Vol. 3 No. 9 – a few of TB’s favorite Central Coast wineries

Here is an interesting problem. Friends are going to visit the Central Coast as I said in the last blog. They are flying in to different airports (LAX, San Jose, San Luis Obispo) and meeting in Paso Robles. Here are the distances and driving times (normal) between various cities and Paso Robles, the geographical center of the Central Coast:

From the north: Paso Robles from SFO 194 miles 3-1/4 hrs; from San Jose 160 mi, 2-1/2 hrs; from Santa Cruz 137 mi, 2-1/4 hrs – note these times are VERY variable!

From the south: Paso Robles from LAX 210 mi, 4 hrs (not in peak traffic!!!); from Ojai 158 mi, 2-3/4 hrs; from Santa Barbara 126 mi, 2 hrs; Los Olivos 91 mi, 1-1/2 hrs; Los Alamos 80 mi, 1-1/4 hrs; Santa Maria 64 mi, 1 hr.

Using this guide you can figure the distance between any two points along the route, to aid in calculating time to various wineries. Hope you find it helpful.

Santa Barbara is really the southern end of the Central Coast (unless you count Malibu Winery, and Moraga Winery, which TB doesn’t). It is really here for people who want to see more than the most visited towns.  The term here refers to Santa Barbara County which extends all the way to San Luis Obispo. Ojai Vineyard, Adam Tolmach is the most significant in the Southern region. Adam apprenticed under Ken Brown at Zaca Mesa, the first winery in Santa Barbara County (still alive and well in Ojai) along with Bob Lindquist, Jim Clendenon, and Lane Tanner among others. All of them are among the most influential winemakers in California. After leaving ZM, Adam and Jim were partners briefly before going their separate ways. Note that Zaca Mesa is still making incredibly good wines…but pricier these days.

Lindquist started Qupé winery, a Chumash indian word meaning ‘poppy’ and is a Rhone Ranger (more on this in Paso section), and teamed up with burgundian style winemaker, Jim Clendenon with a joint winery Au Bon Climat (or simply ABC). Jim is first and foremost interested in making wines of the quality found in Burgundy. While Bob started Qupé which he sold in 2013, but Bob continues as winemaker as well a producing Lindquist Family Cellars, Sawyer Lindquist wines, and some beautiful Spanish style wines under the Verdad Label (verdad means truth). His wines are all certified biodynamic.

The websites tell where their tasting rooms are, Jim’s in Santa Barbara, Bob’s in Santa Maria, but if you are going to be there on Saturday, October 14th the winery will be open from 11am to 3pm and you can taste all of their wines. At $20 it is a steal. Why? Because unless you are in the trade the winery is not open to the public at any other time during the year.

Earlier I mentioned Lane Tanner, who once made great pinots under her name, but the movie Sideways drove the price of pinot noir grapes to the moon, Alice…the moon, and on her smaller scale she could not compete. Have no fear, Lane has returned, teaming up with Will Henry of the Henry Wine Group which was sold last year and has turned “garagiste” but still making her acclaimed Pinot’s in Santa Maria, and other fine wines under the Lumen label. You can taste her wines in nearby Los Alamos at Pico, a wine bar serving tapas  (small plates) and featuring wine pairings dinners. Highly recommended!

Other wineries in the area are CambriaBaileyana  where winemaker Christian Roguenant came to after being brought over from France for the Deutz winery specializing in sparkling wines a and now called Laetitia, Alban (although it is unlikely you can visit them but they make superb Rhone style wines), Rancho Sisquoc, which is a fun small winery to visit on Foxen Canyon Road near Cambria and ABC. There is also Sanford & Benedict, and several more.

Moving north to San Luis Obispo is where we always stay in a beautiful French B&B, formerly a motel, called Petit Soleil. I can’t say enough about this wonderful place with warm owners and employees…better than France…with rooms in various French motifs, and the best wine tasting hour of anyplace we have ever found, and that is only topped off by their breakfasts. It is at the north end of SLO so you are very close to Paso Robles. Very close, if you need a lot of rooms is the Apple Farm, which began in 1924 and is the first motel in America…it has been remodeled but has been in continuous service since and it is at the extreme north end of town just before you go up the Cuesta Grade to Paso.

Santa Maria is the home of Santa Maria Barbecue…you must have it…a tri-tip grilled to perfection! San Luis Obispo has some wonderful restaurants both downtown by the beach and by Morro Bay. No need to go hungry here…whatsoever!

Finally, we are at Paso Robles and our primary destination. The choices are many and it is pretty much divided between west of town and east of town wineries. The first one I want to talk about is Eberle. Why? Because Gary Eberle was the original Rhone ranger, who first planted syrah there and with the exception of Joseph Phelps the first in California. He began at his family’s Estrella River Winery (now part of the Bronco Wines Group which makes Two Buck Chuck, aka Charles Shaw), then started his own winery. He makes Viognier, Syrah, Syrah Rosé, Côtes du Rôbles, as well as fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. He is often overlooked but he provided the ‘canes’ for Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and Bob Lindquist among others. Both Randall and Bob credited Kermit Lynch with convincing them that there were some great Rhone wines and from that they embarked on their Rhone Ranger adventure.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum is Tablas Creek, jointly-owned by Californian Robert Haas and the Perrin family which makes the great Chateau du Beaucastel (the highest rank of Chateauneuf-du-Pape). Had it not been for the Rhone Rangers (Graham was the first to be labeled that by Wine Spectator, but he acknowledges Eberle as preceding him). Tablas Creek makes all the other Rhone varietals too including mouvèdre, grenache, grenache blanc, rousanne, marsanne. There flagship wine used to be Esprit de Beaucastel but switched the name to Esprit de Tablas, perhaps to avoid confusion? The only other winemakers I know in the region that does this many is Bob Lindquist and Randall Graham…these are great wines to enjoy. Note that October 20-22 is Paso Robles Harvest Weekend…Tablas Creek among others has a great event.

Other top wines in the area are Justin, which was started in 1981 and has since been sold to the Fiji water company (I kid you not) and recently made news for removing a large number of trees without a permit…they apologized for the omission…yeah, right.  There is a tasting room in Paso for Turley Wine Cellars named after acclaimed winemaker, Helen Turley. Her zins are single vineyard and come from Napa as well as Paso Robles (her brother may now be running the winery). They are distinct and either you love them or don’t see them as zinfandel…Rather than name the rest of the wineries, here is a link to a downloadable map. Also, here is a list of Paso Robles wineries by varietal if you have a special interest…very useful!

A friend who lives there took me to Linne Calodo winery which is a favorite of the locals in adjoining Templeton. This is the type of place you might miss but is adored by the locals.

Heading north from Paso are thousands of acres of grapes on both sides of Highway 101. They are pretty flat and personally not of much interest to TB, but when you get to Santa Cruz, things change. First is the aforementioned Bonny Doon with a winery in the town of that name but the tasting room is about 10 miles north of downtown Santa Cruz in Davenport on Route 1…again, highly recommended, especially if Randall happens to be there – don’t worry he is very friendly and approachable…his life revolves around his wine.

Higher in the Santa Cruz mountains are a few more wineries, most notably Ridge, which also is located in Healdsburg on the mountain adjoining Dry Creek Valley, but it is here that their acclaimed and long-lived Montebello, and especially coveted Lytton Springs, are produced. Lytton Springs has one of the longest lives of any wine made in America.

I enjoyed the trip down memory lane and hope you find it useful…I think I’ll go have a glass of wine now!

What kind of wine does a wine geek choose for a special occasion? In this case, it was our 48th anniversary, so I built the dinner around the wine. A million years ago when my son-in-law, then a chef, and I toured Tuscany and Piemonte, we had the best steak I ever had in Europe: a Florentine steak. Most beef there is rather tough and lacking in flavor, but if you baste a nice thick top sirloin or similar with aged (in this case 20 year old) Balsamico,a little salt and pepper and some rosemary and a few other herbs, then grill it perfection…to us that is between rare and medium rare, it is exceptional! Rummaging through my cellar I stumbled across a 2007 (not a typo) Chianti Classico, not even a reserva from Felsina, the first Chianti ever on the Top 100 Wines of the World by Wine Spectator and consistently on that list. We visited Felsina and another favorite Volpaia (which is at the opposite end of Tuscany in a medieval town of that name, and when they built the winery the owners put all the utilities underground, hence no wires, and no cars on the streets in this little hillside town. They have four apartments you can rent for a minimum one-week stay. We were allowed to stay for one night -secluded and fantastic.

How was it? Incredible…we both loved it: it was fresh, no signs of aging. The next night I poured two glasses of the remainder which I accidentally left out overnight with using my Vacuvin and handed one to my wife and asked how she liked it. She loved it…said it was even better than the one the previous night. Oh really??? It was the same wine, and yes, it had improved…amazing for a 10 year old Chianti! That is the holy grail: storing a wine for long period…in a passive wine cellar I might add…and then being blown away by its charm and complexity.

Ciao bella,

TB

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Vol 3 No 8…a ‘sideways’ look at the Central Coast – prelude to a guide

Back in March, TB wrote a series of posts on his trip from the Central Coast up to Washington (Vol 3 No. 2.0-2.5). In light of all that has happened since I thought I would provide some ideas if you are making a trip there soon. This was prompted by a chance meeting with a friend…in a wine shop of course (Wine Republic, Excelsior MN), and promised to provide the names of some wineries to visit. Given the way the harvest is looking September would be a much better time to go than August…as always!

Let’s recap the weather in California (or the entire West Coast for that matter), over the past decade. Until 2016 it can be summed up in a word: drought!!! Not just drought, mind you, but the equivalent of right before the Great Flood. Imagine, a 900 year record drought…not just in one area of California but the entire state and much of the rest of the West Coast too!

TB grew up in Southern California…Santa Monica to be exact in the early years of surfing…although he was really a body surfer. In those bygone days one would go to the beach and spend a day – sans sunscreen, get a bad sunburn that peeled and then have a great tan for the rest of the summer…fortunately no melanoma so far!

About the time TB got married in 1969, he noticed a change. It didn’t take all afternoon to get burned…in fact he had it happen in about an hour at the beach one day! Rains? We always had a wet rainy season…can’t recall a dry years. Oh, and fires…Malibu, one year, Mandeville Canyon the next, Bel Air the next, then the San Fernando Valley…like clockwork. TB recalls being at school and knowing there was a fire starting: Santa Ana winds, a dryness in the hair, above normal temperatures and finally the sun would turn orange and the temperature would soar into the hundreds. Later, the destruction on the evening news…but it was simply a fact of life in Southern California.

So what happened to the weather? Dare I say climate change or the dreaded ‘global warming’? The naysayers…of which I have never found among winemakers…say it always changes…yes it does but over much longer time periods and we have, through burning fossil fuels destroyed the ozone layer which is our insulation from ultra violet rays, and in a nutshell, that is the argument for why we must change our ways or leave our grandchildren in a very precarious position. Take a look at Burgundy, where the weather is becoming more extreme, or Bordeaux where winemakers say there will be no more merlot in a decade or so. Alarmist? Hell no, that is their livelihood. Now you know.

To those who think we can relax again…think about the fires so far this year, following that incredible rainfall (except in the Central Coast between Santa Barbara and Santa Maria. Lake Cachuma provides the water supply for Santa Barbara and it was virtually empty at the start of the season and unlike the other dams in the state is the only one that isn’t full to capacity. Note that is the lack of rainfall that stresses the vines and produces rich, intense fruit, but this is ridiculous. As of yesterday, Cachuma is at just 49% of capacity! That is not much margin for error…or another dry year.

Ah, but there were few vineyards in the 1960’s…although there was one just east of Los Angeles that went back to the days of the Spanish explorers…Virgina Dare – now gone and the site was between two freeways (San Bernardino and Riverside). About the only other ones were in Livermore, where Wente, the first, and Concannon reigned supreme. Today there are about a dozen.

Moving north to Napa Valley there were also perhaps a dozen…mostly In Napa, such as Beaulieu (aka BV), Beringer, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Christian Brothers and a few others, until 1966 when Robert Mondavi built his beautiful winery and that kicked off a surge in winery openings. His was the only one that looked like a winery, sleek, and reminiscent of the California missions, instead of an industrial warehouse. That was all about to change. In 1969, vineyard land in the valley was $5,000 an acre…but you had to buy a minimum 20 acre parcel. Compare to today’s $350-450,000 an acre going price, and you cannot make money at that price…so more McMansions of the wealthy, producing their 50-100 cases of wine a year, getting 90 point ratings and selling for upwards of $150 a bottle. Still not profitable…but they don’t care…they call it passion but is it really? Not unless you do the grunt work yourself and few do (Rupert Murdoch bought one of the two in Los Angeles (Moraga), a second one is in Malibu…which also provides the name. Not recognized as great growing areas….unless the terroir is smog? But who cares?

Moving back to the north again, Contra Costa County had a few small ones, bulk producers where you brought your jug to the winery in those days. There are now even some in Orinda where TB lived before being transplanted to Minnesota (Lamorinda AVA…huh?). Oh, wait. Lake County had Konocti Winery and Sonoma had Buena Vista and a couple of others that went back to the 1800’s.

Ah, but the Central Coast? Nothing, nada, zip, zilch…not until 1978 when six investors took a chance and started Zaca Mesa in the belief that good wine could be made there. How right they were, especially when a young Ken Brown was hired as winemaker. Ken in turn hired numerous luminaries to work for him including Adam Tolmach, Jim Clendenon, Bob Lindquist, Lane Tanner and others. A ‘who’s who’ of the Central Coast!

Still, even as the winemakers above started their own wineries, the area was virtually unknown except to locals and people from Los Angeles. However, they started a project that continues today: the Central Coast Classic and Wine Auction organized by local radio personality, Archie McClaren. Only because we had friends who moved to Santa Maria did we learn of it in its infancy in about 1989…it began in 1986 and is a charitable event second only to the Napa Valley Wine Auction, but to TB a lot more fun. It became and remains the second largest wine event in California!

Still, it was pretty much virgin territory except to locals but that event started a change. This was augmented and superseded in notoriety by the movie, Sideways, which while fun, gave a distorted view of wine, denigrating merlot while elevating pinot noir to star status. Within weeks, merlot moved to the bottom shelf, replaced by pinot at eye level there is a certain irony to this as protagonist Miles’ favorite wine was Cheval Blanc which is…primarily merlot (by the way if you decide to read the book, you will find that Miles is really just another wine snob and it gets disgusting in the sequel – avoid!).

It also created so much demand for the grape that Napa vintners were buying it and driving the price up to where many of the locals couldn’t compete. Wait…what about Paso Robles?

There are two initiators of the fame of Paso: Gary Eberle and Kermit Lynch. Eberle was the first to plant syrah and also provided the shoots for Randall Graham who was called the ‘Rhone Ranger’ in an article in Wine Spectator and the name stuck for the region. However, he, Bob Lindquist and others traveled to Berkeley, California to talk to a budding wine importer with a penchant for Rhone style wines. After tasting them, including Vieux Telegraphe, Domaine Tempier, August Clape, and more.

Kermit’s book Adventures Along the Wine Route is a fantastic addition to anyone’s library and love of wine…highly recommended…it was a game-changer for TB!

All of the names in the previous paragraph our passionate about wine and winemaking…it is not a rich man’s hobby for them…respect that! Besides they make some of the best wines on the planet!

Wow…talk about a diversion from my original outline…so I will follow this up with suggested wineries to visit on the Central Coast.

Back soon.