Tin City: The industrial estate shaking up California wine country

Just off Highway 101, in Paso Robles, California, a band of maverick winemakers, distillers and chefs have created a corrugated-tin paradise for gastronomes and oenophiles.Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The craft brewery and gardens, where gigs are performed on a rusty flatbed truck, opened in 2012. “Back then, very few people knew [the area] existed,” recalls Chris Vaughn, one of BarrelHouse’s three founders. “Now, it’s become one of the hottest attractions in the county.”
The craft brewery and gardens, where gigs are performed on a rusty flatbed truck, opened in 2012. “Back then, very few people knew [the area] existed,” recalls Chris Vaughn, one of BarrelHouse’s three founders. “Now, it’s become one of the hottest attractions in the county.”
photo by BarrelHouse Brewing

I pluck the tiny taco from its perch atop a bowl filled with pebbles and bite into the ‘chorizo’— actually cunningly disguised beetroot — filling. I’m pondering the earthy, smoky-sweet taste as chef Ricky Odbert floats over to the counter and shakes up the pebbles with a flick of the wrist and a languid smile.

The smooth grey stones shimmy away to reveal the next course hiding underneath: an ochre-hued chickpea fritter with a dollop of spring garlic puree. A Mexican wave of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ rolls across my fellow diners as they witness this same magic act.

Six Test Kitchen, in a tiny, dimly lit room with counter seating for 12, is the newest addition to Tin City, an industrial area that’s become an unlikely hub for food and drink producers in Paso Robles, halfway between LA and San Francisco. 

The restaurant’s elegant drama wouldn’t be out of place in Napa Valley, California’s more famous wine region. But it feels truly at home amid this offbeat, fiercely independent cluster of artisans.

At first glance, Tin City is somewhere you’d only end up after taking a wrong turn — perhaps en route to one of Paso Robles’ more traditional wineries, whose vines stripe the surrounding landscape. The buildings are corrugated tin and steel, many of them occupied by pool manufacturers and auto-repair shops. The prevalent noise is the constant rumble of traffic on Highway 101, alongside which this 20-acre parcel of land huddles.

But walk around a while and you notice walls, hydrants and electrical cupboards plastered with bright murals. Many of the tin sheds are painted in soft pastel shades and have elegant signage suggesting something other than a place to get your tyres checked. Move closer and the traffic noise is displaced by the happy hum of chatter and the clinking of glasses.

The area’s transformation began with BarrelHouse Brewing Co. The craft brewery and gardens, where gigs are performed on a rusty flatbed truck, opened in 2012. “Back then, very few people knew [the area] existed,” recalls Chris Vaughn, one of BarrelHouse’s three founders. “Now, it’s become one of the hottest attractions in the county.”

Small-production ‘garagiste’ winemakers, struggling to find — and afford — premises, soon followed, renting space from developer Mike English, who purchased the land with money from his pool-manufacturing company.

There are now 18 wineries alongside distilleries and Tin City Cider, which regularly hosts craft farmers’ markets. Breezy bistro Tin Canteenserves burgers, fresh pasta (from neighbouring Italian deli Etto) and stone-baked pizzas.

There’s a generosity of spirit here that borders on the dangerous, as I discover at all-female winery Desparada. Winemaker and owner Vailia From greets me with a warm hug and a wine flight in the tasting room, decorated with inviting velvet textures and jewel tones.

I’ve tasted my way from a ‘racy’ chenin blanc to a bold yet delicately floral red blend Soothsayer when assistant winemaker Riley Hubbard beckons us into the barrel room. 

“Come and taste with us,” says Vailia. A row of glasses, containing different variations of upcoming blends, is laid out on a bench. Vailia’s verdict will determine which combinations are bottled.

Tin City has allowed Vailia to make the wine she loves. “If you can’t have fun experimenting, why own a winery? Everyone here is doing cutting-edge things.”

Dave McGee, owner of Monochrome, agrees. He makes only whites at his premises, shared with ONX Wines. “It’s definitely not your typical wine area. This is a collection of creative winemakers doing creative stuff. People appreciate coming to a place that’s a little more low-key, where they can talk to the people who make the wines.”

Back at Six Test Kitchen, Ricky explains how his restaurant began as a six-seat counter in his dad’s garage in Arroyo Grande, 40 miles south of here. He moved into this former car-repair shop in late 2018. Fitting in with the vibe of Tin City, his menu is understatedly accomplished and punctuated with delicious little surprises. 

Chicharrónes, usually made with pork belly, are created with tapioca and squid ink instead. “It’s best eaten with your hands,” suggests the chef. It dissolves on my tongue in a lingering, umami fizz.

For the next course, pin-thin pastry crust — surrounding what looks like a sweet pie topped with wafer-thin slices of poached rhubarb — crumbles to reveal iron-rich chicken liver mousse, while maitake (hen of the wood) mushrooms are the star of the next dish, served with barley that’s been lightly burnt in butter to imbue a nutty, caramelised quality.

The menu is inspired by the area’s abundant produce, featuring ingredients like Meyer lemons, wildflower honey and local olives. But Tin City’s free-spiritedness clearly has a supporting role; the boundless creativity is contagious.

“[In San Francisco], another restaurant was always doing the same thing. Here, there’s no influence,” Ricky says. “It’s an entirely different realm, and it’s freeing.”

Take five in Tin City

Negranti Creamery 
This tiny shop with a handful of outdoor tables doles out sheep’s milk ice cream in flavours like salted brown sugar and blackberry rosemary. Get it in a cup, waffle cone or soft-cookie sandwich. 

Field Recordings
Andrew Jones sources grapes from vineyards across California to make cool coastal chardonnays and old-vine zinfandels, poured in a breezy garage space. A spin-off label, Alloy Wine Works, is packaged in cans. 

Tin City Cider
Californian apples are married with wine grapes to make refreshingly sour libations like Kickin Chicken, aged in whisky barrels, and Poly Dolly – a rosé cider from mourvedre, pinot noir and petit verdot. The taproom’s long tables spill out into the sunshine. 

Wine Shine
Owner Patrick Brooks sources grape juice from respected, high-end local wineries for his artisan brandies, made in and sold from a corrugated, duck-egg-blue shed. With flavours from hibiscus lemon to cinnamon spirit aged in French oak barrels, each variety is silky-smooth and dangerously sippable. 

Monochrome
In a world of big, bold reds, Dave McGee wanted to do something a little different. He exclusively produces white wines, which he believes are more versatile with food. Mineral-rich blends from grapes including viognier, albariño and chardonnay prove as complex as their darker counterparts. 

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