Exploring California’s Central Coast

by Antonio Galloni

I tasted an amazing range of wines during my trip to California’s Central Coast earlier this summer. The Central Coast is the broad name given to a number of AVAs starting roughly north of Los Angeles and finishing just south of San Francisco. In reality these vastly diverse microclimates deserve to be acknowledged on their own rather than being lumped into one generic category (more on that below). From south to north, Central Coast starts with Santa Barbara County, home to cool weather AVAs such as Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, where Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah flourish, and the Santa Ynez Valley, a broad area, itself composed of several distinct regions. Further north Paso Robles is the epicenter of the Rhône Rangers movement, and increasingly home to an even wider range of exciting wines. Santa Lucia Highlands, an hour to the north, is another cool-climate site best known for Pinot, but also capable of interesting Chardonnay and Syrah. The Santa Cruz Mountains is not technically considered part of the Central Coast, but from a practical and logistical view of visiting wineries and organizing tastings, it makes most sense for the wines to be included in this report. In cases where estates make wines from more than one appellation (which is quite common) I have listed them according to the region where they are based, with the full understanding that no attempt at regional classification can be perfect.

The quality of the best wines in the Central Coast is truly stellar. I tasted over 1,100 finished wines for this article of which 63% scored 85 points or above. The Central Coast offers readers an incredible selection of wines made from Burgundy, Rhône and, to a lesser extent, Bordeaux varieties, in an equally diverse range of styles. The breadth is truly remarkable. Even better, readers will find a number of wines that deliver incredible value, something that is always welcome at a time when imported wines have become more difficult to afford because of the weak US dollar.

All that is not to say the Central Coast doesn’t have its challenges, as it most certainly does. The most obvious is the extent to which so many wineries depend on purchased fruit. Even under the best of circumstances wineries might be able to give some direction to growers who actually farm the fruit, but they aren’t doing the work themselves. While that in and of itself is not an insurmountable challenge, properly supervising vineyards in a number of sites is a big job made all the more daunting when those vineyards are far away from the wineries themselves. In vintages that proceed uneventfully – a rarity these days – relying on someone else to work the vineyards might not be a big deal, but when a decision needs to be made quickly, there is little question that having direct access and control of vineyards sites is highly preferable.

Then there is an issue of logistics. If a vintner has to drive more than one hour each way to visit a site and sources from several sites, the reality is that she won’t be visiting each vineyard with any frequency. The culture of buying fruit is of course quite prevalent in the wine world. In Burgundy the large-scale négociants have been complemented by micro-négociants who focus on much smaller lots in sizes similar to those found in artisan wineries in the Central Coast, so it can be done, but in general, throughout the wine world the trend for most elite wineries is to focus on estate fruit.

The ease with which winemakers can buy fruit leads to a secondary challenge, making many single-vineyard wines that are of consistently high quality. There is little question some winemakers covered in this article have succumbed to the temptation of producing a large number of single-vineyard bottlings. These winemakers excel with some, but not all, of their single-vineyard wines, perhaps because they are stretched too thin.

Most of the Central Coast’s top winemakers are highly in demand. It is not at all unusual for a winemaker to work for several wineries as a consultant, plus run his own winery. It is only natural to wonder how some of these very talented and passionate young professionals can focus on so many demanding projects at the same time. Take it from someone who juggled two highly demanding jobs for years. The question is; Where are the best, most productive, most lucid hours of the day being spent?

It is quite clear that quality from top to bottom is inconsistent, but I am frankly less troubled by that in an emerging region than I might be in a more established part of the world. Moving up the ladder is just part of the natural evolution for young producers and regions. Simply put, the overall Central Coast culture is much more focused on putting quality juice in the bottle at a fair price than many other regions of the world.

Even with these critiques it is quite clear the Central Coast is a very special place. The level of energy and enthusiasm are both quite palpable. The Central Coast attracts mostly down to earth people truly focused on making great wine and less interested in the luxury trappings that come with owning vineyards in other parts of the world. There is relatively little corporate winemaking. The camaraderie among producers is something I rarely see elsewhere around the world. Lastly, the level of ambition and the overall work ethic at the top properties is very high. Since these are relatively new viticultural areas with little history, producers are hell-bent on proving they can make great wines. I wouldn’t bet against them. From what I have tasted so far, the best is yet to come.

All of the wines in this article were tasted in June 2011. I have divided this article into four sections; Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Cruz Mountains. Readers should expect coverage to take an increasing regional focus over the coming issues and years.

An Overview of Recent Vintages

Getting a handle on vintages in the Central Coast is not particularly easy. As explained above, the Central Coast itself is really an agglomeration of various regions, each with its own unique characteristics. Significant differences exist even within the four sub-regions I have outlined in this article because many of the AVAs are actually quite large and far from heterogeneous. All of this is great for diversity, but not so practical for making general statements. As a rule of thumb however, the main characteristics of the 2008s are: low yields (spring frost was an issue in many places) followed by a variable summer and a late harvest. The wines tend to be well-delineated and tightly wound. It was not an easy year, so quality is inconsistent, yet the top producers found ways to make truly beautiful wines. The 2009s are generally riper, flashier and more seductive, with bright aromatics and open, accessible personalities. The key to the vintage is how producers worked through the big October rainstorm. Today 2009 looks like a vintage of highly attractive, medium-bodied wines best suited to near and mid-term drinking. Readers will find more detailed information within the specific producer profiles. Unfortunately I did not taste too many wines from the 2010 vintage, a year with a freakishly cold summer followed by intense heat spikes. The wines I did taste, including Ridge Monte Bello, several barrel samples at Saxum and a handful of Siduri Pinot Noirs, were off the charts.

Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County is home to four AVAs – Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon – all of which lie just north of Santa Barbara itself. The valleys run from west to east with generally warmer temperatures as one moves east because the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean diminishes. Santa Maria Valley is the most northerly of the Santa Barbara AVAs. A number of well-known vineyards are located in Santa Maria, the most famous being Bien Nacido, which supplies many winemakers with high-quality fruit. Santa Maria is best suited to cold weather varieties. Along with Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley is another of the historic Central Coast AVAs. Since it was first delimited two additional AVAs have been created within its borders, showing that the Santa Ynez Valley designation is too broad to really be of much use. Santa Ynez is also a fascinating cultural melting pot that captures the essence of the United States in a rich tapestry of Latino, American Indian and northern European influences. The Sta. Rita Hills sit within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, on its western border, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is an appellation that has proven to be especially well-suited to Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay. Moving east, the presence of Bordeaux varieties increases as the micro-climates become warmer and more suitable for those grapes. Happy Canyon lies on the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA and is the warmest of the Santa Barbara County AVAs. There are several new proposed AVAs, including Ballard Canyon, one of the prettiest areas of the Central Coast and also home to Jonata, Larner, Stolpman and a number of other high quality properties.

Paso Robles and the Rhone Rangers

Paso Robles boasts one of the most dynamic scenes in the world today. Paso’s inextricable link to the Rhône Valley and the Rhône Rangers movement pioneered by John Alban, Manfred Krankl, Tablas Creek and others is significant in many ways. Most importantly, is the recognition that Paso’s microclimates are ideally suited to Rhône varieties, both red and white. Another is a clear link with the Rhône itself, which is steeped in history, some quite old and some more recent. The result of Paso’s connection to the Rhône manifests itself in many ways, the most obvious being an Old World meets New World style prevalent in many of the wines. At Tablas Creek, a partnership between Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas (owner of importer Vineyard Brands), the approach to viticulture and winemaking is quite traditional. The same can be said of the non-interventionalist winemaking practiced at Saxum and a number of other emerging, young wineries. In 2009 a handful of producers began experimenting with concrete to ferment and age their Grenache, including Saxum, Villa Creek, Linne Calodo and Epoch. But the single most exciting aspect of Paso Robles is the number of young, energetic winemakers who are dedicating themselves to making world-class wines. Freed from the many constraints that are common in other winemaking regions, these younger producers are pushing the envelope and taking risks, much more so than is common throughout the rest of the state.

Paso is generally warmer than much of the rest of the Central Coast, but evening temperatures are actually quite cool in some spots. In particular, the Templeton Gap, located on Paso’s west side, is home to a number of cool, hillside vineyards including Saxum, Tablas Creek, Torrin, Booker and others. I would not be surprised to see Paso divided into more than one AVA in the future as the differences between its microclimates become better understood. As a final note, I have included all of the other Rhône Ranger wines I tasted from other parts of California in this section, although going forward those wines will be listed within their respective regions.

Santa Lucia Highlands

The Santa Lucia Highlands is a small strip of vineyards somewhat orphaned from the rest of the Central Coast in a region that was once best-known growing lettuce rather than grapes. Virtually all of the top producers are located elsewhere, which means there aren’t a whole lot of wineries to visit in the area. Not surprisingly, there is also no tourist infrastructure to support visitors. That said, the vineyards themselves are striking as they sit on hillside plateaus and ridges with spectacular views.

The Santa Lucia Highlands is a cool growing area that also benefits from relatively stable temperatures throughout the year. It is generally too warm in the spring to worry about frosts, such as those that affected much of the Central Coast in 2008. Summertime temperatures barely enter the 90s, and then only rarely, while nights remain cool. The growing season is also unusually long. Budbreak typically occurs around mid-March, while harvest begins in late September and can stretch out several weeks from there.

The Santa Lucia Highlands first attracted attention in the early 1970s as a source for cheap real estate and inexpensive fruit that large wineries could use to fill out blends from more prestigious appellations. Much of the credit for the explosion of interest in the Santa Lucia Highlands as a source for high-quality fruit belongs to Gary Pisoni, who planted his first vineyard in 1982. Since then Pisoni and his childhood friend and frequent partner Gary Franscioni have developed a number of sites that provide fruit for some of California’s most exciting young winemakers. The level of experimentation taking place with vine densities, clonal selection and simply understanding the qualities of each of these sites – something that can only happen over time – is truly impressive. The Santa Lucia Highlands are most successful with Pinot Noir, but I have also tasted excellent and outstanding Chardonnays and Syrahs. At their best the Pinots are wonderfully perfumed, supple and sexy.

The Santa Cruz Mountains

The Santa Cruz Mountains is arguably the least well-known of California’s top winemaking regions, which is hard to believe, since Ridge and Mount Eden have been considered two of the country’s top estates for decades. A number of other wineries are within easy driving distance of San Francisco, Cupertino and the Silicon Valley. The Santa Cruz Mountains are technically not a part of the Central Coast, nor are they considered part of the North Coast, which may explain why they are often overlooked. Make no mistake about it; these hillsides are home to a number of superb sites for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and to a lesser extent, Bordeaux varieties. I am still not convinced the Santa Cruz Mountains are as favorable to Rhȏne varieties as other parts of the state, but time will ultimately tell.

The Santa Cruz Mountains is a dramatic appellation divided by the San Andreas Fault. The entire AVA is considered a cold micro-climate, but even here there are important aspects of the topography and climate to consider. The eastern side of the appellation is further away from the Pacific and closer to San Francisco Bay. Temperatures are therefore warmer, and it is possible to ripen Bordeaux varieties, the most famous being those grown on Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. The western side of the appellation, closer to the Pacific, is colder and better suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Admittedly, knowing where to place Santa Cruz Mountains in The Wine Advocate’s editorial calendar is a challenge, so readers should expect to see more reviews from the area’s producers throughout the year.