Paso Robles: Moved by spirits

August 31, 2015

Patrick Brooks, co-owner of Wine Shine in Paso Robles, Calif., pours a glass of brandy made from grapes for a customer to try on Aug. 14, 2015. In background is co-owner Mark Sahaydak.

PASO ROBLES, Calif. — I frantically flipped through pages of handwritten directions, unable to tell my designated driver the way to the next winery. The repeating scenery — rolling golden hills dotted with grapevines growing in straight rows — made it difficult to tell one dirt road from the next. With little to no cell reception, GPS was not an option.

We drove down California Highway 46, just north of San Luis Obispo, home to most of the wineries. A decade ago you would have found 35 wineries here. Now there are 180.

But I wasn’t here for wine. I was here to taste spirits.

The craft distillery movement is gaining such momentum that there are now eight distilleries in the area. Most operate out of existing wineries.

To make brandy and their versions of vodka, gin and vermouth, they are using grape juice discarded in the wine-making process. Think of it as sustainable liquor.

The distilleries have banded together to form the Distillers of SLO County, and they are designing their own distillery trail, which will launch later this year.

But why wait? With five currently pouring and three more aging their first batches of brandy, I decided to embark on my own spirits trail. Like laid-back Paso Robles itself, this group exhibited not an ounce of pretension, but I found plenty of passion for the product among these fledgling distillers.

The California Legislature isn’t making things easy. Unlike distilleries in Utah, Oregon and other states, those here cannot sell products distilled from anything other than fruit juice, which excludes spirits made from grain.

I learned this the hard way after asking to buy a bottle of gin made from rye at KroBar, one of the distilleries in the area. I was refused, and a mini-meltdown ensued.

California Assembly Bill 1295, which is making its way through the Senate, would, if passed and signed into law, allow California distilleries to sell up to three bottles of distilled spirits per day per customer.

Until the law is enacted, the pours at distilleries I visited were enough to fuel a weekend in Paso Robles. I felt as if I had finished a course on making spirits and barrel aging. I wonder who could say the same after a trip up to the Napa Valley.

I also drove home with a trunk full of very good brandy.




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