 Land Rover, stopping at a few landmarks to sample wine, through the state-of-the-art winery and winding caves, before wrapping up with a visit to the modern tasting room. $45, www.halterranch.com.
Spicing it up at LXV
Some wineries offer a small cheese plate to accompany a tasting, others sell full charcuterie platters, and many will pull out a bite of dark chocolate to sample with a dessert wine. One Paso winery goes beyond these traditional pairings by throwing spice into the mix.
The downtown Paso tasting room of LXV Wine, owned by Neeta and Kunal Mittal, offers an exotic feast for the senses: vibrant blue walls, colorful daybeds topped with piles of plush pillows, seductive Indian music and alluring aromas of cardamom, rose hips and other spices.
Most winemakers eschew smells, worried they’ll interfere with the aroma and taste of their wines, but with a culinary background, Neeta wanted to showcase how the wines accompany food and cooking. It’s less about the protein, she says, and more about the flavors and seasonings you’re using.
That’s exactly what the by-appointment spice pairings aim to highlight. The Mittals start with a mild sheep’s milk cheese, which they dust with various spice blends to complement the vintage, varietal and season.
Most every tasting includes a pairing with the family recipe for garam masala, a blend of over 20 brown spices used to warm up everything from vegetables to stews that Neeta’s mother sends over from India. For a Rhône-dominant blend, the LXV team combined rose hips, rose petals, cardamom, jasmine, cinnamon, sea salt and cocoa, a mix they described as well-suited to cream sauces.
Neeta offers recipes or suggestions for each spice mixture, which are also sold in packets for $5. The pairing for a cab franc-syrah-merlot blend, with smoked tea, paprika, garlic, black pepper, fennel, sarsaparilla, rosemary and marjoram, for example, is perfect for a steak or paneer rub.
To end on a nonchocolate sweet note, the Mittals pair their rich syrah with dried blueberries dusted with sarsaparilla, cocoa, vanilla and nutmeg, a combo that can be made into a sauce to accompany game meats.
Details: Spice pairings, $20, offered by appointment only, so a staff member can walk you through the tasting. Hours are noon to 7 p.m. Thursday to Monday. www.lxvwine.com.
Other pairing options: If traditional cheese and charcuterie are more your style, Le Vigne Winery has among the largest selections in the area, along with fresh-pressed paninis. More paninis, salad and dessert to accompany tastings are on the menu at AronHill Vineyards’ small bistro. Enjoy a seated tasting along with a meal from the full menu at Cass Vineyard and Winery, or hit the popular open-air Barton’s Kitchen Window for Chef Jeffry Wiesinger’s award-winning creations at Barton Family Wines.
The vintage Trailer Pond at Alta Colina
Between on-site bed-and-breakfasts, vacation rentals and guest cottages, dozens of wineries offer places for visitors to stay overnight. But those seeking a real connection with the land should check out the more rustic option offered at Alta Colina Wine’s new Trailer Pond.
A stay at Alta Colina starts like any other visit, with a stop at father-daughter Bob and Maggie Tillman’s tasting room off Highway 46 West. Sample the 130-acre estate’s organically farmed, handmade Rhône varietal wines, then grab a bottle or two and head up the steep, winding drive — past exposed hillsides revealing the fractured shale soil the vines root into — and up to a serene pond ringed by a half-dozen vintage trailers.
Watch the sunset from the floating dock, 1,800 feet above sea level, surrounded by nothing but vines, hills and valleys in every direction. When it’s time to tuck in, snuggle into the trailer’s cozy bed and fall asleep to the calming lullaby of the vineyard at night. Wake and prepare a fresh cup of organic Joebella coffee right in the trailer — lovingly restored and appointed in period detail by Tinker Tin Trailer Co.
Take a hike among the vines, relax with a book on your shaded front patio, or schedule an outdoor yoga class and wine tasting on the hillside deck nearby. Prepare simple meals at the cute outdoor kitchen at the far end of the trailers, arrange for catered meals or head for a bite in town — only a 10-minute drive despite feeling a world away.
Details: The weekend package for two, $750, includes a two-night stay, bottle of wine, wine-and-cheese tasting and catered breakfast both mornings. Weeknight stays are $250 per night with free wine tasting. 21 and over only. Book at www.tinkertin.com. Contact Tinker Tin directly for group and event rental details and options.
Other options: For a more budget-friendly option, check out the Que Sera Syrah Vineyard Winnebago on www.airbnb.com for $90 per night. Or forget the trailers and camp the old-fashioned way at Pianetta Ranch & Winery, where you can pitch a tent among the vines. Pianetta accommodates groups up to 50 and will arrange tastings, tours, dinner and more. Book at www.hipcamp.com.
Tossing around the vines at Castoro Cellars
You’ll find bocce ball, bean bag toss and other games dotting the lawns of tasting rooms around wine country, but rarely will you find a game that takes you straight into the vineyard itself.
But that’s exactly what you can do at Castoro Cellars, where the Udsen family has created a disc golf course meandering through its Whale Rock vineyard.
Not familiar with disc golf? The game features 18 holes, just like the club kind, but instead of hitting balls toward a tiny hole, you’re tossing small, Frisbee-like discs with the goal of landing them in chain-strung metal baskets. The family-friendly sport takes just minutes to learn, though like its namesake, can take a lifetime to master.
Luke and Max Udsen, sons of Castoro co-founders Niels and Bimmer, are keen disc golfers themselves and alighted on the idea as a low-impact way to provide a fun diversion and get people better acquainted with the vines that make the wines.
Each tee features a sign describing something about the surrounding vines, the land or Castoro’s history, along with a piece of ancient, petrified whalebone discovered when they planted the vineyard. The two-mile loop — covering much of the same ground used for the winery’s annual music festival — takes players past majestic old oaks, up hills with expansive views and into the far reaches of the sprawling property.
Practice enough and you may even want to play in the annual Wine Down tournament.
Details: Check in at the tasting room, rent some discs and play a round for just $5, wine tasting included. Or join the $60 wine and disc club for unlimited rounds, free tastings and a bottle of your choice. Find more information about the course at www.castorocellars.com.
Other options: Bit more of a thrill-seeker? Try zip lining through Ancient Peaks Winery’s Santa Margarita vineyard with Margarita Adventures, which offers six zip lines and various packages perfect for adrenaline junkies. Go for a more mellow vibe at the shaded outdoor pool table at Chronic Cellars, or head to Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards for a kid-friendly outing to feed dozens of wild peacocks roaming the property.