San Luis Obispo

Easygoing charm along the Central Coast
Tim Fish

California’s Central Coast found the spotlight thanks to the hit movie Sideways. But while visitors are flocking to its Santa Barbara locations, don’t overlook the laid-back charm of nearby San Luis Obispo County, less than 50 miles to the north. It’s home to two wine regions, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande, scenic coastal communities such as Pismo Beach and Morro Bay, and the lively college enclave of San Luis Obispo, where California Polytechnic State University is located.

“It’s a sweet area,” says John Alban of Alban winery in Edna Valley, one of the state’s top producers of Rhône-style wines. “It’s small, and everything is accessible.”

Indeed, a 20-minute drive will get you from any vineyard, beach or restaurant to another. The wine roads of Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande are sparsely populated, so visiting the area is more like a drive through the country than a trek along a tourist route. If you feel like venturing farther, the decadent showplace of Hearst Castle is about an hour’s drive from San Luis Obispo and well worth the effort.

The landscape of the region—located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco—is distinctive for its undulating hills spiked by nine morros, or ancient volcanoes, that locals call the “Nine Sisters.” The oceanfront towns of Pismo Beach and Morro Bay offer temperate weather with plenty of sunshine. Morro Bay, with its towering rock guarding the harbor, is smaller than Pismo Beach and more off the beaten path.

In the early 1900s, as America was just starting to hit the road, Pismo Beach became one of Cailfornia’s most popular weekend getaways thanks to easy access provided by Highway 101. As you drive along Highway 101, the long, sandy beach rolls out for miles. The water is cooler here than in Southern California, but there are some decent surfing conditions.

With a population of just more than 44,000, San Luis Obispo is the largest city in the region and home to California Polytechnic State University. Like many old college towns, it offers historic buildings like the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, shady trees and an eclectic assemblage of shops, from funky record outlets and bookstores to upscale clothing stores and antiques shops. By small-town standards, the nightlife is thriving.

Giuseppe’s Cucina Italiana in Pismo Beach may be the area’s best restaurant for wine lovers, with a wine list including selections from Italy that match the hearty cuisine. Just down the street is the Cracked Crab. (Think Cape Cod seafood shack with a California attitude.) There’s a bare-bones wine list, but the seafood is fresh and unfussy in its preparation. In Morro Bay, Windows on the Water, with its solid menu and wine list, is the best choice.

The San Luis Obispo area is home to numerous wine-savvy restaurants: Koberl at Blue, Marisol at the Cliffs, Buona Tavola, and Palazzo Giuseppe. All hold Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence.

Blue’s wine list includes about 230 labels, with an emphasis on regional favorites and California in general. The restaurant even has wine lockers so that regulars can store their own wine to have with dinner whenever they visit. A tony, red-brick storefront built in 1894, Koberl at Blue is also downtown’s most popular upscale lounge, but the bar atmosphere occasionally hampers the dining experience.

Bed-and-breakfasts abound, and there seem to be hotels and motels on every corner. The best high-end lodgings are on the water. Most notable are the Inn at Morro Bay and the Cliffs Resort. The former is appealing for its quiet, serene location, while the latter, close to the annual World of Pinot Noir festival in Shell Beach held every March, offers a touch more luxury.

Winemaking in the region dates to the 1880s and the Franciscan padres at Mission San Luis Obispo. The modern wine era began in the early 1970s with families like the the Nivens of Edna Valley Vineyard and the Talleys of Talley Winery. More than 30 wineries are open to the public in Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. (Alban is not open to visitors.) Many of the smaller wineries sell their wines locally or out of their tasting rooms, so you may make a discovery.

Arroyo Grande is almost twice the size of Edna Valley. Both regions are relatively narrow, but their valley floors have strikingly different soils. Edna Valley is largely made up of volcanic clay and loam, while Arroyo Grande is rockier. In recent years, a growing number of vintners have moved into the hills, where the grapes take on more intensity from the thinner soils and receive better sun exposure.

The nearby Pacific makes both regions cooler and breezier than either Paso Robles to the north or Santa Barbara to the south. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have traditionally thrived in this climate, but the focus is shifting somewhat as vintners and growers continue to experiment.

Domaine Alfred, Laetitia and Talley have brought a new level of power and intensity to the region’s Pinots, and Alban has shown that Rhône varieties such as Syrah, Grenache and Viognier can excel in the area. Alban’s wines are some of Central California’s most exciting.

“There is a group of people here who are raising the bar quality wise,” Talley winery president Brian Talley says. “This area is really poised to go to the next level.”

The new wines coming out of the region prove his point. As older wineries play catch-up, new producers are increasingly arriving, Alban says, lured by the potential—and the creative blank slate—offered by southern San Luis Obispo County.

Visitors to the region may feel that they too are getting in on the ground floor. San Luis Obispo hasn’t had its Sideways moment yet, and for those who prefer the back roads, that’s a blessing.

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