Smack-dab in the middle of California, lesser-known wine regions craft vintages that rival those of their big-time neighbors to the north.
When it comes to American wine, California is the first state that comes to mind. It has more than 100 American Viticultural Areas, or wine grape growing regions, and its vintners produce 90 percent of the country’s wine. And when it comes to California wine, Napa and Sonoma get top billing. But there are wineries and vineyards on sweeping tracts of land elsewhere throughout the state that are bottling impressive vintages worthy of a toast.
Among these swaths of California wine country is the Central Coast region, where roughly 100,000 acres are devoted to grape growing. With a centuries-old heritage of grape cultivation and wine production dating back to the Spanish mission era, the AVAs that comprise the Central Coast offer diverse geography and climates for wines as distinct as a crisp vermentino and a jammy pinot noir.
Our favorites are the counties of Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo. Get to know more about these wine regions, and perhaps you’ll be tempted to bring a bottle of lesser-known California to your table.
Santa Barbara County
First vines planted: 1782
Predominant varietal: Pinot noir
Bottle to uncork: Alma Rosa Winery 2013 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
Munch to match: Roast Duck
Big wine event: Celebration of Harvest Weekend
Non-potable claim to fame: The 2004 film Sideways
“When people think of California’s coast, they think it all runs north-south,” says Richard Sanford, founder of Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. “But Santa Barbara is different. The coast runs east-west. The geography, soil, and the Mediterranean climate make for a unique place that is similar to a south-facing coastline in France and Italy.”
Sanford knows just how special Santa Barbara is. After earning a degree in geography at UC Berkeley and a tour in Vietnam during the war, he moved to the area to plant vines and develop the county’s viticulture. It’s been his life’s work.
Split into five AVAs — Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, and Sta. Rita Hills — the county is probably most famous as the setting of Sideways, the 2004 wine-fueled comedy starring Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti. In the movie, Giamatti’s character, Miles, sings the praises of Santa Barbara pinot noirs. “It’s a hard grape to grow. ... [I]t’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. ... No, pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked-away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. ... Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle ... .”
A taste of that passion can be found in the beautiful blueberry and black cherry flavors of Sanford’s recommendation for Santa Barbara wine: a bottle of Alma Rosa’s 2013 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir.
San Luis Obispo County
First vines planted: 1772 (SLO Wine Country), 1790s (Paso Robles)
Predominant Varietals: Pinot noir (SLO) and Syrah (Paso Robles)
Bottle to uncork: Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Tablas
Munch to match: Braised short ribs
Big wine event: Vintage Paso: Zinfandel and Other Wild Wines
Non-potable claim to fame: Hearst Castle, built by newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst in 1919
San Luis Obispo is really two wine regions in one: the warm upper section, Paso Robles, and the cooler south, SLO Wine Country. The dichotomy is evident in everything that is San Luis Obispo. Paso, with approximately 200 wineries, has more of a cow town feel. San Luis and the SLO Wine Country, often called “The Happiest Place on Earth,” is an easygoing college town spot nearer the coast, with 30 wineries and an average high temperature of 70 degrees.
“There is a lot of diversity in San Luis Obispo County,” says Ali Rush Carscaden, sommelier and owner of 15 Degrees C Wine Shop & Bar in Templeton. “You have ranches, ocean, hiking, and surfing. There are locally made foods. All of it is centered on the wine industry.” That diversity, she says, extends to the wine-growing areas: “[E]verything is close and very different in a very short distance. You can drink some incredible chardonnays and pinot noirs in San Luis. Thirty minutes later you can be up in Paso Robles enjoying 80-degree weather and nice big Rhône varietals.”
For those looking for a glass of SLO, Carscaden recommends the Tangent Albariño, a dry, crisp white wine with tropical fruit notes. “It’s exciting to find such a cool northern Spanish varietal on the Central Coast,” she says. For Paso in a bottle, there’s the Tablas Creek Vineyard 2012 Esprit de Tablas. Carscaden calls it the royalty of Rhône varietals on the Central Coast, sans the stuffiness. As she puts it, “San Luis County is less serious.”
First vines planted: Late 1700s
Predominant varietals: Chardonnay and pinot noir
Bottle to uncork: 2008 Caraccioli brut rosé
Munch to match: Halibut with a serrano-mango salsa
Big wine event: Pebble Beach Food & Wine
Non-potable claims to fame: Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel; seasonal whale watching of blue, humpback, and orca migrations.
Monterey may be more notable as the home of the Pebble Beach Golf Links or as the home of The Man With No Name, but the buzz should also be about its wine production. About 55 percent of the wine grapes produced in the county’s nine AVAs are bought up by out-of-county operations.
Although there’s a quiet demand for Monterey wines, there’s still an untapped potential, says Ian Brand, owner and winemaker of I. Brand & Family Winery in Salinas. Brand has spent countless hours traveling the county’s back roads, getting to know the area and its wine culture. From the Santa Lucia Highlands (widely regarded as Monterey’s premier AVA) to the San Antonio Valley AVA (where smaller vineyard holdings are working on finding their way), he sees promise: “I think as the American market and American palate develop, more operations will be targeting that bright minerality that Monterey does better than anybody else on the coast.”
The defining characteristics of Monterey wine are great billowing aromatics, the tight acidity befitting a cold-climate region, minerality (especially outside the Santa Lucia Highlands region), and a light salinity that amplifies the other characteristics. The distinct minerality is unique in California — and less costly, too. Quality coastal wines, Brand points out, can be made in Monterey at prices other coastal regions can’t touch.
He recommends the 2008 Caraccioli Brut Rosé sparkling wine as a prime exemplar of Monterey’s wine. “It’s a rosé pinot noir made in the traditional Champagne style,” Brand says. It has strawberry, cranberry, and apple notes, and is silky-smooth overall. “The grapes used hail from Santa Lucia Highlands, but they are expressed in a totally different manner than the still wines common in the region. The result is one of the best, most sophisticated sparkling wines in the United States.”
From the July 2015 issue.