It has often been said that everything goes better with good wine. The same could be said of a good winery, which is why, even though I am not much of a drinker, I always enjoy getting away to the beautiful environs of California’s Wine Country. Wherever great food meets gorgeous scenery, you are sure to find good times and cool photo opportunities.
On this occasion, my wife and I and two more couples reserved a three bedroom vacation rental house at the postcard-picturesque RiverStar Vineyard in Paso Robles. A vacation rental can be an affordable and attractive option for families or groups of travelers who want a more “homey” accommodation than the average hotel or motel. By staying on-site at “the Ranch,” as the locals call the 80-acre property, we got to enjoy the sweeping views of RiverStar’s vineyards while remaining next door to the winery’s production facilities and tasting room.
We also saved some money by taking advantage of the house’s kitchen to cook some meals for ourselves, turning our home-away-from-home into our own private B&B. With $150 of groceries from a local supermarket, we were able to feed six people a dinner barbecue (including a few alcoholic libations on the side) and two hearty lumberjack breakfasts.
Of course, as nice as it is to BYOB and save a few bucks, you can’t visit the Wine Country without splurging on a few meals at some of the excellent local restaurants. This time, we tried out Artisan, an eatery whose menu adds a gourmet flair to dishes ranging from the quotidian (burgers and steak) to the exotic (rabbit sausage and wild boar cheeks—that’s right, I said “wild boar cheeks” which was the best item on the menu). And who wouldn’t go cuckoo for an ice cream dessert topped with special “coco puffs”?
Needless to say, we also sampled plenty of delicacies at the wineries themselves. At the Ecluse Winery, the wine connoisseurs in our party got to taste wine right from the barrel. A server used a glass tube that resembled a giant eyedropper to transfer mouthfuls of the vintage into glasses without disturbing or contaminating the rest of the wine in the cask.
The good folks at the Opolo Winery paired their wines with a flavorful lunch of gourmet pizza and Serbian-style sausages for us as we passed a leisurely afternoon on their shady patio. We also toured the cellars of Adelaida, Tablas Creek, and Eagle Castle, which gave me a chance to snap some black-and-white shots of the oaken casks and dark wine bottles while my friends quaffed enough Cabernets, Merlots, and Sauvignons to drown a Frenchman.
After that, even the wine connoisseurs among us were in the mood for a change of taste, so we dropped into the taproom at the Firestone Walker Brewery for some good down-to-earth beers. Co-founded by the vintner who owns the Firestone Vineyards, the brewery applies winemaking principles to crafting award-winning micro-brewed ales. My friends got samplers of an entire spectrum of beers ranging in color from gold to red to dark brown and seemed to enjoy every sip.
Lest you think we did nothing but eat and drink on this trip, let me assure you that we took plenty of time to stroll the grounds of each vineyard and enjoy the splendid panoramas they had to offer. I was especially awed by the explosion of wildflowers that spread out in a golden blanket to the horizon.
On the last night of our stay, my wife and I crept out into the surrounding vineyards at midnight to see if we could get some interesting “shots in the dark,” so to speak. The good news: my new Leica, the third one in less than two months, did not break! I brought along a small off camera lighting kit just for this occasion. The Yongnuo YN-560 speed light, Cheaplights 20″ soft box, Yongnuo RF-602 trigger/receiver kit and a Linco 8ft light stand. We ventured into the rows of vines and found a good spot to set up for the midnight shoot. I shot a few with the M9 on the tripod so we could get a portrait of the two of us, then my wife was tired and sat on the ground which was provided the best results of the night.
Naturally, on the way back to SoCal, we had to stop in Nipomo to dine at Jocko’s Steakhouse, my favorite restaurant. In addition to some of the best steaks on the coast, Jocko’s serves cheeseburgers with patties so thick they look like they swallowed whole two or three Double-Doubles from In-‘n’-Out. The dinner break also gave our group one last chance to absorb the fresh sea air and soothing ocean vistas along the beach before returning to the urban hubbub of L.A. One more toast to each other for this Wine Country weekend. Until next time…cheers!