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Wine and Dine in Paso Robles

In Northern California, Sonoma and Napa Counties get all the buzz. But what about their southern little sister, Paso Robles, which has often been considered the next wine country destination by oenophiles from far and wide? Even if you're not already heading that direction for this weekend's 27th annual Paso Robles Wine Festival, may we suggest you add this pleasant region to your list of summer travels? (Just be sure, you pronounce it right: That's PAS-oh ROH-buls to you.) Here's how we recommend passing the time in Paso.

Stay: Our favorite inn in the county is the lavish Hotel Cheval, which arrived on the Paso lodging scene in 2007. With an equestrian motif spanning its 16 rooms, a Pony Club lounge on the ground level and even a resident Clydesdale, Chester, who offers carriage rides around town on the weekends, we couldn't get enough of this central boutique. An added bonus: It's within walking distance of all the downtown restaurants and tasting rooms. Paso Robles Inn is a popular historical option--Jesse James used to hide out here--that was damaged by a major 2003 earthquake but rebuilt just two years later. For a bigger hotel with an on-site swimming pool, opt for the new-ish La Bellasera a bit south of the center, which incorporates a little Mediterranean flair into this desert-like town.

Play: Paso's downtown square is littered with boutiques, art galleries and tasting rooms. You'll have no problem filling your days meandering among the offerings. If you need to beat the heat, however, head half an hour to the coastal enclave of Avila Beach for a dip in the ocean. If rejuvenation is a must, Sycamore Springs and its thermal therapy are just a hop, skip and jump away.

Wine: Without a doubt, Justin is the most well-known winery to emerge from Paso Robles on a national scale. Drop by for a flight tasting, and be sure it includes a sample of Isosceles, a sophisticated Bordeaux-style blend which has received wide-spread acclaim. Carmody McKnight Estate Wines, on the way to Justin, is worth popping by for a swig of Cab or the award-winning dessert wine, Kathleen, and a sample of the homemade Tuscan-blend olive oil, as well. Don't pass up a visit and tour of the caves at Eberle, where Gary Eberle, often called the “grandfather of Paso Robles’s wine country” by local vintners, is the resident winemaker.

Dine: Chris Kobayashi, who is known locally as “Chef Koby," brings a bit of San Francisco culinary ingenuity to the Central Coast at the contemporary Artisan, where the majority of ingredients are procured from local farmers markets. Bistro Laurent nearby recreates a small French village eatery thanks to chef-owner Laurent Grangien and his background and upbringing. But for the absolute best meal in the region (in our humble opinion), book a table at Deborah's Room located in the Justin Winery. With just one seating of six tables a night, it's like Deborah's four-course prix-fixe menu was custom made for you. Wine pairings from the vineyard are an added bonus.

For more information on Paso Robles' wine industry, log onto the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website.