If you speak with many of the winemakers in Paso Robles, Calif., they’ll often describe the region as what Napa was 50 years ago. It has all of the high-quality, award-winning winemaking you’ll find a few hours north—without the crowds, exorbitant prices, and increasing sense of formality.

If you want casual, you need to head south. And Paso Robles is the epitome of California cool and casual. While the region has a strong winemaking tradition and a growing international profile, local winemakers still have the freedom and ability to experiment with a number of techniques and grapes without the pressure. There’s also a vast diversity in the grapes grown around the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA); the region is known for producing blends and is especially ideal for lovers of Grenache and Syrah. (As one winemaker told me, “If you can’t make a good Syrah in Paso Robles, you need to get out.”) And many white wine blends often feature Roussanne and Clairette Blanche grapes, which also thrive in the area.

Getting to Paso Robles does take some planning. Along the Pacific Coast Highway on U.S. Route 101, the closest airport is San Luis Obispo County Regional (SBP), about 45 minutes away. But if you have the time, you can make a road trip out of it from either San Jose International Airport (SJC) to the north or Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to the south.

Before departure, note that Paso Robles is extremely hot during the summer days but very cold at night, thanks to a cool front that rides in from the Pacific coast over the Santa Lucia Mountains. (Yes, it is a “dry heat,” but it is a lot of heat.) And you should always pack layers when visiting wineries as tasting rooms and cellars can also be very cool inside as well.

Also—and this was a pre-pandemic pro tip, too—remember to make reservations for tastings. Most tasting rooms are reservation-only, even more so these days as some sites are continuing to maintain social distancing and contact tracing measures.

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The Backyard: After a few days (especially hot, dehydrating days), perhaps you’re tired of wine and would like an alternative. The Backyard is a family- and dog-friendly outdoor beer garden with 24 rotating craft beers and ciders on tap (and four wines) as well as an assortment of cans and bottles plus nonalcoholic beverages. Promising something for everyone, the Backyard showcases local craft breweries as well as harder-to-find ales from around the country. As an open-air venue, it’s an ideal location for a leisurely, casual gathering—for small and large groups alike.

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