Paso Robles: It's the undiscovered wine country

— -- When the van pulls up at Adelaida Cellars, staffer Tony Barretta is ready and waiting with seven gleaming glasses lined up in soldier-like precision on the bar.

Never mind that it isn't even noon yet. This is wine country. And someone else is driving.

He pours a Viognier.

"No butter, no oak," he declares. "Just grape and limestone."

And so begins a day in California's fastest-growing and, to many, most surprising wine region. Located in rolling oak-studded hills about 30 miles inland and roughly midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles is also among the state's vastest wine regions.

With 26,000 vineyard acres, there isn't just a wine trail here. There are wine trails— five in all — that meander through blessedly unfettered landscapes and lead to uncrowded tasting rooms.

A hidden gem

That "Paso," as the locals call the area, retains an undiscovered feel is remarkable, considering the stratospheric growth in wineries in recent years. In 1995, there were about 35 here. Today, there are well over 200, most of which also operate tasting rooms. They range from small, family-run operations, to the area's largest, J. Lohr, producer of a million-plus cases annually.

"This is a laid-back area," says Coy Barnes, operator of The Wine Wrangler, which offers customized winery tours. "It's not pretentious. It's fun and welcoming."

Upon picking up the day's customers, Barnes delivers a short course on local viticulture. Red wine production outpaces white by three to one. Forty varieties of wine grapes grow here, but because of the hot summers, thick-skinned grapes, such as Zinfandel, and Rhône varietals, such as Syrah, flourish.

Heading west on Highway 46 into the Santa Lucia Mountains, Barnes points out some of the region's oldest vineyards, here for a century. The first grapes were planted by Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s for making sacramental wine. The first commercial winery began operation a century or so later. Prohibition brought most of the industry to a halt, until it began to rebound in the 1970s.

'This isn't Napa'

Many of the newcomer winemakers are urban refugees seeking a less-harried life.

"The people who come to Paso come for the right reasons," says Joel Peterson of Hope Family Wines. "They fall in love with the place. They build really good, working wineries. It's not about building a mansion and flying in and out on a private plane. This isn't Napa."

Paula Brooks, who with her husband, Jerry, is working her way up the coast, has noticed that, too. "Napa's more la-di-dah. Like they expect you to know what's what in wines," says the St. Louis-area resident. "It's more casual here."

Larry and Lori Lemieux of Monroe, Conn., touring the coast by motorcycle, are even more surprised at this "find." They made a detour to Paso after seeing a promotional video during an overnight stay in nearby San Luis Obispo.

"I didn't even know this was here," says Lori Lemieux. "When I think of California wine country, I think of Napa."

Tourism promoters tout the affordability of the area. Wineries charge $5 to $10 to taste six wines, and most apply the fee to a wine purchase. They also note the friendly, informal nature of the wineries, where the tasting-room pourer may well be the winemaker and/or owner.

Case in point is Ken Fuller, who on this day is working the counter at Proulx, a small winery operated by his daughter and son-in-law. Fuller, a former muralist, came here from Orange County, Calif., seeking a five- or 10-acre plot on which to retire, but ended up with a 33-acre, untended vineyard. The family revived the vines and began making wine in 2004.

"The neat thing about this property is that when we started to do something with it, it gave back," Fuller says.

The wineries may be the area's No. 1 draw, but there are alternative pursuits in what local tourism marketer Maryann Stansfield dubs an "an agricultural Disneyland."

Among artisan olive oil operations is Pasolivo, with a pleasant tasting room in which visitors can sample seven varieties of extra virgin and flavored oils at no charge. They also sell creams and other products infused with olive oil pressed from the adjoining groves.

The Happy Acre Family Farm in nearby Templeton sells fresh cheese and other goat's milk products, along with a line of skincare items. And at Harris Stage Lines north of town, visitors can take a spin in a vintage Wells Fargo-style stagecoach on a working horse ranch.

"People can only drink so much wine, and then they look for something else to do," says owner Tommy Harris.

More than food and wine here

Downtown Paso also has a growing number of interesting shopping and dining options. Like some recently arrived vintners, many of these business owners are also big-city refugees.

Carole MacDonal was a producer with the reality series The Biggest Loser before opening the restaurant Il Cortile Ristorante with her chef husband two years ago.

"This area has the best produce anywhere," she says.

L.A. transplant Debbie Hill, owner of Thomas Hill Organics, agrees. The menu at the 2½-year-old eatery changes daily based on what her husband has just harvested on their farm.

Kevin Rankin exchanged a job in the tech world for ownership of the Paso Wine Centre, which markets 150 local labels and offers a tasting menu of 48 wines on any given day.

"There's this wonderful culture here," he says. "Plus, there are all these undiscovered wines."

Still, Paso hasn't lost its essential character as a small-ish (population 30,000) cattle-ranching town. Its historic downtown surrounds a large central park with a band shell, where free concerts are staged on Friday nights in summer. (Bring your own wine.) The Boot Barn and several old-fashioned barbershops appear to be thriving. And regulars still drop by the Cattlemen's Lounge at the historic Paso Robles Inn for $2.50 happy hour beers.

Back at Adelaida Cellars, Barretta is putting visitors through their paces. From the Viognier, to a Rosé, to a Pinot and on to a Syrah, then a Rhône-style red and a couple of Cabernets.

"Don't rinse your glass with water. It'll kill the pH factor," he advises. "Plus, it's a terrible waste of water. Now, does anyone like port?"