There's nothing quite like being there at the inception. That's the thrill and opportunity of visiting California's Central Coast, where vintners are really tapping their vineyards' potential.
It's a spectacular region, encompassing some of the state's—indeed, some of the country's—most impressive terrain, where past and present stand shoulder to shoulder. The past endures in the rusticity that still characterizes much of the area: the dense forests of old oaks, cattle lolling on hills, vast stretches of row crops blurring into the distance. The present, well, that's the vineyards, and the producers defining their appellations.
Visitors ought to pack a sense of adventure. It's a huge swath of land, stretching from Santa Barbara to Monterey, more or less the middle third of coastal California. But for all the region's immensity, many of the finest wine producers are grouped in small areas, amenable to exploration by the enterprising wine lover.
The viticultural areas highlighted in this story—Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and the Santa Lucia Highlands—shouldn't be confused with Napa or Sonoma. (For Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley, see our San Luis Obispo tour.) That's not to say that you'll be roughing it in the Central Coast—just that planning ahead is important. Some of the best producers don't have tasting rooms, but will often receive guests by appointment.
Of all the regions, Santa Barbara County has the richest array of dining and lodging, with most of the restaurants and accommodations located near the city. It's an affluent area—Southern California's Riviera, if you will—with expansive beaches, Spanish Mission architecture and beautiful resorts. There are also outstanding restaurants, including Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winners, Miró, at Bacara Resort, and Stonehouse, at San Ysidro Ranch.
The San Ysidro Ranch offers views of mountains and the ocean in Santa Barbara.
The city sits just over the mountains from the county's two up-and-coming wine regions: Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The drive from downtown Santa Barbara to wine country is memorable, twisting through the Los Padres National Forest and cutting through and over the mountains by way of the San Marcos Pass. Views along this route are entrancing: The Channel Islands and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean are on the left and the Santa Ynez Valley stretches ahead.
Wineries in Santa Rita Hills are near the towns of Buellton and Lompoc. Not all the wineries in the appellation have tasting rooms but those that do are worth checking out: Foley, Melville, Babcock, Sanford, Lafond, Alma Rosa, Dierberg/Star Lane and Huber Cellars.
The wineries of the Santa Maria Valley are located about 30 miles northwest of Buellton, past rolling hills peppered with oak groves. In Santa Maria, the vista expands onto an enormous valley carpeted with tens of thousands of acres of row crops. The scattered vineyards clinging to the hillsides that frame the valley represent a mere drop in this agricultural bucket.
To get a feel for area vineyards (mostly located east and south of the valley) take Foxen Canyon Road. It winds past wineries such as Byron and Fess Parker, ending in the town of Los Olivos, population 1,000, according to the sign. Once a stop on the stagecoach line, Los Olivos is now a favorite wine trail destination, with 23 tasting rooms and three retail stores.
Another 30 miles north along Highway 101 are the twin wine regions of Arroyo Grande and the Edna Valley, on the southern edge of San Luis Obispo. They are some of California's most bucolic viticultural areas, with little more than wineries, homes and unspoiled country. Some driveways have cattle guards, and row crops such as bell peppers and cabbage rival vines in acreage.
Paso Robles is home to the 2010 Wine of the Year, from Saxum Vineyards.
Situated about halfway between the Santa Barbara area and Paso Robles, Edna Valley is ideal for midday exploration. Visitors spending more time in the area should explore San Luis Obispo, a friendly college town with unexpected sophistication. (For wineries, restaurants and hotels in these appellations, check out our San Luis Obispo tour.)
Paso Robles lies another 30 miles up 101. Though it remains, in many ways, an unassuming western cow town, there's a lively restaurant scene and a burgeoning wine industry. For all its 614,000 acres, Paso Robles is an easy region to navigate: The older producers are mostly located east of the highway on flat terrain. Many wines come from vineyards in the oak-covered western hills, rugged country accessible by scenic, twisting roads occupied by as many deer, it seems, as cars.
These roads take time to negotiate, but it's a worthwhile investment for the pleasure of the drive and the chance to visit producers such as Adelaida, Justin, L'Aventure and Tablas Creek. Justin, the most westerly winery in the appellation, also operates a small inn with some of the region's most luxurious accommodations.
Paraiso makes Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands, an area known for the grape.
Monterey's most promising wines are coming from the Santa Lucia Highlands, about 75 miles north of Paso Robles. But for the best lodgings and dining, you'll want to drive another 40 miles to the Carmel area: either Carmel-by-the-Sea, a quaint, beachfront town loaded with art galleries and high-end shops, or Carmel Valley, nestled in idyllic country framed by the Santa Lucia Mountains.
The Santa Lucia Highlands appellation runs more or less north-south for 15 miles, and is perhaps a mile wide at its broadest point. On the trip south from the Carmel area, via Highway 101, you'll pass through the vast Salinas Valley, immortalized by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. The Sierra de Salinas and Santa Lucia Mountains rise in the west, with the vineyards planted in the foothills. To the east, visible in the distant mountains across the valley is the Chalone AVA.
There are about 5,900 acres planted to grapes in the Santa Lucia Highlands and almost half of that is Pinot Noir. Interspersed among the Highlands vineyards are other crops, including prickly pears and lemons. There's little sign of people. A handful of producers have tasting rooms in the appellation, including Paraiso and Hahn Estates/Smith & Hook.
But that's the joy of the Central Coast wine frontiers. For anyone wanting to be there at the birth, now's the time to walk these vineyards and kick the dirt.