At nine o’clock on a spring morning, Windrose Farm, a 70-acre spread on the outskirts of Paso Robles, California, is bursting with life. Apple trees bloom as white as goose down; knee-high leeks line up in the fields; and a flock of lambs bleats loudly as farmer Bill Spencer approaches the paddock with three beer bottles in hand. “The kids are thirsty,” calls out the mustachioed Windrose proprietor, holding up the bottles to show that they’re filled with milk and fitted with rubber nipples.
Spencer bought Windrose in 1990 with his wife, Barbara, a cellist, and today the couple farm according to biodynamic principles, an ultraorganic method that requires, among other things, fertilizing crops with manure from the farm’s animals. The Spencers raise some 80 types of fruits and vegetables, offering numerous varieties of each crop: a dozen kinds of lettuce, 45 different apples, more than 100 heirloom tomatoes. Windrose’s signature garlic is shipped as far away as New York, and its produce has become a staple on top menus in Los Angeles, where chefs flaunt the Windrose name as a badge of “farm to table” cred.
“The produce is absolutely phenomenal,” says Paso Robles chef Chris Kobayashi, a loyal Windrose customer who stops by to select vegetables for Artisan, the three-year-old eatery he owns with his brother, Mike. The Kobayashis have built their restaurant around Windrose Farm’s produce and other ingredients grown in surrounding San Luis Obispo County, which lies midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We always talked about doing a restaurant together,” recalls Mike, whose previous career was managing bands (Aerosmith, Jane’s Addiction) in L.A. and who oversees the business side of Artisan. “San Francisco was too expensive and saturated. I wanted to get out of the whole L.A. scene. Chris had been down here doing research, and he said, ‘If we do it, I want to do it in Paso Robles.’” (A note on the nomenclature: The town is officially named El Paso de Robles, although locals call it Paso Robles—rhymes with nobles—or often just Paso.)
“There are so many farms here,” adds Chris, pointing out that San Luis Obispo encompasses the cornucopia of the Central Valley to the east and the seafood-rich Pacific waters to the west. “All that within 100 miles; that’s a footprint for sustainability. That’s what attracted me.”
Plenty of other food folks evidently are of the same mind. In the past few years Paso Robles has become a destination for ambitious chefs captivated by the region’s low real-estate prices, high quality of life and wealth of agricultural producers selling pristine fruits and vegetables as well as organic grains, grass-fed meats, virgin olive oil, artisanal cheese and even farm-raised abalone. Paso is also smack in the middle of the Central Coast wine-growing region, which has been acclaimed by über critic Robert Parker. Foodie tourists have followed the chefs to create a gastronomic hot spot, a kind of Sonoma County South.