Paso Robles: 29 miles N of San Luis Obispo; Solvang: 60 miles S of San Luis Obispo

When people talk about California wines, we usually assume they mean those from the Napa and Sonoma regions north of San Francisco. But here in California -- and increasingly across the country, thanks to the Academy Award-winning comedy Sideways -- wine lovers are becoming increasingly aware of quality vintages coming from the sun-drenched valleys of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

The truth is that the Central Coast wine country is the oldest of California's wine-growing regions. The old Franciscan missions strung along the coast and just inland by it attest to the area's heritage when early Spanish settlers planted grapevines and olive trees. But the area's wine production went into decline during Prohibition, and after it was repealed, Napa and Sonoma valleys shot ahead as the leading and best-known producers.

But in the past 25 years, the Central Coast has experienced a boom in grape production and winemaking, and with the new growth in winemaking has come general growth, much of it geared to visitors: Hotels, spas, golf courses, restaurants, art galleries, museums, antiques stores, and even a Vegas-style casino attract a mostly well-over-40 clientele who appreciate the relaxed pace and beauty of the region (little of this area -- except perhaps for the bakeries in Solvang -- will thrill your kids).

The principal parts of the Central Coast Wine Country are Paso Robles (the town of this name and the surrounding countryside), San Luis Obispo (again, the town of the same name plus the nearby areas of Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande), and northern Santa Barbara County (the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys). The great news for visitors is that these areas are distinct but sufficiently close together to make visiting all of them practical on even a short timetable. And staying in Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo is also a convenient option for visiting Hearst Castle, offering more to do (or, at least, more to drink) than quaint Cambria.