Rolling hills, sunlit picnics, buttery Chardonnay and lashings of mispronounced Merlot: everyone knows what to expect on a trip to California's wine country. It's all thanks to films such as Sideways and Bottle Shock, with their sepia-hued renderings of Napa Valley, Santa Barbara County and other rustic corners of America's Golden State. That's the problem, though: everyone knows. So visitors who come hoping for a few days of boozy rural bliss often go home with a hangover. Instead of fine wines and peaceful seclusion, they find over-priced plonk, crowded tasting rooms, and endless traffic jams.
At fault are the economics of supply and demand. Around eight million people live in San Francisco and its Bay area, just a couple of hours from Napa. Thirteen million more live close to Los Angeles, a short drive from Santa Barbara. California's most notable wine regions are therefore perfectly located to attract vast numbers of free-spending punters. And that leads to $350-a-night "luxury" hotels, vineyards where a 20-minute wine-tasting "flight" costs $30 and leafy country lanes that, on an average summer's weekend, get clogged with ugly stretch limousines and diesel-belching tour buses.
But there is a way to avoid both the crowds and the rip-offs: just step ever so slightly away from the beaten track. Forget the well-documented charms of swanky wine-tasting locations and head instead to a small city called Paso Robles. Its surrounding countryside is green, pleasant and surprisingly unspoiled, and produces good wine that experts rave about, at prices plebs can afford. That's what the locals claim, at least. So I packed my wife, my sister and my sister's boyfriend into a small car and set off there, in search of the full Sideways experience – the way it should be.
Paso Robles is halfway between Los Angeles, to the south, and San Francisco, to its north. For overseas visitors that makes it a short detour from a road trip along State Route One, the seashore road that runs 650 scenic miles north from San Diego to regions of California such as Sonoma and Mendocino. It was here they discovered, during the Summer of Love, that the soil and weather are perfectly suited to the cultivation of only one crop aside from grapes. One you smoke.
There's plenty to see and do within a short drive. An hour north of Paso Robles is Big Sur, a patch of coastline made famous by residents such as Jack Kerouac, Hunter S Thompson, and Henry Miller, and by its starring role in hundreds of scenic car adverts.
A short hop away, you'll find Hearst Castle, the extraordinary former home of William Randolph Hearst – the inspiration for the newspaper magnate portrayed in Citizen Kane. It remains a fascinating, antique-filled monument to what a very rich man with no awareness of vulgarity can achieve in a short lifetime.
At various times of year, you can also watch elephant seals mate on local beaches, or jump aboard boat tours from nearby fishing villages to watch migrating whales.
If you're not staying in town, where there's a decent smattering of hotels, you can bunk up at The Madonna Inn, a ludicrously kitsch hotel resort which boasts a surprisingly good steak restaurant, unforgettably elaborate interior decoration, and the rare distinction of having featured in both The Simpsons and Umberto Eco's book Travels in Hyperreality.
But of course, we came for the wine. For readers unfamiliar with the American wine-tasting experience, it generally works something like this: you grab a picnic, with plenty of cheese, get a map of local vineyards, drive into the country and stop at one. There you pay a small fee (or not so small, in places like Napa) to sample five or six thimble-fulls of their finest varietals. If you particularly like one, you might buy a few bottles. Then you move on to the next vineyard and repeat the process. Soon, your taste buds are blown and your head is spinning – so you eat lunch and then generally fall asleep under a tree.
That, at least, is the do-it-yourself approach, and it's a highly pleasant way to spend a day. Or even a week. But there's also a professional alternative: for a small investment, of up to a couple of hundred bucks, your party can hire a guide to design a bespoke tour. Not only does this ensure that you avoid drink-driving convictions, it also makes financial sense: usually, they get vintners to waive their tasting fees. Sometimes, they'll secure you guided, behind-the-scenes tours of cellars and surrounding estates.
In Paso Robles, a knowledgeable guide pays another dividend. The area has recently attracted growing numbers of visitors thanks to its increasingly well-regarded red wines (particularly Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels in the $15-$25 region). As a result, there has been an explosion in the number of vineyards. A decade ago, there were just 50. Today, there are 250, with 160 tasting rooms. By hiring Coy, who calls himself "The Wine Wrangler" and drives a huge yellow Humvee, we hoped to be taken to the best of the lot.
Any Jilly Goolden fan will tell you that good wine is all about terroir – the way it communicates the essence of the place it comes from. With that in mind, we kicked off proceedings at a vineyard called Ancient Peaks, which in a few rolling acres showcased an edited history of the American West.
Thousands of years ago, the surrounding area was under the sea, and limestone fossils still litter the soil. After that, it was settled by Indians, and the vineyard's owner, Karl Wittstrom, keeps a museum housing arrowheads, cooking tools, and other ancient artefacts.
In the 18th century, California's central coast was "discovered" by Spanish missionaries (who gave towns such as Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo their Hispanic names). This was disastrous for the natives, since large numbers of them died from alien diseases the new arrivals introduced. But it was rather good for wine cultivation: the colonialists needed something to keep them going during communion. Some of Wittstrom's older farm buildings were thrown up during this era, and a small number of vines were also planted, a few of which still survive.
It took some time for Ancient Peaks to begin commercial cultivation, however. Its 996 acres of vineyards were first planted by the Mondavi family (of the eponymous winery) in the 1990s, after they bought the surrounding cattle ranch. They sold out to Wittstrom and several partners six years back, and the firm is now a successful medium-sized producer.
We sampled his wines – from Chardonnay and Sauvignon to the ubiquitous Merlot (the state's most widely drunk red) – on a picnic table overlooking the ranch. Very nice they were too.
A short drive away lay the White Horse vineyard. Bigger, more commercial and better known than Ancient Peaks, it has a tomato garden and a resident Llama called Floyd, to whom we fed an apple. A bit of Dutch courage (in the name of Pinot Grigio) helped with this process, since, like many of his species, Floyd tends to spit.
Later in the day, we stopped off at the Pasolivo olive-oil farm, which boasts around 10,000 trees on 45 acres, and a small olive press. We tasted almost a dozen different varieties, along with a selection of local wines from a nearby vineyard.
Back in Paso Robles, after watching the sun set at a beauty spot overlooking the sea, and having visited three or four other vineyards, whose names were lost in a fug of wine and cheese, we stopped at the local brewery, and finished ourselves off with a tasting flight of beer.
For a couple of hundred bucks, four people had wined and dined for an entire day, in what passes for rural bliss. We never saw a traffic jam. It was the way California's wine country is supposed to be, right down to the mispronounced Merlot.
Travel essentials: Paso Robles
Paso Robles can be reached from either Los Angeles or San Francisco. LA is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), United Airlines (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk ), Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk ), American Airlines (020-7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk ) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com ). San Francisco is served from Heathrow by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and United.
Courtyard by Marriott, 120 South Vine Street, Paso Robles, California (001 805 239 9700; courtyardpasorobles.com ). Doubles start at $178 (£119), room only.
The Wine Wrangler, 800 Pine Street, Paso Robles (001 805 238 5700; thewinewrangler.com ). Full day wine tours cost $85 (£57) per person, half day tours $45 (£30).
Paso Robles Wine Country: 001 805 239 8463; pasowine.com
California Tourism: 020-7257 6180; visitcalifornia.co.uk
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