Focus on California's Central Coast

With new Central Coast producers emerging every year with high-quality wines, especially in the southern half of the region stretching from Santa Barbara County northward to Paso Robles, this part of California is a growing source of full-flavored and user-friendly wines, most of the best of them red. While I still taste many bottles whose creators are obviously alumnae of the "too much ain't enough" school, the best-balanced of the big Rhône blends from Paso Robles, for example, offer the voluptuous texture and uncanny depth of fruit that are making new friends on both coasts. I compare some of these wines to high-end shiraz bottlings from Australia, except that the better American versions have more fruit and are less manipulated.

At the same time, however, I am astounded to see rave reviews for wines that are clearly flawed (oxidative, volatile, cooked), out of balance (hugely alcoholic, crushed by unsubtle new oak, dangerously low in acidity) or just plain over the top. (Of course, it goes without saying that my top may be lower than your top.) Ninety-plus scores for wines that are out of whack has a way of cheapening the fine work being done by Southern California's best growers and winemakers (names like Tablas Creek Vineyard, Alban Vineyards, Saxum Vineyards and Sine Qua Non come to mind here).

In my tastings of Central Coast wines in recent months, I enjoyed creamy, lush, fine-grained wines with no rough edges or jarring elements, but I also experienced far too many undeniably dense but gritty and unrefined wines, often dominated by chocolatey torrefaction notes or raisined fruit and marred by rough tannins. Many of these latter wines come from less sophisticated or simply less experienced winemakers. Some of these characters will never break through to the next stage of a winemaker's evolution, but others will become tomorrow's stars.