Just in time for harvest, Bonnie heads a few hours up the 101 to the Central Coast and samples the wares of the most exciting wine region south of Napa.
The largest California wine-producing appellation is also its best-kept secret. Everyone knows northerly Bay Area greats like Napa and Sonoma, and many have now discovered more local Santa Barbara County favorites like Santa Ynez and the Santa Rita Hills. Inexplicably, the great swath between these two points is often overlooked—the Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area), whose boundaries encompass pieces of six counties with more than 25 distinct sub-appellations. From moody Monterey sauvignon blancs to silky Santa Rita pinots to ripe Paso zinfandels, what unites this broad area is the profound impact of the Pacific. The Central Coast is cool in more ways than one, and as wine enthusiasts continue to explore, many are discovering the excitement that lies just a bit further up the 101.
Newcomers to the Central Coast wine scene should start at beautiful Talley Vineyards, located about 25 minutes south of San Luis Obispo in Arroyo Grande. Just eight miles from the ocean, the Arroyo Grande Valley runs northeast to southwest and opens directly to the Pacific. As experienced farmers in the area, the Talley family was one of the first to recognize this as world-class country for pinot noir and chardonnay, two grapes that thrive in cool, maritime climates. With vines first planted in 1982, tasting Talley’s wines is an education in what the French call “terroir”—that perfect intersection of place and grape. In addition to their estate bottlings, Talley makes two terrific other wines too—the Bishop’s Peak label, designed for every-day drinking, and the wonderful Mano Tinta (“red hand”) project that directly supports healthcare for vineyard workers. Behind profound wines, one usually finds profound people; such is the case at Talley Vineyards. (talleyvineyards.com)
Adobe and crops at Talley Vineyards
Another profound name in the Central Coast wine scene is John Alban. Founded in 1989, Alban Vineyards was the first American winery exclusively dedicated to Rhône varietals like syrah, grenache and viognier, the latter of which Alban literally saved from extinction in the New World. Located in the Edna Valley sub-appellation, this microclimate showcases the great diversity of the Central Coast and what it can produce. Long the beloved Holy Grail of sommeliers, Alban wines are not easy to come by and the winery is not typically open to the public. If you have the chance to buy some, you should. Immediately and repeatedly. You’re tasting history in that glass.
If you want to catch history in the making, head a little further south to tiny Los Alamos, which is poised to be the next big thing in California wine. With one of the absolute coolest grape-growing climates in the state, big names like Beringer and Kendall-Jackson have come calling. Fortunately, smaller boutique wineries have also planted in the valley, and its burgeoning food and wine scene has caused some locals to wryly dub it “Little Los Angeles.”
Check out newcomer Bell Street Farm, where proprietor Jamie Gluck will pack you a winery picnic to die for while you sip on a little glass of Palmina rosé out on the back patio. You’d never believe Bell Street Farm was once a notorious biker bar! Or stay for dinner at Full of Life Flatbread Pizza, which Variety magazine deemed the greatest on the West Coast. Yep, it really is that good, and it really is all the way up in Los Alamos. Taste this, and you’ll understand that “organic” and “pizza” definitely belong in the same sentence. (bellstreetfarm.com, fulloflifefoods.com)
Owner and chef Jamie Gluck at his Los Alamos Bell Street Farm.
Because the Central Coast is so sprawling, one of the best ways to take in all its complexity is to attend the annual “Savor the Central Coast” event coming this fall. With a grand kick-off dinner at Hearst Castle on Thursday, September 29, the weekend showcases more than 100 wineries and 30 local restaurants, in addition to wine seminars and all kinds of outdoor adventures like sea kayaking, diving for abalone, lighthouse touring, balloon rides and more. If you come, come thirsty and book your tickets early, as this festival sells out each year. Information on accommodations and activities can be found at savorcentralcoast.com. Hope to see you there!