Rows of grape vines stretched like ribbons across the undulating golden fields of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. The intense sun bathed ripened fruit in butterscotch and blessed this beautiful land with glorious October weather.

As I drove along the two-lane highway, for a lingering moment I thought I was in Tuscany again. But no, it was harvest time in Paso Robles, California wine country, and I was there to taste the elixir of the gods – the best wines of the region — during a three-day annual Harvest Wine Weekend.

The estates and cottages of the more than 180 wineries in this region dotted the landscape. They displayed signs that beckoned the oenophile. “Visitors welcome.” “Wine tasting.” “Award-Winning Wines.” “96 points.” In these hallowed sanctuaries, a swirl, a sniff and a sip could lead one to nirvana.

This was my first (but certainly not last) visit to this quaint, yet sophisticated, little city that lies two hours north of the better-known Santa Barbara. Some say the wines in Paso Robles surpass the excellent wines of the Santa Barbara region. But it’s difficult to compare, as their climates and micro-climates are quite different.  The Santa Barbara region is known for its outstanding Pinot Noir, a grape that requires a cooler climate. Paso Robles, for the most part, is warmer and produces spicy, bold reds, such as Syrah, Petit Sirah and Cabernet.

Early Friday morning, I drove up to Paso Robles from Los Angeles. Over the three-day weekend, I had the pleasure of tasting some exceptional wines at these eleven wineries:

PeachyCanyon Winery

Anglim Winery

Burbank Ranch Estate Grapes & Wine Tasting Room

Vina Robles Winery

Hunt Cellars

Berardo Vineyards and Winery

L’Aventure Winery

Terry Hoage Vineyards

Ecluse Wines

Bodegas Paso Robles

Fratelli Perata Winery


The Highlights:

My first stop was the Peachy Canyon Winery in nearby Templeton. This is a small, family-owned winery that specializes in estate Zinfandels, many of them award-winning, and other varietals. Their tasting room is in an old rustic school house in Westside Paso Robles. Here are my favorites in a very good flight of nine reds. The 2010 Petit Syrah (retail $32) presented with a deep purple hue and fruit in the nose. On the palate, minerality and vanilla were balanced with smooth tannins. The 2011 Vortex Zinfandel (retail $38) was rich and spicy with black cherry and chocolate aromas and the luscious taste of cumin, black pepper and cocoa. A hint of coffee and caramel linger on the finish. The highlight at this winery was a Non-Vintage Zinfandel Port XI (retail $32). Pair it with a little chocolate and your mouth will water.

Speaking of chocolate, in downtown Paso Robles, I stopped by the Burbank Ranch Estate Grapes and Wine Tasting Room where I had an absolutely sinful paring of locally-made chocolate truffles with three red wines. The Burbank Ranch Winery, located in nearby Templeton, produces hand crafted wines that are clone and block specific. All of their fruit is hand-harvested and sorted in the vineyard and again in the winery prior to being pressed. I tasted the 2012 Zinfandel Estate “Fall Colors” (retail $34), which is a new release. Since it’s a young wine, it has not yet reached its full expression. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable, though a bit too fruit-forward for my taste. Give it a couple of years, and it should blossom and have more personality. The 2010 Syrah Estate “Sunset” (retail $32) won Gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Violets, dark berries, chocolate and black pepper are the hallmarks of this Rhone-style varietal. The 2010 Cabernet Franc Estate “Sire” (retail $48) won Double Gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. This pale red beauty has depth and dimension with a nice balance of peppery spice, tobacco, cassis, raspberry and violet.

Early Saturday morning, I traveled deep into the hills of Westside Paso Robles and far down a gravel road to visit a “green” winery, Pipestone Vineyards. It was a beautiful, peaceful drive through a secluded area, in which I encountered only one car and saw several deer. When I got to the winery, there was a sign on the gate that said they were closed for the day. Two horses hung their heads over the fence and stared at me. I wanted to get out and pet them, but there were many more wineries to visit, so I retraced my tracks and stumbled upon… Hunt Cellars. Oh am I glad I did!

Hunt Cellars produces hand-crafted, award-winning wines and has achieved a sort of cult status with many wine connoisseurs. Their tasting room is located in Creston, near Westside Paso Robles. I have three favorites in a flight of seven outstanding reds I tasted from their Reserve List. The 2006 “Que Sirah Syrah” (retail $50) is a unique blend of Petit Sirah, Syrah and a touch of Zinfandel. Blueberries, plums and blackberries fill the nose and mouth, along with dark chocolate and vanilla. Smooth tannins provide a balance. The 2005 Cabernet “CabOvation” (retail $75) releases light floral fragrances with hints of cherry, clove and cassis. On the palate, it shows some age with its big and bold flavors of hay and earth, with dry tannins on the creamy finish. On first sip, the 2005 “Thriller” (retail $48) pops on the tongue. What personality! The pourer described it as a “party in the mouth.” This amazing blend of Syrah, Cab, Petit Sirah, Merlot, Zin and Cab Franc gives up aromas of dark fruit, butterscotch, chocolate, coffee and clove. In the mouth, caramel and chocolate give way to dark cherry, currant and a subtle touch of vanilla.

Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), or “controlled designation of origin”, is the French certification law that defines strict, specific appellation characteristics to uphold the quality of the wines produced in certain regions of France. Stephan Asseo, already an established, successful winemaker in Bordeaux, found these laws too restrictive.  He wanted to have more freedom in crafting his wines, so he searched the world for the perfect terroir in which to establish a new winery. The result was L’Aventure Winery in Paso Robles. I tasted a flight of only three wines at L’Aventure, as they had run out of the Syrah 2003, their 4th offering. Optimus 2011 (retail $45) is a light, crisp blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. It’s very young and not quite ready to drink, but shows some structure with flavors of dark fruit, blueberry and smooth tannins. Le Grand Verdot 2010 (retail $75) is a blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It’s beautiful in the glass with a deep plum color. There’s not much on the nose but is flavorful with tight tannins, cassis, plum, tobacco and leather. It promises to be an outstanding vintage in two or three years. The Cote a Cote 2011 (retail $85), another young wine, is a Rhone blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache. With its flavors of mushroom, tight tannins, currents and cherry, it promises to be delightful after it matures.

Terry Hoage Vineyards produces Rhone varietals on a 100% organically farmed estate in Westside Paso Robles. The winery is owned by former NFL football star Terry Hoage and his wife Jennifer. Wine guru Robert Parker said of their wines, “This is the kind of wine the Central Coast should be producing more.” I tasted a flight of four marvelous reds and had two favs. The 2008 “The Pick” Grenache Cuvée (retail $65) is layered with figs, lavender, thyme and baking spices on the nose. On the palate, dried plums and cherry, graphite and earthy loam lead to a finish of smooth tannins. What a lovely way to celebrate the autumn season with a glass (or two) of this vintage. The 2007 “The 46″ Grenache-Syrah (retail $65) is balanced perfectly with blackberries, ripe plums, kirsch, a hint of mineral, spice and earthy truffles. The velvety tannins, a little bittersweet chocolate and a pop of acidity provide a lingering finish.

Fratelli Perata Winery (“Perata Brothers” in Italian) was one of the first wineries established in the Paso Robles region. Brothers Gino and Joe Perata, who are sons of Italian immigrants, learned winemaking from their father, grandfather and great uncle. They searched from Ventura County to Washington State to find the right terroir to produce Italian wines and found the perfect spot in Paso Robles on the crest of a hill. The property benefits from a micro climate that provides cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean for optimal maturity of their estate-grown varietals. Indeed, the estate looks like it’s in Tuscany. As I stood at the outside bar and tasted a flight of 10 wines (including a Cabernet that was just pressed), I gazed across the landscape and remembered my visit to that beautiful region in Italy. Three of their vintages stood out for me. The 2010 Charbono (retail $42), a grape from Northern Italy, was lovely, soft and earthy, with hints of plum and vanilla, well-balanced soft tannins and a creamy finish. The 2010 Bel’ Bruzzo (retail $32), made from 100% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, is bold with tight tannins, black cherry and low acidity. The 2010 Petite Sirah (retail $38) is a lovely and unique varietal with notes of thyme and white pepper.

Of course, wines are wonderful to drink by themselves, but food parings enhance the flavors and aromas of wine and uncloak their finer qualities. I was fortunate to discover two of the best restaurants in Paso Robles to enjoy food and wine: Artisan and Thomas Hill Organics. Both have menus based on fresh, seasonal fare.  If you’re going for dinner, it’s wise to make reservations for these popular restaurants.

I suppose a visit to a wine festival is not complete without a little grape stomping. So I played the tourist on Friday evening at Vina Robles Winery and “stomped” grapes in a barrel. There’s the inevitable comparison to the “I Love Lucy” episode in which Lucille Ball stomped grapes, but my experience was nothing like that. After I squished around in the barrel with bare feet a couple of minutes, I stepped out onto a T-shirt to leave the grape-stained imprint of my feet for posterity. Then we drank wine (no comment), listened to an accordion player (he was very good), and retired inside for an ample Swiss-style dinner.

As I drove back to Los Angeles on Sunday, I was satiated in heart and soul, filled with the lovely memories and flavors of the weekend. I’ll put this festival on my calendar for next year, for there are so many more wineries to visit and wines to taste.