Located almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles (Spanish for Oak Pass) has a vineyard tradition stretching back over two centuries: Spanish missionaries planted the first wine grapes here in 1797. The region, about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, now has more than 80 wineries.

Signature Wines Paso Robles has been known for the generous flavors of its full-bodied red wines—first Zinfandel from the county's west side, then Cabernet Sauvignon, and now big-bodied Syrah, which is "the new Merlot" in these parts.

Wine Country Style Compared with Napa or even Sonoma, Paso Robles puts the country back in wine country. The wineries are mostly small, family-owned and spread out far and wide; tasting rooms tend to be low-key and homespun. For a pleasurable 300-wine overview, check out the Paso Robles Wine Festival, May 14 to 16 (805-239-8463 or

Top 10 Bottles

2002 Tablas Creek Roussanne ($28) The estate is co-owned by the Châteauneuf-du-Pape masters of Château de Beaucastel and planted with vines from France. Tablas Creek Winery makes one of the area's standout whites: a Rhône-style Roussanne with a rich, exotic pear-and-rose character and a whiff of honey.

2000 Meridian Reserve Syrah ($19) Veteran winemaker Chuck Ortman has found a home here under the umbrella of international conglomerate Beringer Blass. His Syrah is plump and luscious.

2000 Liberty School Syrah ($13) Bottled under a second label from Treana Winery, this bright, juicy red with its almost candied-fruit flavor is a perfect wine for the mildly charred, salty taste of backyard burgers.

2001 Tobin James Rock-n-Roll Syrah ($18) A straightforward crowd-pleaser that is so sappy, fruity and smooth, you almost don't notice that it carries about 15 percent alcohol.

1999 J. Lohr Hilltop Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) This classically weighted, medium-rich wine has very refined tannins—enhanced by a big-time Bordeaux treatment that includes 24 months in new French oak.

2000 Chateau Margene Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) With the fourth vintage from their hands-on winery, Michael and Margene Mooney have produced a dark, tarry blockbuster Cabernet with a vivid plum-and-blackberry character.

2001 Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel ($19) Moving about as far from the European wine model as possible, the Beckett family makes this red in an exuberant, jammy, over-the-top style that's ideal with barbecued ribs.

2002 Turley Wine Cellars Dusi Ranch Zinfandel ($42) This 16.5 percent alcohol bottling, redolent of sweet raspberry and vanilla, is almost portlike but astonishingly velvety.

2001 Justin Isosceles ($55) Justin and Deborah Baldwin run an elegant inn and restaurant, so it should be no surprise that their flagship Bordeaux-style blend is so stylish and almost delicate, despite a brooding density and a 15 percent payload of alcohol.

Wild Horse 2001 Merlot ($18) Ken Volk, who named his winery for the wild mustangs that roam nearby, is a maverick in bottling obscure varietals. This plum- and blackberry-inflected wine proves he's also got a sure hand with good old Merlot.