Where Have You Been, Op-Edible?

As you may have noticed, several months have passed since my last entry. In that time, I’ve been on a vision quest of sorts. 

In June I left my job as an employment attorney turned human resources executive for a national retail company to pursue a career in food and wine. I don’t know what shape that will take, but I set out on a mission to explore my own natural curiosities and passions. Simply put, I’ve been doing things that interest me with interesting people in interesting places. Naturally since my interests revolve around food and wine, I’ve been eating and drinking my way around the globe.

Blindfolded Tasting during The New York Times  Travel Smarter: Food & Photograpy  workshop

Blindfolded Tasting during The New York Times Travel Smarter: Food & Photograpy workshop

In preparation for my time off, earlier this year I took a New York Times Journeys weekend workshop called Travel Smarter: Food and Photography. Here I am doing a blindfolded tasting of lunch at Reynard in the Wyeth Hotel, Brooklyn as New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Julia Moskin discussed food writing. The workshop included panel discussions at The New York Times headquarters with the paper’s award-winning travel and food writers, photographers, and photo editors as well as a street photography lesson and a valuable photo review with the pros. It was an incredible experience that got me excited for my impending travels. And while in New York, I dined at some of my favorite spots: Via Carota, Red Farm, and Charlie Bird.

View from the tasting room of Austin Hope Winery in Paso Robles, California

View from the tasting room of Austin Hope Winery in Paso Robles, California

First I spent a weekend in Paso Robles with two of my dearest friends. Of course we tasted wine and ate at the great restaurants in downtown Paso (like The Hatch), but we also took time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. Cultivating friendships and stealing away time together is increasingly important to me as I get older, especially because many of my friends are scattered around the country. See more about Paso Robles in one of my earlier posts here

The study and consumption of wine in progress 

The study and consumption of wine in progress 

Right after leaving my job in June, I became a student again. I took the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 course at the Napa Valley Wine Academy where I learned about each of the major wine regions of the world, their climate, soil types, grape varietals, vineyard management, and winemaking techniques that influence both the style and price of wine (still, sparkling and fortified). The WSET level 3 course required a fair amount of study, which provided an outlet for my need to be doing something (other than work) before my travels began.

Itxepec Mezcal Cocktail: pineapple, spiced syrup, and burnt cinnamon at Zandunga, Oaxaca

Itxepec Mezcal Cocktail: pineapple, spiced syrup, and burnt cinnamon at Zandunga, Oaxaca

In early July my husband and I spend ten wonderful days relaxing, eating and drinking to excess in Mexico City and Oaxaca. When we weren’t indulging, we visited a Mezcal Union Palenque to see how the smoky, distilled beverage is made, we climbed the ruins at Monte Alban, and took a cooking class in Oaxaca.

Casa de los Azulejos

Casa de los Azulejos

In Mexico City, we viewed the art of Frida Kahlo (at the Museo Frida Kahlo - “the blue house”) and Diego Rivera (at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera), strolled through the historic streets of the Centro Historico, and marveled at the architecture and tile work on the Casa de los Azulejos (or “Tile House”).

Santo Domingo - Oaxaca, Mexico

Santo Domingo - Oaxaca, Mexico

Favorite meals in Mexico include the tuna tostadas and spice rubbed fish at Contramar; a marathon tasting menu with a soul-satisfying mole and herbaceous tortillas at Pujol; the chile rellenos, beans and rice at El Sazon de Esther adjacent to the Miguel Fabian black pottery studio in San Bartolo Coyotepec; charred octopus at Origen in Oaxaca; and the meal we made at Casa Crespo Flavors of Oaxaca cooking class. You can see my Instagram stories for highlights from Oaxaca and Mexico City.

Moonrise over Eldred Rock Lighthouse, seen from our cruiseship balcony departing Skagway, Alaska

Moonrise over Eldred Rock Lighthouse, seen from our cruiseship balcony departing Skagway, Alaska

In the latter half of July, my mom and I took a cruise to and through the Inner Passage of Alaska from San Francisco. I will always cherish the quality time with my mom and experiencing the beautiful scenery together. It was breathtakingly beautiful and serene. We loved our meals at Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau and the Alaska Fish House in Ketchikan plus the tour of Alaskan Brewing Co

Toasting the Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska with a 2009 J. Schram Schramsberg sparkling wine

Toasting the Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska with a 2009 J. Schram Schramsberg sparkling wine

In August I spent a long weekend in Bodega Bay with my husband, mom, and dog - finding time to study for my WSET exam held at the end of August. Favorite meals on that trip include clam chowder and crab sandwiches at Spud Point Crab Company and another elegant meal at Terrapin Creek.

Bodega Head in Bodega Bay, California

Bodega Head in Bodega Bay, California

Birdalk Coastal Access Trail - Bodega Bay, California

Birdalk Coastal Access Trail - Bodega Bay, California

Next up: Willamette Valley for wine tasting at Domaine Drouhin, Stoller, and Youngberg Hill wineries.  We also enjoyed outstanding cocktails at Thistle before an old school French dinner at Bistro Maison, including an extremelely decadent and delicious Oregon White Truffle Fondue. Then we visited our good friends in Portland, Oregon and had another incredible meal at Ava Gene’s.

Tree swing over the vines at Youngberg Hill Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon

Tree swing over the vines at Youngberg Hill Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon

Then for the grand finale in September, I spent 23 glorious days in Spain and Portugal with a quick day trip to French Basque Country. You’ll learn more about those adventures as I post more about each destination in the weeks ahead. I planned my trip around food and wine: visiting the sherry producing regions of Jerez and Sanlucar de Barrameda; the Tempranillo rich La Rioja region; the Michelin star-studded and pintxos bar haven of San Sebastián; the cider and fabada region of Asturias; and the steep slopes of the Douro Valley before ending with a few days and port houses in Porto, Portugal.

Blissing out in Rioja Alavesa, Spain

Blissing out in Rioja Alavesa, Spain

Now four months into this vision quest, I haven’t had any revelations about my future. But I’ve enjoyed my time, learned to relax a little more, and reinforced a few important lessons along the way. Namely:

  • Trust Yourself. 
  • Deviate from the schedule - or better yet, don’t create one. 
  • Never give up, but know when to let go.
  • Take the road less traveled.
  • Get lost. 
  • Be patient and wait for the shot. 
  • Wear comfortable shoes. Always.
  • Talk to strangers. 
  • Take an afternoon siesta. 
  • Pack antacids for heartburn you are sure to get if you eat and drink like me!

Road Trip to Paso Robles

Laid-back pace, stunning Central Coast vistas, and outstanding culinary options make Paso Robles the perfect road trip destination for Bay Area food and wine lovers

Paso Robles translates to “Pass of the Oaks.” Towering oak trees line the vines at Halter Ranch.

Paso Robles translates to “Pass of the Oaks.” Towering oak trees line the vines at Halter Ranch.

My husband and I live in Berkeley, California and often take day trips to Napa and Sonoma. But to celebrate our anniversary, we wanted to explore a wine region we’d never been before. So we booked four nights in Paso Robles. We fell in love with its rustic yet refined style and wines. 

As I planned the trip, the first thing I did - as always - was research where to eat. Next: where to wine taste. Along with recommendations from our friends, Food & Wine Magazine provided a great list we used to make our selections. The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance also has a fantastic site for planning a visit. Advance research is important to form a loose itinerary, but I often change plans midstream to prioritize recommendations from locals or self-discoveries along the way. 

Day One: After driving a few hours south, we checked into our accommodations at Refugio - a lovely spot owned by the Paso Wine Man and his wife, prolific cookbook author Brigit Binns. We stayed in the Barn Suite but plan to return again soon to rent the whole house (with one additional suite) to gain use of Refugio’s open gourmet kitchen where Brigit occasionally hosts cooking classes. After a cat nap, we drove a few minutes to downtown Paso Robles for dinner at Artisan. The restaurant features locally sourced, sustainable, and organic products and offers tasty craft cocktails and a wonderful wine list featuring many local vintners. It was a great introduction to the local wines to start our exploration.

Day Two: With a long day of wine tasting ahead, we fueled up on a hearty breakfast at Kitchenette in Templeton where we devoured Hash Brown Croquettes, Mushroom and Parmesan Polenta, and San Luis Obispo’s Whalebird Kombucha, served on tap. Kitchenette is the kind of place you wish you had in your neighborhood with its warm staff, cool aesthetic, and soul-satisfying food.

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After breakfast, we hit the road for an ambitious day of wine tasting, visiting each of these spots:
  • Wild Horse Winery  - We loved their Pinot Noir and adorable (yet standoffish) llamas behind the tasting room. Upon request, the staff will give you carrots to win the llamas’ affection.
  • Turley - The knowledgeable staff and luscious Zinfandels made Turley our favorite of the day.
  • L’Aventure - Rhone style wines and beautiful vistas abound at this winery of modern design.
  • Niner - We treated ourselves to the tasting menu at Niner’s award-winning restaurant overlooking Heart Hill Vineyard along with the wine pairings - a most civilized way to explore the wines. The Grilled Romaine Salad paired with the 2014 Chardonnay was my favorite course, but we also loved the earthy Beet Risotto paired with a 2013 Sangiovese, and the Niner Barrel-Aged Coffee produced in collaboration with Joebella Coffee Roasters.
  • Grey Wolf Cellars  - A part of Barton Family Wines producing numerous varietals served in a hip tasting room with shaded, outdoor seating to take in the views. On another visit, we’ll lunch there from Barton’s Kitchen Window behind the tasting room where you can enjoy comfort food options like a tri-tip sandwich or quesadillas.
Looking at Heart Hill Vineyard through a glass of Chardonnay during lunch at Niner

Looking at Heart Hill Vineyard through a glass of Chardonnay during lunch at Niner

View from L’Aventure Winery

View from L’Aventure Winery

We pushed back our dinner reservation to ensure ample time to rehydrate and rest before our celebratory anniversary dinner at Thomas Hill Organics in downtown Paso Robles. We chose Thomas Hill Organics because it began as an organic CSA (community supported agriculture) that developed into a restaurant featuring their own organic produce and like-minded purveyors from the Central Coast. As you enter the restaurant and walk through the bar to an open-air courtyard, you pass a massive wall of wine signaling a key focus of the menu. With the assistance of our knowledgeable server, we selected a bottle of Thacher Working Holiday Pinot Noir to accompany our dinner; it paired nicely with our Pan Seared Scallops served on puréed cauliflower with duck bacon lardons, finger limes  and basil oil and the entrees of Charred Black Cod and Niman Ranch Pork Chops. 

Day Three: After a day of indulgence, we needed a nature break with a smattering of physical activity - planning only to drink in the Central Coast’s natural beauty before our scheduled tour at Hearst Castle late that afternoon. We started off with a short hike along the Estero Bluffs State Park, making several stops for photo ops. The bluffs jut out into the Pacific Ocean like arms extending a welcome home embrace to the sea as it meets the shore. Simply stunning.

My husband, Eric, perched atop Estero Bluffs at the center of a panoramic shot

My husband, Eric, perched atop Estero Bluffs at the center of a panoramic shot

Then, of course, there was lunch. On the recommendation of friends, we went to Sebastian’s, where you order your meal at the counter, saunter over to the adjacent Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room for a glass of wine or a local beer, and then eat outside on picnic tables. It was the perfect roadside comfort food we needed and conveniently located across the street from the Hearst Castle entrance. Eric opted for the Hearst Ranch Burger, while I chose the BBQ’d Pulled Pork sandwich. Both were delicious as were the onion rings. The portions are huge, so consider sharing when you visit!

The BBQ’d Pulled Pork Sandwich from Sebastian’s

The BBQ’d Pulled Pork Sandwich from Sebastian’s

Then we drove across the street to Hearst Castle for our Designing the Dream tour, which focuses on some of the architectural details of the estate - designed by Julia Morgan over the course of a three decade long collaboration with William Randolph Hearst. Some of my favorite features were the expansive views of the Central Coast from the Enchanted Hill and the beautiful tile work.

A view of the Roman Pool from the rear at the end of the Designing the Dream tour

A view of the Roman Pool from the rear at the end of the Designing the Dream tour

After the tour we drove a few minutes down the coast to Moonstone Beach in Cambria to set up a blanket and watch the sunset. It was a spectacular show and tickets were free.   

Yours truly taking in the view on Moonstone Beach, preparing for sunset. Photo credit: Eric. C. Lacy

Yours truly taking in the view on Moonstone Beach, preparing for sunset. Photo credit: Eric. C. Lacy

Day Four: We hit the wine trail again after a quick stop at Kreuzberg Coffee on our way to Halter Ranch Vineyard. I cannot say enough good things about Halter Ranch and the 3-hour Excursion Tour we took with our guide, Ray. The tour - awarded Best Winery Tour by Sunset Magazine in 2015 - takes guests all around the property in a restored 1984 Land Rover Defender 110, providing wine and property education and tasting along the way. Halter Ranch uses sustainable farming practices and produces wonderful Bordeaux and Rhone style wines. Don’t miss a visit to this winery.

Granache Blanc grapes bursting on the vines at Halter Ranch

Granache Blanc grapes bursting on the vines at Halter Ranch

The first tasting of our Excursion Tour with a sweeping view of the Halter Ranch Vineyards

The first tasting of our Excursion Tour with a sweeping view of the Halter Ranch Vineyards

Luscious Ancestor Estate Reserve and the Ancestor Oak tree - one of the largest Coast Live Oaks

Luscious Ancestor Estate Reserve and the Ancestor Oak tree - one of the largest Coast Live Oaks

Lunch consisted of fish tacos and margaritas at Fish Gaucho back in Paso. Then a cave tasting at Eberle Winery before resting and working up our appetites again.  

We stumbled upon a recently opened restaurant on a tip from a local while shopping in downtown Paso. The Hatch is a convivial rotisserie and bar with really incredible food in a casual atmosphere. The Grilled Caesar Salad with chicken fat croutons was outrageously good, as were the Fire Roasted Mushrooms, and craft cocktails. My favorite cocktail was the Harvest Moon with Bourbon, Cynar, Sweet Vermouth and Fig. A great find that will become a staple on future visits.

The Grilled Caesar with chicken fat croutons at The Hatch

The Grilled Caesar with chicken fat croutons at The Hatch

We made a few other food discoveries over the course of our trip:

  • Pasolivo - An olive oil purveyor we discovered in its downtown Paso Robles tasting room next door to Thomas Hill Organics. On our next visit we plan to take a tour on their beautiful ranch. The Pasolivo Basil Olive Oil is delicious drizzled over heirloom tomatoes with a pinch of their Roasted Tomato Salt, and the Blackberry Balsalmic Vinegar is fantastic in a salad dressing to toss over winter greens, toasted pecans and a fresh chèvre. 
  • Brown Butter Cookie Company - Don’t get me started. These cookies are insanely good. Stop into their store in Paso or Cayucos to sample the many varieties of cookies or just order them on line. They are perfect with a cup of coffee or espresso. So very decadent. 

We covered a lot of ground on our first visit to Paso Robles, but there are so many other places on my list to try. To ensure a return visit soon, we joined Halter Ranch Winery and look forward to exploring more wineries in the Adelaida appellation such as Daou, Adelaida, and Tablas Creek Vineyard. Also on my list: a tour and tasting of cheese at Stepladder Creamery. If you have any other recommendations, please leave them in the comments section below.