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Light & Dust: California’s Other Wine Region

With 250 wineries, Paso Robles has, for some time, been regarded as an emerging and influential California winemaking region.

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In a moment of palpable wonder, Chris comments, “Jeez, I don’t even know what to say. This is beautiful.” He’s resting his elbows on an old cattle fence and looking toward the Pacific Ocean, which is 15 miles away and 1,800 feet below us. To get here, we’ve ridden dirt to asphalt and back to dirt again, rolled through dense oak tree tunnels, passed old vineyards and green fields of grazing livestock, and climbed by an abandoned 19th-century mercury mine. We’re only halfway into this ride.

I’ve known Chris for over a decade. In those years, there is no topic we haven’t discussed. He’s a bit of a raconteur. Chris is also an award-winning film and television producer, which means he makes his living telling stories. Running out of words is simply not a thing that happens to my friend. About two hours—and one more long dirt climb and descent through another fairytale oak forest—later, we are soft-pedaling our way back to Atascadero. I can feel the emotion coming into his voice when he reflects, “I’ve done a lot of great rides in my life, but this has been the best!”

This place can do that to people.

(Photo: Greg Erwin.)

Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, at the northern edge of San Luis Obispo County, there is a gorgeous slice of California that I can only describe as painterly. Light and dust, air and land ethereally conspire to create the illusion of stepping into a dreamy, impressionistic Tuscan landscape. This is the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA), California’s other wine region.

With 250 wineries, Paso Robles has, for some time, been regarded as an emerging and influential California winemaking region. Beyond that wine reputation, though, there’s another intoxicating and overlooked asset here. Paso is one of the most memorable places to pedal a road or gravel bike…anywhere. It is a world-class cycling goldmine, and few people are telling that story.

“The important thing is to make a different world, to make a world that is not now. A real-world, a genuine world, but one that allows myth to live. The myth is everything.”
— Sergio Leone, Italian filmmaker

My lovely bride and I moved to this area at the start of 2019. After nearly a lifetime in Los Angeles, our souls craved dramatic change. Each of us knew what we were fleeing when we left L.A. behind, but neither of us realized exactly what we were running toward. As it turns out, the missing ingredient was space, an oxygenating space that works at a deep, internal, and emotionally transformative level. The kind of space that tunes senses to a higher vibration, enabling us to experience our surroundings with the fuller connection. That exists here. The serene vastness in this corner of the Central Coast sometimes makes it hard to remember we’re living in 21st-century California.

(Photo: Greg Erwin.)

The small, historic city of Paso Robles is at the heart of the larger AVA. Beginning with native Salinan tribes, the area has long been known for its thermal mineral baths. Spanish travelers would stop here for a rejuvenating rest as they moved between Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and Mission San Miguel Arcángel. Today, the town’s vibrant main square has an original Carnegie library and is ringed by fashionable shops, boutique hotels, craft breweries, restaurants, and slick tasting rooms housed in restored buildings. In the recent past, the Amgen Tour of California often included a stage in the Paso Robles area. While most visitors flock to downtown Paso and its nearby wineries, there are 614,000 surrounding acres to be explored.

Being three and a half hours from San Francisco or Los Angeles makes this area a little more challenging to visit than the Napa and Sonoma wine country. The entire Paso Robles region, however, has only one-tenth the population of either of those famous valleys. The payoff for that little extra effort is huge for we cyclists. Even in busier tourist seasons, traffic here can be minimal. Additionally, San Luis Obispo County has invested heavily in local road infrastructure. More and more of the picturesque ribbony, twisting local roads are being upgraded with a fresh layer of smooth asphalt. On our own five-hour ride, Chris and I saw perhaps 15 cars and only two other cyclists—whose bikes were on a car rack as they leisurely sipped wine at Tablas Creek Vineyard.

Just 10 miles south of Paso Robles is the up-and-coming city of Atascadero. It has long sat quietly in Paso’s shadow but is now emerging as its own destination. What Paso is to wine, A-Town is becoming for craft breweries, local distilleries, and cider houses. In November this year, Atascadero will host the inaugural Bovine Classic, Paso AVA’s first homegrown mixed-surface cycling event. The Bovine’s goals are to showcase the vibrant entrepreneurial culture here, to gradually become a model for collaboration between ranching and cycling communities and to share this amazing mixed-surface riding with a national audience.

(Photo: Bryan “Bruno” Yates.)

Because they are a connection to Paso’s strongly rooted agricultural heritage, the best rides here (at least for me) are always the mixed-surface options. Hidden Strade Bianche-style dirt farm roads, truck trails, vineyard paths, and single-track sections loosely connect many parts of the AVA. Finding these dirt gems is like gaining secret access into the historic essence of San Luis Obispo’s north county.

Within minutes of leaving city limits, the scenery turns to massive fields of neatly organized vineyards, vast olive tree groves, and massive multigenerational ranches with freely grazing cattle and horses. The past comes alive in rustic one-street ranching towns such as Creston, Santa Margarita, and Pozo, which all date to the 1800s. Much like the rest of this region, Creston’s Longbranch Saloon, owned by a former competitive mountain biker named Brian Pritt, is one of those special ride destinations that warmly embrace visitors and locals with equal welcome.

“Wow…cool…just wow…SO COOL. Holy $&#K, this is AMAZING!”
— Greg Erwin, drummer for Saint Motel

When we are immersed in the deep exploration of something new, our brain’s neural networks go through a kind of cellular rewiring. New pathways are created, and stronger connections are made. I believe that this also happens at a heart level. Unfamiliar experiences enrich and expand us in unseen ways. Pedaling through a new place on two wheels, we live it, we learn its language, and we connect to it and one another in profound ways. It sometimes takes the kind of broader space and gentler pace that exists in north San Luis Obispo County to spark such a transformation to happen. The next time you’re craving some of your own new transformations, bring your bike to California’s other wine region and, as local cyclists say, “Live SLO, ride fast.”

Get yourself to Paso Robles and ride some gravel this November at The Bovine Classic.