PASO ROBLES – As San Luis Obispo County moved into California State’s Phase 2 re-opening plan for easing the COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders, the re-opening of selected businesses over the Memorial Day weekend injected a spirited life into Paso Robles.

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Daou Vineyards terrace seating. Photo by Mira Honeycutt

Among these businesses, a group of wineries that are equipped with kitchen facilities or have the ability to offer food services was allowed to open with a set of County guidelines that include wine to be served only with food.

“I’m glad to see the shutdown come to an end and glad to see my employees again,” said Steve Cass, founder of Cass Winery in our phone conversation.

According to the State and County guidelines for Phase 2, wineries, brew-pubs, and distilleries are allowed to resume full or modified operations if they offer sit down dine-in meals and alcohol to be sold in the same transaction as a meal. Businesses that do not provide sit-down meals themselves can contract with “another vendor” to do so, and alcohol must be sold in the same transaction as a meal. Reservations are required, and visitors must wear masks upon entering tasting rooms, among other guidelines such as maintaining the required six-feet social distancing.


However, the phrase another vendor is creating confusion with some wineries. According to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) website, states it clear on its FAQ list about business practices during the pandemic temporary catering authorization for a bona fide meal must be prepared on the premises by the licensee or their contracted meal provider.

Since many wineries are blessed with patios and gardens, outdoor seating was a welcome sign while observing social distancing. Wineries such as Tooth & Nail, Daou VineyardsOpolo VineyardsJustin, Grey Wolf Cellars & Barton Family WinesTreana & Hope Family WinesLe Cuvier, Bovino Vineyards, Calcareous Vineyards, Niner Wine Estates, Villa San Juliette, Cass, and Parrish are among the two dozen wineries that have re-opened. These wineries are also equipped with professional kitchens, as is Kramer Guitar Cellars but with indoor seating.

Although wineries were anticipating Phase 2 stage, the date of re-opening took some by surprise. Cass was alerted by the County authorities on Thursday, the day before the long weekend kicked off, about the re-opening which didn’t allow him enough time to get groceries. In spite of the “limited food menu,” Cass observed, they made 170 lunches on Saturday of the long weekend.

Dan Souza, the owner of Bovino, was in the same predicament. “This thing opened up so fast we weren’t prepared,” he told me when I stopped by at his tasting room on Saturday. Souza was short-staffed that day and could handle only 12 reservations, even though the spacious patio and tasting room can accommodate more customers.

“Nobody wants to work; they make more money on unemployment” said Souza, hauling boxes out of an office. Winemaker and general manager Steve Anglim pitched in to help the chef, and his wife Steffanie assisted in the tasting room.

However, castle-like Tooth & Nail was up and running on all cylinders over the long weekend, although some guests without reservations were turned away. A poster board outlining conditions of entry stood by check-in counter, and diners on the terrace and indoor lounges were seated safely at what looked like more than six-feet distancing.

Opolo saw visitors driving in from San Diego, Orange County, Bakersfield, and the Bay area, noted tasting room manager Gracie Rey. 

“People were lined up at 10 a.m. for the 10:30 a.m. opening for Mimosas and breakfast pizza,” she said.

Wineries without commercial kitchens partnered with food trucks and caterers preparing food on-site, a win-win situation for both businesses. Harmony Cellars off Highway 1 contracted with RailRoad BBQ food truck parked on the winery’s lot. A flight of five tastings of white or red wine in disposable plastic cups was offered with tri-tip tacos. Other foods and wine partnerships include Lusso Della Terra Cellars with Open Range Catering, Volatus with Paso Catering Co., MCV Wines with Hurricane Kitchen truck, Zenaida Cellars with Choco’s Mexican truck, Detente with Jeffry’s BBQ, and Lou Lou Cheese Trailer with ONX Wines and Derby Wine Estates.

The re-opening of wineries has boosted not only the local food business but transportation companies such as UnCorked Wine Tours celebrating its tenth year in business. 

“Things are moving forward, and we are back to business,” enthused founder Katie Hayward said.

For now, most tasting rooms are open on weekends, with a handful open daily, with reduced seating capacity and a limited menu. On my visit to four tasting rooms, I observed all staff members wearing masks and gloves, maintaining cleanliness by wiping bottles, counters, furniture, etc. 

“Our servers have to wear fresh gloves after each table cleanup,” informed Cass. “And our printer is working overtime, printing disposable menus.”

Daou’s “touch-less guest experience” offered a clean take-home stylus to use to check out, directional markers to chart the flow of traffic and restroom capacity reduced to one person at a time.

Re-opening calls for a new approach. The traditional belly-up-to-the-bar wine tasting may morph into the new normal of a “Curated Tasting” experience, where wineries will offer only orchestrated tasting flights and reservations will be de rigueur.

Bachelorette parties will have to wait.

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Pam Wilson tasting room manager at Bovino Vineyards. Photo by Mira Honeycutt
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Condition of Entry poster board at check-in. Photo by Mira Honeycutt
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Tasting room staff member diligently sanitizing bottles and counters. Photo by Mira Honeycutt