Focus on California's Central Coast

A quick tour of California's South Central Coast in mid-May gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the new generation of talented growers and winemakers in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. By breaking with conventional wisdom and making the wines they would like to drink, rather than those more traditional to their home areas, these adventuresome new players are in the process of transforming the viticultural landscape of Southern California. All evidence suggests that they are succeeding in the marketplace.

At the same time, today's new wines risk becoming too much of a good thing. With the recent string of very warm growing seasons, alcohol levels are increasingly reaching the red zone, and extreme ripeness has routinely been accompanied by dangerously low acidity. The weather has only exacerbated the tendency of many wineries to push ripeness to the max. Even in the cool western reaches of Santa Barbara County, where the fruit only grudgingly gives up its high acidity, too many pinots are losing the sappy freshness that characterizes the best wines from this variety. I continue to taste far too many examples with cooked or oxidative aromas, or with flaccid mouth feel and lack of structure. And a growing number of syrahs from warmer sites are becoming downright Australian in style at a time when most Australian shiraz producers are picking their fruit before it turns to raisins. Interestingly, while I tasted many extremely ripe, high-alcohol wines from hot areas in Paso Robles, these wines often struck me as better-balanced, with ripeness less forced.

Paso Robles in particular is in the midst of a grape-growing boom, led by a handful of young winemakers who are crafting rich and satisfying wines from Rhône Valley varieties. Some of the finest producers—such as Tablas Creek, Saxum, Villa Creek, and Linne Calodo—are making their best wines from blends, complementing their syrahs with high-quality grenache and mourvèdre to give them greater aromatic complexity, mid-palate creaminess, supporting acidity or tannic spine. Their intention can only be to make more complete and more enjoyable wines, because these proprietary blends are actually harder to establish in the marketplace than varietally labeled bottlings, especially syrah. The beautiful wooded hills on the West Side of Paso Robles, hot on their northern fringes but open to cooling ocean breezes through the Templeton Gap to the south, have been gentrified over the past decade, and will be further transformed over the next ten years as new vineyards are planted.

I found myself one weekday night enjoying dinner in Bistro Laurent, on the park in downtown Paso Robles. I couldn't help noticing that not only did virtually every table have a bottle of wine on it, but the focus of conversation was wine! The movie Sideways was obviously a shot in the arm for pinot producers in California, but it has also brought a wave of casual wine tourists to Santa Ynez Valley, and stimulated demand across America for South Central Coast wines in general. The downside is that most producers across this sprawling region have raised their prices to capitalize on strong demand for their wines, and a region that has long been a rich source for wine value risks losing some of its pricing advantage.

Highlights of my recent tastings. It has long been obvious that cooler sites in Santa Barbara County can produce world-class pinot noir and chardonnay. In particular, the bad hair appellation of Santa Rita Hills, where a constant stiff breeze off the Pacific can make the locals tousled and a bit crazed, is clearly a favored area for Burgundy varieties, as is Santa Maria Valley. Further north, in Arroyo Grande Valley, Talley Vineyard has established a reputation for superb pinots and chardonnays while John Alban, barely a mile to the west (i.e., closer to the ocean), over the line into Edna Valley, defied the received wisdom by turning his property into one of this country's greatest sites for red and white Rhône Valley varieties. Meanwhile, Paso Robles, located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and roughly in the middle of nowhere, was best known for burly, high-alcohol zinfandel a decade ago but now shows significant potential for grenache and mourvèdre, in addition to syrah. Syrah, which grows like a weed in diverse soils and microclimates from Santa Barbara County clear up to Walla Walla, WA, produces very good wine in a range of styles throughout much of the South Central Coast. And then there's Manfred Krankl, whose Sine Qua Non wines are unlike any others in this solar system.

My coverage of the Central Coast is presented in two sections. First are brief profiles on the wineries I visited in the South Central Coast (i.e., from Paso Robles south) in May, with tasting notes on their current and upcoming releases. Following these profiles are many more tasting notes on recommended wines I've tasted in recent weeks from all over the Central Coast.