Recently, after laboring on a number of overlapping projects into what should have been an afterlife, I heard the dull but unmistakable click of a circuit breaker trip in my head. This warning sound usually occurs when weekends have become a dim memory and my lawn dies. It is my experience that when these circumstances are present, the only sensible thing to do is to punch a bagger-sized hole in the middle of the week and vanish, leaving no forwarding address.
A few phone calls and a hastily packed bag later, I was northbound out of Los Angeles, headed for Paso Robles in Central California’s wine country. Unlike Napa Valley, its celebrated cousin to the north, Paso Robles cannot boast a wine train, the Silverado Trail, or Thomas Keller’s foodie fiefdom of Yountville. What the region does have to offer are some fine boutique hotels, a rapidly growing roster of first-rate wineries and, most importantly, some of the most beautiful and best maintained motorcycle roads in California.
My first stop was the Carlton Hotel in Atascadero, 11 miles south of Paso. Built in 1928, the 52-room Carlton was the beneficiary of a $15 million renovation in 2003, which updated and burnished its classic Californian elegance. The rooms are spacious, tasteful and quiet. After a catatonic 12 hours in the plush King bed, I was primed to saddle up the Ducati SportClassic GT 1000 that was waiting downstairs and head east on Highway 41 to explore the rolling farmland east of US Route 101.
Having no itinerary other than to get completely lost, I stopped by the front desk to gather intel on roads that might be forsaken by local authorities. The highway gods were smiling. Amir, the morning deskman, is a daily rider who has spent years tearing up the backroads of San Luis Obispo County. By the time I set my helmet down he had printed a map and was sketching out potential routes with the diligence of Patton preparing his advance on Bastogne. I thanked him as I pocketed the map, walked outside, and slid behind the Ducati’s windscreen.
As I sliced inland on Highway 41 through a flat stretch of cattle pasture and farmland, the GT 1000′s relaxingly efficient ergos, paired with the 992cc L-Twin’s torquey pull, made scattering leaves on the long straights an effortless, loping thrill. The punchy Italian’s gearing is lanky enough that I only climbed into sixth once, just to make sure it was there.
When a short flurry of switchbacks interrupted my beeline, the lithe 407-pounder (claimed dry) demonstrated its agility, sure-footedly pulling through the corners with a glottal snort burbling through the upswept chrome pipes. Turning south on Highway 229, I passed through the lay-off-the-throttle-or-you’ll-miss-it town of Creston. There, legend has it, L. Ron Hubbard leapt through the cosmic veil, sadly depriving himself an advance screener of Battlefield Earth.
229 passes a few open parcels of land before abruptly transitioning into an undulating, single-lane moto-coaster with cleanly paved twists that swept me past standing oaks and the occasional darting bobcat. Thankfully, cars seem to be on the endangered species list around here; I encountered a lone pickup before finding myself completely, blissfully alone on a weaving ribbon that was made for two wheels.
A brief intoxication stretching fewer than nine miles, 229 terminates at Highway 58, a less exhilarating, but beautiful two lane that carried me to Shell Creek Road, another curvilinear single-track that while not as alluring as 229, proved to be a hell of a lot of fun. Without a map, the entrance to Shell Creek is about as easy to locate as the Batcave; even with Amir’s directions, I overshot it twice. Magnificently desolate and offering sweeping Big Sky views, Shell Creek winds north to Highway 41 in Shandon, just seven miles southwest of Cholame, where James Dean was killed in a head-on collision in 1955.
I wound down Highway 41, a tawny stretch of billowing countryside punctuated by the occasional crippled barn, finally closing the loop in Creston, when an unseen hand pushed the Ducati’s bars to the left and back onto 229. Not being one to invite the wrath of invisible forces, I took another turn on the roller coaster, this time pushing through the turns a little harder and enjoying every pavement ripple and blurred fencepost a little more the second time around, abetted by the GT’s rigid trellis frame and performance-oriented Marzocchi front suspension.
A return via La Panza Road necessitated a stop at Chateau Margene, a hidden micro-winery owned and operated by Michael and Margene Mooney. I had stumbled upon their tasting room a few years ago and, thanks to Michael’s persuasive hospitality, decamped three hours later with a case of wine in my arms and a cigar clenched between purple teeth. This trip was strictly a package venture-I picked up a bottle of their wonderfully rich 2006 Reserve Cabernet and, discovering that it fit perfectly in the GT 1000′s left saddlebag, grabbed a bottle of ’07 Paso Cuvee for ballast. By this time the sun was headed west and so was I-back on 41, pointed toward the Carlton.
Once in my room, I sank into the whirlpool tub with a bottle of 2006 My Generation, a fruit-forward, spicy blended Zin from another local low-yield outfit, Vines on the Marycrest. The 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Gold Medal winner opens up nicely over the course of a long bath and pairs exceptionally well with recumbency. While My Generation slowly vanished in the rising steam clouds, I read that Atascadero’s name loosely derives from a Spanish phrase meaning, "a place where one gets stuck." It is a safe bet that the town’s nomenclator did not have access to a Ducati GT 1000.
Unsticking myself from the Carlton, I rode 11 miles north to Paso Robles and checked into the Hotel Cheval, just off Paso’s historic town square. The romantic, equestrian-themed boutique hotel’s 16 rooms surround a large courtyard that features an outdoor fireplace and the soft trickle of fountains. Rich, earthy tones suffuse the entire property, keeping the mood elegantly rustic throughout. I dropped my gear in my room and headed for The Pony Club, the Cheval’s wine bar, for a pre-dinner Syrah.
Villa Creek restaurant is a horseshoe toss from the Cheval and spotlights the work of chef Tom Fundaro, who uses locally sourced organic, sustainable ingredients in simple, rustic preparations. Fundaro’s intelligible approach to "early California" cuisine is satisfying and memorable, especially when paired with a selection from locally produced Villa Creek Cellars. A highlight of my visit was Fundaro’s deliciously autumnal take on pork tenderloin and apples.
Nearby Artisan restaurant also focuses on local and organic ingredients with a wine list that includes most of Paso’s best producers. Chef Chris Kobayashi’s Hearst Ranch Flatiron steak with cabernet butter is a perfect post-ride curative. After an evening under the care of either of these fine chefs, the walk back to the Cheval is considerably more laborious than the walk over.
When I did manage to haul myself up the stairs and into bed, I sank like a bowling ball into the California King mattress for a full 38 seconds, watching the iron chandelier above my head slowly recede into the vaulted ceiling. I fell asleep with the map of the next day’s ride on my chest, while a local weatherman buzzed tomorrow’s forecast on the flatscreen television.
In the morning, I headed west toward the Santa Lucia Mountains, through an area that is home to the majority of Paso’s 200-plus wineries. Hopping onto Chimney Rock Drive allowed me to stretch the Ducati’s legs through some languid sweepers that wound through the stripped rows of harvested vineyards. The single lane blacktop tightened into a corkscrew around the southernmost fingers of Lake Nacimiento, forcing me to lean on the predictably strong Brembos.
Doubling back, I dropped south through the old mercury-mining town of Adelaida, past the town’s 19th century cemetery-like any respectable backwater boneyard, it is reputedly haunted-and picked up Vineyard Drive near popular Tablas Creek Vineyard, the Golden State’s Rhône-away-from-home.
Vineyard Drive has been a favorite road since I first discovered it on a wine country ramble several years ago. Vineyard’s demure contours won’t redline the pulse of Hypermotard jockeys, but it is tailor-made for the GT’s solid handling and flexible power. Vineyard’s long curves roll through rugged oak canopies and leaf-blanketed berms before giving way to some beautiful vistas by the time it concludes at Highway 46.
Running west on the 17-mile stretch of 46 leading to the coast gave me a chance to open up the 992cc Desmodue Dual Spark engine to its peak of 92 horsepower at 8000 rpm. Despite the medium-sized windscreen, the svelte Ducati favored a more relaxed pace as the winds picked up off the Pacific, and that was fine with me. After weeks of rain, the wild rolling hills were an incandescent green, etched sharply against the far blue horizon.
At the coast, it is a short run to Cambria and Hearst Castle to the north, but I rode south, inhaling the salt spray lifting off the whitecaps as Morro Rock rose out of the Pacific in the distance. I had planned to continue on to Pismo Beach to a wonderfully degenerate BBQ joint I half-remembered, but instead turned inland on Highway 41. I was booked for a five o’clock wine tasting with Deborah Baldwin, co-proprietor of Justin Vineyards and the luxe, Euro-styled Just-Inn Bed and Breakfast.This job occasionally demands unreasonable sacrifices of its practitioners.
Pulling into the driveway at Justin Winery, gravel crunching under my wheels, a leviathan of a yellow Lab and a slightly smaller Basset Hound confronted me. Both were splayed aloofly across the drive with no intention of lifting a paw to get out of my way. I gingerly walked the Ducati between them-the Hound giving my boot a perfunctory sniff-and made my way to the tasting room.
I received a decidedly more cordial welcome from Deborah Baldwin who, with her husband Justin, escaped the financial services industry in 1981 by purchasing 160 acres of Adelaide Hills land and launching Justin Winery. A charming woman with an obvious zeal for her craft, Deborah guided me through their roster, which leans toward Bordeaux-style blends, culminating in the much sought after Isosceles Reserve, Justin’s beautifully balanced flagship, whose blackberry and cassis canticle would seduce Carry Nation into dropping her hatchet and signing onto the Reserve’s lengthy waitlist.
After a tour of the vineyard, which included their sprawling 12,000 square foot subterranean cave and extensive wine library, I settled in for a magnificent dinner in Deborah’s Room, Justin’s intimate fine dining venue. Seared ahi with trout roe, followed by pork belly with pickled watermelon and BBQ glaze led to a Maple Leaf Farms duck breast with red curry-all beautifully paired with estate grown Justin wines. With the fireplace crackling, I tucked into a steamed lemon pudding with huckleberries, which harmonized nicely with the chocolate notes of Justin’s 2007 Obtuse. That evening, my campaign was a manageable 20 yards to the plush 1200-square foot Sussex suite, one of four accommodations on the property.
The next morning, eager to beat the afternoon rush back to LA, I sat in the gazebo outside my suite rattling off some neglected emails when Churchill, the Basset Hound, lumbered up the wooden steps and observed my frenzied pecking with indifference before collapsing with a satisfied grunt at my feet. I went on typing as he gazed out over the lazy rows of rootstock that stretched across the furrows toward a distant oak grove. Slowly, Churchill’s dewy eyes began to close, and after issuing a long, audible fart, he began to snore.
You can learn a lot from a vineyard dog. As he slumbered, enormous brown ears draped across the gazebo floor, I closed my laptop, poured another cup of coffee and with my boots up, began counting the rows in the vineyard, in no hurry at all to get back to Los Angeles.