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A Convertible and a Corkscrew

A wine tour of California's Central Coast

Daniel Sogg
Posted: July 21, 2003

Byington Winery makes a great stop for its very good Chardonnay and Cabernet.
The Trip:
Day 1: Santa Barbara
Day 2: Paso Robles
Day 3: Carmel/Monterey
Day 4: Santa Cruz
Where to Eat/Drink/Stay:
Santa Barbara
Paso Robles
Big Sur/Carmel
Santa Cruz
Related Links:
Find more destinations in our Travel section

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You can drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco up Highway 101 in eight hours. But why hurry? The scenic routes wind through spectacular terrain and past some of California's most promising wineries.

The Central Coast takes in four principal wine regions; from south to north, they are Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Monterey and Santa Cruz. Photographer Kent Hanson and I took four days to make the trip, which allowed ample time to kick the dirt in some vineyards, do a fair share of tasting and try out some enticing restaurants, which seem always to flourish in wine country.

Of course, you may have less time, or more; you may choose to visit different wineries, or splurge on more luxurious lodgings. Check out the listings that follow this story for more ideas. Then buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Day 1: Santa Barbara

From LAX airport it takes about an hour and 40 minutes to reach the city of Santa Barbara and the Wine Cask, a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant with a 65-page wine list and more than 40 by-the-glass selections. Try one of its jazzy riffs on bistro fare, such as the open-faced oxtail sandwich served with horseradish mustard.

Put the top down for the 40-minute trip on Highway 154 from Santa Barbara to the Santa Ynez Valley. This splendid route winds past the dense oak groves of the Santa Ynez Mountains, with expansive views across the valley.

Patches, an amiable Australian shepherd, greets us as we pull into the gravel courtyard of Brander Vineyard, situated on the valley floor a few hundred yards to the east of Highway 154. Patches has one blue eye and one brown eye and befriends anyone who scratches her.

The dog's uncoiffed charm suits the property, which on a chilly afternoon in late February feels like a windy outpost on the edge of the wine world. "You've got to have a purpose to come here," agrees tasting room manager Nancy Clontz.

Owner Fred Brander consistently makes some of California's finest Sauvignon Blanc, wines loaded with intensity and bracing acidity that (unlike most domestic Sauvignons) reward a few years in bottle.

A couple minutes north of Brander is Los Olivos. This small town (population 1,000) might have the nation's largest per capita concentration of winery tasting rooms (at least six by my count). In the center of town is the Los Olivos Cafe and Wine Merchant, a combination retail shop, restaurant and tasting room with a selection of more than 300 wines, mostly from Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. If your muscles are stiff after the flight and drive, consider stopping for a massage at Fess Parker's cozy Spa Vigne.

The Hitching Post II restaurant is about 15 minutes southwest, in Buellton. Mouthwatering aromas of meat seared over red oak welcome diners to this steak house, which has been a favorite of locals and tourists for 17 years. The wine list features an excellent selection of area producers.

Spend the night at the Santa Ynez Inn, located about 10 minutes from Buellton. This turreted, 14-room property evokes a 19th century Victorian mansion, with plenty of space and high ceilings. Most rooms have patios overlooking the garden. A delicious breakfast buffet will fuel you for the second day's drive.

Day 2: Paso Robles

Today's destination, Paso Robles, is two hours' drive north, up 101. Once best known for its outlaw element (the town was founded by Jesse James' uncle Drury), Paso Robles now ranks as one of the most dynamic wine regions in California.

Bistro Laurent, on the town square, features a broad assortment of local wines. Frenchman Laurent Grangien offers lunch and dinner menus heavily weighted with bistro classics. The wine list has about 140 choices, most of them local bottlings, Bordeaux and Rhône Valley wines.

After lunch, the French theme continues at L'Aventure Winery, one of the rising stars of the region. The property is hidden at the end of a rugged road about 15 minutes' drive from the town square (passing the cattle guards on Live Oak Road means you're on the right track).

Owner Stephan Asseo started the estate in 1998, after 15 years of winemaking in Bordeaux. He has a strong accent, and the stained hands and seemingly perpetual sunburn of a working vintner. The winery is a not-so-glorified warehouse. But Asseo doesn't cut corners in the winemaking, and the wines are consistently ripe, rich and concentrated.

For a look at another face of winemaking in Paso Robles, head to Justin Winery, on the northwestern edge of the appellation. From L'Aventure it's a 40-minute drive through some of California's prettiest wine country, on roads twisting between vine-covered hills and majestic old oaks trailing moss beards.

Pulling into Justin, I see an armada of silver Rolls-Royces filling the parking area. Owners Justin and Deborah Baldwin have the one estate in the region where a $230,000 car seems at home. The spacious, well-appointed tasting room is anything but rustic; two flat-screen computers allow visitors to check e-mail or surf the Web.

The Justin Cabernet blends often rank with the state's best. But even if the wines didn't justify the trip, the setting would. The patio and picnic tables overlook rolling Cabernet vineyards and hills dotted with stately oaks.

A stellar tasting gets me salivating, so I wander over to the cooler and find a small but killer selection of cheeses for sale. "Our manager worked at a cheese shop," explains one of the tasting room staff. Among the selections is Epoisses, a wonderful import from Burgundy. One is just about ready to start oozing back to France, but another is firmer, and we buy it for later.

Back in the car, it turns out the cheese is a bit riper than I thought. So we put the top down for the 25-minute drive back to the Paso Robles square and Villa Creek restaurant. On any given night, it's a safe bet that you'll find a handful of prominent winemakers here. An excellent international wine list with great prices lures them, as does a modestly priced menu with a strong Southwestern accent.

I asked owner Cris Cherry why the wine prices were so low. "People who know wine know how to buy it," he replied. "And if something that [retails for] $25 is listed at $60, it pisses people off." Many of the 200 selections are offered at close to retail price, such as the superb Saxum Syrah Bone Rock '00 for $65.

From Villa Creek, it's about a five-minute cruise to the Summerwood Inn (already passed coming and going from L'Aventure). A constant twitter of birds envelops this white-gabled structure nestled among 26 acres of Cabernet vines. The common spaces and nine rooms are elegant, with decor reminiscent of Colonial Virginia. All rooms have vineyard views.

Day 3: Carmel/Monterey

This morning, we head west on Route 46, which winds through grassy, rolling hills. Cattle loll by boulders, warming in the morning sun. A few farmhouses dot the land, along with ramshackle barns with rusting metal roofs.

The highway hits the coastal road, Route 1, just south of Cambria, a funky little town full of artsy shops. You can spy Hearst Castle on a bluff 10 miles to the north at San Simeon. From here, it's about 90 miles north to the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

But don't rush, because the drive through Big Sur is one of the most spectacular in North America. Flanked to the east by the Santa Lucia Range, the road weaves high above the rocky Pacific coast.

To enjoy the vistas at leisure, stop for lunch at Nepenthe, 28 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. As we pull into the parking lot, Kent practically vaults from the car, pleading the need to get a picture. I suspect he really wants to escape the Epoisses, which announces itself any time we slow to less than 40 mph.

Perched 800 feet above the ocean, on land once owned by Orson Welles, the restaurant's major draw is the view. But the wine list also deserves a serious look. It includes more than 60 half-bottles (a wise idea for those of us who aren't fortunate enough to live on the property).

From Nepenthe, it's a 35-minute ride north on Highway 1 to Carmel Village Drive, which leads 11 miles east to Carmel Valley Village. With seven tasting rooms, this town offers the definitive crash course on local producers. Late Saturday afternoon, the Bernardus tasting room looks like an American Idol casting call, thronged with chatty 20-somethings. A few hundred yards away, a quieter clientele gathers in the tasting room of Chardonnay specialist Talbott Vineyards.

It's 15 minutes' drive back to the coast and Carmel-by-the-Sea, possibly the dog-friendliest spot in the civilized world. One favored destination for canine lovers is the inviting Cypress Inn, a charming 33-room Spanish Mission-style hotel partly owned by Doris Day. The rooms are spacious and comfortable, with understated touches such as early 19th century botanical prints by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Bedecking the bar are promotional posters from old Day movies such as Pillow Talk, which co-starred Rock Hudson. ("It's what goes on when the lights go off.")

Bouchée is just a few blocks away, but this superb restaurant would justify a lengthy commute. Executive chef Walter Manzke achieves remarkably vivid flavors in his continental-inspired dishes, and the ambience melds understated refinement with unpretentious charm.

A four-course tasting menu is a bargain at $44. Enticing wine prices complete the experience. Attached to Bouchée is a small wine shop, and the selections on the 450-bottle list carry a nominal markup above retail (wines that sell in the store for more than $50, for example, cost $15 more in the restaurant).

Day 4: Santa Cruz

Katy's Place, on Mission Street in Carmel-by-the-Sea, is a fine choice for a breakfast of huevos rancheros or eggs Benedict. Afterward, enjoy a stroll around this picturesque little town, which could have been designed by Hansel and Gretel. It's a pleasant 10-minute walk to the windy, latte-colored beach. The waves attract a crowd in wet suits, but otherwise only kids and frolicking dogs are willing to brave the chilly surf.

After buying some ham and bread at the Fifth Avenue Deli, we head north on Highway 1, sliding past the duned beaches of Monterey and the vast farms surrounding Castroville, the self-proclaimed "artichoke capital of the world." Then we take Highway 17 north and ascend into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In this cool area, varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most consistent bet. But local tasting rooms also pour wines made with grapes from other regions. And the scenery is some of California wine country's most dramatic.

All told, it's about 90 minutes' drive from Carmel-by-the-Sea to Byington Winery, one of the prime picnic spots in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Two thousand feet above the San Lorenzo Valley, just off Bear Creek Road, this property provides a stunning view of ridges covered with redwood, manzanita and oak. Visible in the distance is the Monterey Peninsula, couched in clouds and fog drifting off the Pacific.

"When people ask, I tell them the road here is straight with a few curves," says Luis Runeare, director of sales and hospitality at Byington.

Charitably speaking, "a few curves" is a gross understatement, so I ask Runeare if people arrive irritated. "Well, they're always happy once they get here," he says.

Settling down at a picnic table, Kent and I are ready to unleash the Epoisses, now the olfactory equivalent of a runaway train. Just as we dig in, two couples sit (downwind) at the adjacent table. They politely accept our invitation to try the cheese, but decline a second helping.

From the winery, it's 2 miles to Skyline Boulevard, which cuts through the mountains for about 35 miles. The first section of the switchback can be treacherous -- it's two-lane in name only, with curves so acute a scooter could keep pace. Gnarled old oaks, clinging precariously to the rock-riddled hillside, hover almost horizontally over the road.

straightens and widens. Late afternoon fog whipping east off the ocean can obscure visibility at this 2,000-foot elevation, while the towns of Silicon Valley bask in sunshine. At the end of Skyline, it's an easy 40 minutes along the highway into San Francisco.

For information on where to eat, drink and stay along the Central Coast, see page 2.

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