Highway 46 is not just the route past numerous wineries in the Paso Robles area, but offers an amazing journey in its own right. As you head out of Paso, toward the Coast, you start in rolling dry hills, where the dry-farmed vineyards march in straight green rows over the dry and dusty hills. This is dry-farmed vineyard territory, which gives a distinct character to the wines so raised. Numerous wineries line the roadsides, in every style from medieval castle to farmstands on steroids. You will also see reminders of the old agricultural past of the area, where vacant ruined farmhouses still stand in groves of venerable trees. Moving toward the coast, wineries begin to give way to ranches, and you will see patches of coastal chaparral and rocks begin to appear. There are still wineries to be found, and signs direct you back into the hills.
Feeling curious and having once been a member of the York Mountain Winery wine club, I turned off onto York Mountain Road to check if their 19th century winery was still there. One of the oldest local wineries,operated by Martin & Weyrich most recently, the York Mountain Winery has been in existence since the 1880s, when Andrew York founded it as the Ascension Winery. The historic 19th century winery was unfortunately extensively damaged in the 2003 earthquake, and Martin & Weyrich was recently sold, so I was wondering how it was faring. Word has it that Epoch Estate Wines recently purchased Martin & Weyrich, and plans to reopen the historic winery.
York Mountain Road is a picturesque country road that winds through valleys and under ancient trees, before climbing fairly steeply up York Mountain. The road rounds a curve and its shady narrow pavement opens out on views of meadows where the old winery building and a charming associated Victorian farmhouse lend character. Things were still firmly shut, when I passed by, but a sign said that the tasting room (housed in a prefabricated building) would reopen in November. However, just wandering down this road makes a scenic detour from the main road that soon gets you back onto Highway 46. And there was another detour I intended to take, further down the road.
A few miles further toward the coast, the road intersects with Santa Rita Creek Road and Old Creek Road. If you take a right onto Old Creek, past the weathered remains of an old farm and its outbuildings, you follow a narrow paved road up to the crest of the mountains. We were the only car on the road, and had a covey of quail break across the road in front of us, like a cluster of feathered pears with bobbles on the front of their heads. A few more miles up the road, we found a flock of wild turkeys happily wandering down the road, almost indifferent to a car who wanted them to share the road. While we were waiting for the turkeys to venture out of our path, we looked over to the right and saw a longhorn steer placidly watching us.
Finally, we crested the Santa Lucia Mountains and got what I had come this way for: a view all the way down the mountain to the Pacific Ocean, with the pine trees of Cambria visible along the coast in the distance. If you continue another mile down the road, as it drops toward the coast, you will find a dirt “viewpoint” pullout on your left. This is the start of the once-infamous switchbacks on Old Highway 46, and the large oval viewpoint is surrounded on three sides by a horseshoe switchback. Park, get out, and take photos of the amazing view, if you end up there. It’s not quite as good as the view from the summit, but it offers you a less risky place to stop. From the viewpoint, you can either continue down the switchbacks (use first gear!) and travel down through riparian valleys and past old farms, to the Coast, or turn and go back to rejoin Highway 46.
If you simply continue on the current Highway 46, toward the coast, you will crest the Lucias and find a completely different viewpoint awaits you on the left, on the West side of the summit. This is another recommended photo opportunity. From here, you can see the coastal hills to the west, then look south to take in the entire arc of the coastline from Cayucos to Montana de Oro State Park and the Irish Hills behind to the east. Centered in this magnificent stretch of coast is Morro Rock, the last of a series of old volcanic plug peaks that stretch from Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo.
Turning around from this viewpoint, we headed back toward Paso Robles, with one last stop in mind. I had seen the sign for the “Historic Rotta Winery” from the road, and wanted to see what they were doing currently. When I was growing up, the Rotta Winery was run by an old Italian woman, Grandma Rotta, who sold cheap red wine out of her house. It wasn’t anything to write home about, but it seemed like everyone knew someone who had bought wine at the Rotta Winery, usually in a glass jug. The winery itself had been there since 1856, and even operated during Prohibition, when it sold church wine and grape juice that people could take home to ferment themselves.
How things have changed! One of the grandchildren now runs the reinvented Rotta Winery, and they have a modern winery, warehouse and tasting room. Grandma Rotta is long gone, and the house burned years ago, but the winery now makes award-winning wines! A wine tour was just leaving as I pulled up, and we heard from them that many people come for the nostalgia, but leave converted to their new line of wines! A case in the front of the tasting room houses some “relics” in the form of old jugs and containers, not just bottles. Apparently, in the days I remembered and before, you could even come by with a mason jar, and have them fill it with red wine for you. Many people come in with stories of “the old days” and bring relics carefully saved over the years to donate to their display of winery history.
For a $3 tasting fee, you can sample an array of Rotta wines. Here, I found that, although Cabernet Savignon is on the tasting menu, the star performers are the lesser known reds, including an amazing 2005 Merlot with a berry/cherry backbone, and their complex Trinity, a blend of 60% Cabernet Savignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 20% Merlot. It’s a full-bodied wine with lots of fruit, aged in French Oak for 18 months. However, the sweet dessert wines are the total stars of the show! Not content with just fermenting an excellent Zinfandel, their Zinfandel Port is decadently rich with a lot of depths. For a light, sweet white, try their Muscat Canelli. I could see kicking back and sipping this in the shade, on a hot day, letting it dance on your palate. But the real star is Black Monnukka Dessert Wine. This wine is unique in the world, and was thought impossible. Fermented from table grapes, it is aged in barrels in the heat and sun, and turns into an amazing ambrosia that is sweet but light, hinting of sherry and vanilla, and an elusive angelic quality that must be bottled sunshine! One sip, and you’ll be hooked! What’s more, it’s indestructable. An open bottle will keep for months with no notable change of flavor. However, it’s so delicious, I don’t know how it would last out the week, unless you had iron self control! I was hooked instantly, and my only regret was not being able to buy an entire case, on the spot. (I will, however, return soon, to replace the bottle I took home with me.)
So, whether you’re sightseeing or hunting a little of the history of wine in California, or just hope to encounter some interesting rural wildlife, you owe it to yourself to take a trip out Highway 46!
Want to check out the Historic Rotta Winery? Follow the signs off 46, or contact them at:
250 Winery Road
Templeton, CA 93465
Photos courtesy of Andrew M. Crockett