From a tastefully arranged table featuring delicious, beautiful food to an Art Deco-infused wine tasting at the top of Paso Robles, foodie visitors and locals to this exciting wine country can find rich aesthetic experiences in the midst of their gastronomic discoveries. The wine’s the thing, of course, but there’s so much more to experience in Paso beyond just wine tasting. Blending together foodie art with a tour of this northern San Luis Obispo County wine and craft beer country keeps the mind as engaged as the senses.
Edible Art and Inspiration with Chef Maegen Loring
“That woman can cook,” says our winemaker friend Paul Lato as we discuss the creative, flavorful cuisine produced by Chef Maegen Loring. True story: our dream of Central Coast Foodie made its first public appearance during a January 2009 winemaker dinner at her San Luis Obispo restaurant The Park in our old neighborhood, the Railroad District. The food and wine pairings were the beginning of my education in paying attention to the nuances of optimal ingredients and preparations from plate to glass. The meal that evening was as delightful as the conversation—I sat next to the smart and interesting winemaker, Mike Sinor of Sinor-LaVallee—but I remember the chef and her staff working to negotiate their kitchen, awkwardly shoehorned into that historical building.
Almost five years and several restaurants later, Chef Maegen has taken possession of the best kitchen in the county as Executive Chef at Niner Wine Estates on Paso’s westside, a SIP Certified winery. “I am excited to be here,” she says, “and anxious to get the word out to all of my friends in culinary land. I think we have a unique opportunity at the kitchen and I hope that I can take advantage of all that Niner has to offer.” During an October visit, Chef Maegen sat with us to taste through each delicious dish accompanied to the table by her sous chef Matt Ramirez. Edible artwork ranged from a whimsical sweet & savory Crab Timale with citrus vinaigrette to a small yet rich dish of olive oil, caramel, and sea salt drizzled over vanilla ice cream. “Olive oil and I go way back,” she says with a smile. From the eye to the nose to the palate, Chef Maegen’s delicious and beautiful creations delight fortunate foodies who sit at her kitchen’s table.
Chef Maegen explained how she would like this kitchen to support the development of a food community focused on fresh, local organic ingredients and a diversity of wines for creative pairings. Well-oriented for the flow of fine cuisine preparation and featuring top-flight culinary tools, “This kitchen has a good soul,” confirms Chef Maegen as she sails through the culinary bustle. She’s also working with the winery to develop a large chef’s garden out back with fruit trees—the better to make jams to accompany wine and cheese pairings—as well as an area for local farmer John DeRosier to cultivate some of his healthy and unique ancient grains.
With opportunities for cooking classes as well as sit-down tastings of her delicious pairings, the kitchen becomes this chef’s art studio for fresh, local, and organic wine country cuisine. We look forward to visiting Chef Maegen again soon in this impressive culinary art space just below Niner’s famous Heart Hill Vineyard off the 46 West.
Blending History, Art, and Wine at Derby Wine Estates
A rare development success story: the historic almond processing plant just off the 101 in downtown Paso Robles very nearly became the site of yet one more corporate grocery store. However, thanks to persnickety regulations for working with historical buildings, the chain ultimately declined to develop this property with its litany of too many costly development hurdles. This near disaster for artistic Paso Robles has instead become a salmon-colored success story for all who love the arts, local history, fine wine, and large views across small-town Paso.
Built in 1922 by the Paso Robles Almond Growers Association, this building achieved the heights of productivity and efficiency in its first lifetime during a boom period for California almonds. When market conditions became less economically favorable for producing almonds here, the plant closed. For decades, it languished in an architectural purgatory of not quite the right business ever finding a home in this unique building with its four-story silo that could warehouse up to 1,000 tons of almonds at a time.
Fortunately, the perfect pairing of winery owners and this historic building clicked in 2010 when Ray and Pam Derby purchased the property and its complicated renovation requirements. The Derbys took the historical high road and opted to undertake what ultimately took three years of careful and appropriate renovations to house their Derby Wine Estates wine inventory and enological equipment as well as a ground floor public tasting room and fourth floor special tasting lounge with the best view of town in town. It’s no surprise that many local artisans and construction specialists worked on this renovation project because, even if you don’t own the iconic building in your town, it still feels like it belongs to all of us because history. After a painstaking “hysterical renovation,” this impressive Art Deco-era building has returned to its full glory, and then some.
Today, Derby winemaker and Cal Poly graduate Tiffinee Vierra produces wine in this special space from among the 21 different varietals cultivated on three separate estate vineyards by her husband, vineyard manager and soil scientist Steve Vierra. We first crossed paths with her during our winery tour as she was busy taking samples from bins of harvested grapes. We enjoyed getting to taste several of Derby’s wines with Tiffinee and Steve at this year’s Pinot Walkabout during the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival. After a very busy harvest 2014, this hardworking couple looked relaxed in the peaceful beauty of pretty Loma Vista Gardens while sharing their Pinot Noirs, including a sparkling brut rosé with 100% Pinot Noir from their coastal vineyard near San Simeon. Although they manage 500 acres of wine grapes across Derby’s three unique Paso vineyards from cooler coastal Derbyshire Vineyard in the west to warmer Laura’s Vineyard 30 miles to the east, the winery only keeps 5% of their fruit for their own program.
Almost 100 years ago, the almond processing workers at the top of the silo had the best view of what was then a very small town near the railroad tracks best known for its therapeutic mineral springs. Today, wine enthusiasts and club members can take the lift to the top of the silo on Saturdays 12-4pm to taste Derby’s intriguing wines in the Almond Room, a wine lounge with compelling art and great views across this bustling but still charming small town. A valuable agricultural product once again gets processed on these concrete pads and cool interior spaces but, while they once hummed with the sounds of nuts, they now swish with the swirling sounds of fermenting fruit. We can’t wait to take Mr. Spice on the tour through this artistic building with its rich history that connects the community with its agricultural past.
Canvas, Paint, and Brushes + Wine Glass: Studios on the Park
If art-hungry visitors to Paso want to fully engage and create their own artwork in a friendly foodie environment—especially those with children open to learning through hands-on experience—they should definitely add Studios on the Park to the itinerary. Located on the east side of the charming downtown Paso City Park, this wine-friendly non-profit arts workshop and gallery space offers visitors and locals a chance to choose their own artistic adventure. Maybe, like us, they want to learn some paint-and-canvas skills with the Social Artworking program or perhaps they just want to watch one of the 25 professionals at work in their studios. Shopping for art and beautiful crafts is made easy at this eclectic space and, if you need to get some gifts for foodies or delicious supplies during an “artworking” class, General Store Paso Robles is just half a block to the north. This cute store features a wide range of tasteful wine country foodie supplies and fun gifts for people of all ages, as well as good distractions for kiddos on vacation.
disclosure: This experience was supported by Travel Paso but I’m under no obligation to produce anything from this trip. I always write about what I like and appreciate the chance to experience cool foodie opportunities in the Central Coast and beyond.