California Cowboy Country
by Karen Misuraca (Backroads of the California Wine Country)
When American colonists were rebelling against England, Spaniards were building outposts in the
coastal valleys of Alta California. The conquistadors galloped through the Santa Ynez and Santa
Maria River valley, camping under massive valley oaks in wild stream canyons. Falling in love with
the seductive contours of the golden land and the natural riches of flora, fauna and the moderate
climate, they stayed, establishing sprawling ranchos.
Settling in the foothills below the dark ridgeline of the Santa Lucia Mountains in the late 1700s,
Spanish Franciscan padres built Mission San Miguel Arcangel and planted grapes for their
sacramental wines. Decades later, when the Mexican army occupied the area, a land grant called El
Paso de Robles--"the pass of the oaks"--was purchased for $8,000 by the Blackburn and James
families (Drury James was the uncle of famed outlaw Jesse James). In the 1860s, the Southern
Pacific Railroad arrived and the small town of Paso Robles began to grow as headquarters for
farmers and ranchers. The Blackburns developed some of the natural hot springs into spas for
travelers. An elegant hotel was built and train passengers arrived to "take the cure," seeking the
healing properties of the mineral-rich waters and mud baths.
Today, carefully preserved late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings around the grassy,
two-block square Paso Robles town plaza house a mix of restaurants, shops and residences in
architectural styles from Mission Revival to redwood "stick," Western false front, and Victorian
Queen Anne. A jumbo grain elevator, an acorn-shaped clock tower from 1892 and a 1908 Italianate
Revival-style Carnegie Library, now a museum, are stand-outs among the trove of historic
A renowned pianist and freedom fighter, and ultimately Premier of Poland, Jan Ignace Paderewski
came to the Hotel El Paso de Robles in 1914 in hopes that mud baths and hot sulfur water would
relieve his rheumatism. He took to the place, buying property and planting walnut, almond and plum
trees, and 200 acres of Zinfandel and Petit Syrah grapes on his Rancho San Ignacio Vineyard. The
first of his several wine awards was a gold medal at the 1933 California State Fair. Each year in
March, the community puts on the Paderewski Festival, with concerts, lectures, winery tours and a
Since the early 1900s, farmers and ranchers have produced wheat, barley and cattle on the rolling
hills and once there were more almond orchards than anywhere else on earth. Today, although
vineyards are as evident as grazing meadows, a Wild West spirit continues to prevail. Winemakers
wear cowboy boots, cowboys drink Cabernet and dusty pickup trucks pull up to elegant mansions.
And, you are just as likely to see deer, wild turkeys and jack rabbits as a daytripper in a red
Springtime in the Vineyards
Spring is the best time of year to explore the backroads, when the valleys are green and the
yellow mustard is in bloom, before the hot days and the influx of vacationers in the summertime.
Twenty miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, the variation in temperatures is dramatic, with summer
days over 100 degrees and nighttime lows in winter dipping below freezing, with little rain during
the growing season. The warm climate red wine grapes such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot and Rhone-style varieties comprise about 80% of the grapes grown here in stony, chalky
soil. Tobin James Cellars harvests Zinfandel grapes from a plot of head-pruned, dry-farmed
vineyards first planted in 1924. Taking his wines seriously and himself less so, James wins gold
medals and blue ribbons for his whimsically-named wines: Late Harvest James Gang Reserve, Bulls
Eye Syrah, Ballistic Zinfandel, Made in the Shade Merlot, and Liquid Love, a late harvest
Zinfandel with a label warning, "Beware! Drink in moderation. We take no responsibility for what
happens once this bottle is uncorked!"
Formerly a stagecoach stop, the winery looks more like a Western saloon than a modern tasting
room. Visitors are loudly welcomed up to a fancy, circa-1860 mahogany bar that was shipped from
Blue Eye, Missouri. While kids play arcade games, their parents sip and snap photos of Western
memorabilia, from six-shooters to saddles, lariats and horse collars.
When the Mexican army occupied California in the 1820s, they granted expansive ranchos to various
local worthies who established cattle ranches and grain farms. By 1886, the Southern Pacific
Railroad was shipping cattle out of the hamlet of Templeton, just south of Palo Robles. Today's
reminders of the agricultural and ranching history are the huge Templeton Feed and Grain silo
smack in the middle of town, and the Templeton Livestock Market where real cowboys buy and sell
horses and cattle and you can watch penning and roping competitions.
On the main street, Jack Creek Farms Country Store represents a long agricultural heritage. The
Barlogio family's great-grandpa, James, immigrated from Switzerland in the late 1800's, and raised
dairy cows and pumpkins on the banks of Jack Creek. Farm animals and antiques tractors are on
display at the store among fields of flowers and pumpkin and tomato patches. Visitors can pick
their own apples, plums, peaches and olallieberries.
At the Templeton Tavern, you may find yourself elbow-to-elbow with a cowpuncher in riding boots or
a vineyard worker in a wine-stained shirt. A general store and a bank in the 1880s, the A.J. Spurs
restaurant building is crowded with Old West memorabilia, cowhides, spurs, horse collars and
vintage photographs. Patrons dig into iron pots of Vaquero soup, and rib-sticking steak and ribs
roasted in oak-fired ovens.
Among a handful of small wineries near Templeton, Wild Horse Winery is named for the wild mustangs
in the hills, the descendants of the first horses introduced to California by the Spanish.
The Salinan Indians and the Spanish mission padres knew the Paso Robles area as Agua Caliente,
meaning "hot water," referring to the many natural underground hot mineral springs. As early as
the 1860's, spas and mud baths in the town were tourist attractions and "taking the waters" a
popular pastime. The Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel was built in 1864 and was replaced in 1940 by
the Paso Robles Inn, which today draws the healing waters into aromatic--think sulphur--whirlpool
tubs on private patios overlooking a lush garden.
Another historic spa, Sycamore Hot Springs Resort has been a popular destination since 1897 and
remains a tranquil retreat. You can arrange to soak in hot mineral-rich waters in a tub secluded
in the woods, and explore the extensive gardens along Lopez Creek.
Nestled against a forested hillside, Avila Valley Hot Springs maintains, year round, a huge,
heated swimming pool and a mineral pool fed by 105-degree water from an artesian well. The mild
marine climate and ocean breezes keep this corner of the valley twenty degrees cooler in summer
and warmer in the winter than just a mile or two inland.