San Luis Obispo County is my favorite place

San Luis Obispo County is my favorite place and I don’t have to go far to experience it– it’s in my backyard. It’s exactly why I decided to move here 15 years ago. Of course, the best things about the area are the rural feel, proximity to the coast and the warm weather. Although I don’t want people flocking to the area and spoiling the best of what there is here, I can’t stop sharing how wonderful San Luis Obispo County is.

Photo of 2 plam trees on a cliff in Pismo Beach, California

My top 5 favorite things to do in San Luis Obispo County

  1. Wine tasting at Pianetta Winery in downtown Paso Robles
    Wine tasting at Pianetta Winery in downtown Paso Robles.

    Wine tasting. There are hundreds upon hundreds (that’s not an exaggeration—check out PasoWine.com and SLOWine.com to see what I mean—do note that listings on both of these are dependent on being members, so not all the wineries in the area are listed). Wine tasting in SLO County is less expensive than other more well-known wine regions. The unofficial stance of the local wine country is that wine tasting is for everyone and the best wine is the wine you like. Wine comes with corks, screw tops and in boxes—what matters is not what it comes in but the quality of the wine that goes in.

    Pismo Beach on a Sunday in April
    Pismo Beach on a Sunday in April
  2. Beach day. I love making a day (or at least an afternoon) of visiting the beach, whether it’s by myself, with friends or with my daughter. My favorite beach (shhh…don’t tell anyone) is Cayucos State Beach.  The children like to spend as much time on the playground on the south side of the peir as they do in the water. If I don’t go to Cayucos, Avila Beach is number 2. Although there are many other fabulous beaches.

    A sampling of beers at Dead Oak Brewery in Atascadero
    A sampling of beers at Dead Oak Brewery in Atascadero.
  3. Sampling of sour beers at Libertine in downtown San Luis Obispo
    Sampling of sour beers at Libertine in downtown San Luis Obispo.

    Craft beer tasting. Since becoming gluten-free, I drink more wine than beer, but my dad and brother in particular LOVE beer. My dad’s goal is to visit all the craft breweries in SLO County. There aren’t as many breweries as there are wineries—nowhere close—but it’s still proving to be difficult as there are always more craft breweries popping up. One of my favorites is Libertine Brewing in SLO because of the sour beers. If you haven’t had a sour before, I recommend going to Libertine and trying one—or four by getting a flight.

    On the way to the top of Stadium Park in Atascadero
    On the way to the top of Stadium Park in Atascadero.
  4. Top of Stadium Park in Atascadero early in the morning
    Top of Stadium Park in Atascadero early in the morning.

    Hiking. One thing those of us living in SLO County often take advantage of — besides living so close to the ocean — is the many hiking trails. There are short hikes that don’t have much elevation change and there are more than a few hiking trails that go up a mountain. There’s one I see every time I head north on the 101 just as the ocean is about to disappear from view at Shell Beach (Shell Beach Bluffs Trail). The ones I hike most often are in Atascadero: Stadium Park and Jim Green, as well as trails at Montana de Oro.

    Short rib tacos from Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles
    Short rib tacos from Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles.
  5. Flourlesss chocolate cake from Bistro Laurante in downtown Paso Robles Robles with a birthday candle on it
    Flourlesss chocolate cake from Bistro Laurante in downtown Paso Robles Robles for my birthday.

    Gourmet food. With the multiple wine, craft beer and spirits offerings, it’s no surprise that talented chefs have been drawn to the area. Not only can get get a fantastic meal in any of the cities/towns in the county, but you can also venture out into the country and find a delicious meal at one of many wineries. One of my favorites  that I love to hit up for Happy Hour is Fish Gaucho in downtown Paso Robles. In downtown San Luis Obispo, my newest obsession is the Vegetable Butcher. Don’t let the name mislead you into thinking that it’s a vegetarian or vegan, restaurant. While it can make most dishes vegetarian or vegan and most are already gluten-free, there is an assortment of offerings for all tastes.

This is only a sampling of what SLO County has to offer, but part of why I make my home here, not to mention the mild weather year-round.

Mexico, oh how I love thee

Center of Mexico City–the only part of the city where I felt uncomfortable, even in the middle of the day.

Though I live in California, only six hours north of the Mexico-U.S. border, I’ve never been to Mexico. Until recently. I always wanted to go, however, at the same time, it wasn’t at the top of my list–so many other places to go… What I didn’t take into consideration was that because it’s so close, it’s cheaper to travel to and that everything costs so much less in Mexico.

Two carnitas tacos I got from a vendor at a fiesta near my Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta. I paid less than a $1 for both.

As I went to Mexico for a conference, the majority of my airfare was paid for. Therefore, my expenses were fairly low as compared to other places. Compared to where I live in California, I found everything exceptionally cheap.

My Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta.
Churos for 10 pesos (50 cents!!!)

Costs:

  • Airfare from San Luis Obispo Airport (a small county airport) to Puerto Vallarta and from Mexico City to San Luis Obispo Airport $644
  • Airfare from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City $52
  • Four nights in an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Vallarta (Fiesta Americana) FREE
  • Three nights in an Airbnb in Puerto Vallarta $66
  • Five nights in an Airbnb in Mexico City $86
  • I got these at a family restaurant inside a mall in Mexico City. I paid less than $5 for the whole meal and I got a drink and chips with my enchiladas.

    Taxi from resort to downtown Puerto Vallarta 65-70 pesos/$3.25-3.50

  • Taxi from Airbnb to airport in Puerto Vallarta 120 pesos/ $6
  • One-way bus in Puerto Vallarta 7.50 pesos/40 cents
  • One-way subway in Mexico City 5 pesos/25 cents
  • One-way bus in Mexico City 4 pesos/20 cents
  • Glass of wine at pizza restaurant 50 pesos/$2.50
  • Glass of wine at fancy restaurant 85-144 pesos/$4.25-7.25
  • Meal at a family restaurant 80 pesos/$4
  • Meal at fancy, trendy restaurant (included mocojete with mixed meats, two glasses of wine, dessert and coffee) 600 pesos/$30
  • One-way taxi from Airbnb to airport 200 pesos/$10 (I was overcharged for sure, but didn’t argue since I wanted to spend the last of my pesos anyway)
The WHOLE plate of bone marrow and tortillas was $4! This, plus queso and 3 glasses of wine in a wine/cheese bar was $16.

Something I’ve learned over the years of traveling is that it is cheaper to get local currency from the ATM or to pay with a credit card. I only used my debit card to get money out of the ATM (I was charged to use the ATM and a foreign transaction fee). The rest of the time I used my credit card, which did not charge me any transaction fees.

I consoled myself for not getting into Frido Kahlo’s house by stopping by a local pizza restaurant and got this pizza and two glasses of wine for $12 including tip. It was a hip place I would have frequented if I lived there.

I loved Mexico for its rich history and culture, especially Mexico City, but also the great exchange rates and how cheap everything was. Every time someone would tell me the cost of something and I’d repeat it incredulously, the person would either lower the price or ask me if it was expensive. It became a challenge of mine to see how fancy of a place and how much I could order. My most expensive meal was $30 including tax and tip for an appetizer, entree, 2 glasses of wine, dessert and a cup of coffee. At home, I once ordered off the starter menu and got one glass of wine for $30 not including tip at a comparable restaurant.

Part of my most expensive meal in Mexico City.

Enrique Torres works his way from the cellar to producing his own wine

Enrique Torres with his wine, Diablo Paso. Photo by Stephanie Austin
Enrique Torres with his wine, Diablo Paso. Photo by Stephanie Austin

Enrique Torres has only lived in the United States since 2001, when he got a job working harvest for Martin Family wines in Paso Robles. He came to the area from Mexico with his girlfriend, Nora, who had family in the area. After harvest he got hired as a cellar rat in the winery. This month he will open his first tasting room in downtown Paso Robles for his label, Diablo Paso.

The tasting room at 827 13th St. is a joint venture with Denis Degher of Mojo Cellars. The tasting room, which does not yet have a name, will be a blend of the two wineries, Torres said. Torres and Degher met when the two both worked for Vinoteca in downtown Paso Robles, Torres as a part-time worker behind the bar and Degher as a musician.

“We’re going to make it very comfortable for people to taste wines, but also have a glass of wine or bottle,” Torres said.

Diablo Paso focuses on Spanish-style wines and Mojo Cellars specializes on Bordeaux wines. Torres is a lover of cigars, something that he said pairs well with wine, and would like to offer cigars along with the wine at some point.

“Nothing’s super heavy, cigars are like wine, they have some heavy flavors [and some light],” Torres said. “My favorite are medium [cigars from Connecticut]. I would learn to love to make my own cigars one day.”

While Torres and Degher will often be found behind the wine tasting bar, Torres said with a smile that he won’t be found during harvest. In addition to Diablo Paso, Torres will continue to work fulltime at CaliPaso and Nora at Paso Robles Housing Authority. Nora joins Torres for the big events.

When he first got to Paso Robles, Torres said, he knew very little English, just “hello.” He said he kept asking questions of the winemaker, Alan Kinne.

“He told me to go learn English and he’d teach me,” Torres said. He enrolled at the Cuesta College Paso Robles campus. “I didn’t have an excuse not to go to class, I left work here and then [went to class on the way home].”

He then worked his way to assistant winemaker at Martin and Weyrich winery and when the winery was sold to CaliPaso, he was hired as assistant winemaker. He has continued to work with head winemaker Kinne.

“I started working with them and loved it,” Torres said, adding that he loves the Paso Robles community. “Great people. That’s the nice thing about Paso Robles – everyone knows each other.”

He’s worked at the same winery located on Buena Vista Drive off and on since 2001 – it’s just had different names over the years. For a year and a half he worked as operations manager at SVP Winery in Shandon before he was hired at CaliPaso.

A few years ago his employers allowed him to start making his own wine at the facility. He didn’t yet have his own license; he was able to make the wine under someone else’s license, but just couldn’t sell it until he had his own.

“When we first started Diablo Paso I wasn’t thinking of a tasting room at all,” Torres said. “But it’s difficult to sell when you’re small.”

That is the reason, he said, for opening the tasting room, to grow the wine club.

“Our goal is to grow our brand to maybe 1,500 cases because we want to keep our quality and control,” Torres said.

His first vintage from 2012 was 100 cases from three barrels of tempranillo. He now produces 500 cases of albariño, rosé, garnacha and tempranillo. He does everything for the wine from the grape to the bottle. He added that he has really great friends that help him bottle the wine.

“I still have some of that wine [from the first vintage] left over for [the] library,” Torres said, adding that he will open a three-liter bottle of first vintage tempranillo at the grand opening of the tasting room that is slated to open around the second weekend of March.

Torres and Nora have now been married for 12 years, after meeting when Nora was traveling and studying in Mexico. She visited Torres’ hometown of Ixtapa Zihutanejo, where they met.

“It’s a very small fishing village,” Torres said. “Then later in the year I came to Paso Robles to visit.”

Nora’s had family in Paso Robles since the 1980s, though she grew up on the East Coast, in Brooklyn. Torres moved to the East Coast for three months with Nora, who was then his fiancée. They have two sons, Max, 10, and Nico, 8.

The name of the wine label came to be because it’s a strong Spanish name to go along with Torres’ Spanish-style wines.

“Diablo used to be my nickname when I was a kid,” Torres said. “My mom’s still mad at me because I brought it back.”

He said it was also really important to him to have Paso in the name. He chose to include the Spanish cross on the label, so people realize that he’s not evil, even with the name Diablo on it.

Torres anticipates that the tasting room will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Monday. The tasting room opened in the space at 827 13th St., which was vacated by Baby’s Babble at the beginning of February. For more information about the winery, go to www.diablopasowines.com or call 805-975-6185.

This story was originally published in Journal Plus in March 2016.

There's something about LXV

LXV-pairing-1My favorite part about living on the California Central Coast — besides the proximity to the ocean and the mild winters — is living in the heart of wine country. I barely new anything about wine until I moved here. I knew there were white, pink and red wines, my knowledge barely extended beyond that.

After living in wine country — Paso Robles Wine Country specifically — I now know what varietals I prefer (for reds I like petite sirah, zinfandels and cabernets and for whites I prefer viogier and albariño) and what characteristics I like and what I don’t like (I don’t care for peppery wine, but would rather have a heavy, fruit-forward one).

So it’s no big surprise that when I get a call in the late morning asking if I’d like to attend a wine and food pairing in preparation for Valentine’s Day for later that day that I said “yes.”

LXV Wine owner Neeta Mittal is really the heart and soul of the winery and tasting room. I first experienced LXV’s wine and along with its spice pairing three years ago when I went to First Saturdays in downtown Paso Robles (an art and wine event that included a few wineries and art galleries) with a friend. LXV was one of a few wineries on the tour, so we went in for a wine tasting and got the the spice pairing for a reduced price. I had never been to a place that paired spice with wine.

Friend Stephanie and I tasting at LXV.
Friend Stephanie and I tasting at LXV.

That visit led me to pitch story about the winery’s wine and spice pairing to Edible SLO a year later. It wasn’t until a year after that that I was assigned to write the story. (Click here to go to the Holidays 2015 issue, the story begins on Page 24.) I had just arrived for an extended stay in Japan when I got the assignment, so I conducted the interview with Neeta via email and Skype. I’ve interviewed thousands of people over the last 20 years, and there are a few that stand out — in both good and not-so-good ways. Neeta is one of the good ones.

A few months later I returned home from Japan and one of my first stops was at LXV. The day after Christmas with my parents and brother. It was the last stop after a day of wine tasting. After two other wineries, my parents were wined out, but came along for the ride. I had been hyping up LXV, and was prepared for my family not to feel the same (isn’t that what always happens when you tell people how wonderful something is and then when they experience it, it isn’t; or they don’t just find it as appealing?). But from from the moment we arrived, my mom was hooked.

Even with my parents not tasting, Neeta and her staff made sure everyone was taken care of and brought them a plate of goodies to nibble on. My brother and I became wine club members that day. Because of the wine. Because of the Indian food lunches and dinners available only to club members. Because of Neeta.

I could go on about the wine club and all the times I’ve been since joining the wine club less than two months ago, but I won’t. Instead I’ll tell you about the wine and food pairing I went to on Monday, which just happened to be my birthday.

An Aphrodisiac Pairing

Neeta invited a few journalists for the special tasting, but said it didn’t matter if I wrote about it or not. She just wanted us to have a good time. And we did. I stayed after the tasting was over with a couple of other women just talking.

The two hours before, Neeta treated us to five of the different wines LXV produced, along with cheese, meats and other food that will be on the tasting menu for Valentine’s Day — starting today through Monday.

Neeta blended her Indian culture and the Kama Sutra for the Valentine’s tasting menu.

“Aphrodisiac foods generally have some things in common, regardless of where they come from,” Neeta said. “They stimulate pleasure centers, for example via intoxicating aromas. Some are rich in amino acids that help build strength and boost performance. Honey with its sweet and pleasing, provides a sugar boost and contains some zinc, which helps support healthy libido.”

Now, Neeta did temper that you won’t have a response from your libido if you’re not with the right person, so no worries about having a response to the food and wine.

The Spiritual Laws of Love: An Aphrodisiac PairingLXV-pairing-1

  • Attraction
    Summer Satine: Viognier
    Honey Comb
    Fromager D’affinois (cheese with truffles)
    Jack Fruit
    Naan with GheeLXV-rose
  • Infatuation
    Heart Note: Rosé (Sangiovese)
    Langres (cheese)
    Barnier Black Provencal Olives
    Absinthe Popcorn
  • LXV-wine-3Intimacy
    Reserve Sangiovese: Brunello
    Fougerus Cheese
    Uni Pasta (uni is sea urchin)
    ProsciuttoLXV-wine-4
  • Surrender
    Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
    Pork and Pistachio Pate
    Finocchiona SalamiLXV-Spellbound
  • Ecstasy
    Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah
    Smokey Blue Cheese
    Bone Marrow (this was actually really delicious!)
    Pan Forte

This was a fabulous food and wine pairing, particularly picked with lovers in mind.

“The whole idea is to have fun,” Neeta said as we were going through the pairing. If you love food and wine, this something I recommend. There are always tons of choices for special events such as this. As a quite and reserved person, I like going places where the people are more outgoing. I want to chat with others and have a good time, I’m just not the most outgoing, so I need a little encouragement.

For more information on upcoming events at LXV, click here. And if you ever want to go for a wine tasting at LXV, hit me up. I’ll take any excuse to go wine tasting.

Arnold family rebrands wine label to 'Vintage Cowboy'

Three generations of Arnold family in the family's vineyard in Pozo.
Three generations of Arnold family in the family’s vineyard in Pozo.

New ‘Vintage Cowboy’ reflects the family’s ranching heritage

Vintage Cowboy is the new label for the Arnold family: Steve and Debbie Arnold, Joey and Jessica Arnold and Michelle and Ryan Pascoe. Steve planted the vineyard in 1995 and the first vintage bottled by the family was under the label “Pozo Valley” in 2003. Debbie Arnold is a San Luis Obispo County Supervisor.

“Our rebranding, our vintage cowboy label was a natural progression,” Michelle said. “We did go into a finer niche with the western label, but there are people loyal to the western lifestyle.”

For the Arnold family, a western theme fits the family and its lifestyle. The family has been farming and ranching in the Pozo area for six generations – the sixth generation are granddaughters who are now just 3- to 6-years-old. The family has 125 heads of cow, which are sold at auction.

Vintage Cowboy
“We did go into a finer niche with the western label, but there are people loyal to the western lifestyle,” Michelle Pascoe said.

“My great-grandfather was a farmer and rancher. He started a dry-farm operation,” Michelle said. The family currently dry-farms oat hay.

Michelle’s husband, Ryan, is a cowboy at Hearst Ranch. Every year, the entire Arnold family closes down the winery for a week to travel to Las Vegas for the World Series of Team Roping and the National Finals Rodeo, in which many of the family members compete.

Joey and Michelle really grew into the winery with Steve planting the 32 acres of grapes while they were in high school.

“Talk about learn by doing – whether you wanted to or not,” Michelle said. “We worked in the summers – all year round.” She added that while their classmates were going on trips for spring break, they were in the vineyard thinning, weeding, suckering and doing maintenance work.

Michelle and Joey graduated from Atascadero High School and then went to Cal Poly to study viticulture. Michelle graduated from Cal Poly in 2002 and Joey in 2000. Joey’s wife, Jessica, also graduated from AHS and studied graphic design at Cal Poly.

The whole family helps out in the winery in some way, though all are able to step into different shoes to help out as needed. Steve is the vineyard manager, Debbie is a silent partner as a county supervisor for the first district, Joey is the winemaker and helps Steve in the vineyard, Michelle is the manager, Jessica does all the graphics and marketing material, and Ryan helps out at harvest and goes on sales trip.

Vintage Cowboy Winery tasting room in Pozo.
Vintage Cowboy Winery tasting room in Pozo.

When the Arnold family started selling its first label in 2005, it had a wine tasting room in Paso Robles with several other wineries. Its wine was produced in a custom crush facility in Paso Robles. After a year, in 2006, the tasting room moved to Santa Margarita. It closed in 2012 while the family was building its winery and tasting room in Pozo – right next to Pozo Saloon.

Joey Arnold and Michelle Pascoe.
Joey Arnold and Michelle Pascoe.

“Each move has been better for us,” Michelle said.

The tasting and winery room is located at 10 East Pozo Rd. in Santa Margarita and is open on Saturdays and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the exception of any major holiday that falls on a weekend. Michelle said there is a picnic area for people to bring their own food, though the saloon is open for lunch. The Arnolds’ winery, Michelle said, is a “destination winery,” because there isn’t much else out there.

“It’s nice to get out,” she said. “Especially to go to the historic Pozo Saloon – it’s 125 years old.”

The winery was built to look like an old tin barn on the outside. On the inside, it’s a modern, working winery with barrels and wine-stained floors.

The winery’s 2014 vintage, Michelle said, will be its first estate labelled vintage with the wine not leaving the property from planting to bottling.

Click here to find more wineries in the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area.

This was originally published on A-Town Daily News and Paso Robles Daily News.